Invasion of the Large Family: Stay Together or Divide and Conquer?

by Joe Needham, contributing writer
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by Joe Needham, contributing writer

One of the many aspects to the magic of Disney is that fun can be had by parties of all sizes. Disney has something for everyone, whether alone, in pairs, or with large groups.

If you have a large family or group, however, it's important to have a strategy to get the most out of your day. There are strategies on the order to see things, strategies around eating, strategies around which park to visit on which day, and more.

When I travel to Disney, we are a group of at least six people—two sons (ages 19 and 7), two daughters (ages 17 and 12), my wife, and myself. And on my last trip right before Christmas, our group ballooned to 13 people with the addition of family relatives.

The most important strategy, based on my experience, is knowing when to stay together and when to split up. So let's take a look at the pros and cons of various scenarios.

Staying together

Fastpass

Fastpass tickets are only available for admission media that have been activated at the front gate for the day. If your group shows up at different times, your party cannot make the most of the Fastpass opportunities as a group.

During our last trip with the 13 people, only eight of us wanted to go on the the main headliner attractions like Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster and Expedition Everest. This meant that we had 13 admission media activated in the park and available to obtain Fastpass tickets with, but only eight people who actually needed Fastpass tickets.

The result? Those eight people got at least three rides a piece with minimal waits when I picked up two sets over the course of the day.

If you separate the group, you lose the ability to stockpile Fastpass tickets.

For example, during one of our trips to Epcot, nine people in our party decided to sleep in and come in after lunch. They arrived around 1:00 p.m. to the park, and by then, Fastpass tickets were already depleted for Soarin’ and Test Track.

Fortunately for my group we spent two days at Epcot so we got multiple rides in on both of those before. But if that would have been the only day at Epcot, then a large contingency of our group would have been extremely disappointed.

Photos

Of course Disney has photographers primed and ready to capture photos for you. But I am sure that if you look back on your trips, it was the spur-of-the-moment photos that are the best.

In my family, my father-in-law enjoys photography, so he wants to stay as close to everyone as possible to get as many photos as he can. For this reason, it's easier to get a photo of the entire group with a character you stumble upon, or to be there to capture the faces of the kids when they come off of Tower of Terror if we're all together.

If you are all split up, you are constantly saying, “I wish you were there; Mickey Mouse walked up”, and so on, and some photo opportunities are missed.

Child swap and child management

The child-swap system benefits from staying together, similar to Fastpass. If you have a youngster in your group who isn’t tall enough to meet the height requirements for an attraction, take your group to the ride queue, and let the cast member know you want to do a child swap, then they will give you a fastpass for up to three more people. Then someone gets to stay back and babysit while the first part of your group rides, then another volunteer stays with the youngster and some others get a second ride with the first babysitter.

Staying together also has some benefits in managing a youngster who is upset about the fact that they can’t ride. My experience has shown that my youngest was always more excited to know that his big brother was going to stay with him for this go round. If the big brother had split off then you lose a babysitter option.

Disadvantages to staying together

Yes, you read that right—staying together may itself be a disadvantage. Staying together may not be worth it if you have a group that does not have the same interests or abilities.

It is no easy task when you are in a busy park to move a large group. Take Animal Kingdom, for example, it is hard to move a group from Kilimanjaro Safaris to Dinosaur, especially when part of that group has absolutely no idea where they are going or when the avid photographer in your group (yes, my father-in-law again) is far too focused on looking through the lens of his camera.

The best approach here is to spread out your knowledgeable participants. For example, I may take the lead. My wife floats somewhere in the middle of the group, and my 17-year-old brings up the rear.

Stamina

If you have a large group with a wide age range or differing stamina levels, then the longer you stay together, the more likely someone becomes exhausted. On the flip side, someone can get frustrated that the group isn’t moving fast enough. In my experience, this is the biggest negative to staying together. When someone in your group is miserable, tired, and frustrated, it makes it very difficult for the others in the group have fun.

Dinner reservations

It is much harder to get dining reservations for optimal times if you have a large group. My family of six hasn’t been able to get into Le Cellier in years, and that's with calling at 7:00 a.m. on the exact 180th day out for the last four trips, at the moment I am able to make a reservation. The larger your group the more difficult.

Separating the group

Everyone is relatively happy (or so it might appear)

If you split your group by interest types or stamina levels, then you can be more assured that everyone is basically having a good time. Small groups go at their own pace, see what they want to see, and typically eat what they want to eat.

On the surface, this appears to be the no-brainer solution—but tell that to the grandparents who want to stay with their 12-year-old granddaughter to experience Disney anew. And while the 19-year-old is old enough to go off on his own, could actually relive his childhood excitement by staying with his 7-year-old brother. Just ask my 19-year-old son about running into the Power Rangers with just his 17-year-old sister, as opposed to running into the Power Rangers with a group including his 7-year-old brother, to whom the Power Rangers are both relevant and exciting.

Basically, even if it's more convenient to break up into smaller groups, you will definitely have stories of “I wish you had been there.”

Dinner Reservations

Prime times are much easier to come by with smaller groups (4 or less).

The best strategy

In my opinion, the better option is knowing when to deploy the two strategies, because in reality you don’t exclusively use one or the other. I use both on my trips.

When we stay for more than four days, I usually don’t repeat a park until all other parks we want to see have been visited. That way, my group is together before everyone becomes totally exhausted. We take care of a lot of the photo opportunities, and maximize Fastpass strategies. Then on a repeat visit to the park, we split up more and not feel like we are missing something.

I also find that I actually employ both strategies on a daily basis, even early on in a trip. For most days, the best option by my experience is to show up to the park at the same time (at opening). We stockpile on various Fastpass tickets, then split up through the afternoon. You can come back together for dinner, or to use up the stockpiled Fastpass tickets.

As an example, on my last trip with the 13 family members, on day six of our trip we were going to Magic Kingdom for the second time. For this trip we wanted to stay for the 10:00 p.m. fireworks and even closing at midnight if at all possible. But with it being day 6 and the group ranging in age from 7 to 70, we knew that staying a full day would be tough.

What we did was arrive to the same park at opening, and we all stayed until 1:00 p.m. During that time, we all rode Haunted Mansion, the Riverboat, Jungle Cruise, and Pirates of the Caribbean. In addition, some of us rode Peter Pan, some rode Splash Mountain, and others got two rides on Big Thunder Mountain. In the meantime we amassed 20 Fastpass tickets for Big Thunder Mountain, four for Splash Mountain, and 28 for Space Mountain.

We left the parks after having lunch together, and returned to our hotels. After swimming and/or napping , and individually taking care of dinner, we trickled back into the parks and were all back in around 7:00 p.m. We then diviied up the bounty of Fastpass tickets, and some of us went on the rides while others went shopping. Finally, we came back together for the fireworks, then floated around as a group until closing, hitting a few short lines and knocking out the last of our Space Mountain Fastpass tickets.

As you can see, it is not really which strategy you use, but when you use which strategy. Sticking to just one strategy will lead to regret—so be flexible. Happy Travels.

 

Comments

  1. By Mitchwebb

    Love the advice. I'd say our biggest strategy is to let everyone know what time we will be on the bus, boat or monorail in the morning. We had a group of 14 New Years week. I have a Dsis who is constantly late but loves to organize and keep everyone together. We learned years ago to help not hurt feelings to just say we will be on the 9am bus, if you miss us call us when you get to the park. Certain days we would wait and have everyone go together but on other days when it was less structured we would make clear it was a meet up if possible. We learned to never guarantee to meet anyone at a specific time or place because just too many things can happen.

    We spend a lot of time together but on long trips we break up so everyone can have a chance to move faster and get more done. We make sure mom and dad (70 & 74) have a group with them to help them enjoy the parks. Must say that these usally end up being some of my favorite days where we take things slower and enjoy more shows and atmoshere.

  2. By Toocherie

    I would agree that the real trick is knowing when to mix it up. I annually go to Disneyland with a group of girlfriends--this year I think we number about 50. There is no way you could move a group that large from one place to another and satisfy everyone's desires and wishes in the park.

    So instead we plan certain meals at certain times and people are free to come to that meal or not. If it's a table service restaurant vacation planning helps with getting adequate priority seating reservations. Otherwise--say we're going to Rancho del Zocalo--anyone who wants to show up at that time and place does. One or two group rides are also planned (it's cool to have pics of us in successive boats on Pirates or It's a Small World since we wear similarly colored t-shirts each day). We do a group pic in front of the Castle at a certain time (thank you Photopass!) Otherwise, we generally naturally break into smaller groups and interests---your group may go on Space Mountain while my group wants to go see Alladdin. It all seems to work out--and we try to make sure that everyone is with a "group" if they want to be. (Sometimes people just want some "alone" time in the parks to wander and do what they want!) I also have to say that with the advent of cell phones and texting it makes things easier. Maybe my group is going to get corn dogs and I know Suzie loves them but she's off riding rides with another group. A quick text and she can decide whether she wants to "jump ship" for a corn dog!

    So, bottom line--you need to have some scheduled meets or events or meals so people don't feel left out--but by the same token like-minded folks should form a smaller group according to their interests/tastes. The worst thing I think any large family or group could do is try to make the group do everything together all the time--recipe for disaster in the making!

  3. By bochnikm

    Great article.

    We employed many of your strategies in 2010 when twenty-five family and friends vacationed in August for a week in Walt Disney World. Yes I said twenty-five - ranging from age 7 to 77!

    We generally went to the park together in the morning and did certain rides and attractions that work well with a large group and all ages, i.e. Soarin, Living with the Land, Circle of Life at Epcot; group photo on Main Street at Magic Kingdom; Kilimanjaro Safaris and Festival of the Lion King in Animal Kingdom etc. After lunch we split up into smaller groups or couples.

    A few days (but not everyday) we met up at dinner together, Chef Mickey’s, The Biergarten and Whispering Canyons, the last two are great with a large group. Just remember when planning - me time, we time and group time, are all important for a enjoyable and memorable vacation.

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