The Top 9 Tips/Observations of a Disney First-Timer

Cinderella's castle with the Johnsons

This was our first of many selfies of the week. Had to do it… (My head isn’t this big in real life, by the way. It’s Holly’s camera’s fault.)

On Feb. 21, 2016, my family embarked on an earth-shattering, mind-bending, week-long, first-time-ever vacation at the Happiest Place on Earth: Disney World. It is now about a week and a half since we returned, and I’m writing the blog that I promised myself I would write. It has taken me this long to wrap my head around everything.

Kind of.

First, a little bit of context. Our kids are 15 (Sam), 14 (Ava), and 8 (Pete). In the entire history of Us, we had been, prior to Disney, to these places on “vacation”:

  1. 2010: Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, for two days. It was fun, but the park felt a little worn out and, frankly, a lot like 1987. Plus, Pete had The Runs, our hotel room was one step above a Motel 6, and the people in the room above us apparently decided to conduct a Riverdance competition at 1 a.m.
  2. 2011: Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, Tenn., for about a week. We shared a cabin with around 10 other family members. Again, fun and memorable, but more of a family reunion than a family vacation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
  3. 2012: Chattanooga, Tenn., for two days. We went to Rock City, which was cool but slightly bizarre. You can see, like, 37 other states from up there and Travelocity gnomes are hiding behind rocks. It also felt like 1987, incidentally.
  4. AND, 2012: Murfreesboro, Tenn. We rounded out the other four days of the Chattanooga vacation with a STAY-cation. Have you heard of this trend? We stayed at home. On vacation.

Don’t get me wrong. We’ve been blessed to go to those places, no doubt, but these trips have never been EPIC. Since Sam and Ava were toddlers, we’ve been making grandiose, sweeping promises about taking them to Disney. At some point, we realized we were being fools (no money, no time) and stopped, but Sam kept reminding us, year after year. In fact, he perfected his very advanced grasp of sarcasm, I’m convinced, entirely through his Disney interrogations. “So, is THIS the year we [using finger quotes] GO TO DISNEY?” he would ask after the ball would drop on New Year’s Eve.  I would respond by mumbling something about my work schedule before slithering out of the room with my plastic wine glass of sparkling cider.

So, in around October 2014, Holly and I decided enough was enough. Our AdvoCare business was beginning to gather steam, so we decided to sink all of our earnings for the next year into a savings account, take the leap by making a deposit, and make it happen. We did and it did. Best of all, we blew the cynical minds of our children by loading them in the pickup truck under the guise of heading to church one Sunday morning only to reveal that our destination was substantially farther away and more fun. (Even God would have to admit that Disney World is a little more fun than church, if He’s being honest.) A video of The Reveal is at the end of this blog.

ANYway, here are, in no particular order except for No. 1, my Top 9 Tips/Observations of a Disney First-Timer:

9. The fun starts with the MagicBands. Have you seen these things? They look like a Fitbit with Mickey’s head. Disney sent them to us about a month before our trip and, shockingly, Pete brought the box in with the rest of the mail. When I realized what was contained within that box sitting on the kitchen table with the kids standing all around, I grabbed it and skulked away upstairs like the construction worker who finds the box containing the Looney Tunes singing frog. The surprise was almost blown right then.

Each of the five bands was a different color and had our names printed on the back, which is crazy. In function, they are nearly miraculous. They get you into the park, onto rides, into restaurants and illicit speakeasys (kidding), and into huge debt by the end of the week because you can buy Disney merchandise with them and it’s fun. I tried using mine to perform a Jedi Mind Trick on somebody, but that didn’t work.

8. The food is great, but who cares? Seriously, when you eat at one of the nicer park restaurants, the food is secondary. They could serve you cow chips and snot beans and you wouldn’t notice because the environment is so cool. We ate lunch one day at “Be Our Guest,” a Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant at Magic Kingdom, and I had to convince myself that I wasn’t actually having a turkey-and-cheddar melt in the Beast’s castle. (I don’t recall Belle eating that in the movie, though.)


This was at a cool restaurant at Epcot. Mickey snuck up behind us. Pluto was pissed when he saw the picture later.

7.  Wait until your kids are old enough. First of all, I didn’t know that many strollers existed in the entire galaxy. Could there be any more? But this begs the questions: why are so many parents (well-meaning, no doubt) paying huge sums of money to stroll their TINY NEW-BORN BABIES around the Magic Kingdom? For the purposes of that child’s memory, the city park or even Home Depot would be equally effective, not to mention free. People, unless you’ve got more money than you know what to do with, for goodness sakes, wait until your child is OLD ENOUGH to remember being photobombed by Mickey (see image), freaked out by the Haunted Mansion singing heads, or enchanted by the castle fireworks. Otherwise, wasted opportunity.

(A point of clarification about this tip: I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who has never been able to go to Disney until now — and who knows when we can go back — so I wanted to be sure that my kids have these memories cemented into their brains. If you’re blessed with the resources to go several times, then by all means, take your baby! There’s no bad age for Disney. But if it’s a one-shot deal, I’d consider waiting until your child is a little older.)

6. No matter what you have to do, obtain FAST PASSES. The Fast Pass is Disney’s version of flying First Class. It’s awesome, because you get to act very superior and smug as you tap your MagicBand against that other Mickey thingy (at the entrance) that turns green and allows you stroll past the hordes of peasants…I mean, people decomposing in the Stand-by line to advance to the front of the queue, which in some cases, is roughly the length of the Nile River. Sell your blood, rent out your dog, do whatever you have to do to make the money, but GET FAST PASSES. This is non-negotiable. (Update: A reader very astutely pointed out that Fast Passes are, in fact, free. Since I’m obviously not a Disney professional, I won’t dispute this. I know that we got three of them free each day with our tickets, but I’m not sure how it works for people who just show up as opposed to those staying in Disney resorts. All I know is, I would’ve hated to have been without them.)

5. Stay at a Disney resort. There are myriad reasons to do this, but one of the best is the fact that you get free transportation to and from the parks. This is like another version of the Fast Pass, but in transportation form. You get to be smug as your bus breezes past the poor sots who are actually DRIVING THEMSELVES into the parks and drops you off at the entrance like a movie star. (Along with 35 other movie stars on your bus.)

4. Your feet think you’re on the Bataan Death March. Do this: About six weeks prior to your vacation, purchase the most expensive pair of walking shoes you can afford and start walking several miles per day. By the end of the second day of your vacation, your feet will thank you eternally. You think I’m kidding, but Disney requires training, much like the Tough Mudder. In fact, standing in the Pirates of the Caribbean line should be a Tough Mudder obstacle, I think.

3. “Expedition Everest” rocks. This roller coaster, located at Animal Kingdom, is the coolest thing ever. Not only does the waiting line take you through a fascinating replication of a Katmandu out building, but Yeti himself (white Bigfoot, not a cooler) makes an appearance during the ride, “destroys” the track, and forces the train to go backwards. (I tried to get a photo of the Yeti, but it all happened so fast…) The Everest roller coaster was my favorite ride not counting the Haunted Mansion, because everybody knows that the Haunted Mansion is the greatest ride ever.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

Pete: “Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be…”

2. On a personal note, my son, Pete, becomes a fainting goat on a roller coaster. It’s true! You never know how kids will react to a scary ride. Pete surprised us all by simply shutting down all systems and playing dead as a defense mechanism. Or maybe he was just deep in prayer. Remember that kid in all your yearbook pictures that appears to be sleeping in every shot because he kept blinking at the wrong time? This is Pete is every roller coaster picture. (But if you look closely, you’ll notice his hands, white-knuckled, gripping the safety bar like a bald eagle clinging to a lake trout.)

And my No. 1 Tip/Observation of a Disney First-Timer…

1. Disney IS all it’s cut out to be. Until two weeks ago, I hadn’t actually used the word “magical” in a sentence since I was 7, but it’s undeniable: Disney World IS magical. Like, seriously. The Disney staff practices the Dark Arts, like Gandalf or Voldemort, and crazy things happen.

So, I don’t know what life has in store for us from here on out, but Holly and I can rest easy with the knowledge that we implanted these amazing, epic memories into the impressionable brains of our children. Sure, there are a zillion people there at all times, many of whom are rolling baby strollers over your aching toes. Sure, you’ll have to wait in line for stuff and some of it is cheesy and you were never really into Mickey Mouse. But that’s OK because you made it. You reached the American Vacation Promised Land in your version of the Family Truckster and the park was open.

Clark Griswold weeps tears of joy for you.

Watch this video to witness our “reveal” and a few other things.

More updates! After posting my original video (above), several national news sources somehow got ahold of it. So far, it’s been featured on Inside Edition and a very cool show called Right This Minute. Here is the Right This Minute take on our story…

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16 Responses to “The Top 9 Tips/Observations of a Disney First-Timer”

  1. You guys are awesome! And Petes comment about the boro just cracked me up! And yes I think you hit the nail on the head in your list. We went years ago, when the kids were smaller but not babies, (agree with your comment), and it was truly a once in a lifetime trip. Hope to take the grandkids maybe next year, bravo to you and holly!!

  2. janevere58 says:

    Awesome, Mark. Totally priceless! And slick. I need your slick skills! I feel like Napoleon Dynamite next to you!

  3. Kathy Helmers says:

    That video is a family classic in EVERY sense of the phrase. Well done, Mark and Holly!! You are awesome parents with awesome kids!!

  4. Uncle Buck says:

    Walt Disney truly invented “Magic”

  5. K says:

    “Sell your blood, rent out your dog, do whatever you have to do to make the money, but GET FAST PASSES. This is non-negotiable.”

    But…FastPasses are free.

  6. I’m glad you had fun! You’re right in that you never know what your kids will do while you’re there. It’s always a mystery!

    About that tip 7 though… I used to be of that mind, asking myself why would one bring an infant to Disney… Then I realized why when we brought our two-year-old. They won’t remember it all, but I will. My son will insist to this day we never did Haunted Mansion on his first trip to Disney because he doesn’t remember it. I, on the other hand, remember very clearly a two year old whispering in my ear “But where’s the bathroom? It can’t be a house with no bathroom!”

  7. Michelle Geoffrion says:

    What a great video! Glad that you and your family had the chance to experience Disney. Since my husband and I meet a little over 12 years ago we have gone almost every year. He has gone many other times while growing up with his siblings. Now that we have 2 young children we love to share the “magic” of Disney with them. There is just something about just driving up to those front gates to Disney that gets us so excited. Just reading your blog about your trip brought back so many memories of past trips. Thank you for sharing and I hope you get to visit again.

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Michelle, what a great comment! I’m unabashedly envious of people like yourself who can go often. Now that Holly and I know what we’re missing, we will definitely find a way to go again.

  8. CD says:

    This is awesome!!! I’m so glad your family got to have this experience. As a 34 year old who has been to Disney World more times than I can count this reminds me to be thankful for the sacrifices my parents made when my brothers and I were kids to take us there numerous times. I hope you all get to go again because the “magic” never gets old!!

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