Disneyland

For many American families, a trip to Walt Disney World is a childhood rite of passage, whether parents like it or not. Yes, there are the blockbuster theme parks and sun-drenched resorts. But there are also long lines, bland restaurants, and so many ways to overspend, plus the inevitable exhaustion that comes from trying to do it all. Pulling off a perfectly harmonious family vacation at Disney World may be harder than dislodging “It’s a Small World” from your mind. But follow these ten Disney don’ts, and you may actually a magical time.

1. Don’t Insist on a Disney-Run Hotel
There are perks to staying at one of Disney’s 23 hotels, including extended hours and free parking at the parks; free transportation from your hotel to other areas of the resort and the airport; convenient, one-stop booking; and heavily themed public spaces that will wow the kids. Tempting, we know. What Disney’s properties don’t offer are the better value, nicer rooms, and tricked-out amenities that you can find elsewhere in town.

Instead Shop Around – Orlando attracts a lot of conventions, and you will often find a higher-quality hotel experience—and more competitive rates—at places that cater mostly to conventioneers rather than Mouseketeers. The Waldorf Astoria Orlando, for example, opened in 2009 at the edge of Disney-owned property, near Epcot. The hotel’s serene marble lobby—and perhaps a well-made cocktail in the Peacock Alley lounge—makes for a welcome change of pace after a long day in the parks (shuttle service is complimentary). All 498 rooms have cushy beds, spacious bathrooms with soaking tubs, and views of either the two cabana-lined pools or the Rees Jones–designed golf course. Rates at the Waldorf can be $100 less than at the Grand Floridian (Disney’s top-tier resort) and only about half the price at certain times of year. Though a bit farther afield, the Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott in Grande Lakes and the Grand Bohemian downtown are other good options, especially if you want to be closer to non-Disney parks like SeaWorld Orlando and Universal.

2. Don’t Overspend for Tickets

Disney pushes its Magic Your Way tickets, which are one- to ten-day passes valid for the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Given the steep discounts on multiday tickets (while a one-day adult ticket is $82, a five-day ticket works out to about $47 per day), the impulse is to buy tickets for as many days as you will be in Orlando. But if you have unused tickets at the end of your trip—say, if a rainy day keeps you away from the parks, or if you decide to do something thats not mouse-approved—you can’t get a refund.

3. Don’t Rely on Disney Buses

Disney’s extensive bus network will get you between Disney parks and hotels for free, but there is still a price. After a long day of waiting in line for rides and attractions, it’s a drag to wait in line for a bus ride – especially one that can be excruciatingly slow (sometimes making multiple stops before reaching your hotel) and uncomfortably crowded (especially if you leave the park immediately after the fireworks grand finale). The bus system locks you into orbiting exclusively within the wonderful world of Disney. Sure, you could take a taxi, but the fare adds up when you are paying a $3.85 initial charge and $2.20 with every passing mile.

InsteadRent a Car – Because of mass visitor volume, Orlando has some of the cheapest rental rates in the country (as low as $25 a day). All of the usual suspects are represented at the airport (Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, et al.). Of course, the $14 daily parking fees at Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom do add up (parking is free if you stay at a Disney-run hotel). The low rental rates buy you a lot of freedom, though: Having a car lets you visit non-Disney theme parks, explore downtown Orlando’s thriving food scene, or even hit the beach.

4. Don’t Go During School Holidays
When school is out of session anywhere in the country—actually, anywhere in the world—flights to Orlando book up, room rates peak, and lines are excruciatingly long. (Bigger crowds are common on weekends, as well, although Monday is rumored to be the busiest day of the week for the Magic Kingdom.) Consider, too, that summer break coincides with the hottest, muggiest, most insufferable weather Florida has to offer. And during the Christmas/New Year’s break, Disney has been known to close the park gates to control capacity crowds. Sound fun?

Instead, Let the Kids Play Hooky. In September, the throngs have departed and prices have dropped, but the summer sunshine is still on high beam and the water rides gush at full throttle. October and mid-January are also prime off-peak times to visit. The prospect of skipping school is sure to elicit gleeful promises to hit the books during downtime. And if you don’t think about it too hard, you can convince yourself that visiting Epcot is educational.

5. Don’t Dine Exclusively at Disney
Sure, it’s novel to eat, or drink, your way around Epcot’s World Showcase, and some Disney restaurants are very good (if expensive), notably the jacket­required Victoria & Albert’s at Disney’s Grand Floridian and the Bistro de Paris at Epcot’s France Pavilion. But dining at Disney isn’t exactly synonymous with gourmet cuisine. Venture just outside the park gates and you won’t fare much better—unless you’re really into chain restaurants.

Instead, Discover Diverse Kitchens – Away from its touristy drags, Orlando has a flourishing culinary scene—driven, in part, by one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the country. At Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue, about 20 minutes north of Disney World, there’s a cluster of more than a dozen Vietnamese restaurants, each with its own specialty. Vinh’s Restaurant roasts its own barbecue pork (407­894­ 5007), while Anh Hong (pictured) is known for its fried tofu (407­999­2656). And go 20 minutes east for Bruno’s Italian Restaurant, run by a real Italian from Puglia (ask if his succulent braciole is on the menu). The family­run Havana’s Café, near Downtown Disney, serves the best Cuban dishes this side of Miami.