Your birthday! Your anniversary! Your graduation! Your retirement! Your recovery! Your promotion! Your reunion! Your return from service! Your new baby! Your college acceptance! Your big win! Your engagement! Your honeymoon! Your new job!
Those are just a few of the reasons people celebrate. And they’re also some of the reasons people celebrate at Walt Disney World.
When I answer questions for the Disney Park Moms Panel, one of the most frequently asked types of questions is, “I’m celebrating X event at Walt Disney World. What can I do to make it special?” Indeed, celebrating is so much a part of the Disney zeitgeist, that they even made “What Will You Celebrate?” the focus of Walt Disney World’s primary marketing theme in 2009 and 2010.
So what’s the answer? How can you make a celebration special at Walt Disney World?
MAYBE THE TRIP IS THE CELEBRATION
Please consider that you need not jump through any magical hoops to make a Disney celebration special. A trip to Walt Disney World is special all by itself. Space Mountain and a hug from Mickey! Seriously, life really can’t get much better than that. If you’re celebrating something for a child or a first-time guest, just walking through the front gates of the Magic Kingdom will make them feel on top of the world. Indeed, for a sensitive or easily overwhelmed youngster, a fancy to-do may be counterproductive, resulting in tears all around.
OK, MAYBE YOU WANT A JUST LITTLE BIT OF SPECIAL ATTENTION
Disney has long offered free buttons to guests as a way to publicly proclaim that they’re having a special day. These buttons are available at the guest relations offices at each park. Additionally, they usually have a supply at the hotel check-in desks and at general ticket sales windows. (Please be aware that the free buttons are NOT the same thing as the for-purchase trading pins.)
Buttons come in may styles and periodically change, but currently the easiest to find are:
- First Visit
- Happy Birthday
- I’m Celebrating (with a blank to fill in the occasion)
- Happy Anniversary
- Family Reunion
- Just Engaged
- Happily Ever After.
These buttons don’t confer any special priorities, but they do let cast members and other guests know that you’re having a special day. You’ll likely get lots of extra smiles. Tom Bricker gives more great insight into birthday buttons in the post Celebrating Your Birthday at Disney.
If you want to take things up one notch further, you should make a point to tell EVERY cast member you encounter that it’s your special day, this includes cast you speak to when making room and dining reservations. Nothing is guaranteed (really, I mean it), but it’s not uncommon for birthday or anniversary celebrants to get small perks like free cupcake at dinner, a commemorative certificate, or a balloon in your room.
My husband and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary at Walt Disney World last summer. We received a gift basket from the Disney Vacation Club in our room (which was booked using our DVC points), two glasses of champagne at Victoria & Albert’s, two glasses of champagne at Citrico’s, and a free berry cobbler dessert at Artist Point. At V&A’s and Citrico’s our menus were printed with our names and an anniversary greeting.
This is likely a high average response from Disney to a guest’s celebration. I’ve heard of guests in similar situations who received nothing and others who have received room upgrades, comped meals, and featured roles in parades. Again, the key is to tell everyone about your special day (especially any reservationist), expect nothing, and be pleasantly surprised if some love comes your way.
IT’S NOT A PARTY WITHOUT A CAKE?
Your first instinct when planning a celebration is to order a cake. If that’s what you want to do, Disney has a special hotline set up for just this purpose. A cake hotline. Why does this not exist in the real world? To order, call 407-827-CAKE (407-827-2253). Vegan, gluten-free, and other allergy-friendly cakes may be ordered through the BabyCakes NYC outpost at Downtown Disney.
Not to be a killjoy, but I’m going to ask you to think out of the box with me for a minute here and say maybe you don’t actually want or need a cake, even for a birthday. This goes double if you’re on the Disney Dining Plan. Here’s my thinking … First, there are desserts at Walt Disney World that are far more delicious and delightful than a plain old slab of cake. I’d rather have crepes from Chefs de France, ‘Smores from the ’50s Prime Time Diner, or the bread pudding at ‘Ohana. Slip your server a birthday candle and they’ll bring it out singing. Also, if you’re on the Dining Plan, your meal comes with dessert. Do you want cake on top of that? The answer may be yes, but I’m asking you to think about it.
My point is, do something different. Try to conquer the Kitchen Sink at Beaches & Cream. Have Dole Whip for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sample every kind of fudge at the Main Street Confectionery. The more off-the-wall your sweet treat is, the more your special someone will remember the celebration.
DECORATE YOUR ROOM
A great way to add oomph to your celebration is to decorate your hotel room. You can do this with streamers and balloons brought from home. When my family spent our first Christmas at Walt Disney World, I purchased several small artificial trees at Target, and we brought them on the trip and decorated them at the hotel together. Some guests also decorate the outside of their hotel room door. I’m personally not a fan of this, but it doesn’t bother most others.
If you’re not a do-it-yourselfer you can enlist the help of the Disney Floral and Gift team. These dreammakers can be found online or at 407-WDW-GIFT. They have a number of room decorating packages available. They can also customize a basket for you. If you have something very specific in mind, get on the phone and speak to someone directly.
Beyond these basics, the best way to “plus up” a Disney trip to make it a Disney CELEBRATION trip is to take an honest assessment of the person or event you’re celebrating. For example, my family celebrated my twins’ sixth birthday at Walt Disney World. At the time, the were relatively indifferent to many of the rides at WDW, but were completely obsessed with meeting the characters. To make their day extra special, we booked not one, not two, but three character meals for that day: breakfast at the Crystal Palace, lunch at Cinderella’s Royal Table, and dinner at Chef Mickey’s. Obviously this was faaaar more food than we needed to consume, but it was the very best thing their first grade minds could imagine, so we indulged. And seven years later, they still talk about it.
Just because “women like spas,” or “men like sports,” doesn’t mean that’s what you should automatically turn to for your celebration indulgence. Take the time to talk with your special someone about what their wildest dreams are. If the celebration is meant to be a surprise, you can be oblique about this, or enlist a trusted friend to do some sleuthing for you. For example, if my husband sent me to a Disney spa for my birthday, I might feel awkward or uncomfortable, but if he brought me a bouquet of those fancy Mickey balloons they sell on Main Street (something I’ve always wanted but never had), I might possibly faint from bliss. This is truly at time when it’s the thought that counts.
To get your thought process rolling, below are some ideas about activities you can add to your Walt Disney World vacation that will increase the celebration factor. Please note that while some of these ideas are quite expensive (tours, private events), many of them are inexpensive (personalized Mickey ears), or even free (watch Wishes from the beach).
On your honeymoon, proposing, celebrating an anniversary? Here are some ideas to put the romance in your trip:
- Take a horse-drawn carriage ride at Port Orleans or Fort Wilderness.
- Have the Disney Florist send two dozen red roses to your room.
- Book a dinner at the posh Victoria & Albert’s restaurant.
- Order in room service, then place the do-not-disturb sign on your door.
- Grab a blanket or extra towels and watch the Wishes fireworks presentation from the beach at the Contemporary.
- Book a private fireworks cruise.
- Snuggle into an arcade photo booth for some mid-kiss portraits.
- Win your sweetie a prize at Animal Kingdom’s Fossil Fun Games in DinoLand, U.S.A.
- Enjoy a couple’s massage.
- Go for a midnight swim in your resort’s Quiet Pool.
- Sit in the backseat of a car with a fancy drink and watch campy movie clips at the Sci-Fi Dine-In.
- Drop the kids at a Disney child-care center and sneak back to your room for some alone time.
- Take the Characters in Flight balloon ride at Downtown Disney to get a bird’s eye view of the world. (Just don’t drop the ring if you’re proposing.)
- Arrange a vow renewal with Disney Weddings.
- Offer to let your sweetie sleep in, while you take the kiddos to the park.
ADULT FUN CELEBRATIONS
Celebrating a milestone birthday, college graduation, or military retirement? Here are some ideas for adults looking to celebrate:
- Drink around the World Showcase at Epcot.
- Spend a day at the Saratoga Springs Resort spa.
- Take a backstage tour at the Magic Kingdom.
- Book a suite or stay in a nicer resort than you usually do.
- Dine in a Signature Restaurant.
- Invite a surprise guest.
- Create a special Touring Plan, using only the guest of honor’s favorite rides.
- Plan a shopping spree.
- Stay at the park until the very end.
- Go parasailing or waterskiing at the Contemporary.
- Get tickets to Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba at Downtown Disney.
CHILD FUN CELEBRATIONS
Is your child celebrating a birthday, straight-As on her report card, or scoring the winning goal? Here are some ideas for kids looking to celebrate:
- Book three character meals in one day.
- Get a makeover at the Bibidi Bobbidi Boutique or the Pirate’s League.
- Go to the Downtown Disney AMC theater and let your child create the ultimate custom Coke Freestyle beverage.
- Go on a candy crawl through Epcot.
- Ride Space Mountain ten times in a row.
- Meet your child’s favorite character, every day of the trip.
- Go on a pirate cruise.
- Have tea with Sleeping Beauty.
- Take the Wild Africa Trek (one of the few backstage experiences open to children).
- Start a pin or Vinylmation collection and spend the trip trading.
- Let the child choose the day’s itinerary.
- Put a present under your child’s pillow to find when he wakes up.
- Try to find all the hidden Mickeys at the Magic Kingdom.
CELEBRATING WITH A GROUP
Having a family reunion? Bachelorette weekend? Team getaway? Here are some ideas for getting the whole gang in on the party:
- Go to the Hanes Design-A-Tee Store at Downtown Disney and get matching shirts for everyone.
- Have dinner at the Hoop Dee Doo Revue – the ultimate in festive dining.
- Bowl a few frames at Splitsville.
- Arrange for a private IllumiNations dessert party.
- Get a private cabana at a resort pool or water park.
- Conquer the Kitchen Sink at Beaches & Cream.
- Have the ultimate mini-golf tournament.
- Spend a sing-along evening at Jellyrolls on the BoardWalk. They’ll play all your favorite songs.
- Get personalized Mickey Ears for the gang.
- Have a Disney Fine Art Photography session for the entire group.
- Make a Disney “goody bag” for everyone in your group.
- Participate in a Run Disney race together.
- Create a Disney trivia scavenger hunt. Have a friendly competition among members of your group.
WHAT WILL THE FUTURE BRING?
With the advent of NextGen technology in the parks, it may become easier for cast members to identify guests marking special celebrations at Walt Disney World. With every park admission, FastPass+ scan, or merchandise payment with your MagicBand, Disney cast may be alerted to your celebration status. And the rumors have long been that as the system evolves, your MagicBand will allow you to interact with attractions. Perhaps audioanimatronic Abe Lincoln will wish you a happy birthday in the Hall of Presidents or maybe Push the Talking Trashcan will congratulate you on your big win, before you even start talking to him.
WHEN CAN WE CELEBRATE?
There’s an old adage that says its perfectly fine to celebrate your birthday at Walt Disney World as long as it’s within six months of your birthday. (And it’s always six months away from your birthday, give or take.)
Believe it or not, Disney really doesn’t care if your birthday or anniversary is on the exact day that you happen to be celebrating in the parks. Work and school schedules don’t always completely mesh with vacation time or birth dates; they get it. They really just want you go on your trip and create memories where you associate Disney travel with happy times. Don’t abuse the system by telling cast members it’s your birthday during every month of the year, but no worries if your birthday was during the week and you couldn’t get to the parks until the weekend. Or if you graduated in May and you’re celebrating in June. Or if Grandma and Grandpa’s 50th wedding anniversary was in October but the extended family couldn’t arrange to be together to celebrate until Thanksgiving. It’s OK tell Disney that you’re celebrating your special day (because you are) even if it doesn’t happen to exactly be the date of the celebration.
OWN YOUR CELEBRATION
Overall, it doesn’t really matter what you do to celebrate as long as it’s heartfelt and joyful. But those giant Mickey balloons sure would be festive wouldn’t they? Not that I’m hinting or anything
What special celebrations have you had at Walt Disney World? What milestones have you marked in the parks? Have you found a unique or innovative way to celebrate? Let us know in the comments below.