Walt Disney World is arguably the ultimate destination for a big family holiday; the magic of the parks touches young and old alike. During the summer of 2016, my extended family of 19 made the journey to the Most Magical Place on Earth to celebrate my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary, so I can safely say that I have experienced a Disney vacation in a large group and lived to tell the tale. Our party consisted of 8 adults, 4 teens and 7 children aged between 4 and 11, so we were a wide mix of ages. Just imagine that family you see every trip with matching t-shirts, but without the matching t-shirts.
For the designated planners out there who have been given the highly prestigious and important responsibility of organizing your big group Disney vacation, I'm going to offer my top survival tips to ensure you all come home as happy as you left.
Spoiler alert: We all still speak to each other.
Survival Tip #1 - Know that you won't be able to do absolutely everything together
This is the holy grail of big group Disney vacations, the pièce de résistance, the golden key to unlock happiness. Yes, the whole point of the trip is to spend time together but honestly, it will be difficult for you to get anything done when you're adventuring around the busy parks in a large group. I can guarantee that you wouldn't make it to the end of Main Street, U.S.A. without someone getting distracted by shiny Mickey ears in the Emporium and wandering off. There's always going to be someone who wants to stop for ice cream, stop for the restrooms, stop to apply sun cream — it's non-stop stopping!
Instead of aimlessly wandering around en masse not hitting any attractions, it's better to split off into manageable group sizes for a more relaxed and enjoyable time, then meet up with others for certain FastPasses and dining reservations. With such a broad range of ages, there's always going to be someone who doesn't want to ride the thrill attractions and opt for the slower rides and vice versa, so this is the way to appease everyone.
This isn't to say that you can't all get together at any point throughout the vacation — which I'll talk about in Tip#2 — but my suggestion is to select a park each day that everyone goes to, that way you can easily meet up with others. If you're not relying on Disney transportation, make sure you have access to multiple cars so that early risers can do rope drop and night owls can stay all the way to park close.
Survival Tip #2 - Select a few things in advance that you definitely want to do all together
I'm going to predict that you will reject and abandon Survival Tip #1 at some point. Don't worry, we all do it, there is no shame in this; of course there's going to be a few things you want to do as one big group. I've split this tip into three sections, so here's how you go about it:
Despite splitting up for the majority of our vacation, we actually started our first morning all doing the same thing and it worked well. The reason why this was a success was because we had pre-booked FastPasses, meaning we had a set plan — there was no group huddles/discussions/arguments with no one making decisions. We avoided such situations and spent a whopping 3 to 4 hours together. Plus, it was super cool filling up the entire train on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train with the bonus of knowing every single person in the ride video!
"How do you book the same FastPasses for all 19 people?" I hear you ask. Well, my advice is to split the party into smaller groups of 4 or 5 and try to get time slots that overlap. For those who don't know, you get 60 minutes to use your FP+, for instance a 10:00 FP+ will last until 11:00. So if your party has a 9:00, 9:10 and 9:30 FP+ for Splash Mountain, if everyone uses their FastPass between 9:30 and 10:00, then everyone can ride together and have a "zip-a-dee-doo-dah" time.
Here's a few good attractions to ride in large groups due to the photos/videos or seating arrangements:
Character Meet & Greets
It's likely that you'll want a group photo at some point during the trip. The photo that'll be used forevermore that sums up the entire vacation. What better way than to have this photo with the main mouse himself, Mickey?
Although we didn't have a FastPass+ to meet him at Town Square in Magic Kingdom, we had a set plan that we had discussed earlier in the day. As we joined the line, we informed the cast member at the entrance that we were a big party so that they were aware. When we got to the next cast member who splits you off in different directions, we also told them that we were a large group so that Mickey could prepare himself. We then had a fantastic meet & greet and the cast members were more than happy to let us have multiple combinations of family photos with Mickey. So it's more than possible to meet characters and have one giant group photo!
Advanced Dining Reservations
You'll struggle to get a table for 4 as a walk up in Walt Disney World during peak times, so you'd have more chance of being struck by lightning than getting into a restaurant as a large group. But have no fear, the impossible is quite possible if you book as soon as you can!
On my trip we wanted to do at least one meal all together. As we were celebrating a special occasion, we wanted to make it extra special by going to the California Grill — a signature restaurant in the Contemporary Resort. When it came to making the reservation, the Disney website didn't allow us to try for a 19-person booking. As this was the most important meal for us, we decided to just book whatever we could, which was a table for 8, 7 and 4 at relatively similar times.
We then phoned Disney reservations to see if they'd be able to combine the three tables but the best they could do was a table for 10 and a table for 9 next to each other. We were more than happy with that, so if you're trying to get a table for a large group, give Disney a call to see if they can work some magic.
We decided to do this meal very early on and attempted the booking as soon as our 180-day mark arrived. I imagine that if we had waited until much nearer the time, then it would have been very difficult to get two large tables next to each other.
Survival Tip #3 - Get everyone to list what restaurants they want to eat at
As part of our vacation package we had the Disney Dining Plan included, which meant we had 14 table service reservations to make. You've probably just had a heart attack from the prospect of booking 14 meals for 19 people at your 180 day window, but as avid planners, this was a mission me and my Mum were excited to accept.
Soon after we booked the vacation, we got each family group within the larger party to research and list what restaurants they wanted to try. Once we had decided what day we were going to do what park, we then slotted-in the meals on the days that worked best, for instance, Tusker House on an Animal Kingdom day. Where there were overlaps with more than one family wanting to eat at the same restaurant, we planned to eat together.
After countless spreadsheets, we eventually got our plan together and as soon as that 180 day window opened, we were on that Disney website making reservations.
Survival Tip #4 - Make a WhatsApp group chat
Early on into the planning stage we set up a WhatsApp group chat so that we could all easily communicate about Disney. This was fun for sharing countdown updates and planning ideas, but it was most useful while on the trip.
Coming from the United Kingdom, it's very expensive to use our phones abroad. Luckily, as Disney has free WiFi pretty much everywhere, we made the most of that by using WhatsApp over the internet. That way we could share with everyone what we were doing if anyone wanted to join, or if we had decided to park hop then the group would know where we were. Another useful feature of WhatsApp is the ability to make phone calls over the internet as well as send messages.
My Disney Experience is a great way to keep everyone's plans together, but let's face it, it can be quite complicated when lots of people in your party have an account. My advice is to link up with everyone and then once you've got that initial complication out of the way, it's much easier. By the end of the process you'll have approximately 626 emails from My Disney Experience, but it'll be worth it.
Make sure you do this before you get to WDW, not least because of booking FastPasses in advance, but because it'll be so much easier from the comfort of your own home when you're not itching to get into the parks.
As a little extra tip, try to get everyone in your group to choose different characters for their profile photo. It's easier when booking FastPasses if everyone's account looks different. Cue arguments over who gets Tinker Bell.
Survival Tip #6 - Just relax and have fun!
I know I said that Survival Tip #1 is the most important, but making sure you relax and have an enjoyable time is what it's all about. Don't stress if you don't get on your favourite ride exactly when you want to. Don't get upset if your plans fall through due to ride malfunctions or adverse weather. Just accept that you might not get to do absolutely everything, but you're getting to experience the magic of Disney as one big group.
Going to Walt Disney World as a large group was really fun, so don't fret and happy planning!
Has anyone else experienced a Disney trip in a large group? Do you have any other tips to share?
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