How Many Times Do You Have to Visit Disney?

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A Disney fan may ask, “How many times do I get to go to Walt Disney World?” For a Disney aficionado, the theme parks are a treat to be indulged in as often as possible. But for Disney-neutral or, gasp, Disney-averse folks, the question they might more reasonably pose is, “How many times do I have to go to Walt Disney World?”

I’ll get the ball rolling by saying, yes, barring major financial constraint, you do have to visit Disney World or Disneyland at least once. Why? Because experiencing a Disney theme park is the American cultural imperative akin to no other.

The Disney Parks are a must-do. But how many times must you do them?
The Disney Parks are a must-do. But how many times must you do them?

In a time when common cultural experience has eroded to the point of oblivion, a Disney parks visit is of the few remaining touchstone experiences; it’s a true American rite of passage (possibly also for other nationalities, but I’m speaking to the US for this one). A trip to a Disney theme park will put you on the fast track to pop cultural literacy, elucidating references in sources ranging from Mad Men to Modern Family.

The Washington Mall, the Grand Canyon, the Vegas strip, and Times Square are contenders, but there’s really no other locale that will give you as much cultural comprehension as a visit to a Disney theme park. To understand America, in all its guts and glory, you’ve got to pay a call at our mouse-infested mecca, even if only for the travel equivalent of hate-watching.

And it’s not just my opinion that the Disney parks are an obligatory cultural experience. Manchester University professor Robert Pettit wrote, “Disney does such a wonderful job of representing American culture, they’re almost synonymous with America.” Historian Mike Wallace calls the Disney parks, “The premier interpreter of the American experience.” Throw a rock at any university American Studies program and you’ll inevitably hit a grad student who’s written his dissertation as a variation on this theme.

While one Disney parks trip is the minimum requirement, I believe it actually takes more than one visit to fully understand the Disney parks archetype. Multiple trips are necessary because your ability to process the nuances of the experience vary greatly depending on your focus. In my opinion, these are the essential Disney trips:

  • The Childhood Visit, ideally between ages 5-9. This is your trip with unfiltered emotion. You’re not editing your reactions. You don’t know or care how much this costs. All the joyful, scary, silly, sad, overwhelming feelings are processed at face value. This is where, with a pure heart, you either drink the Kool-Aid or subconsciously decide that you’re a non-believer. Mom and Dad may paint a watercolor wash on your perceptions with stern warnings about behavior or an overprotective grip on your hand during the fireworks, but you’re still young enough to have sentiment win the day. You ate with a princess in a castle and goshdarnit, it was the best day EVER! This is childhood in America.
  • The Teen or Young Adult Visit. This might be your high school band trip, a spring break getaway, or first vacation from your first job. While, in the case of a school trip, there might be a nominal chaperone, this is your first real trip on your own. The venue is safe, but there’s a frisson of excitement at being largely on your own with your buddies. You’re stretching your wings. Here’s where you learn boundaries and responsibility. Can you say “no” when crazy Billy wants to ride Mission Space for the fifth time in a row? Will you say “yes” to the turkey leg, even though you just ate, so that you can take the perfect fun photo? There’s a hint of danger about doing something “wrong,” but negligible chance of a real misstep. Here too, the trip is about you and your emotions: fear, freedom, excitement, and so on, with the added twist that these feelings are indelible. The impressions from childhood may become hazy, but these will endure.
  • The Young Parent Visit, ideally when your first child is between ages 4-7. This is where it gets real. You have an adult’s critical eye now. Those pancakes in the castle cost how much?! You’re annoyed by the dripping faucet in your hotel room. Your back hurts from carrying your kid around, even though he promised he would walk the entire day. But despite being cranky and jaded, you can’t help but shed a tear when little Susie hugs Elsa like she’s a real princess, even though you know intellectually she’s just some college kid. It’s real to your child, so it’s real to you too. Seeing the park through your child’s eyes brings back the feelings of wonder you had during your own youth. This is a valuable lesson in the power of paradox. Both knowing and not knowing are equally valid lenses with which to view an experience.
  • The More Experienced Parent Visit(s), when your subsequent child(ren) are between ages 4-7. This is where it gets really, really real. This will be your least fun, hardest working vacation. The rose-colored glasses are off. You’ve seen the man behind the curtain and you’re fully aware that he’s ticked off because he’s dying go backstage to grab a smoke but his break isn’t for half an hour. Your critical eye tells you that it’s all artifice and profiteering. You think if you were a better parent you’d have the clan at the Grand Canyon or something, but who even knows if they have chicken nuggets at the rest stop and that’s all junior will eat this month. Disillusionment is one of the five stages of Disney. If this is your only trip to a Disney park, you may never cycle out of the Grinch phase. But if this is one of many trips, embrace the disappointment and ride through it.
  • The Grandparent Visit, when your first grandchild is between ages 4-7, subsequent visits with subsequent grandchildren as budgets allow. Now you’re circling back to the Young Parent Visit, but with a grandparent’s flair for indulgence. You’re happy to take part in the ritual, despite the warts. The child’s joy is your joy, and that’s enough.

So there you have it. In my opinion, to truly understand the definitive American vacation, you have to visit a Disney theme park at least five times over the course of your lifetime. Each stage gives you a different perspective, all of which are needed to completely grasp the experience. Personally, I’ve far exceeded quota as, I’m guessing, have many Touring Plans blog readers. But even a Disney-phobe should make the pilgrimage at least once or twice, if only to be able to watch National Lampoon’s Vacation with a knowing eye.

Do you think a trip to a Disney park is a cultural imperative? Is more than one trip necessary? At which stages of life do you think it’s important to visit? Let us know in the comments below.

Erin Foster

Erin Foster is an original member of the Walt Disney World Moms Panel at DisneyWorldMoms.com, a regular contributor to TouringPlans.com, and co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Disney Cruise Line. She's been to WDW, DL, DL Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, Aulani, DVC Vero Beach, and DVC Hilton Head. She's a Platinum DCL cruiser and veteran of 10 Adventures by Disney trips. Erin lives near New York City, where she can often be found indulging in her other obession - Broadway theater. Erin can be reached on Twitter @MsErinFoster.

31 thoughts on “How Many Times Do You Have to Visit Disney?

  • March 22, 2015 at 9:03 am
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    I always laugh when they ask how many times I’ve been to WDW because I lost track at around 20. But the trip this summer will be the most special because it’s our grandson’s first trip. He’ll only be 18 months, but he loves Mickey, Pooh, Tigger, and Olaf!

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  • March 22, 2015 at 9:14 am
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    I went to Disney World for the first time ever last October. Apparently, I had . . .

    The Childhood Visit, and I’m in my 30s. This was my trip with unfiltered emotion. I did not edit my reactions. I knew, but couldn’t bring myself to care how much this cost. All the joyful, scary, silly, sad, overwhelming feelings were processed at face value. This is where, with a pure heart, I drank that Kool-Aid SO hard! I painted my own watercolor wash on my perceptions, and gave a stern warning to my best friend about the child-like behavior that was going to happen. That same bf was rather overprotective during the entire week, but I was still young enough to have sentiment win the day. I ate with a princess in a castle and goshdarnit, it was the best day EVER! This may be childhood in America . . . but I won at it! 😀

    I’m wondering if my next trip will be the Teen or Young Adult visit.

    Thanks for the entertaining read.

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    • March 22, 2015 at 1:34 pm
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      Tara, You made me cry…literally, I can barely see my computer screen to type this. So good!

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      • March 23, 2015 at 12:40 pm
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        Well, I waited my entire life to do this, and I decided I was going to do Every. Single. Thing. I had always dreamed of doing! I did the Villains Halloween Party and the Princess breakfast at Cinderella’s Royal Table. I had more fun than any child there, I am sure of it! 🙂
        I even had the required mini-meltdown. It was HOT, and I had waited for 30 minutes each THREE different times to see Fairy Godmother, only to watch her walk away as I was the next person in line. I didn’t share the meltdown publicly (fortunately), but I definitely had a moment of real personal turmoil behind my very large sunglasses! lol. Fortunately, I pulled it together, figured out the right question to ask, and the cast member kindly agreed to let me stay and be the first person to greet her when she came back out.
        The trip was everything I had always dreamed it would be! And I will be going back someday soon!

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    • March 22, 2015 at 4:07 pm
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      Awesome account, Tara! I too have tears in my eyes. and welcome to the club!

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  • March 22, 2015 at 9:52 am
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    It costs an absolute fortune to get from the UK, however we have been lucky to visit 8 times. Every time feels like a new experience, we do differing things, eat in different places and experience differing weather. We do however all have the same wonderful vacation time after time. Favourite place……Epcot

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  • March 22, 2015 at 10:26 am
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    I would add The Adult Visit Alone or with Friends. With no children along, you can visit more adult restaurants, the Brown Derby being just one of my favorites. You can also visit attractions that please just you, without considering what the kids would like, and all at a comfortable pace. It’s an entirely different trip than doing it with children. WDW is wonderful for grown ups!

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    • March 22, 2015 at 11:14 am
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      Absolutely! I’m a DVC owner, passholder, travel from the UK to the World twice a year with my best friend. Neither of us have children or ever plan to do so. Its a wonderful place to forget the real world for a while.

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    • March 22, 2015 at 2:09 pm
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      I was thinking the same thing. I had an annual pass to Disneyland for over 10 years and now for a few years have had an annual pass to both Disneyland and World. I have no children and very rarely have children with me when I go.

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    • March 22, 2015 at 5:11 pm
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      My husband and I go every year in September. for the past 15 years. We enjoy the great disney service. If we just wanted to stay at the resort and not go to parks it would still be a great vacation. Dining is great. trying a glass of wine or a beer around the worlds. The smiles do not leave our faces from the time we get there until the time that we leave. we are both in our 50s and just enjoy it as an adult vacation with as much or as little activity as you want.

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    • March 22, 2015 at 8:31 pm
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      One of the best days I ever had at Disney World was when an old friend came into town from Australia and wanted to spend a day at Disney (she was in town specifically to do Universal). She had been to Paris and California but never Florida and wanted to see as much as she could of the differences. So, with my annual pass in hand and her one-day park hopper, we ran around the parks from early morning until around 11pm. She got Mickey ears and when we told the cast member in the shop what we were doing, he asked us what one thing she really wanted to do that she hadn’t done and gave us a special fastpass to ride Space Mountain.

      Another great day was spent in Magic Kingdom with my best friend, just the two of us, on an extremely low crowd day. We did EVERYTHING. I really recommend going as an adult with no kids.

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    • March 23, 2015 at 4:41 pm
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      Add me to this list, too!

      My best friend and I spent a week “at the World” this past January, and I dare say that it was the best trip I’ve ever taken there! (I’ve been going since 1971!) We are both in our 40’s and don’t have kids, but acted like two big kids the whole time. How great it is to have a place to live unfiltered.

      And we can’t wait to return in October to do even more!!

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  • March 22, 2015 at 11:32 am
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    While I agree with all the bullet points, I believe you left out the all important No Kids visit. Whether it’s for Food & Wine or Flower & Garden or just to chill out, adults can have an epic vacation at WDW. I know I have!

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  • March 22, 2015 at 11:56 am
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    I agree with the other JoAnn. My husband and I have done this twice and had a great time. Our pace, visiting new lounges and restaurants. So much to keep us busy and having fun!

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  • March 22, 2015 at 3:04 pm
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    I am jumping on the band wagon of The Adult Visit or No Kids Visit. My parents couldn’t afford a WDW vacation and I visited for the first time with my own kids who were young adults with no children. We loved every second of our first visit at that time in our life. We’ve since gone back about every other year with their bf/gf.

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  • March 22, 2015 at 3:14 pm
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    1st visit as a grandparent, wonderful, at Los Angleles. 2nd and 3rd to Florida, fabulous and hopefully my next vist for my 70th birthday as a recycled oldie, Something has to kill me and if it screaming my head off on the rides or heart attack from too much fun, or blood pressure is of the scale, then I will have died having great fun. Something has to kill me and I would rather be in Florida, at Disney than anywhere else. Die laughing, what a great way to go.

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  • March 22, 2015 at 3:19 pm
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    I don’t belong to any of the groups you mention. I never went as a child, or a teen, or as a young adult. And, since I never had children, I was never a young/experienced parent and will never be a grandparent.

    My first visit was at 24, definitely an adult and already married. I’ve gone back so many times, I’ve lost count, and continue going, mostly solo, because I love it there. My favorite park is Epcot, but I enjoy them all and try to always visit all four parks. It’s not always possible, but I do try.

    So I guess I’m in the “Just because I love it” bandwagon. No kids ever. It’s a less crowded bandwagon, but just as much fun! 🙂

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  • March 22, 2015 at 4:13 pm
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    Yes I agree about the just adults trip. Done over 15 visits from the UK – and when we went 4 months ago for the first time without children we had an absolutely AMAZING time! And when I told a friend what we did when we were there, she said she thought that us going without children was bad enough…….!!! I suppose we can’t all be the same but in my opinion it was a fantastic holiday because we could please just ourselves, we could go out to places in the evening that were adult orientated and we could afford to go places paying for just 2 tickets rather than 4, 5 or 6. Having said all that, our next trip is back with the “kids” again – well they will be 21 and 22 by then – so I suppose it will be another adult trip – and the first time we will all be able to do adult things – as well as the things for kids of all ages!

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  • March 22, 2015 at 8:39 pm
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    I’ve been lucky enough to do the childhood and teen trips and am now a little ahead of the game on the Young Parent trips. My husband and I already had annual passes and lived locally when my daughter was born. We moved to Texas just after her first birthday, but she has now been back at 18-months and 2-years-old. I don’t recommend doing your first Disney trip with your child when they’re this young, 4-9 is probably a much better age. (My daughter is a Clubhouse fanatic and was so excited to see the characters, but they were still just a bit intimidating so she’s not smiling in almost any of those pictures) However, if you’re lucky enough to be able to do what we did due to living locally or whatever, it is so much fun to watch how they react differently to the parks as they get older. I’ve loved watching things that are routine for me, like a ride on the people mover, be absolutely fascinating to her.

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    • March 23, 2015 at 12:08 pm
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      We loved our trips with our son when he was 13 months, 18 months, and 2 years old. He squealed with delight when he saw the characters and gave them all hugs. We didn’t get many good pictures though because he wouldn’t look at the camera because he was so fascinated with them all we get is the back of his head! He got more shy about meeting them when he got older.

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      • March 23, 2015 at 10:26 pm
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        Adorable! 🙂 She was so excited just before meeting them and just after (For example, this last visit, when we came into Epcot, she immediately spied Pluto, pointed, and yelled his name). While meeting them, though, she was so adorably serious. She’s going to think we were forcing her to see meet them!

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        • March 23, 2015 at 11:26 pm
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          The first time I went, I was 21 and it was my honeymoon. I swore I would never take my child(ren) until they were older. But, I had fallen in love with Disney World, having moved to Florida and been back many times. So, my daughter’s first trip was when she was almost 2. We have gone every year since then, despite moving away from Florida, and my daughter is almost 8. I am glad I went many times before she was born so I could do all of the things “I” wanted to do so that when I took my daughter, I could focus on the things “she” wanted to do. It has been fun growing through the different stages/likes of Disney World for her each year.

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          • March 29, 2015 at 3:34 pm
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            Ha ha! We too swore we would never go until kids were at least 10 and could ride everything and get around without strollers. Well, we took our ds at 3. magical for him and us.

            I never was able to go as a child, and had my first trip at 22. As much as I love trip with my kid, I love the adults only as well.

  • March 22, 2015 at 11:28 pm
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    This article doesn’t address single people without kids. I am in my early 30’s and my first visit to “The World” was last year with my sister, her husband, and my nieces (10 and 12). Yes, I was with kids, however they were old enough to ride ALL the rides and go all day every day without any problem. It was exhausting but we spent a whole day in each of the four parks (Epcot is my favorite) plus a day at Blizzard Beach and an extra evening in Magic Kingdom for the Halloween Party…which was an absolute blast by the way. I’ve been to Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Grand Canyon, and many other destinations, but Disney World was the BEST VACATION EVER!

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  • March 23, 2015 at 7:25 am
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    When I was 7, in September 1980, my grandfather died. A month later, my dad arranged a trip for all of us – my grandmother, little sister (then 3), mom and I. We spent 3 nights in a Disney Treehouse Villa, visiting The Magic Kingdom, Discovery Island, and River Country. This when I started believing in Disney’s “magic.” I’ve been a fan ever since.

    I’ve been back a few times since. When I was 15 we went to Epcot and Magic Kingdom. Then there was a long, long span before I convinced my wife to bring out then 5 year old son to Magic Kingdom as part of a larger florida trip with extended family back in 2007. My son and I spent another day at Animal Kingdom on our own…but my wife wasn’t into it.

    Then we discovered the “Free Disney Dining Plan” in 2010. We spent 7 days at Port Orleans French Quarter with an 8 year old and a 5 year old (my daughter) at the end of February. That’s when my wife finally caught on to the Disney Magic. We spent 11 days there again in 2013, at the Coronado Springs. We’re going back in September this year for 12 days.

    WDW is a long trip for us. I think while the number of times we’ll have gone may not be that many, the total days will certainly be up there. After this year’s trip, I will have been a total of 37 days at Walt Disney World, over 6 different trips. I’ll be 42 years old.

    I hope it isn’t the last time we go. We set the example by bringing grandparents along so our kids remember to do the same.

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    • March 23, 2015 at 9:56 am
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      I stopped counting when I reached 50 in 2007. 50 seperate vacations. I live in Westchester NY and work in Manhattan. So Disney isn’t close by any means. But its within strike distance driving.

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  • March 23, 2015 at 11:15 am
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    We are sort of split as to which category we belong to. Robin took her two boys from her first marriage to WDW many times growing up, and loves all things Disney.

    I went in 1975 for the first time at age 10. I was used to really good roller coasters, so after riding Space Mountain, I remember thinking “you have GOT to be kidding me, this is it????”. I had really wanted to ride 20k Under The Sea but it was broken when I was there.

    I went back in the Spring of 1983 on a band trip. While I really enjoyed Epcot, MK still really didn’t hold much magic for me at age 18 (20k was broken that time too…).

    Fast forward 30 years. I had met Robin after her divorce. I knew she loved Disney. So I figured what better place to propose to her? I took her to Monsieur Paul, then to the Poly. I proposed on the beach at the Poly during Wishes. It was at that moment that Disney finally held some magic for me!

    We have been back twice since (honeymoon and first anniversary), and are going back in May and September this year. We probably won’t be taking her sons again, but I’m sure we’ll be doing “grandparents” trips sometime in the future.

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  • March 23, 2015 at 12:03 pm
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    Don’t forget the very young childhood visit, no need to wait until they are four. One of my favorite trips was our son’s first visit when he was just 13 months old. I will never forget his expression and squeals of delight when he saw his first character, Pooh, and ran up to give him a big hug! By the time he was four he still enjoyed seeing the characters, but was more shy and reserved and we would have missed this had we waited.

    Bonus is that they are FREE until their third birthday too. 🙂

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    • March 23, 2015 at 10:27 pm
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      Oh, yes! This. We had two passes, had a child, no need for another pass! She just came along for the ride. 🙂

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  • March 27, 2015 at 1:34 pm
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    Love the article. I’m originally from out west, Alberta Canada and moved to Brampton Ontario in 1999. I missed my chance to go to Disneyland when I was 17 after graduating and went to Bible College instead (which was a great decision overall). But looking back I regretted never going later and never having the chance when i was a kid to experience anything like Disney or Universal Studios. So in 2013 my family (girls were 5&7 at the time) decided it was time to finally fill that adventure. I studied it up and down and brought my mother along. To say it beat my expectations was an understatement. It truly was great walking around the park (using the touring guide, thank you very much) seeing my girls eyes light up and my mother and wife having fun. Sure it was expensive, but no more than two normal vacations doing other things. With proper planning and savings it’s not too bad for costs and really builds lifelong memories. We’re going again in late August and I’m looking forward to it! Planning like crazy! Praying our Canadian dollar gets better though! LOL People who go with an open mind will truly understand how magical a place Disney can be. AND as you get older, Universal is close by too! It was truly my first REAL vacation and I look forward to going longer and in park resort this time! 🙂

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  • March 30, 2015 at 3:28 pm
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    As a resident from the New Smyrna Beach area, I typically go once per year (typically in May or June). When I was younger, we’d go more often as we had season passes, but now that I am older I only go once per year. 🙂 During the last 2 months, mainly January and February and now just recently on the 14th of March, my college has been doing day trips to each of the 4 WDW Theme Parks. 🙂 I may go again next semester (hopefully), but they do trips to Universal too (I’ve only been once when I was younger and that was about it; I may/may not go to Universal again in the near future. But if our activities directors plan on going to Busch Gardens I’m definitely gonna go!)

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