Visitors walk near Spaceship Earth at Walt Disney World's Epcot Center… (Jay LaPrete / Bloomberg )
Reporting from Orlando, Fla. — During the last 10 years, I have written about some of the vacations my husband, our three children and I have taken to Ireland, Italy, Paris, Germany, the Netherlands and London. The response has been mixed. Many found inspiration in our tales; others thought my husband and I were crazy for "dragging" our children on trips that were too expensive and arduous for families with young children.
We have recently returned from a five-day visit to Walt Disney World, and I'm here to tell you that a trip to Paris, London or Tuscany will be a breeze for anyone who has planned, paid for and survived a trip to those 44 square miles of drained Orlando, Fla., swamp with its time-sucking cycle of buses, endless lines and relentless commitment to merchandise.
Also much cheaper.
To be clear, I don't object to Disney on moral grounds. I love Disneyland and have been a season passholder for years. We even spent last Mother's Day at the Disneyland Hotel. That may be part of the reason my family and I were so disappointed by Disney World: We're spoiled. We live in Southern California with theme parks, world-class zoos, Seaworld and even a wild animal park all within driving distance. And certainly the encyclopedic travel guides and websites devoted to Disney World are proof enough that people are besotted with the place.
Walt Disney World Resort ticket prices
Four parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom
One day, one park: ages 3 to 9, $74; 10 and older, $82
One-day Park Hopper: $128/$136
Two-day Park Hopper: $200/$216
Four-day Park Hopper: $263/$286
Seven-day Park Hopper: $278/$301
Park Hopper tickets allow visits to multiple parks per day. Other ticket options, hotel packages, meal plans and annual passes are available.
Which is why, when I was sent to Orlando to review the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort, I figured we might as well see what all the fuss was about at that other park.
Thinking back, I should have seen all those guides and sites as red flags. When hundreds of people have devoted thousands of hours to meticulously listing tips and warnings about how to have a successful trip to a resort that's supposed to be the most magical place on Earth, you know something is off.
After hours trying to navigate the website, with its uncountable number of resort and package choices, I was a mess. And I began with more parameters than most people. We are a family of five and didn't want to pay for two rooms, which narrowed the field considerably. (Only a few of the moderately priced resorts have suites.) We also didn't want to eat every meal out, because the cheapest meal plan was $45 a person a day and seemed to involve making reservations months in advance.
The only resort that worked for us was the Cabins at Disney's Fort Wilderness. Done. Then the park package had to be assembled — basic or Park Hopper (basic), water parks or not (water parks), extra baskets or treats in the room (nope), you're sure you don't want the meal plan (yes), please fill in all the names, ages and serial numbers of your party, not to mention all your credit card and flight info.
Then when I hit the "submit" button, the computer told me it couldn't accept the package, so I should call a representative. Who asked me for all the info again.
I hadn't even packed a bag and I was exhausted.
But I did not yet know the meaning of the word exhausted. The Pentagon needs to figure out some strategic use for the Florida summer. It saps the strength of even the perkiest child, the most inveterate traveler. Still, with the misters and the air conditioning, with the spray bottles we brought (on advice from a Disney World website), we had a lovely time at Universal Orlando. Not only was the Wizarding World fantastic, but both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios had many more and better rides than our local version does. The hotels are a five-minute boat ride away, and the room key acts as an Express Pass to many rides.
Disney World was another story. It's just so big, and everything is so spread out. The cabins at Fort Wilderness were nice and the setting was beautiful, a lovely lake with a sandy beach and piney woods bedecked by Spanish moss. But to get anywhere, we had to take a resort bus to the Outpost depot, where we took another bus to whichever theme park we had chosen for the day. In the end, we spent more time riding the bus than riding the rides.
Because there just aren't that many rides at Disney World.
Now granted, with just four full days, we decided to give the Magic Kingdom a pass because it is exactly like Disneyland, so that must be taken into account. But at the other parks — Hollywood Studios, Epcot and Animal Kingdom—there are, essentially, two or three big rides and a handful of smaller ones.