A family visit to Walt Disney World can be a time of magical memories, childhood dreams come true and a return to the sweet innocence of beloved characters — or it can be a vacation nightmare. The difference between the two comes down to planning, timing and research.

No, WDW isn’t just any theme park. It’s an enormous, nearly 40-square-mile world in the central Florida. Dropping in for a visit without knowing what to expect in advance is a recipe for disaster. Think the trip is in your family’s future? Start planning now.

Beth McMeekin is a travel agent and mom of four who specializes in Walt Disney World travel. Her family has visited the resort at least once a year since 2002 and she and her husband spent their honeymoon there in 1996.

“People think it’s Six Flags or Carowinds and it’s a whole different beast,” she said.

But it can be the good kind — as in “Beauty and the Beast” — if you do it right.

“You need to have a plan,” McMeekin said. “You need to have someone who knows what they are doing help you navigate the park. The reason I wanted to do this job is because I’ve seen moms and dads melting down in the middle of Main Street (in Magic Kingdom) and the kids aren’t having a good time. I want people to love it as much as I do. It’s supposed to be the most magical place on earth and it can be.”

McMeekin suggests that first-time WDW visitors use a planner (her services at are paid through commission and are free to users) or use a thorough guidebook. She said booking the hotel and tickets at least seven months in advance is a good idea because dining reservations can be made six months in advance. Many character meals and popular dining locations will fill almost immediately when the six-month window opens.

Treat this vacation like a magical adventure, creating an advance plan but allowing margin for unexpected joys or bumps in the road. It can become a place of treasured family memories, just like those McMeekin and her family enjoy.

“We are all just big, goofy kids,” she said. “Even now, our kids still ask to go. There’s just a sense of community there with people who love it — a niceness that permeates it. You always have a smile on your face. Honestly, I walk through the tunnel at Magic Kingdom and I just feel like everything is in balance.”

Know before you go

Plan, plan and plan some more. Start by visiting Walt Disney World’s official site at Explore park maps, hours, videos and more of Walt Disney World’s four theme parks.

Download the My Disney Experience mobile app available in the App Store or Google Play.

Walt Disney World resorts guests have Extra Magic Hours — access to parks one hour prior to scheduled park opening or for up to three hours after park closing. The park varies from day to day. This is one of several benefits of staying at an on-site resort. And staying at a WDW resort means the magic continues after leaving the park. Each resort is meticulously themed. Watch for discounts at slower times of the year and special promotions, such as free dining, that can make the hotels a more affordable option.

Schedule reservations for character meals and other dining, but leave some wiggle room in the day. Be sure to plan ahead for Fastpass+ access to attractions that have longer wait times. Fastpass+ allows guests to secure an access time for up three attractions per day. This can be done online or on the mobile app in advance of the trip.

Check schedules for shows, fireworks and more online in advance and pick up a times guide along with a park map at each park’s entrance.

Adding a Park Hopper option to your WDW tickets, allows you to move to more than one park on the same day — a lifesaver if a park is crowded or you are simply ready for a change of scenery.

All four parks have baby care centers that offer a place to feed and change baby, including private nursing rooms with rocking chairs, kitchens with microwaves and a feeding area with high chairs.

Check out details, including menus, hotel reviews and more online at and

Guidebook options are almost endless. Try “PassPorter’s Walt Disney World” (, “The Complete Walt Disney World 2017” by Julie Neal, Birnbaum’s “2017 Walt Disney World: The Official Guide” and “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2017” by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa.

What’s new?

• Magic Kingdom

A New Way to Start the Day is a welcome show at Cinderella’s Castle.

Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire, presented several times each day at the castle’s stage, features Tiana, Rapunzel, Anna, Elsa and more.

Happily Ever After, a new nighttime spectacular, features fireworks, an original score, special effects and more.

• Animal Kingdom

Disney’s newest blockbuster land, Pandora — The World of Avatar, is now open. Attractions include Avatar Flight of Passage, allowing guests to soar on a Banshee over an alien world, and Na’vi River Journey, a family-friendly trip through a bioluminescent rainforest.

This park, which has always closed in the early evening, now has nighttime hours and events.

• Hollywood Studios

Star Wars experiences abound, including Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple, Star Tours and Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular, featuring fireworks and special effects.

• Epcot

Frozen Ever After is a boat journey through the frozen willow forest, past Troll Valley and up to the North Mountain to Elsa’s ice palace.

Royal Summerhaus offers a chance to meet Elsa and Anna.

Disney’s Soarin’ attraction has been updated as Soarin’ Around the World, offering a multisensory, global travel experience.

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