There was much anticipation for our Orlando trip.
It was the first time, really, that both children knew what to expect from Disney World, which was, to be honest are sole and only reason for the Florida visit - WE LOVE DISNEY.
They/We are very lucky to have visited a Disney Park every year since our eldest was just one, have visited Paris twice and this would be both children’s second visit to Orlando.
A great deal had happened already this year and the Disney trip was held as a shining beacon at the end of it for both bigs and littles to focus on.
We had also made the decision that this would mark the start of our full-time travelling lifestyle.
One thing that was changing this year, compared to our previous time spent in Florida, was that we were on a budget. I ( Matthew) was particularly reluctant not to spend the same amount we did last time.
Last time we went "Full Disney" - I'm talking Animal Kingdom Lodge and full meal plan (plus the hundreds of snacks), for 2 weeks; we even, during our road trip from Texas, got the kids Mickey and Minnie Car seats, and Emma had a matching Tee for each family member every day of the holiday.
How Expensive is Disney I hear you say?
Let's say it was expensive - super expensive - (I'm talking 4 zeros before the merch) and not that we didn't have a magical time, I just couldn't condone spending the same money again.
Staying on site comes with some nice perks of course; themed, beautiful rooms, in our case overlooking Zebras and Antelope and Giraffe, with daily hotel events and experiences.
Booking fast passes, 60 days in advanced (rather than the standard 30 days) which is more necessary than you would think.
Free travel to and from the parks, so you don't need to worry about where you are going.
And then there’s the food. We had a rare meal that wasn't accompanied by a Disney Character but in the most part our dining reservations almost always centered around an awkward family photo mid meal with a familiar colourful mascot.
But for all the money it costs it can never be perfect - you spend very little time in the room, so in some ways it is a bit of a waste.
Having 60 days to book fast passes doesn't help if you do not have a good knowledge of the geography of the parks, and although convenient, the buses, as with everything at Disney are rammed.
When leaving at night we always found ourselves standing for the 20-minute journey whilst holding a sleeping child each.
And although the kids beamed with excitement at every mealtime, they were not fans of the long queue just to take a seat at a table booked 2 months in advance.
Not doing a Disney package saved us over £3,000. (based on our last trip)
So, this time round, we stayed off site, at an Airbnb 30 - 40 minutes away, we hired a car, made packed lunches, ate 2 meals a day outside of the park, and purchased zero merchandise.
We set out to save some money, but in the end, it became a bit of an experiment on how cheaply we could possibly do Disney.
We did however allow ourselves a few treats - we booked one-character dining meal and each day we tried one or two iconic snacks from the park we were in.
It wasn't just about the money either.
Through our own naivety (and possibly the presence of two children under 3) the last visit to Disney World, was pretty stressful.
We didn't know the parks well, and when booking the fast passes back in blighty; we had gone in guns blazing, bewildered by the Disney magic in our eyes and without much thought on the location of said fast passes.
In real terms what this meant at the park, was a stressful race against time to get from one corner of the (pretty vast) park, to the other, then realizing we had to now march our way back for our lunch booking - or worse leave the park entirely because the restaurant we had booked was at a hotel instead.
This time round we aimed to save money, and our sanity (did I mention how much we love Disney?!)
So, we came up with a plan.
Firstly, this time round we were staying in Orlando for 3 weeks but still booked just 2 weeks of Disney tickets, we figured that was enough time to do everything. So, on arriving Sunday we decided Tuesday would be our first day at a park.
This way we allowed ourselves a couple of days acclimatizing, for both time and heat, and we would encounter fewer weekends than if we made are first day the Sunday (I know this sounds obvious)
We planned to spend 2 consecutive days at each park, going in early the first day and leaving late afternoon (for dinner) and going in at midday (after lunch) the following day and staying late.
This way we ticked off most things in the first day and by the second we knew the lie of the land and the best form of attack.
I know this sounds like a military assault rather than a holiday, but honestly, it's necessary, without it we would get very little of the parks done.
Of course, with 2 weeks of tickets and 4 parks this does still leave a few days at the end to approach on a far more leisurely basis.
We also planned to avoid the parks on the weekends, in place maybe for the waterpark instead or just time round the pool at our accommodation.
Good time to talk about our accommodation.
So, we are big fans of using Airbnb or Homestays such like. In my opinion I would prefer a standard apartment rental over the most luxurious hotel room any day (with the kids in toe that is)
The cheap hotel options in Orlando also leave a lot to be desired.
So, when we came across a new Airbnb listing, within 30 minutes of Disney, with Kitchen, pool, gym, bar, games room and rural walks at the same price as the nasty motels; we jumped on it.
We did some preliminary research. It was a shared space with the host, an older couple whose daughter managed their account. We would be provided our own private bathroom, use of the kitchen and fridge-freezer and have a cooked breakfast each morning.
But it was only once booked that we thought to look up the park on which the property sat and of which the amenities it boasted.
Turned out it was a retirement village for over 55s, and as we thought, when we arrived, we were told we were family to our hosts - both as a welcome and a warning (not the first time we have had to do this actually)
This wasn't a bother to us and as said, quite expected. What wasn't expected was quite how much we had lucked out - minus a little awkwardness at first getting to know the boundaries in someone else’s home - we were treated like family, with the most amazing breakfast every morning and our children being spoiled with gifts and kindness from our host.
Being 30 - 40 minutes from international drive also meant things were a lot quieter, we were right by a beautiful lake with surrounding bars, where we could get cheap food and drink along with live music, and turns out the poolside and gym of a retirement village are rarely used - yet amazingly maintained.
Quite honestly, we fell on our feet, and it may be rare, but it just shows that good things sometimes happen when you trust your gut about a place (and ask lots of questions)
In the most part it was a success.
We had an amazing time.
It was our first experience of the Toy Story Zone which was still being built when we were there last, but which our daughter particularly was looking forward to and was smiling ear to ear for Slinky Dog Dash - but not so on the ride it self which turned out to be a pretty gnarly roller coaster (she was happy to go again)
Galaxy's edge, the new Star Wars area also looks like it's going to be great - with the only ride thus far (Smugglers run) being one of our favorites.
And currently in Animal Kingdom, Wilderness Explorers are stationed throughout the park to dispense animal knowledge (and badges) to your own little explorers who care to listen.
The thing we love about Disney is the thrill and enjoyment it gives all of us, in a package that is very familiar and satisfying.
We know we can walk into the park, and have an enjoyable and exciting day, with or without the rides.
My daughter, who at 3 years old and just touching 102cm, was challenged by some big rides like Splash and Thunder Mountain and Tower of Terror; yet I think because of the way Disney packages these, she was happy to go on and go round again for another turn (even if the ride photos showed fear in her eyes!)
I saw her revel in self-pride each time I congratulated her on how brave she had been.
The shows are where my son is at, trying his best to play a starring role wherever possible, having the confidence to step forward as a volunteer, the understanding to follow the instructions given and flare to give it is his all.
So which Disney trip was most enjoyable?
There are some down sides to saving the money in the way that we did.
Staying off site and with just me on the car rental, meant driving in each day did start to get tiring; on the plus side, the kids were almost always asleep and just needed carrying to bed.
On a busy day it would have been nice to retreat to a slightly less hectic restaurant out of the heat and where the kids where still entertained by the Disney theme
Quite honestly, I enjoyed both, and I couldn't say that this way was better because we saved some money.
After we chose to leave for the rest of our travels, directly from America, we were thankful to have made the decision to save that money, but only because it's what’s right for us now.
For all that I have said, you may be surprised that I think Disney in general is pretty good value for money - honestly!
Whether we choose to stay on site in the future or do the same as we did this time, I know we will have a fantastic time, I also know that we will get far more from the experience than we would at another theme park - which in any cost comparison wont fare much better.
I guess you either love Disney or you don't - and WE LOVE DISNEY!