Editor’s note: When we learned that Reporter Newspapers staffer Robin Herrick had visited Disney World 43 times, we figured that must be worthy of a story or column. Although this page is usually reserved for weighty matters, like city politics or neighborhood issues, we know that lots of our readers will visit the Magic Kingdom at least once (or once more) in their lives, perhaps even during the forthcoming holiday season. With that in mind, we are pleased to offer these priceless pieces of advice from our “Disney Diva”.

I volunteered to paint faces at the Sandy Springs Festival this September, and one mom asked me where I had learned my unusual technique. “Disney” I responded, as I transformed her young son into a green dragon with curling black spikes.

I had long ago discovered that face painting at Disney would cost about $15 per face and I realized there had to be a more budget-friendly way to have a great time at Disney! Now, after 43 road trips to Walt Disney World (WDW) with my husband, children, assorted relatives and friends, I’ve become the “Disney Diva” for just about everyone I meet.

The first thing people ask me is, Why? Why go to Disney over and over again? Why go even once? The answer is there are so many ways to have a wonderful time at Disney and really connect with your family that have little to do with the marketing monster. We’ve learned, over the years, the ways to avoid “Disney Plastic” and instead experience “Disney Magic.” It’s not about how many lines you can stand in and how many souvenirs you buy, but how to have fun, make priceless memories, and not break the bank at the most “Magical Place on Earth” (Disneyland in Anaheim is officially the “Happiest Place on Earth”).

The first step is to decide how many days you want to be on vacation. It’s a deceptively simple question. Many people do a blockbuster first trip to Disney and return exhausted, sunburned, and with a wallet a lot thinner than expected.

We like to do what’s called the “dip your toes” trip. Take a four-day trip. Yep, just four days. That way the pressure to try and “see everything”, or even see all four parks, is removed. The trip becomes more about making memories and connecting with your family than notching off all the rides on your mental “did that” pole. It’s also much more accessible to plan a trip that won’t cost you more than a good used car. And I guarantee, you will have just as much fun!

Then, you plan. We can always spot the people who show up at WDW without a plan. They’re the ones who wander into the Magic Kingdom (the oldest of the four parks) around 10:30 am, look first at the glossy map, then up Main Street, then down again at the map, having come to a dead stop and forcing the herds of people bearing down behind them to part like the Red Sea because the “Newbies” don’t have a plan. They’re overwhelmed by the sheer Disney-ness of it all. You want to “dip your toes”, not be thrown in the deep end of the ocean.

Once you’ve decided to “dip your toes”, pick a Disney hotel that won’t break your budget. Most of us have found that we don’t need to spend $500/night for a room at Disney, where you are literally zonked out asleep the minute you set foot in the room. They’re all clean and nice and full of Disney Magic. One of our favorite hotels at Disney is the Pop Century, which ranges from about $80-$120/night depending upon the season. It’s considered a “value” hotel by Disney, but that doesn’t mean it’s lame or ugly. It just has fewer amenities—a food court instead of a full-service restaurant or several big pools instead of a water slide.

If you have kids ages 6-12, you might want to pick one of Disney’s “moderate” hotels, like Port Orleans French Quarter, which has an amazing dragon water slide. You think you won’t spend any time at the pools, but unless you travel in January or February, your kids will insist that you go to the pool over and over again.

My next tip is to learn to travel fast and light when you’re headed out to the parks. Since 9-11, Disney has instituted a bag-check policy, which, depending upon the time of year, can add at least a half-hour to waiting in line. You can avoid that wait by buying some cargo shorts/ pants for everyone in the family, putting everything that you think you need into the pants pockets, and breeze right past the huge line bag-free.

If you feel you really can’t live without a bag, get a small backpack, roll it up empty, and put it in one of the larger pants pockets. Once you get into the park, open it and put all the stuff from your pockets into the pack.

The cargo pants work, and your kids will think you’re hip for updating your wardrobe. I can’t remember the last time I brought a purse into the park (or had to worry about leaving it on a ride).

Another sharp idea is to have one person in your group be in charge of all the tickets. You hand them out to your group as you go through the turnstiles, and everyone hands them back after you pass through. I am the “key master” for my family, and the tickets reside in a lanyard around my neck, safe, hands-free and corny-but-decorative with the assorted Disney pins I’ve collected.

Not everything at WDW is connected to your park tickets or is insanely expensive. Some of our favorite things to do at Disney are either free or very inexpensive. If you stay at a Disney hotel, you can explore all of the other hotels at no charge, using either your own car (which I recommend) or Disney transportation. The Animal Kingdom Lodge has a viewing area where you can see giraffes, zebras and other African savannah animals (Go at sunset, they’re not usually out when it’s hot). The Polynesian and the Grand Floridian have some amazing views of the Magic Kingdom fireworks from the beach. Just remember, you can explore the hotels but the pools are reserved for the guests. In fact, there are so many fun free things to do at Disney that it deserves its own column.

Another question I’m always asked is “drive or fly?” We always drive. We routinely beat our friends who fly in from Atlanta, and it’s only seven hours door-to-door from Sandy Springs to Walt Disney World, with one stop for gas at the Georgia border. Once you cross the border, it’s three hours to WDW.

We have portable DVD players in the car and we rent movies and videogames for the kids to play when we drive down. We also play silly games of “what do you want to see first?”, “punch beetle”, and our favorite: “cow or horse” (I never win that one—all cows look like short horses when you’re driving through the early morning mists of Ocala).

If you’ve never used videogames and DVD players in the car, try it before you leave to see if your kids will get carsick after an hour of watching The Incredibles. Ours don’t, but some kids do. Also, we only pack water and non sugary snacks like goldfish in the car. Your car will smell better and the kids won’t get all wired from the sugar. Apple juice will literally seal the rubber seams of your minivan doors shut for days.

We also leave either very, very early in the morning, like 3 am, or later at night around 11 pm, so the kids are asleep for the majority of the trip and the grownups have some time to talk. We brew a big thermos of hot coffee to take with us, and when we get to WDW we have time to walk around and grab some lunch at Downtown Disney (free admission!) before we check into our hotel.

So, what time of year to go? There are definitely better times to go. And by better, I mean less crowded. Crowds stink. Literally. Our favorite time of year to go is during the first two weeks of December, where you have all of the Christmas spirit (and the fabulous decorations) but not the insane Christmas crowds. Really, don’t go for Christmas/New Year’s. Tell your family I said don’t do it. They’ll thank you.

If you’ve already committed to Christmas, be prepared for monster crowds and endless lines. The less ride-oriented you make a Christmas trip, the better. The best tip I can give for super high-capacity times of the year is to get to whatever park is opening early that day for onsite guests (known as Extra Magic Hours) at least 45 minutes before the scheduled open time. Pick the three rides you want to see the most that day in that park and hustle to them. Getting there really early is one of the rules we never break, because it’s worth it. If you’re staying offsite, leave your hotel/condo one hour before the scheduled opening (seriously!) and choose a park that isn’t an Extra Magic Hour park for that morning because, by the time you can get in, it will already be packed. The parks are open very late during peak times-take a break back at your hotel all afternoon, swim, sleep, and really take advantage of those super late hours. You’ll be amazed at how the parks empty out around 11 pm.

Visiting in January after New Year’s is a good cool weather choice, although avoid the January week of the Disney Marathon/Half Marathon unless you’re running in it. The first two weeks in May and the last two weeks in August are terrific if you really want to hit the water parks. September is relatively deserted and marvellous for grownups.

I wouldn’t recommend vacationing at Disney during Spring Break, Easter, (we call it the Perfect Storm when those two fall on the same week), summer vacation, Thanksgiving, and Christmas-unless you are VERY experienced Disney veterans.

If you have questions you’d like answered about Disney, or have advice or comments, email me at robinherrick@reporternewspapers.net.