The first time I went to Disney World I had a six-year-old in tow.
The second time? A 10-year-old who had such a wonderful time that trip will be on the highlight reel of her life.
The third time? The chosen daughters were 13 and 15.
Every trip was a whirlwind of fun, food, thrilling rides and the tears that come when kids, no matter what their age, come face to face with their dreams.
My last trip? I took another six-year-old, this one disguised in the body of a 57-year-old man. My husband had pined for a trip to Disney since he was a wee tot. He was three when Disneyland opened.
He watched the Wonderful World of Disney on TV. He and the kids saw every Disney movie ever made. When he's happy or distracted, he whistles When You Wish Upon A Star.
Neil Dempsey, prepare for the pixie dust.
Disney, prepare for a man who has a child-like enthusiasm for everything that crosses his path.
We booked a six-day trip. The rules were simple. We would get up when we wanted. We'd hit the parks when we felt like it. We'd nap at will. We'd bob in the resort pool, reflect on how lucky we are and write completely guilt-free postcards to our children.
There would be no whining. No really, mister, I mean it.
The first fact to get out of the way is that a luxury week at Disney World is expensive. Very, very, "gee we could have gone to Paris and shopped at Chanel" expensive.
We stayed at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, a five-star hotel. The rooms are large and swell. The resort restaurants include the famed Victoria & Albert's restaurant, where the fixed price menu costs $130 per person.
We didn't go there.
But there are cheaper alternatives, including a 24-hour place selling orange juice and pizza and salads for a price that won't give you sticker shock.
The soaring lobby is stunning. A full band plays on the mezzanine at nights, offering classics to folks lounging in the comfy chairs below.
There's an elderly lady who sits in the lobby every afternoon, smiling and chatting with guests. She used to come to the hotel with her late husband, she says. Now she just comes in to replay the old days.
Price tag for a single night? Hold your breath: $500 for a view of the pool. Much, much more if you want a suite or even a glimpse at the Magic Kingdom.
Let's just say that if a discount rate hadn't been available we couldn't have slept on a couch in the lobby.
There are many cheaper alternatives if you want to stay on-site. The advantages are proximity to the parks, a free monorail or Disney bus to get you to and from the park and special hours when only resort guests can be at the park.
You can camp outside the Fort Wilderness Resort for as little as $50 a night.
Tourists who want to see a world outside Mickeyland can rent a car and a hotel room or house and make the trip back and forth. The real advantage is that you save money not only on accommodations but on your meals.
Your next financial hit is a park pass. If you're staying for a week, a pass that allows you unlimited access to the various parks is about $300. The water parks will cost you extra, as will admission to Disney Quest, a multi-level arcade in Downtown Disney.
So, you've remortgaged the house, drained the RRSPs and falsely told your children you'll think of them at every moment. It's time to have fun.
WHERE TO START:
You have to begin at the Magic Kingdom. It's the classic, the fantasy, the place where dreams come true. It doesn't matter if you're seven or 57, that first look down Main St. at Cinderella's castle is enough to make even the most stoic man get misty-eyed.
And I was travelling with someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.
There are seven themed lands at the Magic Kingdom, each offering their own special attractions. Put your sophistication in your back pocket and get moving.
The major rides here are Pirates of the Caribbean (an old chestnut remade so that Johnny Depp's movie character is a star attraction), Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for a screaming roller coaster experience, Splash Mountain (another classic but scream-inducing), the Haunted Mansion, Mad Tea Party, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Space Mountain (which was closed when we were there) and, if you like having the world's most annoying song stuck in your head for days, It's A Small World.
The kiddie rides might seem silly but they're necessary if you're a first-timer. The Mad Tea Party with its whirling tea cups isn't as benign as it looks. We both staggered off. Kids are better at keeping their equilibrium, it seems.
The Walt Disney World Railroad is a slow and relaxing way to make your way around the Magic Kingdom.
There are some basic tips to avoid lineups. First, start early. Be there when the park opens. There will still be thousands of people waiting for the opening but that's nothing compared to what it's like later.
Plan the rides you want to hit, figure out their locations and get there fast. A FASTPASS system allows you to get a ticket and come back at the appointed hour. When they're gone, as they often are at the most popular rides, you're in for a very long wait. You can buy Mickey ears just about anywhere but you'll feel somewhat less Goofy if you pick them up in the Magic Kingdom.
If you want a quick nosh you can get everything from pancakes shaped like Mickey to giant smoked turkey drumsticks. There's nothing that says potential weight problem like someone banging back a giant Coke and waving the better part of a turkey in the air.
This theme part is divided into two sections. One is World Showcase, home to pavilions from around the world. The second is Future World. That's where you'll see the giant silver geosphere known as Spaceship Earth.
While your kids might be bored silly by some of EPCOT's offerings, big people will enjoy them.
The key ride is Soarin'. Guests sit in giant hang gliders, lift 40 feet in the air and are surrounded by a giant projection screen. Because this is Disney they've managed to incorporate the smell of pine trees as you fly over a forest and the feel of cool breeze in your face over snowy mountains.
You'll want to ride this one over and over again.
The other major ride is Test Track, a chance to sit in a sports car and run through a series of vehicle tests (heat, crash tests and so on). The ending is thrilling.
If you want to chill down, Coke has Club Cool where you can sample Coke products from around the world. Some of them will curl your taste buds.
The World Showcase might appeal to some children but it's really for grown-ups. The pavilions are all eye-popping, staffed by citizens of the countries represented and filled with shopping opportunities, cultural displays and terrific food.
Again, Disney can almost convince you that the French rue is real or the volcano puffing away inside the Mexican pavilion might be on the verge of exploding.
The Moroccan and Japanese pavilions have outstanding food. To end a perfect day, grab a glass of champagne at a kiosk in France and watch Illuminations, a 13-minute grand fireworks, laser and fountain display.
These are not included in your park pass. You'll spend roughly $45 per person for admission. After that, everything is included (except food, drink, locker rental, underwater cameras ... it's an expensive day).
The biggest attraction for lazy adults is Castaway Creek, a river that surrounds the park. Jump into an inner tube and float as long as you like.
The thrill rides generally run on the same there. You go up really, really high, attach yourself to an inner tube or just pitch yourself into a water slide. You say a quick prayer and catapult to the bottom. Note to women: Some of these rides are so fast and forceful that a bikini is a very foolish idea.
Is it fun? You bet. But if you're looking for a quiet place to spend the day, this isn't it. You can only ride the lazy river so long.
I confess, this is my favorite park. The detail that is included (everything from tattered Tibetan prayer flags at the Expedition Everest ride to the exquisite carvings on the Tree of Life) will be lost if you're racing from ride to ride with your kids.
Take a slower pace and you'll be stunned at the effort they've made.
This park combines adult fun with silly stuff. As above, if you're taking your time, you'll appreciate the realism of sections such as Asia, where a picture perfect boat sits in the water in a hidden corner.
If you want to scream, the Expedition Everest roller coaster, Kali River Rapids and Dinosaur are essential. If you want to discover your inner child, you have to see the Festival of the Lion King, It's tough to be a Bug and Finding Nemo, the Musical.
Take a day at the Animal Kingdom if you can. It's relaxing, there's plenty of shade and, in an un-Disney move, you can buy plastic cups of beer at kiosks along the way.
Walt Disney World knows that while there may be a kid inside all of us, sometimes the grownup needs to have a little adult fun.
No, not that kind of fun. This is still Disney after all.
Downtown Disney is the official hot spot for those of us over the age of 21. It has great restaurants, bars, shopping and Cirque du Soleil. Pleasure Island, part of Downtown Disney, gives cigar smokers the chance to light up and sip fancy cocktails at Fuego by Sosa Cigars.
If you want to pony up an extra $45 you can waste several hours at Disney Quest, where every possible arcade game (and some you couldn't have imagined) are available to play. Pac-Man, anyone?
Feel like a big person, forget you have children and dance until the wee hours.
It was great. The only pouting came on the last day when one of us didn't want to leave. At all. Can't make me.
Sure, take your kids. But if you can get away with it, have a Disney experience without them. It really is a magical place.
But buy them nice presents. It's the only way to start thawing things out at home.