One challenge of parenting two young boys is that they don’t always agree. And yet, they resist the art of compromise. That’s maybe 30, 40 years off. Well-meaning father that I am, I can sometimes facilitate that compromise; other times I can impose it. But all too often, compromise eludes us, and conflagration ensues.
I was pondering this dilemma recently while waiting in line for Flight of Passage, one of the newest attractions at Walt Disney World. Located at Pandora: World of Avatar in the Animal Kingdom theme park, Flight of Passage is based on the James Cameron movie Avatar, and it’s really very cool. You sit on a station that looks something like a motorcycle, don virtual reality glasses, and get clamped in as a sort of personal roll bar rises up to meet your back. Suddenly you’re riding atop a mountain banshee—imagine neon dragons—swooping straight down the face of a cliff, ripping through the curl of a giant wave, darting above and below the limbs of massive trees in a primeval forest. Congratulations! You are now an ikram manto, or “mountain banshee rider” in Pandoran. Sounds like huge fun, right?
My 7-year-old certainly thought so. But my younger guy, 5, was more nervous than he wanted to admit; the pre-flight build-up was pretty intense. And as we entered the chamber where we would don our VR goggles, he announced firmly, in much the same voice he uses to announce that he will not try a new vegetable, that banshee flight would not work for him. This entirely reasonable declaration provoked brotherly consternation, because if younger brother could not ride Flight of Passage, none of us could. (My sons are too young to wait—or ride—by themselves.) As the other visitors happily clambered aboard their stations, I struggled to find a solution. The meltdown clock was ticking.
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Just then our guide, a young woman named Julia who is gifted with a preternatural ability to bring out the best in children, proposed a solution. While my older son and I flew the banshees, she would take my younger boy to the Pandora gift shop, where we could meet afterward. Instant happiness: Big brother could fly, while a trip to the gift shop was a face-saving solution for a 5-year-old, who could now bail out of the banshees without FOMO.
About eight exhilarating minutes later, my highflying 7-year-old and I traipsed down the wandering path outside Flight of Passage toward the gift shop. Inside, Julia and son No. 2 were easy to spot. They were waging an epic duel with blue plastic spears and daggers—basic Pandoran weapons, as you know—in the middle of the shop. “Get back!” I heard Julia shout, thrusting a spear in my son’s general direction. “Stand down!” she warned. My valiant boy declined to surrender; he was having far too much fun for that.
It was, for me and my children, a more or less perfect moment. Such moments of transcendence are the fundamental point of a Disney visit—that glorious instant when everything clicks and the magic of childhood, its unselfconscious joy, infuses and connects families across generations. You can’t plan these moments, and most people in search of them face the hurdles of big crowds, long lines and sweltering central Florida heat. Disney rides are wonderful, but they can be just a few minutes long, and lines of over an hour to ride them are common. But it is possible to tilt the odds in your favor, to create an environment in which Disney’s “magic moments” are more likely. To explain how, I’d like to return to that phrase I slipped in a couple of paragraphs above, as if it were no big deal—the words “our guide.”
Over the past several years, Disney has thought carefully about how it can elevate and customize its experience for visitors who are either affluent or who have saved significantly for their visit to Orlando. (I’m focusing on Walt Disney World because I haven’t visited Disneyland, though there’s a great deal of overlap.) The company has created a bundle of services, primarily targeted at high net worth families, that it calls the Crown Collection. Its intention is to make your visit to Disney more bespoke, more efficient, more luxurious—as the Disney folks would say, more magical.
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Because I’ve written about Disney in the past, and because Worth readers are the demographic at which the Crown Collection is targeted, Disney invited me and my boys to experience some of the Crown Collection options during our recent trip. Still, I doubt that our experiences with the Crown Collection would have been much different if I were a high net worth person rather than a journalist; Disney is renowned for standards of service that are both rigorous and consistent. Besides, I wanted to know: Were the high prices of the Crown Collection really worth it? Or would you, on the whole, be better off enjoying Disney the traditional way?
For people interested in experiencing Disney a different way, I’ve created below an itinerary similar to ours.
Before You Arrive
To me, the convenience of staying “on property” during a visit to Disney World dictates your hotel choice. The Disney choices vary depending on the kind of experience you want to have—pick the Animal Kingdom Lodge if you want to be able to look out upon giraffes, zebras, gazelles and more animals—but the most luxurious Disney property is the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. It’s a bright, spacious and elegant hotel worth staying at even if you weren’t visiting Disney. Guests who book a room at a certain level can use Disney Signature Services for help planning their visit. If you’re interested in a top-notch hotel that’s on Disney property but isn’t Disney-operated, try Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort. For travelers loyal to both brands, it’s an attractive combination. Four Seasons Orlando is interesting for another reason; it’s located within the grounds of Golden Oak, a residential community Disney launched about a decade ago. Golden Oak includes several different neighborhoods, a community clubhouse, a concierge, transportation to the parks and, best of all, the ability to host all your friends and family at Walt Disney World.
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The second thing to do before you arrive is to arrange for the Private VIP Tour services, part of the Crown Collection. I think it’s the most essential step to a remarkable visit. Disney’s guides will pick you up at the airport, drop you at your hotel, then pick you up when you’re ready to hit the parks. They’ll whisk you into the parks through back entrances used by employees, customize a line-up of rides and attractions, and lead you into the FastPass lines that bypass the typical lengthy waits. Our guide, Julia, was remarkable: Incredibly helpful and unfailingly cheerful, she had my two free-spirited sons marching efficiently through the parks; I can still hear her shouting, in a faux-drill sergeant way, “To the left! To the left!” as we weaved through the Disney crowds.
The experience of having a guide was a game-changer. Moving from park to park during the day, we were able to ride everything we wanted to, sometimes more than once, while trying some rides we hadn’t previously considered. And not having to stress out about driving, parking and waiting in line allows you to simply enjoy the fun of being at Disney World.
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One final thing to do before you travel, especially if you’re a truly passionate Disney fan who likes to go multiple times a year, or visit with multiple generations of family: Consider joining Club 33, a private club with outposts in Hollywood Studios, Epcot, Magic Kingdom and, most recently, Animal Kingdom. These clubs are meant for the truly devoted Disney-phile, and when you enter their unmarked doors—the clubs are hidden in plain sight around the parks—you’ll enter a space that’s simultaneously a retreat from the Disney present outside their doors (the heat, the crowds) and an immersion in Disney past; the clubs are filled with memorabilia and archival materials. I’ve visited two of them, and they strike me as wonderful places to pause, catch your breath, have a drink and grab a bite during a day or evening at Disney. The Disney “cast members” inside can help make dinner plans, arrange for tickets and recommend events around the parks; you can also partake in special dinners and other events available only to club members. (If you’re interested in applying, write to email@example.com)
Flying from New York to Orlando, it’s not hard to arrive by noon. Getting there earlier means hauling the kids to the airport by, say, 8 a.m., and, particularly if you have a guide picking you up in Orlando, there’s not much reason to put yourself through that. Check in at your hotel, have lunch—the Gasparilla Island Grill at the Grand Floridian is a great place for a quick, casual meal—and then hit a theme park. I’d say start with Epcot, because with the help of a guide you can do Epcot in a half-day. My family and I are particularly fond of Frozen Ever After, the oldie-but-goodie Soarin’ Around the World and the Future World Test Track, where you “design” your own concept car, then race that car around a test track. My kids loved the interactivity, and the test track part is pretty thrilling.
If you’re not exhausted after your day so far—and again, having a guide do all the hard stuff for you helps immensely—this could be a good time for an elegant dinner. Disney offers a lot of hamburger joints around its parks, but it’s also been investing in more upscale dining, and there are some outstanding restaurants at Disney World. I was impressed by Takum-Tei, a Japanese place at Epcot that’s far more ambitious than you might expect at a theme park. The interior is sophisticated and tasteful, the service ubiquitous but understated and the food, which ranges from sushi to duck to wagyu beef, is beautifully prepared. Through the Crown Collection, Disney also offers Delicious Disney: A Chef Series, curated dinners built around Disney themes with a very limited number of guests.
Get picked up by your guide, then start the day with a treat for the children: Meet the princesses of Disney over breakfast at Cinderella’s Royal Table, at, naturally, Cinderella’s Castle. For some girls, this is basically heaven, but my boys, after initially trying to play it cool, thought it was pretty neat to meet Ariel, Snow White, Jasmine and others. Follow that up with a personal photo-op with Mickey and Minnie Mouse at the Town Square Theater at the Magic Kingdom Park.
The rides at Magic Kingdom include some of my favorites: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Peter Pan’s Flight, Pirates of the Caribbean—which, though fun, feels like it needs a refresh—Space Mountain, Splash Mountain… It’s a lot, and with the help of a guide, you can do them all. But if you do get exhausted, now would be a good time to escape into Club 33 to recharge your batteries.
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In the afternoon, head over to the Animal Kingdom, where the Kilimanjaro Safari gives you the chance to see hippopotamuses, giraffes, elephants, rhinos and other African animals. Or you can experience the animal life on a private excursion, the Wild Africa Trek. At World of Avatar, there is of course Flight of Passage, and its fellow ride, Na’vi River Journey, which is less intense than Flight of Passage but still quite magical. And Expedition Everest may be my favorite roller coaster at Disney World—just wait till the cars start rolling backwards.
Returning to the Grand Floridian, treat yourself to dinner through a Crown Collection experience, the private dining rooms at Victoria & Albert’s or Citricos, the two excellent restaurants within the hotel. Victoria & Albert’s is the best-known of the two, as it’s garnered a AAA Five Diamond rating since 2000, but Citricos is also outstanding, and these intimate meals are a great way for a family to relax and enjoy an excellent meal at the end of a big day. Well…not quite the end. After dinner, take the crew out on the Grand One Yacht to watch the nightly fireworks display over the Magic Kingdom. Fireworks from a boat, while enjoying Champagne and catered desserts—it’s hard to have a better nightcap.
It’s time to head over to Hollywood Studios. First and foremost is Galaxy’s Edge, the new Star Wars land. Galaxy’s Edge is, quite simply, stunning; it features a massive recreation of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon spaceship that has you expecting to see a wookie climb out its hatch any second. (In fact, you will see wookies around, and storm troopers, and Kylo Ren, and other inhabitants of the Star Wars universe.) As the most recent addition to Disney World, Galaxy’s Edge is fascinating; it—and, to a slightly lesser degree, World of Pandora—feels like the beginning of the future here at Disney. Technologically, the ride, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, represents a new level of escapism. The spaceship interior is impressively authentic, and when the Millennium Falcon takes off on its mission to another planet, you really do feel like you’ve entered a different world. (I can’t speak to Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which hadn’t opened at the time of my visit, but it looks pretty great.) It’s a Small World feels pretty far away from here. As you might expect, Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run has long lines, and I’m sure that Rise of the Resistance does too. A VIP guide goes a long way here.
When you’re done with the rides at Galaxy’s Edge, grab lunch at Docking Bay 7. The food’s fine, but what really stands out is the level of detail and thoughtfulness in the design. If you’ve ever thought that it might be cool to live in the world of Star Wars for a while, this is your chance. Even the retail at Galaxy’s Edge seems just a little more elevated than elsewhere at Disney World. The Creature Stall and Toydarian Toymaker are both so cleverly imagined, I briefly thought they were the beginnings of a ride. But my favorite was the Droid Depot, which resembles an outer space metal shop. There, you can build your own droid by choosing whether you want to make an R2-D2 or a BB8, then picking the parts for your droid off a moving conveyor belt. You assemble the various parts with an electric screwdriver at a work station—it’s not hard, and cast members provide help if you need it—and voilá, you have a remote-controlled droid. They even talk…in droid language, anyway.
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Of course, there’s much more to do at Hollywood Studios. My sons and I love the Slinky Dog Dash rollercoaster and Alien Swirling Saucers at Toy Story Land. But at some point, you will have to leave. The good news is, at the Grand Floridian you can check your bags straight to your flight—the hotel valets will take care of that for you. And your guide will drive you to the airport from the parks. It’s another great way to minimize your stress and maximize your time at Disney.
The Crown Collection offers numerous other experiences that I haven’t detailed above, and of course you can always talk to the people at Disney about creating custom experiences. My sense is that if they can do it, they will. The Crown Collection isn’t cheap. But for those who want to get the most out of their time at Walt Disney World, and who are fortunate enough to be able to afford it, the Crown Collection doesn’t feel like a luxury. It feels essential.