Many guests plan Disney World trips, either in whole or in part, to celebrate an event. This phenomenon is such a truism that Disney even planned their 2009/2010 marketing campaign around the theme “What Will You Celebrate?”
While Walt Disney World is indeed a great place to celebrate, not all Disney celebrations should look the same. You’re not going to celebrate your daughter’s first birthday the same way you’re going to celebrate Grandma and Grandpa’s 50th wedding anniversary. Here’s a guide to constructing the perfect celebration for common situations.
Who should be there?: The birthday boy/girl, mom and dad, siblings, possibly grandparents.
Where should we stay?: The monorail hotels (Contemporary, Grand Floridian, Polynesian) are great because you won’t have to fold your stroller to get to the Magic Kingdom. But if that’s not in the budget, try a family suite at Art of Animation or All-Star Music, or a cabin at Fort Wilderness because you’ll have a separate room where the baby can nap undisturbed. At the moderate level, the standard rooms at the Coronado Springs resort have a sliding wooden door between the bed area and the bath area, creating a de facto mini-room which can serve as a nap area. The value resorts, with their small square footage, may be a challenge during this trip because your Pack n’ Play will take up a substantial percentage of your living area.
Where should we eat?: Chef Mickey’s (breakfast or dinner). The boisterous atmosphere will muffle any cranky noises the birthday child might make. Since it’s a buffet, it won’t seem odd if you’re walking around a bit, also you’ll have lots of food options for fussy eaters.
What should we do?: Character photos! This is the perfect time for pictures juxtaposing little toddler next to a giant mouse. Cuuuute!
What should we buy?: Mouse ears embroidered with junior’s name (another perfect photo opportunity!).
Helpful hints: The celebrant is likely pre-verbal, so there will not be any direct memories being made for the child. Focus on making mom and dad comfortable (traveling with an infant can be exhausting) and taking lots of great photos to help convey your family’s Disney/birthday story when the little one is old enough to understand.
Who should be there?: The birthday boy/girl, mom and dad, siblings, possibly grandparents.
Where should we stay?: The value resorts are a great choice for families with young elementary age kids. You’re no longer fixated on stroller issues, so transportation is less problematic. The large themed elements at the value hotels (faux football field, giant dalmatian) generally hold great appeal.
Where should we eat?: Tusker House (breakfast or lunch). This is still a buffet, with the benefits of ambient noise and character entertainment, but there are some more adventurous food offerings here, giving parents a break to parent who’ve already endured five years of chicken nuggets and mac n’ cheese.
What should we do?: Beginner big kid rides. The average five-year-old boy is about 40″ tall. This means that many kids celebrating their 5th birthday at WDW will be ready to graduate from Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh to the beginner big kid rides like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Test Track, or Soarin’. Make a fuss about their growth and take a photo of them next to the attraction height post.
What should we buy?: A make-your-own light saber or a full princess gown, depending on your child’s proclivities.
Helpful hints: Be sure to get a free birthday button for the child. Cast members often make an extra fuss over early elementary age kids celebrating birthdays.
Who should be there?: Mom, dad, and siblings. Leave grandma and grandpa home this time; junior will want to stretch his wings and move fast.
Where should we stay?: A moderate resort, probably Port Orleans Riverside or a Fort Wilderness cabin. These options have more sleep surfaces, allowing bigger kids more personal space. Also, the moderate resort pools have slides, which are usually a hit with older elementary age kids.
Where should we eat?: Teppan Edo. Onion volcano – ’nuff said.
What should we do?: Wild Africa Trek. This is one of the few backstage experiences that allows kids to participate. The rope bridges and crocodile proximity give just the right amount of perceived adventure, without posing any actual danger.
What should we buy?: A big complicated LEGO set at the Downtown Disney LEGO store. You are now the most awesome parent EVER.
Helpful hints: This may the best birthday opportunity to impress your kids with excess. Order a big room service dinner, get the Kitchen Sink Sundae instead of lunch, or try a Disney World Challenge like seeing how many times you can ride Space Mountain in a row. Did I say you were the most awesome parent ever? Well, this time I super double plus mean it.
Who should be there?: Mom and/or Dad, the birthday boy or girl, the birthday boy or girl’s one or two best friends.
Where should we stay?: Any resort in two adjacent (but possibly not adjoining) rooms. An adult should be nearby, but the kiddos won’t want or need someone in their face 24/7, and you won’t want to keep the same hours as a group of teens.
Where should we eat?: Sci-Fi Dine-In. The car-themed dining room fits perfectly for marking the beginning of driving age.
What should we do?: Let the birthday boy/girl set the schedule and let the kids tour on their own. You’ll want to have set meeting times for some meals and activities, but give the kiddos a wide berth to make their own plans. They can pick the park of the day, choose their own FastPass+ selections, or have a snack when they want to.
What should we buy?: Ironic or humorous tee shirts in the World Showcase countries.
Helpful hints: I’m nearly always an advocate for pre-rope-drop arrival at the parks, but this trip may be the one where the kids will most appreciate it if you let them sleep until noon and tour the parks late in the evening.
HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION
Who should be there?: The grad and three to five best buddies.
Where should we stay?: Anywhere on Disney property. Magical Express access is key to teens traveling to Disney World on their own.
Where should we eat?: ‘Ohana. The family-style dining and festive atmosphere adds to the “We’re All In This Together” vibe. Plus, it seems fancy, but won’t break the bank as much as some of the signature dining venues.
What should we do?: Tomorrowland Terrace Wishes dessert party. New high school graduates will feel both the pull of childhood and the desire to stretch their wings. At this point their dreams really can come true, plus the chocolate mousse is pretty yum.
What should we buy?: Plush Mickey wearing a graduation gown and mortarboard. He’ll look perfect perched on a pillow on their bed in the dorm next year.
Helpful hints: We’ve got lots of helpful hints in our Guide to a Teen’s First No-Parent Trip to Disney World.
21st BIRTHDAY or COLLEGE GRADUATION
Who should be there?: Siblings, friends, cousins – the more the merrier. No one under age 21 or over age 30.
Where should we stay?: Anywhere on Disney property. Access to accommodations which don’t require driving is key.
Where should we eat?: La Cava Del Tequila. (Chips and guac count as dinner, right?)
What should we do?: Drink around the world. (Did you think there was another answer?)
What should we buy?: A fancy beer stein from the Germany pavilion.
Helpful hints: Try to remember that their are little kids at Disney World. Just because you’re having a grown-up celebration that doesn’t mean that everyone else is.
Who should be there?: The happy couple (duh).
Where should we stay?: A DVC studio or one-bedroom with a castle view at Bay Lake Tower or the Grand Floridian, paying with owned, borrowed, or rented points. The deluxe resort and castle view are because this is a super special time. The DVC part is because housekeeping won’t even attempt to bother you until day four of your trip.
Where should we eat?: California Grill, with a seating during Wishes. You’re on top of the World, literally and figuratively.
What should we do?: Do I really need to explain the birds and the bees? 🙂
What should we buy?: A holiday ornament personalized with the name of your new family.
Helpful hints: When you do venture out of the room, stop by the gift shop so you can stock your room with water, wine, and snacks. Honeymooning can make you hungry and you may not want to leave your nest very often.
Who should be there?: Still just the happy couple.
Where should we stay?: A value resort. You’re probably paying down student loans or saving for a home downpayment, so you’re not in break-the-bank mode. If you’re in the mood for romance, you may want to request a room away from the pools and other noisy areas.
Where should we eat?: Sanaa. You won’t be spending a fortune like you might at a signature venue, but the international flavors and view of the savanna will make it feel like you’re on an exotic escape.
What should we do?: Experience the thrill rides as much as possible. In a few years you may have a baby to work into your schedule, making endless hours on Everest more of a challenge.
What should we buy?: Pick-A-Pearl. Buy a pearl or two during this and all subsequent Disney visits. By the time you get to your 30th or 40th anniversary, you’ll have enough pearls to create an heirloom family necklace.
Helpful hints: Be sure to have your anniversary noted on your room reservation and all your meal reservations. While nothing is guaranteed, there’s always a chance that they comp you a free dessert or champagne toast.
Who should be there?: The happy couple and their kids.
Where should we stay?: A family suite, Fort Wilderness cabin, or one or two bedroom villa. You’ve got the kids around, but you also deserve a little private time. The accommodations I just mentioned all have at least two separate rooms with a real door between them.
Where should we eat?: Artist Point. It’s a nice signature spot, with fantastic food, excellent service and a great wine list, but the atmosphere isn’t so intimidating that you’ll feel like your kids are out of place if you have to bring them along.
What should we do?: Get a sitter. Disney offers group childcare in several locations throughout the resort and also contracts with an independent sitter service that will come to your hotel room to watch younger kids. Taking even a few hours away from the kids can help reignite the spark and make you remember why you liked each other in the first place.
What should we buy?: Memory Maker. You’ll probably be taking lots of photos yourself, but it’s great to have Memory Maker as a back up – plus you’ll get all the ride and character meal photos included.
Helpful hints: Again, be sure to have your anniversary noted on your room reservation and all your meal reservations.
Who should be there?: Just the happy couple. The kids should be old enough to stay on their own or get parked with a friend for a few days.
Where should we stay?: Deluxe!
Where should we eat?: Victoria & Albert’s in the Grand Floridian. You’ve survived together through good times and bad, now you get your reward.
What should we do?: End each evening with a quiet drink at the hotel bar – even if it’s just a soft drink or cup of decaf. This will be a great opportunity to chat and reflect about the milestones you’ve reached together.
What should we buy?: Call Disney Florist (407-939-4438) and have your spouse’s favorite flowers or a bottle of bubbly sent to the room.
Helpful hints: Make this a relaxing vacation: sit by the pool, hold hands, have fun.
Who should be there?: The happy couple and everyone in their line of progeny: children, grandchildren, great grandchildren.
Where should we stay?: The happy couple stays in a one-bedroom villa. Everyone else bunks in as many two and/or three bedroom villas as necessary. It’s a family reunion with lots of cousin bonding opportunities.
Where should we eat?: Be Our Guest (dinner). The food is great, there’s enough to look at to keep the little ones entertained for at least a bit, and you can have a celebratory toast at the end of the evening.
What should we do?: Wishes Fireworks Cruise. Each boat holds about 10 people, you can get multiple boats if your party is larger. This is a great way to bond and tell stories while you watch the iconic magic in the sky. Also nice because this doesn’t involve much walking for the older folks.
What should we buy?: A professional portrait session. This is the time to commemorate the extended clan being together. Arrange to have a framed group print sent to the anniversary couple after the trip.
Helpful hints: Be judicious with the family fun. Not everyone needs to be together during every moment of the day. Chances are that everyone will have a better time if you get together for the evening meals and just a few other activities.
RETURN FROM MILITARY SERVICE
Who should be there?: Maybe just the nuclear family or maybe every aunt, uncle, and cousin. The service person gets to decide.
Where should we stay?: Shades of Green.
Where should we eat?: Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue. It’s light. It’s happy. It’s all American. The fried chicken is great – and the beer is included.
What should we do?: Play mini-golf. It’s not as loud and busy as the parks, so you have the opportunity to chat and get reacquainted, but there’s an activity and goal at hand, so there’s something to fill any awkward silences.
What should we buy?: Candy apples and caramel corn.
Helpful hints: Each day at the Magic Kingdom, a veteran participates in the evening flag lowering ceremony. Stop by Guest Relations in the morning to inquire whether that day’s slot has been filled and if your veteran might be able to participate in the honors.
RECOVERY FROM ILLNESS
Who should be there?: Nuclear family and any friends or caregivers who were particularly meaningful during the recovery process.
Where should we stay?: A deluxe resort. It’s time to splurge on comfortable digs – you deserve it.
Where should we eat?: Liberty Tree Tavern if comfort food is in order. Or The Wave if you’re looking for healthier options.
What should we do?: Be a kid again. Ride on Dumbo, eat the cotton candy, wear the ears, watch the parades.
What should we buy?: A fun Disney-themed phone case. You’ll be reminded to smile each time you see Mickey smiling at you.
Helpful hints: Continue to take care of yourself. The crisis may have passed, but we’re all still vulnerable when put under the stress of a theme park vacation. Stay cool and hydrated and remember that first aid centers are available in all four theme parks if you need medical assistance.
These would be my plans for a perfect Disney World celebration. I’m sure you have more ideas. What’s your take on the best way to celebrate a specific situation? Are there other types of situations you want to celebrate at Disney World? Let us know in the comments below.