Apr 062016
 

By Roye Ann Morris

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In the 26 years since we took our first child to the parks, I have always been firmly in the camp of “Don’t take your child to Disney until they are old enough to enjoy and remember it!” Our son was barely two years old when he made his first visit to Disney World, and it wasn’t a pleasant trip for any of us. He was scared of most of the rides and the characters, refused to eat or sleep at regular times (partly our fault as first-time parents!), and really enjoyed the hotel room and pool much more than the parks. After that trip, my husband and I decided that any future children would have to wait until the age of five to go to Disney. And we stuck to that rule through the rest of our five kids!

Fast-forward to 2015. Our first grandchild was turning one, and we were planning a trip for the whole family. Disney World was, of course, our first choice as the place to go, but we had some serious doubts about whether taking a baby so young to the parks was wise. Visions of all the crying babies and toddlers (and sometimes parents) that we had always felt so sorry for in a hot, crowded park, danced before our eyes. We spent several weeks going over the pros and cons, both with each other and with our daughter and son-in-law. But because they were so positive it would work, we decided to give it a try. And in the end, although the trip was not perfect, we were so happy we did!

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We knew this would be a much different trip than we had become used to; our youngest child is now 16, so it had been quite a few years since we had taken someone still in need of naps to the parks! I am a planner by nature, so the first thing I did was to make a list of all the rides and attractions I thought our granddaughter might enjoy, those that might scare her, and the ones that would be a good place for napping. Then I tried to get used to the idea that we would not all be together all the time. With the age range of our group, I knew that we should plan to split up for part of our days, and possibly even be in different parks. The final plan was that we would stay together in the mornings, go our separate ways after an early lunch, then meet up again for dinner. For the most part, that’s what worked best for us.

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Magic Kingdom was the one park where we all wanted to be together. We all were excited to see our granddaughter’s reaction to the attractions there. We chose to take the ferry to the park from the Transportation and Ticket Center, and she loved it! Our first stop was The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, as that was her favorite movie. Right away we could tell that she was a little overwhelmed, even with something as familiar as Pooh. The dark places in the ride and the loud music was a little too much for her; she didn’t cry, but she wasn’t thrilled either.

After that, we decided that rider swap might be a better idea for most of the other rides. She did enjoy the carousel, It’s A Small World, and Peter Pan, and took a great short nap in Carousel of Progress. Her favorite thing was being able to get out of the stroller and crawl around in the waiting area of the Hall of Presidents. And the cast members everywhere were great, going out of their way to smile and talk to her. I know they do that for everyone, but it always makes you feel special!

The surprise of the day was our ride on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority! This has always been my go-to ride for a cool place to sit down and enjoy the view for a while; we head here when the kids need a break, and sometimes it works for a nap, too! Our granddaughter was in the car in front of us, and she laughed and waved to us the entire ride. Her mom held her close and talked to her during the dark portion through Space Mountain, and she came out on the other side still smiling and waving. They rode the TTA a couple more times that day, and her reaction was the same each time. I would never have picked that to be her favorite!

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I must say that my daughter and son-in-law were very wise about taking breaks and having down time back at our hotel. They went into the trip knowing that their time at the parks would be limited, and were very committed to making sure naps and bedtimes stayed pretty much on schedule. We all took turns entertaining the baby so everyone got a chance to ride most of what they wanted in Magic Kingdom, and spent one day in separate parks so that the older ones could ride the thrill rides in Disney’s Hollywood Studios while the rest of us visited the animals in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. We didn’t plan any character meals as we weren’t sure whether the characters would scare her. We did get a picture with Mickey Mouse, but she was sound asleep!

All in all, it was a wonderful trip, and I would definitely do it again. I have switched to the camp of “Yes, you can take a baby to Disney and enjoy it!” With good planning and realistic expectations, you can make it work!

Mar 092016
 

By Ann Dunnington

 

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In November, my husband, his parents, and I went on a short vacation to the Walt Disney World Resort. My mother-in-law had a conference at one of the near “Good Neighbor” hotels near Disney Springs, so who were we to resist going along, too?? Twist my arm…

When looking for lodging for the 4 of us, there were a few hotels we were considering. We went back and forth between getting two hotel rooms on Disney property, two hotel rooms at the conference center (technically off Disney property, but Disney Springs was across the street), renting two Disney Vacation Club (DVC) Studio Villas, or renting a 2-Bedroom DVC Villa. Weighing the options back and forth and comparing pricing, it made the most sense for us to rent a 2-Bedroom DVC villa. Since we were booking kind of “late” by point rental standards, we had three location options that were available on our dates- Animal Kingdom Villas, Saratoga Springs, or Old Key West.

Once the person we were renting DVC points from gave us the three location possibilities mentioned above, it was a no-brainer for me to go with Old Key West. Here’s why:

  • The conference my mother-in-law was attending was near Disney Springs. This ruled out the Animal Kingdom Villas from strictly a location standpoint. We love ourselves some safari view-age, but it just wasn’t as important this trip.
  • Old Key West was the first DVC property at Walt Disney World. Since this was the first DVC property (built in 1991), the rooms were constructed with more space than the other DVC properties. With 4 of us being in one condo (and 2 of us being rather tall people), we knew that the extra space would be welcome.
  • Old Key West was less money for more space, and they just did an update on the rooms not too long ago, and they look beautiful!

Once we arrived at Old Key West, we were surprised at how close it was to the front of Epcot! A hop, skip and a jump, and you’re there. Not to mention being connected via a waterway to Downtown Disney… it’s a fabulous location. The check-in/pool/restaurants/gift shop are all near the front of the resort, and the bus transportation can take you up there if you don’t want to walk. THAT is super convenient, especially if your room is in the back of the resort. The whole feel of the resort is very relaxed and home-like. When you’re there, you’re ON vacation.

You have three lodging options at Old Key West – Studio Villa, 1 Bedroom Villa, and 2 Bedroom Villa. Some of the buildings are two stories, others are three, and most buildings have both stairs and elevators (but not all- so if you have a mobility issue with stairs like our party had, request a ground floor room). Each group of buildings has its own parking lot, so if you rent a car, you’ll be able to park right outside your room. This alone was a FABULOUS perk that the other DVC resorts do not offer.

Our 2 Bedroom Villa was enormous. It offered two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full size washer and dryer (bigger than I have at home!), a full kitchen, sitting area, eating area, and porch. We never once felt in each other’s space, and had all the amenities and comforts of home! If we ran out of tissues or toilet paper, the front desk sent someone over right away to help us re-stock. We had trash and towel service on day 4, and that was truly all of the housekeeping we needed.

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The kitchen was large enough for us to comfortably cook 3 meals a day, with a full size refrigerator, stove, microwave, double sink, dishwasher, and all the pots, pans, and utensils we could need. It also had dish soap, a sponge, towel, and dishwasher detergent as well.

The resort itself, as all Disney resorts are, was very well maintained, manicured, and themed. The villas were in the décor style of the Florida Keys with lots of pastel colors and charm (minus the plethora of cats…ha!). The guests at the resort bus stops were all very friendly and chatty, like old friends. If you’re staying at a DVC property, you’re most likely a Disney fanatic that knows the ins and outs of everything at Walt Disney World, so it’s very easy to make conversation and comradery. We shared what we had been doing all week, favorite rides and experiences, and chatted about Disney Vacation Club. DVC owners love to talk Disney!!

So overall, if I were to give Old Key West a rating of 1-10, 1 being the worst resort I have ever stayed at and 10 being the best, I would give it a 9.   Because I like Epcot and the Boardwalk area so much, that keeps this resort from getting a full 10. But, if I were coming down to Walt Disney World with a group again and the Boardwalk wasn’t available, I would have no hesitation whatsoever staying at Old Key West, and would totally recommend giving it a try! We had a fantastic stay and would love to go back whenever we get the chance!

Dec 022015
 

By Ann Dunnington

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For most families, vacations are a time of fun and excitement. For those of us who have to navigate the tricky world of food allergies, vacations can be more stressful than relaxing. Figuring out where to eat, what to eat, packing foods that are safe but also travel well… it’s a lot to keep track of. After spending 6 magical days at the Walt Disney World resort this past week, one thing has become very clear. Disney is taking GREAT strides in better accommodating their food allergy guests in a way that is “mainstreamed”.

So much so, that nearly every restaurant on Walt Disney World property now offers an allergy-friendly menu with food modifications that you can order without needing to talk to a manager or a chef. Don’t get me wrong, speaking to the chef about our allergies in the past did give us a sense of security. Knowing that they understood how to accommodate us (and doing so is still an option if necessary) was a welcome sigh of relief, but that would pull the chef away from what he was doing and unintentionally make us feel like we were being “high maintenance”, especially when non-allergy diners were eating with us, too. The addition of the allergy menus really helps to make allergy diners feel comfortable and “normal”, which is a treat!

Many of the gift shops are now even offering Disney’s own private label “allergy-friendly” snacks. In years past, this was my biggest complaint… the serious lack of allergy-friendly snacks in the gift shops was always a frustration. Apparently I wasn’t alone in thinking that this was needed, and Disney is really stepping up to the plate. Let’s take a look at a few of the new allergy friendly snack options that I found in numerous gift shops around the hotels and parks.

 

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These chips are made by Way Better Snacks, and are free of the top 8 allergens, but are produced in a facility that also uses milk and soy. They are delicious!

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These cookies are produced by the WOW Baking Company, and are made in a dedicated gluten free facility. Normally I can only find these at Target stores in my area, and I was so excited to see them at Disney World!! They’re soft, chewy, and a really fantastic treat.

The chocolate bars, ‘granola’ bars, seed/fruit mixes, and cookies are made by the Enjoy Life company. This company is known for being free of the top 8 allergens, and then some! I was so surprised to see the cookies in the Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop, right up by the register! Needless to say, we picked up some to keep us going through the Evening Extra Magic Hours!

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In addition to this, the Erin McKenna’s NYC bakery at Disney Springs is a gluten free and vegan (which means no dairy or eggs there, either!) bakery that makes the most delicious treats that the whole family can enjoy!   Their treats are also available around the various hotels and the Allergy Kiosk at Animal Kingdom in “grab and go” containers. I love the chocolate brownie mini-cupcakes!

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We have traveled to the Walt Disney World resort 8 times in the past 9 years, and of those vacations, 4 of them were after a diagnosed food allergy. With the addition of the allergy-friendly restaurant menus, training of the Cast Members, and the availability of more and more snack options at most of the gift shops, there is no better vacation destination for food allergy guests! Regardless of what allergy you may have, you’ll have no problem eating safely at the Walt Disney World resort!

Do you have a food allergy? Tell us your ‘allergy dining’ experience on our Facebook page!

Sep 092015
 

By: Ann Dunnington

 

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Those of us seasoned Walt Disney World travelers know all about the changes that have occurred over the past few years in regards to Disney vacation planning. FastPass+, Dining Reservations, Hotel Reservations, Dining Plans, Ticketed Events, Behind the Scenes Tours… you name it. In many different “Disney Fan Communities” around the internet, travelers have begun complaining that you can no longer have an unplanned, unscheduled trip to Walt Disney World, and the previous spontaneity that vacationers used to feel is now gone. But is it REALLY gone? Can you not have a fantastic trip to Walt Disney World unless each minute is pre-planned 60-180 days before your trip? I say, you absolutely can!

In July, my husband and I took a very unplanned trip to Walt Disney World. We decided to book a last minute long-weekend trip two weeks ahead of time. We had never traveled to central Florida in July before, but since we, like many of you reading this, are “in the know” about all things Disney, we absolutely knew what to expect (hot, crowded, and afternoon rain storms). With just two weeks to “plan”, we decided that we wanted to try to wing it WITHOUT set plans, just to see what would happen.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I did plan a tiny bit. However, the only planning I actually did was to see what parks had Extra Magic Hours (and avoid them, since we were staying offsite for the first time since the early 1990’s), and to make sure my touring backpack was packed with water, snacks, bandages, an umbrella, wet wipes, a big floppy hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and my phone and wallet. We didn’t, however, have even one FastPass or Dining Reservation made. In July. Were we insane?! Spoiler alert, it was just fine, and so much more relaxed than in previous trips. How?

Of course, there were a few things that we knew we needed to do if we weren’t going to go by a detailed touring plan for the first time ever:

  • We knew we needed to arrive at the parks a little past park opening. Why not prior to park opening? It gets crowded when the vacationers have nowhere to go before the parks open, so we wait about a half hour to let the crowds enter the park before we head in. Our first day we decided to park our car at the Transportation and Ticket Center and leave it there for the day. First up was the Ferry Boat to the Magic Kingdom. It was packed, so we decided to go up to the upper level to get away from the crowd a bit. We stood near the Captain and got to watch through the window his amazing boat parking skills! So fun, and something we had never seen before.
  • We knew that we had to go with the flow. Once the boat docked, we let the crowds go ahead of us. No need to rush! We were the last off the boat and walked at a leisurely pace, saying “hi” to every Cast Member we passed. At both the bag check and the ticket scanner, there was always a Cast Member that had little to no line (generally those on the far ends). We knew this was going to be the case, so that’s where we headed! We were in the park in no time! Once inside the parks, we knew there would be large tour groups and crowds at every turn. We knew that it was probably going to rain each afternoon. We knew it was going to be hot. And that was ok! If we got hot, we went inside a gift shop. If we got thirsty, we picked up a free ice water from the various Counter Service restaurants. If we got hungry, we stopped in a shady spot for a snack. No need to rush to our FastPass attraction to meet our time since we didn’t have any. We just went with the flow.
  • We knew we weren’t going to be able to ride everything we wanted to.   This was ok, too. We decided to explore areas of the parks that we had never been to before. Like, the Main Street Train Station. How many of us just walk right past it when we enter the park? Or the new Hub by Cinderella Castle. Or the back of Morocco at EPCOT. Or the smaller paths behind the Tree of Life at Animal Kingdom. There are so many places to explore! And, we had a blast finding them. While wandering around the parks, we used the My Disney Experience app to see what the wait times were at the various attractions. Believe it or not, there were tons of attractions with very little wait if you knew where to look. Sure, the headliners like Splash Mountain or Space Mountain had wait times of upwards of 120 minutes, which we were expecting. For those attractions, we had a different strategy… ride after it rains, or during the summer extended park hours. Perfect.
  • We knew it was going to rain, and used that to our advantage. When it rains in Florida, only a few attractions go down. Those rides that go outside like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Test Track, or Expedition Everest generally do not run in the rain. Nor, apparently, do guests. When it rains, the restaurants and gift shops become packed with guests waiting out the storm. We were able to ride a number of attractions right as the rain was dying down, in the middle of July, with no wait at all. This was all because everyone was waiting for the rain to completely stop before they went back out again. So put up that umbrella, and keep on touring! You won’t melt, I promise!
  • We knew that the most popular restaurants wouldn’t have tables available. We weren’t even going to try to get a table at the Be Our Guest restaurant. We knew that it would be nearly impossible, so, we packed and brought our lunch and some snacks in a cooler, and opted for a later dinner at the various restaurants at the resorts. Resort restaurants are generally less crowded than park restaurants, which we knew, so we walked up restaurants like Kona at the Polynesian, Yachtsman Steakhouse at the Yacht Club, and il Mulino at the Walt Disney World Swan, and we were seated in no more than 20 minutes, tops. Amazing food, relaxed atmosphere, and no problem getting a table at all. And now that the Disney restaurants have started rolling out their Allergy-friendly menus, those of us with food allergies needn’t worry about letting the chefs know ahead of time that we’re coming- they’re already prepared!

So, can traveling to Walt Disney World without a plan be an enjoyable vacation? Absolutely! We rode some of our favorite rides, ate some amazing food, ventured off the beaten path, and had an amazing time! Have you ever taken an unplanned Disney trip? Let us know in the comments or on Facebook your best strategies for touring without a plan!

Jul 152015
 

By: Jennifer Retzlaff

 

Dos and Don'ts of a Disney vacation

Summer is prime time for families to head to Walt Disney World for their family vacation. With that in mind, I wanted to share a few dos and don’ts to help make your trip as magical as possible.

Do Go With a Plan; Don’t Try to Wing It

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Summer is one of the busiest times at Disney making crowds heavy most days. With that in mind, do go in with a plan for the day. Even if it is a light plan with lots of flex time, having a general idea of where you want to go and where you would like to start the day will lower your standing around time, whether that is in line or out on Main Street determining what you want to do. You can tell the families that are trying to wing it as they often can be seen standing around “discussing” the next ride, show, or food kiosk that they are going to visit. Please do not misunderstand me. I know that not everyone is like me and don’t need nor want a detailed plan for the day; that isn’t what I am suggesting. What I am strongly recommending is that you have a general idea if your group wants to hit up Adventureland or Tomorrowland. Knowing your general plan for the day will help your stress level.

Do take breaks; Don’t try to go for 12 hours straight

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It is extremely hot in Florida in the summer months making it extremely important to take breaks. Trust me I get it. You have spent thousands of dollars on this vacation and darn it you are getting your money worth. My question would be if everyone is burnt out by day three, will you get everything out of the remainder of your trip? I see the complaints online of teenagers not wanting to get up before noon even though they are in Disney. Again a break doesn’t have to mean leaving the park, although if you are able, I highly recommend those few hours away; a break means taking some time to relax and just be for a while. Grab a snack, a seat and settle in for a few minutes. Taking an hour or so every day will give your family that second wind they will need to see those evening shows.

Do be realistic; Don’t get blinded by the magic

I will admit that I struggle with this one. As I am planning our daily plans, I often get wrapped up in trying to do it all which isn’t possible in it the world that is Disney. When planning for your trip, be realistic with what you will be able to accomplish each day. Know up front that you won’t be able to get everything in while you are there. Also be realistic while actually at the parks. Realize that although Disney is full of magic sometimes rides breakdown, bathrooms are needed at the wrong time, and tantrums will happen. I know it is hard to keep this all in the back of your mind, but it will make your trip more magical.

Do be aware of others; Don’t think you are in a bubble

Summer, as mentioned before, is a busy time of the year making walkways, bathrooms, restaurants, buses and rides busy. With this in mind, as you are moving throughout the parks, buses, etc, make sure you are being aware of your surroundings. Try to be aware of where you stop to tie that shoe or have that conversation. Be considerate on the buses when others need to get on. Help that mom with the stroller, offer up your seat to Grandma who has been going all day with the grandchildren. These small things, if we all do it, will make all of our trips that much better.

Do use your snack credits early; Don’t feel like you have to save them

Magically Speaking Do and Dont June 2015 Snack Credits

We learned this when we first used the dining plan a few years ago. We kept holding onto our snack credits throughout our trip leaving us with more than enough to frantically use on our last day. Instead of getting items we would have liked, we spent them on random things we could find at the resort. Last summer when we went we used our snack credits when the desire came. We also used it to get some breakfast items and munchies to take into the park with us. We did end up spending an extra ten on our last day but we were happy to do that instead of trying to force ourselves to use them.

Do come prepared; Don’t be caught off guard

Doing just a little research before you arrive at Disney will greatly help you be more prepared once arriving. Knowing when the parades, fireworks, and other shows are each day helps you know where you want to be at night instead of finding yourself in Epcot when you wanted to see Fantasmic in Hollywood Studios. Be aware of the park hours, extra magic hours and other special events going on throughout the parks during your visit will again help you take advantage of these offers. You don’t want to think you are hitting extra magic hours only to realize that the park opened up early to everyone. Being prepared also relates to weather. If you are visiting in the summer months, know that it will be hot and there will be daily rainstorms. With that in mind, make sure you pack that extra pair of socks, umbrella, and rain poncho. It can be extremely frustrating to take time out of your vacation because you are caught off guard by something that could have been planned for ahead of time.

Do enjoy the magic; don’t forget to smell the roses or popcorn

Magically Speaking Do and Dont June 2015 smell roses

I had to remind myself of this a few times on previous vacations. I am a planner and sometimes during our vacation I find myself getting worked up in what our next step is instead of just enjoying where we are at the moment. As parents, it is easy to be so caught up in our kids that we forget to really stop and see our kids and the joy that they are radiating. One of my favorite moments from our family trip was watching my kids play with their bubble gun in front of the castle. This wasn’t plan, we weren’t riding any rides, but it was a magical moment as they were so happy to be together and enjoying the moment. You don’t want to miss these moments during your trip because you are so busying worrying or planning.

Walt Disney World vacations are for many a once in a lifetime experience and I hope these quick tips will help all of us enjoy the magic that Disney has to offer.

Jul 012015
 

By Roye Ann Morris

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As I was going through some old photo albums recently, looking for a picture for a school project, I came across the scrapbook I had made from my very first trip to Walt Disney World. Although I had not taken many pictures, and the ones I had taken were sadly faded, it brought back so many memories of my introduction to a place that my family and I have come to love.

The year was 1975 (yes, I am that old!), and my sister and I were both in junior high school. My mother, who had recently become a single parent, was a teacher, so we were all on spring break. I can still remember reading about the Magic Kingdom being built in Florida in a Weekly Reader we had in our classroom. It did indeed sound magical, and my sister and I found it hard to believe we were getting to go! So we took off; my mom, her sister (who was our favorite aunt!), and the two of us, driving to Florida in the family car.

Looking back at that trip now, I can only begin to imagine what it must have cost my mother, not just in monetary terms, but also in worry and anxiety over the trip. Here she was, a young mom in her thirties, no husband to help, driving from her home in Mississippi from which she had rarely ventured, all the way to Orlando, Florida. No GPS, no cell phone, just an atlas and a few state maps, the kind you can never fold up properly once they are open.

My sister and I were blithely unaware of all this, of course, but now that I’m a mom, I can identify with the pressure she surely felt to make the trip safe and fun. The only time I remember being the least bit worried during the drive was when we got so very lost in a small town somewhere in Alabama. My mom actually flagged down a policeman to give us directions, and my sister and I were so embarrassed that we hid in the floor of the back seat. How’s that for being supportive!

We stayed offsite in a small hotel with a shuttle to the park. I still remember getting up very early and lining up to get on the bus. We wanted to get an early start since we only had one day. Even after reading about the Magic Kingdom and seeing news stories and watching The Wonderful World of Disney shows about the park, we were not prepared for what we saw when we arrived. I can remember feeling overwhelmed, and wondering where to start and how we would ever see it all! But mostly I remember the excitement of finally being there after the two day drive and the bus ride. I still feel the same way every time we go!

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My mom bought us each an 8 Adventure Ticket Book that cost $6.00. Can you even imagine – $6.00 for a ticket to the Magic Kingdom! There were tickets for the attractions available, divided into A, B, C, D, and E categories. The only problem was that there was not enough of each type of ticket to do every ride in the category! And my mom would only buy one Ticket Book for each of us! My sister and I stood there and discussed (and maybe argued) which rides we absolutely had to do and which ones we could skip. I do seem to remember that in the end, after much begging and pleading, Mom bought us each another book.

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We were also given a pamphlet titled “Your Complete Guide to Walt Disney World”. It included a list of each land in the park, its attractions, shops and restaurants, and a fold-out map of the Magic Kingdom. At the back of the pamphlet was a list of the resorts; The Polynesian Village, the Contemporary, the Golf Resort, and Fort Wilderness, along with everything available at each resort. There was even a section on taking pictures and movies, and tips on touring the park. One of the tips was a list of attractions that tended to develop long lines in the afternoons – the Skyway, Haunted Mansion, Country Bear Jamboree, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the Grand Prix Raceway were all on the list!

I don’t have any memory of what order we rode the rides in, or what we ate or if we watched the parade. I do remember my aunt, who always struggled with motion sickness, throwing her scarf over her face during If You Had Wings (how many people remember that??) and Peter Pan’s Flight. We rode the Skyway, a ride that I was very sorry to see leave, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, one which I do not miss! Mostly I remember the sense of wonder as we went to each new land, each attraction seeming more amazing than the last. I also recall a serious argument that lasted the rest of the trip about whether the men in the The Hall of Presidents were real!

Before putting everything back into the scrapbook, I called my three boys who were at home to come have a look at the pictures and ticket books. It was hard for them to even imagine a Disney World with only the Magic Kingdom, and tickets that only cost $6.00. We had a lot of fun walking down memory lane together, and they enjoyed hearing the story of my first trip. They also had a few laughs over the clothes and hairdos in the pictures, but that’s another story!