Disney made easy: advice from a mom

All right, mothers. Here's a fellow mom's secret recipe for a successful romp through Disney World with kids: a good guidebook, granola bars - and guts.

The prime area of attack is the Magic Kingdom theme park, home to Cinderella, Mickey, $2.50 hot dogs, and long lines. Your mission: to have a lifetime's worth of fun with as little hassle, whining, and griping as possible (includes dads, too).

But before you go, obtain an "unofficial" guidebook to Walt Disney World. I liked a pocket-sized one called "Mini Mickey, 1999," by Bob Sehlinger (Macmillan). As you read, you may feel overwhelmed by the vastness and complexity of "DW." But the book offers candid advice on where to stay, strategies for seeing the best attractions, how to avoid lines, and costs involved.

If you need accommodations, you'll have to decide whether to stay on Disney property or off site. We tried both.

Hotels "in the World" are generally more expensive (ranging from about $90 to more than $500 a night), but you get fast and free transportation to all the attractions - plus an upscale and fun atmosphere. Off property, we stayed at a Days Inn for $59 a night with two bedrooms and an eat-in kitchen. It was bare-bones and next to a noisy highway. Though my husband, daughter, and I were only five miles from the Magic Kingdom, it took us 50 minutes to drive there, park, and ride the monorail to the entrance. Not worth it!

When you head out, bring a waist purse or fanny pack for each family member. For kids, it can hold an ID card, and autograph books and pens for when they catch up with Mickey. Besides a camera and sun block, I stuffed mine with granola bars, crackers, and moist towlettes. Technically, no outside food is allowed, but I found such snacks were vital for keeping our daughter's spirits up during long waits.

One thing not to be missed is a "character meal." Held at Disney restaurants, it allows kids to spend quality time with Mickey, Chip and Dale, or Cinderella. We recommend the all-you-can-eat breakfast at Chef Mickey's restaurant in the Contemporary Resort. (About $15 per adult, $8 per child.) It was a major highlight for our daughter. (Where else could she juggle oranges with Goofy and dance with Minnie?)

Think carefully, too, about how much your child will appreciate the Disney experience. For the five-and-under set, the crowds, strong sun, and over-stimulation can cause major "meltdowns." Given the costs, is it worth it? Opinions vary, as do the courage levels of parents. I gazed in amazement and pity at one couple with two-year-old twins, a four-year-old in another stroller, and a babe in arms to boot. All four kids were slumped over asleep.

Another couple said they had a great time with their three-year-old on some of the tamer rides. They said age 3 was the perfect time "to meet Mickey." For us, our almost-seven-year-old was still young enough to be charmed by the characters but old enough to keep pace with us. She even surprised herself at being tall enough to ride a roller coaster called "Big Thunder Mountain Railroad" - and loved every body-bucking minute. Now there's guts.

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