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top ten tips for walt disney world with tweens and teens
Navigating Walt Disney World with tweens or teens in tow can be a minefield. Will your daughter still want to visit Cinderella's Castle, or is she humoring you for the photo opp? Does your son still think Pirates of the Caribbean is all that? Will anyone want to go to “it's a small world?” All good questions, and since it can be tough to get much more than a shrug out of most older kids, this list will serve as a blueprint for visiting the parks with the tween-teen set.
1. Stay at a Walt Disney World resort so you can get “magic hours.” Every day, one of the theme parks is open early or late for guests of the many Walt Disney World resort properties. This allows you, say, to ride Test Track at EPCOT three times in a row before the general public descends, or to whoosh around the Magic Kingdom's Space Mountain late at night once lines have dwindled. Trust us when we say this is absolutely essential, since the most popular attractions WILL have a long line and Fast Passes, which allow you to reserve a specific time slot at a particular attraction to minimize wait time, often sell out by mid-afternoon. While the magic hours are a great reason to stay at a resort property, the resorts themselves are a stellar attraction. On a recent visit, we stayed at the spanking-new Art of Animation Resort, an homage to the celluloid legacy of Walt Disney. Primary colors pop at this value property and family suites are done in a jungle motif, a Murphy bed hidden by a jungle-y panorama of birds flitting between leafy trees with lamps akin to trees themselves, albeit ones topped by bulbous orange, yellow and pink “flowers.” The well-laid-out accommodation sleeps six, features two baths and is clustered around a sprawl of a resort pool that rarely feels crowded; the resort's shopping and dining experience seals the deal.
2. Do the “mountains” first. At the Magic Kingdom, the big daddy of Walt Disney World theme parks, it's the mountains – Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – that will resonate loudest with most tweens and teens. Keep the peace and make a beeline for these rides first, since they'll only get more crowded as the day goes on. Consider securing a Fast Pass for one of the mountains while you ride another, and continue shuffling the mountain experience until the wait time at these rides says it's time to move on to something else.
3. Fill in the gaps with the classics. You have to tip your cap to Walt Disney's Imagineers, who have crafted a collection of attractions that will appeal to even the most jaded of teens. At the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion, the line was filled with teens on a recent visit and they were clearly eager to be spooked. The Pirates of the Caribbean also rates and, hey, your kids are finally old enough to appreciate the Hall of Presidents so by all means, step inside. One teen we encountered wasn't shy about admitting how much he'd enjoyed the Country Bear Jamboree and another was keen on the Liberty Square Riverboat (though a whiff of a breeze surely made the boat ride more appealing). And yes, “it's a small world” still rates with kids of all ages – how can you not like the sweetest theme park ride ever? Over at EPCOT, the good news is that the global awareness of tweens and teens will allow them to more fully experience the World Showcase. This cultural tour showcases ten countries as well as the U.S.A and each attraction is staffed with hospitality students from the respective countries who are in residence for a year-long stint. Our tween had a spirited conversation with two young staffers at the Morocco pavilion that ranged from the landscape of their North African country to LeBron James and the NBA.
4. Take a midday break. Just because your kids are older doesn't mean they'll fare better in the scorching central Florida heat. We tried to game it one day with our tween and we all wilted by 5 p.m., necessitating a late-day return to our hotel in order to revive ourselves for the night ahead. A much better bet is to take a break in the early afternoon and head to your resort for a swim, or simply to lounge around for an hour or two in an air-conditioned room. A 5 p.m. return to the theme parks means that tiny tots and toddlers will have called it a day, leaving more room for big kids. It will also set you apart from everyone else who gave up in the heat and humidity. Rested and refreshed, the evening's revels will be far more appealing.
5. Step up the food. Not only do older kids no longer choose from the kid's menu, they're also more adventurous eaters. Play to their newfound culinary curiosity by making dinner reservations at one, or several, of Walt Disney World's fine dining establishments. Some of the best choices can be found at EPCOT and include the Coral Reef Restaurant in Future World, where tables are situated around a massive aquarium and seafood is the star, and La Hacienda de San Angel in World Showcase, where the Mexican cuisine is authentic, portions are sizable and mom and dad will find the margaritas sublime. Making dinner reservations in advance of your visit (two or three months in advance, if possible) is essential as the better dining tables fill up quickly. The good news is that your kids will never outgrow the simple pleasure of eating a Mickey Mouse-eared ice cream sandwich.
6. Visit Typhoon Lagoon. This Walt Disney World water park is arguably one of the best in the U.S., and it's also a great way to break up several days of theme park adventure. The ruse at Typhoon Lagoon is that a massive storm has swept over the place and you get to pick through what's left. Safe to say there's some serious loot here, and we're not even talking about a lush landscape that includes more trees and flowering plants than you'll find at many botanical gardens. First ride of the day should be Crush 'n' Gusher, the waterborne version of a roller coaster with dips and dives that will have teens squealing. Humunga Kowabunga is as it sounds, a thrilling five-story, near-vertical drop inside a dark tube. Gangplank Falls is a family affair since four people can slip and slide inside a giant tube whereas Mayday Falls is the park's longest, and tallest, single-rider tube slide. The requisite lazy river ride is along Castaway Creek, which encircles the park, and three different Storm Slides let you body surf your way down a watery hillside. Two attractions at Typhoon Lagoon mark the park as a singular experience and one of those is Shark Reef, where you can snorkel among fish, stingrays and sharks. The other is the Typhoon Lagoon Surf Pool, possessed of some of the biggest waves around. It's the Surf Pool that will captivate older kids, seeing as how a giant, six-foot wave pops off every two minutes and sweeps everyone off their feet. Thankfully, the waves slow down for a 30-minute stretch every 90 minutes. Take an afternoon break at Leaning Palms for a tasty barbecue sandwich and follow it with soft-serve ice cream from Happy Landings. Stopping at Singapore Sal's on the way out is a requisite stop for teen girls looking for even cuter beach gear (and they'll find plenty here).
7. Do Downtown Disney. While your teen may fancy themselves as a world-weary sort, chances are they still want to have fun while at Walt Disney World, though it's unlikely to involve the character breakfasts of yore. Take them over to Downtown Disney, where everyone can partake of a fine meal at the House of Blues amid live music or indulge in La Nouba, an eye-popping spectacle by the resident company of Cirque du Soleil. More teen-approved attractions at the shop-dine-play space that is Downtown Disney include Splitsville Luxury Lanes, where bowling turns swank; DisneyQuest Indoor Interactive Theme Park, a five-floor video-virtual landscape; and AMC Downtown Disney 24, a boffo cineplex.
8. Teen time (give 'em a cell). If your teens and tweens are siblings and enjoy each other's company, or if you're traveling with your kids and their friends, consider giving them time and space to explore a theme or water park on their own. Hand over a cell phone and agree to meet at a predetermined spot two or three hours later so that the kids can have their experience sans mom and dad. If anything comes up, well, you've got a cellular connection. We have to loosen the leash sometime, right?
9. Plan on at least four days. Your older kids may think they're over Walt Disney World but, trust us, if you do it right, they'll have a fine time. Don't let teens/tweens talk you into a two- or three-day visit because it won't be near enough. Plan on at least four days so that you have enough time to visit theme parks, water parks, and to lounge around at your resort.
10. Promise a beach afterward. People may have thought that Walt Disney was crazy to purchase a swath of undeveloped land in hot and humid central Florida all those many decades ago, but he was crazy like a fox. Not only has Walt Disney World morphed into a global mega-attraction, it's also ideally situated between the east and west coasts of Florida. That means that within 90 minutes in either direction, you can be sunning yourself on some of the prettiest beaches anywhere. Tell your teen life's a beach after the Disney sojourn and there'll be little grumbling about anything. Our favorite Florida beaches include Clearwater Beach, close by Tampa and St. Petersburg on Florida's gulf coast and whose beaches, as the name suggest, are kissed with crystal-clear, aquamarine waters. Cocoa Beach, due east of Orlando on Florida's “Space Coast,” is something of a two-fer in that you can enjoy a rarely-crowded, white-sand beach whose gentle waves are well-suited to body surfing and combine it with a visit to Kennedy Space Center, a jaw-dropping exercise that's a day in itself. Farther north on Florida's east coast is Ponte Vedra Beach in the shadow of St. Augustine, the latter one of America's most historic cities. The sands of Ponte Vedra are plumped with millions of tiny seashells continually washed ashore on white-capped waves. You're likely to have this beach to yourself as well, making it the ideal place to throw a frisbee or shout with glee about adventures had at Walt Disney World.
Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and eleven-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.