Cousins and Uncles and Aunts, Oh My! Planning a Trip for a Large Group
Since buying into the Disney Vacation Club in 1995, the size of our vacations seems to have taken on immense proportions, often involving large numbers of friends and family members. Disney is currently touting groups of eight or more as "magical gatherings," but those who have attempted any large family trip know that some gatherings are more "magical" than others. (If they annoy you at home, think about what seven nights in close proximity can do.) Be assured though that common sense, a little pre-planning, a lot of patience, and a good sense of humor can make all the difference in the "World."
If you're the one in charge of this undertaking, know that you can't bring 17 aunts, uncles and cousins to Walt Disney World on the spur of the moment and expect all to go smoothly. You need to don your thinking caps before you replace them with Mickey ears and enter the most magical place on earth.
(Even though eating honey is a very good thing to do, there is a moment just before you begin to eat it which is better. -- Pooh's Little Instruction Book)
The first step in planning your trip, right after having your head examined, is to choose your cast of characters. If Aunt Sally hasn't spoken to Cousin Fred in 15 years, these two families may not be the two with whom you'd like to travel with on the same trip. Save one for next year. As much as the magic may affect you, family dynamics is a tricky beast, so keep things simple and invite those whose company YOU will enjoy.
Figure out a budget. If you're paying for the entire trip yourself, many of the decisions will naturally be made by you. If the cost of everything is shared, those attending need to have an idea of how much it will all cost before you enter into the more important decisions to come. Itemize the cost of the major components of the trip, so you can decide together where to skimp and where to splurge.
Choose your dates and trip duration. This is one of the most difficult things to agree upon when trip planning. Between school schedules, weddings, pre-school talent shows and law school exams, finding a time to please everyone should give you credentials for world peace negotiations. One of the reasons to plan so far in advance is so that your traveling companions can keep their calendars clear. Try to get everyone to provide dates with a buffer on either side for the most flexibility. This will help when trying to get the best deals on travel and accommodations.
Decide if this is a do-it-yourself trip or if you'll use the services of a travel agent. Sometimes, great group rates can be found with packages, while other times, booking each component separately has its financial advantages.
(To the uneducated, an A is just three sticks. -- Pooh's Little Instruction Book)
There are two trains of thought here. One is to get everyone involved in deciding where to eat, which attractions to put on the "don't miss" list, where to stay and what days for which parks. It's a great way to get everyone excited about the trip. The other option, my family's favorite since it involves little or no thought on their part, is for me to just take over, make the plans, and give everyone the itinerary when they arrive.
Whichever option you choose, democracy or dictatorship, you'll need to at least educate your traveling companions on the size and scope of Walt Disney World. Just a brief description of its immensity will probably convince them that Option Number Two is their best bet. However, if democracy prevails, plan at least two meetings, one as far out as possible to discuss accommodations and dinner shows, and a second, closer to the six-month mark, to choose restaurants and park passes.
(Be sure to put the knocker fairly low on your door, in case a Very Small friend drops by. -- Pooh's Little Etiquette Book)
Once the difficult task of scheduling is done comes the time for choosing your accommodations. There are many things to take into consideration when choosing the optimal arrangements, and these include:
Cost. Four rooms at an All-Star Resort will be considerably cheaper than four rooms at the Beach Club.
Will you all be in one resort, or spread out among many?
Will your traveling companions cohabitate? Would large units for multiple families work well, or would they be happier on their own?
Do you need a kitchen and laundry room?
Would your party enjoy a common room to, well, party? If so, Disney's Deluxe Villa resorts could be an ideal choice. Also, keep in mind that having bagels or muffins in the kitchen while the bathrooms are being occupied is a great morning time-saver. Have you ever tried to get 12 people ready and out to a sit-down breakfast, and still make it before lunch?
Are you there for a special event, such as Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party or the International Food and Wine Festival? In that case, you may want to book your stay at a resort closer to the "action."
How many bathrooms are needed? (Families with teenage girls will know exactly what I mean.) For the price of one bathroom at the Polynesian, you can probably get three bathrooms at Pop Century. Know your priorities.
Are there any special needs? If anyone in your party is elderly or handicapped, these requests should be noted at the time of your reservation. Remember that some resorts are quite spread out, so the ability to walk or the availability of a wheelchair should be taken into consideration. Also, some resorts have more than one floor with no elevator.
Would you need connecting rooms? With some families, it would simply be a bonus, but when small children are involved, it could turn into a "must."
What does the resort mean by "sleeps four?" In most cases, you won't be able to divide the number of guests by the room capacity to see how many rooms you'll need. If a room sleeps four, this is usually in two beds. Unless those four guests know each other very, very well, don't assume that a room that sleeps four really does sleep four.
On Disney property or off? Being a Disney Vacation Club member, I'm obviously sold on "on" rather than "off," especially in a large group situation. When Aunt Martha has had just about enough of Uncle Fred, Disney's convenient transportation is a big plus in getting her (or him) back to the room for a "time out." However, there are many wonderful options outside Walt Disney World in the form of vacation homes. For those traveling on a budget, a four- or five-bedroom vacation home just minutes from the parks can be a viable money-saver.
(When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen. -- Pooh's Little Instruction Book)
If your party is traveling by air from the same destination, my advice is to book early. Flights fill up, cheaper seats get taken, and the most frustrating situation would be for your party to land in multiple aircraft at different times. Yes, there are sometimes deals to be had by waiting (especially this summer!), but the peace of mind of having all of you arrive together is, as they say, priceless.
For transportation from the airport to WDW you have many options, with Disney's complimentary Magical Express being the most popular. However, sometimes this service isn't a good fit. Do you think a grocery stop on the way would make your stay easier? Are you booked at a hotel that does not offer complimentary transportation, such as the Swan or Dolphin? Or, as in my case, are you traveling with someone who can't possibly relinquish control of any kind to another driver?
If you're thinking of renting a car, also consider the personalities of those doing the driving. We only rented one minivan last summer for 12 people (and using Disney's complimentary Magical Express for the extras) simply because an extra vehicle would have given my brother-in-law a way to take off and explore central Florida while we were waiting for him for dinner at Chef Mickey's. Keeping things simple is not always too difficult with proper planning.
If using a town car service rather than a rental car, most companies offer a large van which will hold up to ten passengers for only a bit more than the five-passenger town car. Many companies also offer a complimentary 30-minute grocery stop on the way to your hotel.
(It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like "What about lunch?" -- Pooh's Little Instruction Book)
Advance Dining Reservations: Make them. Trust me. You can not walk into Chef Mickey's at 7 p.m. and say, "Table for 12, please." It won't work. You may have fallen into a false sense of security because you travel with only your spouse during the slow month of January, but being the "trip planner" and being faced with a group of tired, hungry, grouchy relatives with no place to eat will only increase your chances of being tarred and feathered. Start making your Priority Seatings as soon as possible so that your chances of being seated together are better.
With a large group, I find that making a reservation for one large meal per day gives us all a place to meet up and regroup without tying everyone to a strict schedule. If you have varied ages and interests, some may occasionally head off in different directions during the day. This is a great way to find each other and share stories of your adventures.
If you've decided on which parks you'll visit on which days, then your dining choices can be easily narrowed down. For example, if you're craving a nice juicy steak at Le Cellier, planning it for your day at Epcot would make sense. Eating dinner at Chef Mickey's or the Whispering Canyon Cafe after a day at the Magic Kingdom would combine easy transportation (assuming you leave the minivan at the resort) with a nice way to end the day. And don't forget -- transportation at WDW can be fun, especially if any of your party are first-time visitors!
Don't panic if your reservation is at two or more tables. Upon your arrival, the Cast Member will do everything possible to seat all of you together. Of course, by that point, you may want some of your family as far away as possible. Like, in another restaurant.
If you don't use meal times to relax, regroup and rejuvenate, then make mealtime an event! Plan meals in venues to please the whole group. Casually explore the Zawadi Marketplace before dinner at Boma at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, or search for Hidden Mickeys at the Wilderness Lodge after a rowdy meal at the Whispering Canyon Cafe.
(Nobody can be un-cheered with a balloon -- Winnie the Pooh)
Don't leave home without them. Buying in advance through Disney (with or without a package) or through a reputable discount ticket seller will save you money in the long run, especially for a large group. Simply choosing which type of pass you want before you get there will save you your sanity. After deciding on the length of your trip, consider how many days you want to spend within the four major theme parks. In the past, for a 7-day trip, buying a 5-day park hopper with two options (visits to a water park, miniature golf, or DisneyQuest) would allow almost everyone a full seven days of activities at a lower cost. However, with the advent of the new Magic Your Way passes, extra park days can raise the price by only a few dollars per day. If an extra day costs under $5.00, why not have that option? You never know when the craving for a Mickey ice cream bar at the Magic Kingdom will hit you.
Magic Your Way Park Hopper passes with the Water Parks Fun and More option, covering almost every conceivable Disney experience from your moment of arrival, is a pricier way to go, but would give your guests all that Disney has to offer. However, just remember that these passes expire 14 days from their first use unless you purchase the "no expiration" option. If the teenagers decide to spend a few days in a beach chair by the pool, you've just flushed quite a bit of cash down the drain.
If you've purchased your passes before leaving home, copy the backs of the park passes and bring the copy with you on your trip! We put a tiny initial on the back of each pass before copying so that we can easily tell who each belongs to. This way, should one get lost, we know exactly which pass to report. If you buy them as part of your Magic Your Way package, the passes are easier to cancel out and reissue.
(A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference. -- Pooh's Little Instruction Book)
Don't forget "down" time, especially with young children or the elderly. Build it into your schedule. And remember that hot, tired, cranky adults could use an occasional nap just as much as the little guys.
Be flexible! Keeping to a strict schedule only causes stress and indigestion. If that character breakfast at the Cape May Cafe doesn't sound appealing after your night overeating at 'Ohana, cancel it and go for a smaller meal.
Take lots of photos! Some of the most fun you'll have with your family and friends is the time spent reliving the memories.
If many people are staying at a WDW resort hotel in one large unit, keeping track of resort IDs and charges is fairly easy. Each resort ID is imprinted with the guest's name and a unique number, so you'll always know which card belongs to whom. This really helps when figuring out who charged what ("No! I didn't order that Kitchen Sink at Beaches and Cream!") and to easily cancel and replace a card should one get misplaced.
Admittedly, I'm an anal planner. I'm often teased about my obsession, especially by my three sons, but traveling with a large group feeds the compulsion to keep lists. One such list is that of our daily park and dining times (with confirmation numbers). I print these out as a small chart, so that when folded, it's the size of a credit card. On the back, I include cell phone numbers of all who brought them, and the direct phone number to our resort. OK... so maybe you don't have to laminate them as I do (although this does help when your teenager goes swimming with it in his pocket), but the lists really will come in handy should your group split up!
Planning a large group adventure to Walt Disney World is a bit similar to giving birth. If everyone remembered all the work involved, rather than the joy it produced, then no one would have more than one child. The most important tip of all is to relax and enjoy your vacation. After all the worrying, coordinating and preparation, you'll deserve it. Remember that you are not in control of the weather, Aunt Molly's fear of loud noises, or Brother Tim's incessant snoring. These little things will soon be lost amidst the wonderful memories that you'll create, and a few months later, while you're laughing at the photographs, you just may find yourself doing it all over again.