1 - Work from a master plan
When we first began discussing possible trip dates, Walt Disney World expert Bruce Pecho came prepared with a homemade calendar on which he already had charted the days, times and locations of the major evening spectacles. Disney offers a themed fireworks show -- spectacle -- at each of its parks just about every night. We zeroed in on travel dates that would give us the greatest number of date and time choices for the spectacles. As a first-timer, I had no idea how grand, how much a part of the overall WDW experience these shows are. Left on my own, I might have considered them only as an afterthought, if I had considered them at all.
Pecho not only put these shows on the list, he made them the starting points for planning the entire itinerary. Once he had mapped out which spectacle to see in which park on which night, he worked backward to start fitting in dinner reservations -- another aspect of the Disney experience I would have neglected as a WDW novice. But that's exactly how Pecho arranged things so that we would be in the California Grill, at the top of Disney's 15-floor Contemporary Resort, overlooking the Magic Kingdom when the "Wishes" fireworks started at 8 p.m. Our melt-in-your-mouth filets ($35) arrived at the table a few minutes after "Wishes" concluded.
To fine-tune the seating, we arrived maybe half an hour early for our 7:50 p.m. reservation and put our names on the list with a request for a window table facing the fireworks. When our names came up, just such a table was available. If you read Page 1R, you already know what happened next.
Expert advice: Disney puts a wealth of planning information at your disposal (at disney world.disney.go.com / wdw / in dex), so that you can make the most of your trip. Use it. Before you leave home, go to the Web site to get park hours and times of parades and fireworks. And let "cast members" know if you have a request. They will do their best to accommodate your wishes if it's possible.
2 - Fine-tune each day on the spot
Pecho's master plan called for our first full day to be spent at Disney-MGM Studios, but his basic on-the-ground strategy there worked equally well at each of the other parks.
As soon as we hit the entrance, Pecho grabbed a park map for me, a Times Guide park schedule for himself, and assumed a tactical mode, the better to plot the day's course until our 4:10 p.m. dinner reservation, which was tied to the evening's 7 p.m. spectacle, "Fantasmic!," in ways I'll explain in a few paragraphs.
A glance at the Guest Information Board (each park has one, centrally located) told us that the "Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!" was closed that day, so we made our way to the far end of the park and the 10:50 a.m. performance of "Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show," a behind-the-explosions look at car chases, motorcycle chases and personal watercraft chases.
Why the one at 10:50? With our early dinner reservations, the stunt show's 4:30 p.m. performance was out of the question. Pecho knew from experience that seeing the 33-minute performance takes closer to 45 minutes when you allow time to exit the arena. The only other stunt-show time that day, at 1:45 p.m., would conflict with the 2:30 p.m. "Beauty and the Beast -- Live on Stage," a half-hour of highlights from the popular Broadway production at the opposite end of the park. He also wanted to arrive at "Beauty and the Beast" early enough, about 2-ish, to get good seats and also catch the unpublicized 15-minute pre-show, an a cappella act by Four For a Dollar. And of course we wanted to get one of Pecho's preferred spots -- the ledge in front of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame, the end nearest ABC Sound Studio -- for the 3:30 p.m. "Disney Stars and Motor Cars Parade."
With the essentials thus in place, we were able to fit in four other attractions, stop in for a snack at Starring Rolls Cafe and -- of abiding concern to me wherever I travel -- take several bathroom breaks.
We arrived a few minutes early for our 4:10 p.m. dinner reservation inside the park at The Hollywood Brown Derby. Pecho chose it because it's one of three restaurants that offer the Fantasmic! Dining Experience, a meal package ($36.99 at the Brown Derby for choice of appetizer, main course and dessert) that gets you a voucher for preferred entrance to, and therefore guaranteed seating for, "Fantasmic!," which began at 7 p.m. the night we were there. The live special-effects show, which among other things pits sorcerer's apprentice Mickey Mouse against a fire-breathing dragon, is heavily attended. Seating is limited and begins 90 minutes before showtime. So the dining package's entrance voucher assured that we could take a snail's pace at dinner and still be sure of seeing the show.
Expert advice: The things that you most want to do, plan them first, and as far ahead as possible. Some dining experiences, particularly Cinderella's Royal Table, are so beloved that it's extremely difficult to get a reservation. For Cinderella's Once Upon a Time Breakfast, they start taking reservations 90 days in advance. Dining is very much a part of the Disney fabric, so try to eat at least one table-service meal a day in the parks. Before you leave home, decide where you want to dine and make reservations, up to 180 days in advance for some restaurants. Walt Disney World has a separate reservation line for this purpose: 407-WDW-DINE. With all that in place, you can start filling the time gaps with secondary choices.
3 - Beat the crowds
The morning we entered Epcot, the plan was to make a beeline for the park's newest ride, Soarin', a simulated hang glider flight over California. But on the way there, we were sidetracked by Spaceship Earth, a 15-minute-or-so journey through the history of human communication. Pecho allowed the detour to Spaceship Earth because riding it then made strategic sense: Its line was practically nonexistent at that moment but would only grow as minutes ticked by, and it's one of the attractions that doesn't offer Fastpass, a way around hopelessly long lines.
By the time we finished Spaceship Earth and got to Soarin', we found a line with at least a 45-minute wait. But we didn't spend those 45 minutes in line. All we did was slide our park-admission cards into one of the Fastpass machines there.
In much the same way that ATMs dispense cash, these Fastpass kiosks produce tickets to a specific attraction for later in the day. Just return to that attraction anytime during the one-hour time window printed on the Fastpass -- between 12:06 p.m. and 1:06 p.m., for example -- and you will be directed to a separate entrance where the wait is 20 minutes or less. In the meantime, you are free to do other things. In this way, we were able to ride Journey Into Imagination With Figment, walk through Image Works -- The Kodak "What If" Labs, and see the 3-D film Honey, I Shrunk the Audience while our Fastpasses to Soarin' "waited in line" for us.
At Disney's Animal Kingdom, the press of people was such, even before the park opened, that by the time we reached our first objective, Kilimanjaro Safaris, the line was longer than we liked. We simply got our Fastpasses and made use of the intervening time by having breakfast next door at Tusker House Restaurant.
Of course, not every attraction offers Fastpass. "Turtle Talk With Crush," an interactive animation show in Epcot's The Living Seas pavilion, is a prime example. We thought we might see "Turtle Talk" before our 5 p.m. dinner reservation in the Coral Reef restaurant, also in The Living Seas pavilion. But one look at ranks of parents with strollers and youngsters in tow told us that wouldn't work. We tried again after dinner -- Where had the crowd gone? Maybe to get a good spot for viewing "IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth" -- and walked right in to the next showing.
In other instances, Pecho's strategy is to simply head deep into the park the moment it opens, whether the rides offer Fastpass or not. That's what we did at the Magic Kingdom: hoofed it down Main Street, U.S.A., when most people were getting their bearings; zipped through the Castle while everyone else was snapping photos; emerged in Fantasyland and stepped right on to Peter Pan's Flight twice in a row, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Snow White's Scary Adventures -- all within a half hour of the park's opening. Given a few more minutes, we might well have added It's a Small World in that cluster: The ride is a perennial favorite, it doesn't offer Fastpass and its ranks of riders grow longer with the day.
Expert advice: It's a shame to stand in line for an hour or more for rides that last only three minutes, such as Peter Pan or Winnie the Pooh. Use Fastpass whenever possible and devote the time you would have spent standing in line to taking in other rides and attractions. Lines tend to form the quickest at the most popular attractions or at those nearest the park entrance. So head to the most popular attractions the moment the park opens, or to those that are farther from the entrance. Or try again during the last hour of the day. This may be difficult for some families, but you can accomplish much during the early and late hours.
4 - Leave your options open
When we were deciding travel dates, we chose ones that would give us the greatest number of date / time choices for the spectacles because they all operate on different schedules. Pecho made sure our dates allowed at least two chances to see each of these events, and still take a night outside the parks for Cirque du Soleil's "La Nouba" in Downtown Disney. Then he made concrete plans to see them all over the first few nights. His reasoning: Seeing them early in the trip allows you to return to favorites later during your stay; but if you get caught up in other pursuits and miss one early on, or if the event is canceled because of rain, you still have another chance at it before your vacation is over.
It's also OK to change your plans. Originally, our scheme for Day 6 called for revisiting Epcot and returning to the Magic Kingdom for dinner with Cinderella, though we had already done the Cinderella lunch on Day 3. By Day 4, I knew I wanted to return to Disney-MGM Studios because our first day there was overcast; because we'd only glanced at "Walt Disney: One Man's Dream"; and because I had become enchanted by the idea of eating at the '50s Prime Time Cafe, where the waitstaff treats everyone like kids.
So, two days ahead of time, we canceled the Cinderella dinner, reserved '50s Prime Time Cafe instead and agreed to meet at MGM first thing on Day 6. A bonus was that the "Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!" was operating when we returned. We still ended the evening in the Magic Kingdom: One of the highlights of the trip, for me, was seeing "SpectroMagic" again.
Expert advice: If you have a concrete plan, you can always make changes and cancel reservations later if you need to. Without one, you will find yourself missing out: on the shows you had most wanted to see because you didn't check the performance times; on the most popular attractions because the lines were too long and you didn't get a Fastpass; on the most appealing restaurants because you didn't make reservations. With a plan, at least you have something to fall back on if spontaneous revisions don't work out. Just be sure to always cancel any reservation you don't intend to keep.
Toni Salama writes for the Chicago Tribune.
In next Sunday's Travel section: a first-timer's guide to Universal Orlando. And the following week: Sea World.