Former Disneyland tour guide (class of 1969!) Andrea Keech's unique primer about planning an indulgent vacation with the grandkids at Walt Disney World is both travel guide and story book. Full of advice and anecdotes, it's the only Disney travel planner for grandparents, by a grandparent!
Let's put our cards on the table. This book may not be for you. You shouldn't buy it unless you're a grandparent helping to plan a vacation to Disney World with your grandkids, and you want to spoil them mercilessly in the most magical place on earth, with no expenses and no experiences spared.
You won't find tips on how to save money. You won't find balanced coverage of every ride and show and restaurant in the parks. You won't find any of the stuff you find in every other Disney guidebook.
What you will find is on-the-nose advice from a very smart grandma (she was a former Disney tour guide, after all!) about how to tour each of the four Disney World theme parks—plus a side excursion to Universal's Harry Potter—with young grandchildren in tow. It's all about maximizing their magic and uncovering the best that Disney has to offer for its littlest guests.
Mom and Dad can come along, and so can the older kids, but if you're a grandparent who wants to be biggest hero in the park, and who doesn't think a bit of (okay, a lot of) indulgence will derail developing minds, then Grammy (or Grampy) you've come to the right place.
Prologue: You're Going to Walt Disney World!
Chapter 1: Getting There Is Not Half the Fun
Chapter 2: First Stop: The Magic Kingdom
Chapter 3: Prince Robert of the Kingdom of Iowa
Chapter 4: Wave Your Magic Wand
Chapter 5: More Magic in the Kingdom
Chapter 6: The Third Time's Charming
Chapter 7: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow
Chapter 8: Nine-Pound Lemons
Chapter 9: A Permanent World's Fair
Chapter 10: One Afternoon, Six Countries
Chapter 11: Going Rogue: Hello, Harry!
Chapter 12: The Circle of Life, Dinosaurs, and Possibly Unicorns
Chapter 13: Hollywood: Where You're Terrific if You're Even Good
Chapter 14: Make a List, Check It Twice
Epilogue: What's Next? Let's Adventure Together!
The word “indulgent” is included in the title of this book for good reason. If you are the kind of grandparent who pinches every penny until it hollers and doesn’t want to be bothered taking care of your grandchildren because your own needs come first—and you know who you are—then you’ve picked up the wrong book. I love spoiling my grandkids, and my kids, too, for that matter, and every penny spent on them makes me happier than just about anything else in the world. I adore sharing memorable experiences with my grandchildren, and nothing is more pleasurable than time spent in their company. If you’re that kind of grandparent, by all means, read on because this is the book for you!
First, let me share a bit about my background, my experience, and why my advice is worth taking. I worked during college breaks as a tour guide and VIP hostess at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, from 1969 through 1972, experiences detailed in The Cream of the Crop: Tour Guide Tales from Disneyland’s Golden Years (Theme Park Press, 2016). My daughter, Liz, worked at Disneyland during the summer of 1996 piloting submarines in “the largest peacetime submarine fleet in the world,” according to Walt Disney. That’s where she met her future husband, Amos, who worked that summer in the far less glamorous job of attractions operator on It’s a Small World. Let’s just say her naval officer’s uniform rocked, while his…well, didn’t. After that, Liz worked the following summer, 1997, on the Skyway at Walt Disney World wearing adorable Lederhosen, which were still a lot more attractive than those faux gondolier costumes worn over on Small World. Sorry, Amos. Liz was also the College Program Representative on her university campus the following year. Between us, both as cast members and guests, we have logged countless thousands of hours in the Disney parks.
In addition, we’ve all traveled together on the Disney Magic cruise ship through the Bahamas in the Walter E. Disney suite, we’ve visited the Walt Disney World theme parks on many vacations at various times of the year, and we have stayed in a wide variety of accommodations, the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly. As former cast members and frequent guests, we’ve learned through personal experience how to ensure that our Disney family vacation takes care of every single member of the family in a way that makes the most of the trip. This is the inside story of how magic is made.
If you want to make your trip to Walt Disney World one that you and your family will look back on fondly for the rest of your lives, there are a couple of key things you need to understand about planning and managing your trip.
The first of these is time. Time is important when you have only a finite number of minutes to spend inside the gates to the 27,000 acres of what was formerly Florida swamp land but is now better known as “The Most Magical on Earth.” It can be that, yes, but it can also be the most overwhelming, exhausting, expensive, and confusing place on earth, especially if you don’t have some kind of workable plan in mind. That’s what I’m here to help you do—make a plan. The days when it was possible to bounce into one of the Disney parks, careen happily like a pin ball, and still manage to have a great time are long over. It’s okay to be nostalgic about the good old days, but, honey, they aren’t coming back.
The second important factor is money. I don’t care who you are or how much money you have, it will only take you so far if you can’t figure out how and where to spend it. I know of a couple in their sixties with virtually no financial limits at all. They flew down to Orlando in their private plane, stayed at the Grand Floridian, and had a perfectly miserable time. They had no idea what to do or how to do it. Everything was crowded. Surprise! They were not the only people who wanted to go to WDW. The entire experience was uncomfortable, unhappy, and extremely costly. Naturally, they never want to visit again.
You don’t want to throw your money around like Monopoly’s Mr. Moneybags, but you definitely will need to spend some money, some real money, to have a great time. When I first started working at Disneyland, it was possible to buy an admission ticket to the park for $3.50. Free entertainment, free attractions, and lots of free time meant a successful day was well within your grasp for very little financial outlay—but that was in 1969. Today, your Disney costs will have risen even faster than inflation, but it is still entirely possible to experience everything that every member of your party wants to without wasting those hard-earned financial resources. You just need to be smart about value and be prepared. Again, you need a plan.
If you think that by reading through the Disney-sponsored, Disney-generated literature and websites, you’ll be able to glean enough knowledge to do all of this on your own, think again. I will tell you the unvarnished truth about your options. Some attractions are amazing, some are better than others, and some aren’t very good at all. When you read only the Disney literature, you’ll be given the breathless impression that everything is equally wonderful, that all of what is available is “magical.” Believe me, it’s not. I’ll help you separate the wheat from the chaff at all four of the Walt Disney World theme parks. Soon, you’ll be able to handle the vacation trials and tribulations like a pro. Your grandchildren will wonder just how Grandma and Grandpa managed to become so savvy and where you got all those cool insider tips. Shhh—that will be our secret.
Let me take you, step by step, through the four major Disney parks—Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios—and we’ll make that perfect plan for an indulgent Walt Disney World vacation designed just for you and the people you love most. Don’t wait until your grandchildren are “old enough to remember it all.” None of us ever knows what the future holds. My beloved husband of thirty-eight years passed away in 2007. He isn’t able to enjoy any more Disney trips with us, but the ones we shared as a family are some of the most precious memories we have.
What are you waiting for? Pack your bags because you’re going to Disney World!
Andrea McGann Keech was born in southern California and visited Disneyland often, ever since it opened in 1955. She fulfilled a life-long dream of working at the park and became a bilingual tour guide and VIP hostess during college holidays from 1969 through 1972, experiences described in her first book The Cream of the Crop: Tour Guide Tales from Disneyland’s Golden Years (Theme Park Press, 2016).
She and husband Ron met at Occidental College in 1969 and were married in San Francisco in 1970. Ron graduated from the University of California at San Francisco Medical School, and Andrea finished college at the University of San Francisco. They lived in Portland, Oregon, for six years and then moved to Iowa City where he was a professor of medicine and surgeon in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Iowa for twenty-two years until his death in 2007.
Their children Elizabeth and Robert made them incredibly proud and very happy parents. Liz is an attorney, and Rob is a dentist.
Andrea taught students in English and Spanish in grades K-12 during teaching career. She was a member of the National Assessment of Educational Progress Committee that established Writing Standards, 2011–2018, for students in grades 1–12. She has written for a variety of national educational journals and presented often at teaching conferences, but the most fulfilling aspect of her work, by far, was seeing her students succeed.
Andrea lives in Iowa City with Shadow and Sunny, two wild and crazy standard poodles. Her most fulfilling role is that of playing Mary Poppins to beloved grandchildren Katherine and Drew.
Let the indulgence begin with the dream of every tiny princess-in-training: a makeover at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, in Cinderella Castle.
There is no greater joy in life for me than providing my grandchildren with happy times and fond memories. Many of you grandparents feel the same way, or you wouldn’t be reading this book. There’s something so satisfying, so gratifying about being sure the next generation gets the best of everything you can possibly provide for them. Often it is something we longed for as children but were not able to afford.
When I was little, I wanted to buy a hat, any hat, at Disneyland. I thought the cursive script writing that personalized the purchase was the apex of luxury. Finally, after five years of longing, I got a jaunty little pink felt cap with a tall, yellow ostrich feather that cost $1.25. It had "Andrea" written on the brim in bright yellow thread. I treasured it for years. My parents didn’t often spend money for extras like that, so it meant a lot. Be sure to generously cover as many of those “extra” expenses as you can for your grandchildren, but you and I know that sharing our time, attention, and love is more important than any purchase we could possibly make.
In Fantasyland, there is one very special opportunity for you to wave that magic wand of yours and make a little granddaughter’s fondest wish come true. She truly can become a princess, even if just for today. In Cinderella Castle, you’ll find a tucked-away spot called the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. This is something new to most of us. The concept certainly never existed when I was a child growing up in southern California and going to Disneyland, nor was it available when our daughter Liz was a little girl. You’ll be a bit overwhelmed by the experience, especially the first time you visit, but don’t be timid. Take the plunge!
Walking through the door, granddads and dads will immediately feel as though they’ve just jumped into in a tub brimful of estrogen. The BBB (Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, not Better Business Bureau) raises “feminine” to unimaginable heights. Many of those fathers and grandfathers walk around for a short while feeling puzzled, dazed, and more than a bit overwhelmed. That’s fine. They can take sons and grandsons off in search of more manly pursuits, maybe a warm cinnamon roll or a chocolate croissant and a cup of that sinfully addictive LeFou’s Winter Brrrew (no, seriously, that’s how it’s spelled), “rich and creamy hot cocoa with a hint of toasted marshmallow topped with whipped cream and crushed candy cane” over at Gaston’s Tavern nearby.
For grandmothers, daughters, and granddaughters, the boutique will be a thoroughly indulgent, decadent display of Disney drama at its best. Your granddaughter will be treated as if she actually were a princess from the time she registers until the time she waves a wrist-twisting, royal farewell.
Make your reservation well ahead of time to avoid disappointment. These time slots are secured over the phone. You should call six months in advance! Do this when you book your hotel suite so you don’t forget. Make a list, check it twice…and then check it yet again! Granddaughters must be between three and twelve. It’s not possible to drop off the future princess. Plan for thirty to sixty minutes, depending on which package you select. Some transformations take more time than others. A responsible adult must accompany her, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? You’ll want to share the experience and witness the entire magical experience yourself.
Daughter Liz advises booking a time in the morning at the boutique: “Even though times are available until early evening, definitely grab one of those coveted morning spots. They go fast! What little girl wants to get all dressed up with a fancy makeover and then go back to the hotel, take a bath, and go to bed?”
Very true. Part of the fun is walking all over the park dressed as a beautiful princess and creating a bit of a sensation among the other park-goers and little girls, little girls who will immediately want to become princesses, too. Sadly, their grandparents haven’t snapped up one of those coveted morning times six months in advance like you have.
First, she’ll need to select the perfect princess persona, the one she most wants to be. Over the years, Katherine has been transformed into Belle, Cinderella, Ariel, and Elsa. All of the many available costumes are displayed on racks in a shop adjacent to the boutique. Of course you can purchase them on your own without the boutique make-over, but if there’s any way to indulge in the entire experience, stretch the budget to do so. You won’t regret it!
Girls may take several different outfits and sizes into the lavishly appointed dressing rooms. There are also many kinds of shoes, accessories, hair ornaments, tiaras, and purses on offer—enough to make Ariel’s head swim. There are so many to choose from that it’s hard to narrow down the selection. Already, your granddaughter’s eyes will be dancing as she looks at the glittering finery displayed all around her. Grandmothers, pause just a moment to glance around you. Every little girl is looking at herself in the (vast amount of expansive) mirrors and grinning, every grammy is beaming proudly, every mommy is smiling tenderly, and every daddy or granddad is backing away rapidly toward the exit. This is a girl’s world, no doubt about it.
When your granddaughter emerges from the dressing room in her ball gown, or harem pants if she’s Jasmine, or fish tail in Ariel’s case, be prepared with tissues. You’ll be treated to a brief glimpse of the lovely young woman she will one day become. She’ll sit in a swivel chair before the wall of mirrors, holding a magic mirror in her hand to see every angle of her own emerging loveliness. If you want to see a happy little girl, you have only to step into the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique!
A personal “fairy godmother in training” will be assigned to your granddaughter. This attendant will be sure everything is taken care of exactly the way it should be. You can sit on comfy love seats, chairs, and poufs while the princess is pampered within an inch of her life. There is a chart displaying various hair styles. I’m not a big fan of the available hairpieces. They are too thin and skimpy to look realistic. The color won’t match, either. If her hair is long enough, get the bun. The style looks classic, good on everyone, and stays put all day. With the liberal application of hairspray, gel, and glitter, that bun could withstand a category 4 hurricane.
Continued in "The Indulgent Grandparent's Guide to Walt Disney World"!
Andrea knows where at least one body is buried in the Everglades, but her indulgent day with the grandkids in Disney's Animal Kingdom is blessedly free of casualties.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal may not be your cup of tea, or it may not make financial sense to buy spendy tickets to two Universal theme parks for just one day. You can quite easily spend two days of your vacation here in the Animal Kingdom. Something else you might consider is renting a car and driving down to see the Everglades, the wild River of Grass. This is old Florida, pre-Disney. We once took a dirt backroad near Seminole Indian territory and got ourselves lost. The Seminoles retreated deep into the Everglades to evade being forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. Big Cypress where many still live is about eighty-two square miles, or about twice the size of Walt Disney World. Our detour was a trip back in time, a look at a primordial world. We started counting alligators and stopped when we hit 200. They’d cruise right alongside our car in streams and lagoons. A pair of giant, dark river otters galumphed down the road in front of us. Cries of exotic waterfowl added background music to the hauntingly primitively scene. It was unforgettable.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever been to Orlando,” I’d sometimes ask my students. This topic would often come up as we were talking about John Goddard and his famous Life List, something my fellow teacher Meg and I would ask our eighth graders to write for themselves. Read his list if you want some inspiration! Once, I wrote John an email and he called us during class to say yes, hippos really were every bit as dangerous as he indicated in his memoir.
Lots of hands would go up in response to my question. The junior high kids were excited to share all the things they had seen and done at the Walt Disney World parks.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever visited the Everglades when you were in Orlando.”
I’d raise my hand. It would nearly always be the only one raised.
“Sometime, you really do need to ask your folks to take a few hours out of your vacation to go see it,” I’d say, and then I’d tell them about some of my family’s experiences and the things we saw.
I didn’t tell them about the large black car that pulled around us and stopped far ahead on the dirt road. The trunk popped open. Two men in dark suits got out. Ron bumped swiftly around them on the rutted dirt.
“Don’t look at them!” I ordered Liz and Rob. It felt more serious than the teenaged boys swatting at mosquitoes. They were probably just having an innocent picnic—wearing suits and ties in the summer. Alternatively, Iggy the Rat had double-crossed them and would now be sleeping with the fishes—and the gators. It was a tad disconcerting after seeing no other sign of human life for hours, so if you do go, stick to the main roads.
If you thought Epcot was big at 300 acres, you just haven’t seen anything, yet! The Animal Kingdom is 500 acres, which makes it the second largest theme park in the world. It opened on Earth Day, April 22, 1998, and is the fourth of the four big Disney parks built here in Orlando. Its theme is even more tangled than Epcot’s, but your grandkids will love it anyway.
Our son Rob visited shortly after the park opened while attending forensics camp (the speech kind, not the dissecting kind) in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. It had much less to offer shortly after it opened and was not nearly as fabulous as it is now. Back then, it was something of a disappointment for the teens at camp. They had more fun riding the roller coasters at Universal, which is why I think of Universal as the teens-gone-wild park. Animal Kingdom has been expanded and updated several times over since opening. If you go now, you won’t be disappointed—far from it! It’s one of the nicest ways to introduce your grandchildren to the idea of animal and habitat conservation you could ask for. The family can easily spend two days here.
From your hotel, you’ll take the bus over to Disney’s Animal Kingdom this morning. My suggestion for breakfast is Tusker House. Tusker is the nickname for a large bull elephant. It’s a character breakfast where all the Disney gang wear safari garb. Donald, Mickey, Goofy, and others will be here. Walk through the main gate and stay on the path to the left. You will pass by some animal viewing areas on the way, and it’s okay to pause, but don’t linger. Your reservations should be as early as you can possibly make them! Not only can you book six months ahead, you must. I’ll explain why shortly. As you give the hostess at Tuskers your name, there’s a chance for the grandchildren to pose for a picture with Safari Donald Duck or another one of the costumed characters before you go inside the restaurant.
This is a big space. Don’t be concerned about the location of your table. Every one of the characters will come over to personally meet, greet, pose with, and sign autographs for your grandchildren. The wait staff and hosts or hostesses will be sure to monitor their progress so that every table is visited by every one of the characters. There is also a chance for the grandkids to dance and march along in a parade with them that snakes through the restaurant and among the tables, similar to what happened earlier in the week at your ’Ohana breakfast at the Polynesian.
The breakfast here is, yet again, spectacular. Mickey waffles, of course, but every kind of breakfast item you can dream up also makes an appearance in the expansive, help-yourself buffet area in the center of this facility. There are more than fifty items to choose from. I skipped the “mealie pap.” Be sure the kids eat plenty of fresh fruit here to balance out all the rest of the treats because it’s beautifully prepared and delicious. Adults may enjoy a flaky croissant or a slice of lemon-poppyseed bread with the excellent coffee. It’s a relaxing, delightful experience from the time you check in until you and your family finally depart, satisfied and happy.
Here’s the reason you need to be out of Tusker and on your way over to Kilimanjaro Safaris as soon as you can. The first safari departs about 9:00 AM. Try to be on it. The animals are most active and awake early in the morning, so you must be, too, if you hope to glimpse any of them moving around instead of dozing in the shade. On a winter weekday morning, the wait time without a FastPass can be about 60 to 90 minutes, so you absolutely need to use a FastPass here. Make the earliest available Tusker reservation six months before your trip, allow an hour or so for the character breakfast and ten minutes to walk over to Kilimanjaro, and then schedule your safari FastPass sixty days before you arrive. It is located at the very back of the park on the left. This will be a highlight of your day.
Continued in "The Indulgent Grandparent's Guide to Walt Disney World"!