ORLANDO - Going to Disney World is full of stresses - listening to your kids complain, corralling little ones, dealing with crowds, waiting in endless lines, and walking for miles and miles. That said, it can be the most magical, charming vacation you will take with your children.

My family recently enjoyed our first visit. During the nighttime parade at the Magic Kingdom, I looked down and saw my boys (ages 4 and 6), eyes wide with amazement, mouths agape in wonder. I teared up, experiencing the magic through them. Every penny we paid was worth that moment.

Disney is certainly not without challenges (or expense). But there are ways to make sure you aren't that family screaming at each other in the middle of Fantasyland.

The Disney World complex covers 46 square miles. It has 34 resort hotels on site and four main parks:

Magic Kingdom, the original park with the most rides and princesses.

Epcot, an ode to technology and other cultures.

Hollywood Studios, formerly MGM studios, a smaller park with more shows and a movie-studio feel.

Animal Kingdom, which is much more than a glorified zoo.

There are also two large water parks: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. The area called Downtown Disney offers shopping, dining, and a large Lego store where kids can play for free.

We had only four days to spend with Mickey (next time it will be longer), so we opted for the best fits for our boys: Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Magic Kingdom, with a visit to Downtown Disney on our first day.

Here are some tips we picked up:

Plan ahead. Your first and most important decision is which time of year to visit. Check out www.touringplans.com (there's a small membership fee) for crowd levels at various times of the year. Obviously, the summer months are going to be packed. If your family doesn't deal well with crowds, don't go then. Opt for nicer weather in the late fall or spring, but beware spring break. The website even recommends which days to visit each park.

Don't plan too much. Planning every single thing you are going to do every single minute leads to disappointment. Plans don't go as expected, especially when you have little ones. Be flexible. If your kids don't want to ride something, it's OK. If everyone wants to call it a night before the fireworks, it's OK.

Consider building rest time into your schedule. If your hotel is close, head back in the middle of the afternoon for naps or pool time. Or plan one whole day at your resort (some have fun kids' activities, such as boating and horseback riding).

Realize you are not going to see it all, but be sure to enjoy what you do.

Stay on site. Everyone gets stressed driving in an unfamiliar city, dealing with traffic, and trying to find parking. Staying on-site eliminates all that. Buses run every 15 to 20 minutes from the resorts to the parks, and some resorts use boats or monorails. Disney's Magical Express is a free shuttle that picks you up and takes you to the airport. That alone (plus the expense saved from not renting a car) is worth the higher prices at the resorts - though you can get a room for as little as $82.

Staying on-site also allows you to take advantage of extra hours at some parks on some days and a nifty service that delivers your purchases at Disney stores to your room.

If you think you'll spend more than a day at one park, consider booking a nearby resort to cut down on travel time. Also, Disney offers suites and villas so your family can spread out. That way, kids can stay on their regular sleep schedule and you won't get on one another's nerves. We stayed in a large two-bedroom villa at the Old Key West resort.

Familiarize yourself with the rides and shows. Check guidebooks and websites and talk to friends about which rides and shows are most appropriate for your family. This could help you avoid waiting 30 minutes for a show no one in your family wants to see or taking your 4-year-old on a terrifying ride. Also, look at height restrictions. Nothing is more disappointing than having to tell your child he or she can't go on a ride because he or she is too little.

We went into each park with three or four must-dos each day. I figured that as long as we did those, everything else was icing on the cake.

Use the Fast Pass wisely.

A Fast Pass ticket (distributed in kiosks in front of the ride) allows you to obtain a pass at a certain time (within an hour) so you can bypass the line to the ride. But make sure you will use it. Rides are spaced quite far apart, so be sure it's something on your must-do list.

Also, be aware that the Fast Passes run out. On our trip, the Fast Passes to Toy Story Midway Mania at Hollywood Studios ran out an hour after the park opened.

Pack wisely. You are allowed to bring backpacks and coolers into the park. Take advantage and bring food and drinks to save money and stop the screams of "I'm thirsty now." We froze bottles of water the night before so they were thawed yet still cold when we needed them.

Also, pack sunscreen and bandages. One day, my 4-year-old needed three bandages before noon.

Dining plans. Plan your meals long before the trip. Many restaurants, especially those offering meals where you meet the characters, book six months in advance. You can book online at www.disneyworld.com or by calling 1-407-439-3463.

Disney also offers several meal plans (during some promotions, you can get them free with your stay). With the plans, you present your diner card for meals at most restaurants and quick-service stops.

Prepare for safety. Discuss safety, stranger danger, and the need to avoid wandering off. Each day, take a photo of your kids with your cell phone in case they get lost, so you can show people exactly what they look like. I dressed my kids in the same bright color, so I could scan a crowd and find them quickly.

Consider renting a stroller - they are available at each park, but they're pricey. My boys refused them until the last day, when they both wanted one.

Disney World Highlights

Though we certainly didn't go on every ride or see every show at Disney, we did find several things we loved as a family. Here are some of our favorites:

Fantasmic. This show has it all: fireworks, water, boats, fire, dragons, and Mickey using imagination to triumph over evil. It also has that warm, fuzzy Disney feel with movie clips from dozens of classics. But get there early. Even in September, the 6,500-seat Hollywood Studios amphitheater filled up 30 minutes before the show started.

Main Street Electrical Parade at Magic Kingdom. People start lining up along the parade route about an hour before the parade. It's a magical procession of millions of lights on dancers and floats. Mickey, Alice (in Wonderland), Goofy, and other characters make appearances and interact with the crowd. Stay after for a fireworks show you won't forget.

Jedi Training Academy. You don't have to love Star Wars to appreciate this show at Hollywood Studios, but it helps. Prospective Jedis (kids 4-12) wait in line (sometimes for two hours or more) to get the chance to face Darth Vader. The show is quite funny, and you'll love seeing your little one wield a light saber.

Beauty and the Beast. My all-time favorite Disney movie in its 30-minute musical glory. All your favorite songs and characters are here.

Kilimanjaronjaro Safaris. Load your family into a jeep to go on this 20-minute adventure in Animal Kingdom. We saw giraffes, lions, crocodiles, and more on our morning trip. We hear afternoon trips don't yield such good results. With their exhibits including tigers, meerkats, and gorillas, the nearby walking trails are great, but they are no better than what you'd see at the St. Louis or Philadelphia Zoos and take a good chunk of your time and energy. Skip the trails in favor of other attractions.

Chef Mickey's. Standing in line for 20 minutes to meet Goofy at Magic Kingdom seemed like a big waste of time - I'd rather be bumping around Splash Mountain. The character meals are a great alternative. At Chef Mickey's restaurant at the Contemporary Resort, we got a fabulous buffet ($30 adults, $15 kids) and Donald, Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, and Goofy all came to our table to do high-fives, sign autographs, and pose for photos.

It's Tough to Be a Bug. Put on a pair of bugeye glasses and join the cast of A Bug's Life for this show inside the giant Tree of Life in the middle of Animal Kingdom. It's funny, and some of the antics are completely unexpected.

Helpful Tips

How much you'll spend

The minute I got home from our trip, I started thinking about when we could afford to go back. A sample package on disneyworld.com for February included four nights at a moderately priced resort, five days of park tickets, and the Disney Dining Plan for my family of four for less than $2,000, not including airfare.

Useful books

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2011 by Bob Sehlinger, Menasha Ridge, and Len Testa (Wiley, 864 pages, $19.99)

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Walt Disney World, 2010 Edition by Doug Ingersoll (Alpha, 432 pages, $18.95)

Fodor's Walt Disney World with Kids 2011: With Universal Orlando, SeaWorld & Aquatica by Kim Wright Wiley (Fodor's, 512 pages, $18.95)

Useful websites

mousesavers.com

More information

Call Walt Disney World at 407-934-7639.

- Amy Bertrand

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