*The best way for our family. Your trip is likely completely different and equally amazing!
During the Fall of my Senior Year in college, I worked at Disney World in their College Program. I spent 5 months living and working at The Mouse House and I have to say – I loved every minute of it.
Why did I choose the Disney internship? Was I a Disney fanatic? Nope. Did I love the heat and humidity? Double nope. Did I want a unique experience here in the good ole USA where I could meet people and have fun? Ding, ding, ding!
Back when I was in the College Program at Disney, all the CPs lived in a magical place called Vista Way. For those of you old enough to understand this reference: it was like Melrose Place meets Animal House. Thousands of college kids living together in idyllic conditions – pools, gym, no adult supervision.
I worked at Blizzard Beach, a ski-lodge themed water park, operating the chair lift that brought guests in their swimsuits to the top of a “mountain” to some of the water slides. CPs work everywhere in the parks; I had friends who worked on Tower of Terror, drove the monorail, operated merchandise carts, drove the parking lot trams and sold Turkey legs in the Magic Kingdom.
After my 5-month stint, I returned one additional time 5 years later. And then, 20 years passed. I began thinking about taking Little Mister to Disney a few years ago, then there was a pandemic. So here we were, January of this year, and I thought, “What are we waiting for? He’s at the right age, let’s just do this!” So I contacted a Disney travel agent, and two days later, we were booked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge in late spring. And we kept it from Little Mister until 2 months before our trip (I just couldn’t keep that secret until the day before we left!)
Why Did You Choose to Stay at Animal Kingdom Lodge?
When it came to hotels, there was no other place that would bring joy to Little Mister like the Animal Kingdom Lodge. There was a show on Disney + during the pandemic about the AKL, and how they care for the animals. Little Mister (LM) is SUCH a huge animal lover, that we watched every episode of this show. He would tell everyone, “I’m going to work at the Animal Kingdom when I grow up.” I love this dream for him, I hope it comes true.
So to have the opportunity to stay at a hotel where you can watch giraffes, zebras and other animals whose names I don’t know from your balcony, it was the only option for us. Plus, LM wanted to visit the Animal Kingdom park 2 days during our stay, and that was only a 5-minute ride from our hotel.
Being the research queen that I am, I started listening to a podcast called Be Our Guest, run by travel agents (not the one I used) that was easy to listen to and filled with information about the parks. Having been away from Disney for 2 decades, I had A LOT to learn about the new park pass system, Genie Plus, dining reservations, and a million other things. I shared our trip details on an episode of this podcast!
You can listen to my podcast episode here.
It’s long, but really outlines how I approached our trip planning. A great listen when you’re walking the dog or sitting in traffic.
This was a trip of firsts: the first time Little Mister was going on a plane (he did great!), the first time I was back at Disney in 20 years, and the first time we were traveling after the pandemic. We were ready!
I could write pages and pages about this trip, but I’ll share the highlights below:
Animal Kingdom Lodge
This hotel is beautiful. And there was a scent in the lobby that I wish I could have bottled and brought home with me. I think there is a candle of that smell somewhere in Disney Springs, but we never made it there. We had a standard hotel room, but we had a balcony where we could sit and watch the animals. There literally were giraffes eating off a tree 30 feet from us! There were places all around the hotel where you could view the animals. The pool had a great water slide that LM loved. Some people stay away from AKL because the only park it’s near is the Animal Kingdom, and the only mode of transportation it has is busses. We never had a problem getting a bus, and barely had to wait. All of our trips to the parks were smooth and quick.
Day 1: Magic Kingdom
We arrived on a Tuesday, and spent the afternoon by the pool. We were rested and ready for our early entry into the MK on our first full park day. If you are early risers, doing early entry to the parks is the way to go. You get this perk with some of the hotels on Disney property. Highly recommend. It allowed us to hit the most popular rides first before the lines were long. For us, that ride was the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a roller coaster-like ride through the coal mine. It’s a TON of fun, and LM loved it. We were able to ride it a second time later in the day, too. Our favorite rides were: Splash Mountain (we rode this one at least 3 times, that big drop at the end made Little Mister belly laugh and I could listen to that all day long); Big Thunder Mountain Railroad; Jungle Cruise; Pirates of the Caribbean; Buzz Lightyear; Haunted Mansion (Little Mister did NOT like this ride, too scary). All in all, it was a magical first experience at a Disney park for us as a family.
Day 2: Animal Kingdom
Because we were doing 2 days in this park, we focused on attractions on Day 1, and then experiences on Day 2. We did early entry again (this park opens really early, so early entry was at like 7am, which meant getting on a bus at 6:30am, FYI), this time to secure our spot in line for Pandora (Avatar). The construction of this area, and everything to look at while you’re in the queue, is what makes Disney, Disney. It is awe-spiring and the attention to detail amazing. The ride…well, let’s say if you get motion sick like I do, it might not be your favorite. I needed a moment when we got off, but could appreciate why everyone loves this ride. LM had been talking about the safari since we told him we were coming to Disney, so it was our first stop after Pandora. And it didn’t disappoint! We saw every animal, even the lions (thank god)! We rounded out the day riding everything we could, having an early dinner, and escaping with only 1 souvenir.
Day 3: Animal Kingdom
Back again! We rode the safari again (equally as amazing, but a different experience with a different tour guide) and did the Caring For Giants experience, which allowed us to go behind the scenes at Disney (aka: backstage) and be up close and personal with the elephants. We learned all their names, how they are fed and cared for, and saw the from a platform that you can only access from this tour. I highly recommend doing one of these experiences, they’re usually small groups and interactive.
Much of Day 2 was spent with Little Mister earning his Wilderness Explorer badges. This is such a wonderful experience at the AK, and the “guides” at each station were simply the epitome of what Disney is all about. If you’ve seen the movie “Up”, you may remember Russell the Wilderness Explorer who was trying to earn his “Assisting the Elderly” badge. Well, the Animal Kingdom has set up about 15 or 20 “stations” around the park, and kids can use their guidebook to find them all, complete a little activity and learn about animals and conservation, and earn a badge. When you collect all of the badges you can get sworn in as a Senior Wilderness Explorer, and you recite an oath and it is the cutest thing ever and it made me cry watching Little Mister do this after working so hard to get all of his badges.
Day 4: Hollywood Studios
Fun fact: when I worked at Disney, this place was called MGM. It was also my favorite park, and we played here often because many of my friends worked here. This was our last park day, and we made the most of it. Early entry (again!) and we bolted to Slinky Dog Dash. This was probably my favorite ride of the whole trip. First, who doesn’t love Toy Story. Second, it is so FUN! We rode Slinky three times in a row! The Little Mister was belly laughing and whooping each time, it was so fun to see. We even rode Slinky one last time before we left the park – our final ride on our awesome trip. We also hit up Sci-Fi Drive In for lunch, Mr. KK did Rise of the Resistance, we did Frozen Ever After, Toy Story Mania, Micky & Minnie’s Runaway Railroad. It was the perfect last park day to our trip.
Our Last Day
Our last day was a Sunday, and our flight was early evening. We had a delicious character brunch at Topolino’s (highly recommend!). And just a week before we came to Disney, they reinstated character hugs! So the characters were able to come right up to our table and interact with us, and Little Mister who was shy at first, eventually started calling them all over for hugs. We spent the rest of the day by the pool until it was time to head to the airport.
Dining in Disney World
There are about 4,389 places to eat in Disney; everything from pretzel carts to fine dining. Where you choose to eat is personal to you and your family. For us, we planned one nice sit down meal a day. That could be lunch or dinner. I love to eat and go to nice restaurants, and I didn’t want this vacation to be any different. On this trip we ate at: California Grill in the Contemporary Hotel (great view, wonderful experience, delicious food, and our most expensive meal); Sanaa at the Animal Kingdom Lodge (get the bread service! the food was delicious and we sat at a window and watched the animal roaming and having dinner); Tiffins and Yak & Yeti at the Animal Kingdom (both good!); Sci-Fi Drive In at Hollywood Studios (so fun! nice and casual); Topolino’s Terrance at the Riviera Resort (amazing brunch…everything was delicious!).
Why didn’t you go to EPCOT, you may be wondering. For this trip, it didn’t feel like the right park for us to spend a day. We were very focused on animals, and really enjoyed 2 days at the AK. Plus, it leaves something for us to do next time!
All in all, this trip was nothing short of perfect. Little Mister was the perfect age (7), we went on a non-school-vacation week so it wasn’t insanely busy (but it was cheer competition week so it was still crowded with teenagers!). We did everything we wanted to do, at our own pace. On the first day I clocked 19,000 steps!
Again, the link to the podcast about my trip is here.
Disney, I hope to see you real soon!