For children of a certain age, there is one ultimate spring-break travel destination.
Here are some clues: rodent mascot, throngs of people, sucks money out of your wallet like a supercharged Dustbuster.
Love it or hate it, Walt Disney World is paradise to the elementary school set. Quite a few teens and adults have been known to have fun there, too. Allegedly.
But, unfortunately, it's pretty easy to get roughed up by the place, too -- overwhelmed by choices, confused by the intricacies of this massive theme park and bludgeoned by the cost.
Experts say the biggest mistake a family can make, especially first-time visitors coming during the bustling spring-break season, is not to carefully investigate the whats, wheres, whens and how muches involved in a Disney World vacation before they arrive.
"People who are used to a simple destination need to know this is a complicated place," says Chris Mohney, one of the editors of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World (John Wiley & Sons). "If you don't do the research, you can easily have a frustrating experience."
What should the typical family keep in mind when planning a spring-break trip to Disney? We asked travel specialists for their top 10 strategies, including some little-known tidbits about navigating the House of Mouse. Here's what they had to say:
1. Look for ways to save. Airfare and accommodations will be your biggest ticket items (followed by park admissions), so shop around Web sites like Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz and the like. Spring break is busy (mid-March to mid-April), but if you go a little earlier or stay a little later, you can find a better deal for both airfare and hotels. Book them right now.
2. Make an informed choice of hotels. Do you want to stay inside the park or outside? Disney hotels are nice and convenient but can be pricey. Outside the park is cheaper, but you miss out on certain perks. It is a trade-off of time and money. One rule of thumb: If you plan to see Universal or other sites around Orlando, outside the park might be the most cost- effective.
3. Buy admissions in advance. This is another tough choice, especially for first-timers. But the last thing you want to do is buy admissions day-to-day or end up with more admissions than you need. You can check out Disney's fairly elaborate rate structure at www.disney.com. One four-day adult pass (with unlimited park hopping) costs $199.
4. Think Fastpass. Learn to use it. This refers to Disney's system of reducing your wait in long lines at certain popular rides. You can insert your admission card in a Fastpass machine and receive an appointment time for the ride. Go do something else, and you can come back, hop in the shorter Fastpass line and breeze through -- with no extra charge.
5. You deserve a break today. The best way to see any of the Disney parks is to go early, leave midday (go back to your hotel and rest, or throw the kids in the pool), and return in late afternoon and evening. Your family will avoid meltdown.
"It's always worth the sacrifice to get up early and get to the park when it opens," says Jay Fenster, author of Disneyworld With Kids (Open Road). "It more than pays off in the time you won't have to spend waiting in line."
6. Be prepared to walk. Everyone should wear comfortable shoes with socks, and don't bother to bring the stroller. Those clever folks at Disney have a ton of them. For a modest fee, you can rent one and leave it anywhere you like. (Left it at a ride? No problem. Show your receipt, and you can pick up another one, free.)
7. Dine with Donald. If you have young children, plan a character breakfast or lunch. Maybe the idea of sharing pancakes with Mickey doesn't sound like all that much fun, but trust the experts: It'll be the biggest hit of your 5-year-old's week. Book one now (at 407-939-3463) -- they are very, very popular.
8. Involve your children in planning. Yes, certain rides are really popular -- Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain among them -- but why bend over backward to get on them if your kids don't want to ride them? "They'll be a lot more cooperative if they feel they've had a say," says Eileen Ogintz, a nationally syndicated family travel columnist.
9. Limit souvenir buying. This is another matter to bring up with the youngsters -- give them a budget for the day or week or however long you plan to be there, and buy stuff at day's end so you don't have to cart it around all day.
10. Relax. Hey, it's a vacation, right? So what if you don't see everything at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom. Chances are, you won't. Disney likes it that way -- you'll come back again.
What you'll spend
Here's a rough estimate of what it costs a Baltimore family of four to spend five days of spring break at Walt Disney World.
Cinderella gives a breakfast in the castle, which sells out 60 days in advance.
Four roundtrip tickets from BWI to Orlando: $1,600
Hotel room for four nights: $800 (a luxury room outside the gates or a moderate-priced room inside)
Admissions : $716 (four-day Park Hopper tickets for two adults and two children)
(*This does not include ground transportation, souvenirs, parking or side trips.)
Ways to save
* Get a copy of Disney's Florida vacation travel brochure by calling 407-934-7639. Ask for the vacation booklet that lists various package deals.
* Planning to stay outside Walt Disney World? Get an Orlando MagiCard and vacation planner (to get free discounts) at www.go2orlando.com, or call 800-255-5786. Also order a coupon-filled visitor's guide from Kissimmee-St. Cloud at www.floridakiss.com or 800-327-9159.
* Check out www.disney.com and www.disneyworld.com for up-to-date information about Walt Disney World.
* Also on the Web, some unofficial sites with good money-saving tips: www.wdwig.com and www.mousesavers.com.
* Confused by Disney's park-hopping and multiday ticket system? You can talk to a real person about it at Disney Ticket Services at 407-827-4166.
* Be sure to join the Disney Club (many employers offer this for free) at your company's human resources department. Members are entitled to discounts on many goods (and rooms) at Disney World.
* Before you book your hotel room, visit this site: www.roomsaver.com. Click on Florida and Orlando to search for discounted rooms (although spring-break rooms are going fast).