Standing watching the fireworks explode over the Disney castle I had delicious shivers down my spine as I pulled my children close. I was hyper aware that this was a huge memory in the making. I breathed in the moment, willing it to last longer, wanting to pause the moment as the flashes of colour lit up their mesmerised faces. This is what Disneyworld is all about.
There is something about holidaying in the US that makes it unlike any other experience. Perhaps it is the distance, the fact that we grew up watching movies based here, or simply just the real American pancakes - but a visit to Disneyworld in Orlando is up there on the bucket list, especially if you have children.
It is billed as the most magical place on earth having visited over the course of five days, exploring all Disney had to offer to our 8, 6 and 4-year-old, we tend to agree.
1. No child is too big for a buggy at Disneyworld. Hell, if there were adult versions, we would have signed up. The distance walked over the course of the holiday meant we burnt off all the pancakes, ice-creams and pretzels along the way. My FitBit recorded a massive 25k steps one of the days. It meant that bringing well worn out shoes is a must and that everyone slept like a dream at night.
2. The jetlag only exists if you let it. It took us nine hours to get from Dublin to Orlando (direct) which meant we arrived in Florida at about 8pm local time. The children we excited and exhausted - a lethal combination that could have dragged on for days. Instead, we kept the room dark and during any 3am disturbances we gently insisted they go back to bed and 'just lie there.' It meant that we quickly adapted to US time and because we were all up and ready to hit the Magic Kingdom at rope drop (opening time). On the way home, it was an overnight flight so we were really mean and banned the video games and food (SO mean) but it meant all three children slept the whole way home and woke up refreshed in Dublin, jet-lag free. Me, not so much.
3. The fast-pass tickets are worth the extra money. It is often the difference between queueing for a ride for two and a half hours or two and a half minutes. We went during off-peak time in February which meant it wasn't overrun with tourists and the heat was manageable (23 degrees) but one of the days we got a flavour of the crowds and it isn't pretty.
4. The amount of adults without children wearing full Mickey-Mouse gear is astonishing. We picked up a few bits in Penny's before we went but ice-creams in the shape of the mouse were inevitable every day ($5 a pop)
5. There is something for everyone at Disney. We found the Magic Kingdom (where the famous castle is located) was good for our kids age group. Splash Mountain there is great fun and much of it is unchanged from when I visited as a child. As a result, the experience was hugely nostalgic for me and seeing my children enjoy the same experiences (It's A Small World and Dumbo ride) was just lovely.
The light show and fireworks display at the castle is unmissable and surprisingly emotional. Prepare to be dazzled. The Animal Kingdom is a vast area with some of the most stunning scenery out of all the Disney resorts in Orlando. Pandora (from the film Avatar) is truly breath-taking and the 'Flight of Passage' ride is the closest feeling you will ever get to flying. The Lion King spectacular show in the African-based zone also stands out for its fabulous production quality and singing. Dinoland was also a huge hit with our-age children.
6. Hollywood Studios is great for little movie fans. The new addition of Toy Story Land has now made it more attractive to younger visitors and the Slinky-dog roller-coaster was one of the highlights of our trip (even for our brave four-year-old) My husband loved the Star Wars parades and our kids all got the opportunity to train as little Jedis and even fight Darth Vader. (Make sure you sign up at the start of the day for this over near the Indiana Jones show area).
The Indiana Jones live show is a great way for children to understand what happens behind the scenes and is very entertaining. The other live show that you cannot miss is the Frozen show (also at Hollywood studios) in which Elsa and Anna appear to the delight of all the children. The narrators are witty and many of the jokes go over the kid's heads but keep the adults amused. At the end of the show, it even snows indoors in the theatre which is simply magical.
7. The food choices are huge. Snacks are what you would expect in any theme park - ice-cream, popcorn etc. We usually had a big breakfast before we hit the parks. The exception is Disney Springs which is a shopping and restaurant zone with Rainforest Cafe and our favourite restaurant, The Boathouse (if you come to Disney you have to visit here) There are also really handy water fountains everywhere to fill up your water bottles.
8. The entire experience is designed to create a magical atmosphere and it is infectious. Everyone is in great form, the kids are in their element and despite the tired legs and 12 hour days, there is something around every corner to drop your child's (and your) jaw. Truly wonderful.
9. We ALL had fun. Initially, we felt that this trip was for the kids but the amount of fun the grown-ups in our party enjoyed was unexpected. The thrill of the rides, the day's agenda just to have fun was a welcome departure from the usual grind of life at home. Of course, that's what holidays are about but that other-worldly feeling is hard to capture. Happily, Disney has. This is a trip everyone should put on their bucket-list - kids or no kids.
10. The measure of any holiday is whether or not you would return. We felt that although we had 'done' Disney (a phrase I usually hate) there was plenty we either wanted to experience again or hadn't time to indulge. From Safari rides to Jedi training, under the sea with Ariel and Space Mountain - this is more of a family adventure than a holiday. We'll be back for sure.