This past Autumn I visited Disney World with my three-year-old and two-year-old nephews. It was a dream come true for me and something I had been looking forward to ever since they were born. Sharing the magic with little ones is just one of those things which makes visiting a Disney Park all the more magical. My husband and I had visited Disneyland and Disney World many times before and every day at the park was like a marathon. We would be there from rope drop to fireworks and LOVED every minute of it. But this time we knew things would be different. And I think that is one of the biggest pieces of advice I have for people going to Disney with kids. If it's the first time you're all visiting or even if it's just your first time going with kids the best thing to do is change your expectations. Kids need to move at their own pace. I saw so many kids having meltdowns and every time it seemed to be over them being pushed too far. Don't expect everything to go to plan, or to ride every single ride, or stay from opening till close. While there might be some unexpected mishaps, remember that there will be a million more incredible memories. Here are some tips I learned from my own experience and while talking to a ton of different parents about their experiencing with taking their little ones to the park.
Choose Dates Carefully & In Advance
There is a serious algorithm to park capacity and picking a date which will have the least amount of visitors (although remember, it's Disney, even a light day is heavy) will make a HUGE difference in your park experience. Disney's new ticket pricing system, which launched in Fall 2018, displays different pricing for different days, whereas before the pricing only differed by season. The lower the price, the lower the number of people in the park. While this will mean that single day tickets need to be used on that exact day, multi-day passes allow visitors a period of time in which they can visit the parks. Disney is doing this to help better understand its crowd levels and encourage visitors to visit parks where they'll find lower crowd levels. Overall the best dates to avoid are the Christmas season, March Break, the summertime and any other major holidays. Visiting during the week will also be much less busy since the locals tend to visit more on the weekends.
Don’t Day it All in One Day or Over Plan
Disney is expensive, there's no way around that. But trying to "see it all" in one day to save your cash is putting yourself in a pretty tight spot. Weather happens, kids get sick and overall its just super exhausting for every member of your party to pack it all in. Disney really puts incentives in there to extend your days in the park. If you purchase a 5-day pass it comes out to only be around $55 USD a day compared to a one day pass of $112 USD for one park. There are always deals on these types of packages throughout the year so wait for a special incentive to come out and book during those times. Those extra days in the park not only mean you can visit more than just Magic Kingdom (highly recommended) but also mean you can head home for naps, cut the day short at 2 pm or just really take your time and explore. If you feel like you can only afford to come to Magic Kingdom for one day on your trip, visit during one of the holiday parties. This is a great way to see the parks with an added something special. Just don't try to make sure you do and see everything. Head over here to read my blog post on attending the Magic Kingdom Halloween party.
Stay on Property
While I don't want anyone to feel like if they don't stay in a Walt Disney World resort, their trip with their kids is doomed, staying in a Disney Resort does make things easier for one specific reason. You don't need to rent a car! Renting a car is an added cost as well as the parking prices at the parks. By staying at a Disney Park, once you get off the place the Magical Express Disney buses will drive you right to your hotel. The kids don't need car seats either so thats one extra thing you won't have to bring or rent when you arrive. Once at your hotel, getting to the parks is as simple as waiting for the monorail, Disney ferry or Disney buses which all will take you to the various parks. Plus there are SO MANY activities and added layers of Disney magic involved in staying at a Disney hotel. If it's raining there are things to do at your hotel, just ask the staff at the desk for the activities guide.
Plan Rest Days
Days off in between days at the park is key to keep the kids from getting burnt out. Long hours, hot or rainy weather, and waiting in lengthy lines takes it's toll on those little ones so having a day off to sit by the pool or just watch movies inside is a great way to relax and reenergize.
Prepare the kids
Talking to your kids in advance of the trip is a great way to prepare them for everything that will happen. Depending on how old they are and how much memory retention they have will depend on how early you want to leave this. Talk about where you're going, with who, for how long and what to expect. One of the biggest things to prep them for is the waiting in lines and how to be patient. Maybe come up and practice games to play while you're in line. Knowing in advance they'll have to wait will help them when the times comes and hopefully, they won't be caught off guard. Also, ask them what they're excited for and what they want to do. Maybe you have a kid who is just excited to eat the fun looking food! Knowing this in advance will help you get a better idea of what the big touchstones will be for your trip.
The Three Experiences Rule
I'm a BIG planner. But when I went with kids I kept to the "three experiences rule". Instead of planning every activity and event hour by hour I talked with the kids about what they were most excited about. For the three-year-old who didn't know much about Disney or what there was to do I asked very generic questions. "Do you like parade?" "Do you like Music?" "Are you excited for rides?" and then made some decisions based off those answers. Instead of planning the EXACT things to do I came up with three experiences I wanted to have based on those responses.
1. Ride the Adventures of Winnie the Pooh - he loves these books and movies and I knew would be able to understand the characters and references.
2. Character Dining at Crystal Palace (once more Winnie the Pooh themed)
3. Watch the Parade (he loooooves music and even performs "parades" of his own at home)
Riding Winnie the Pooh was easy enough since we could make a fastpass early in the day when I knew the kids wouldn't be too tired. Dining at Crystal Palace was a great idea since it guaranteed us time to meet the characters without lining up and in an environment where the kids could just watch them if they wanted and didn't feel too pressured to interact. The parade is on twice a day and there are also some smaller dance "parades" throughout the day that you can drop in when you have free time and don't need to strictly plan the day around it. Try out the three experience rule with yourself and I think you’ll find that combination between scheduling everything and just winging it.
Don’t Park Hop
Park Hopper passes cost a lot more on top of your ticket and when you have little kids, navigating transit, buses, taxis or even just packing everything back up into your car is an added inconvenience you don't need to put on yourself and pay for the privilege. Dedicate yourself to one park per day and you'll reducing the amount of walking everyone will be doing as well as reducing the amount of things you're trying to pack into one day.
Make a Character Dining Reservations
As mentioned before, we made sure to make just two dining reservation (spread out over the week). And those were both character dining. I'll go into why I didn't make too many other dining reservations later in the post. While character dining is fairly expensive, is it truly a wonderful experience. Most kids enjoy interacting with the characters and if your kids are old enough, ask them who they're interested in meeting so you can find the best reservation for their interests. The great thing about character dining is that you get to meet so many figures in one spot, no lineup and no waiting around in potentially hot, cold or rainy weather. I also find that during character dining the kinds of interactions you have with the character are unique and longer than when you line up to meet them in the park. For kids who might be a little timid with the characters, it allows them a little distance. When you're meeting the characters in their meet and greet locations there is a certain feeling of "being onstage" and being stared at by the rest of the guests waiting in line. But with character dining that is totally removed. If you don't want to give them a hug, the characters will still come over and chat with you at the table. And you might be wondering, you pay a lot for the meal but is the food any good? The short answer is: it's AMAZING! I was totally expecting pretty average buffet food but it is truly a culinary treat, even for foodies! So it's definitely a great place to dine even for the adults!
Don't Book Too Many Dining Reservations
Now, while I will recommend booking one or maybe two (if you have a week in the park) character dining reservations, filling every day with back-to-back dining reservations is a recipe for disaster. There were days when my kids wanted to eat at 11 am and if we had been trying to wait for a 12:30 pm reservations there would have been some serious meltdowns. Especially when it's hot or rainy, it's always nice to duck into a counter service restaurant to relax and grab a bite. So restricting yourself throughout the day to those reservations won't do you any favours. Plus cancellations less than 24 hours in advance will costs you a pretty penny so it's best to avoid that when you can.
Bring a stroller
If you have little kids a stroller will be a no-brainer but even for kids who are able to walk, bringing a stroller is KEY. Not only will pushing your kids around in the stroller mean they'll be less tired throughout the day but it is a great way to bring a bunch of stuff with you that you don't need to carry on your arms or on your back. The stroller parking areas around the rides are extremely convenient and despite there being no security around them, the honour system is going strong in Disney and we never had any issues, nor have any of the parents I chatted with.
Bring a Change of Clothes
Shit happens, sometimes literally. A change of clothes in your stroller is a great backup for accidents, food spills and the inclement weather that plagues the park. It might be chillier than you think in the evening so packing a small sweater or scarf is great to have on hand for the kids. Equally, packing a lighter set of clothes might be a godsend if the afternoon sun heats up far past the weather you dressed for when you left the house. And we all know what happens on Splash Mountain! And some kids get really bothered by being wet and uncomfortable so those extra clothes really come in handy there. If there is a particular outfit you want them to wear when meeting a characters, best to keep it nice and clean with you and quickly change them into it before the meet, to ensure it doesn’t get a Mickey Ice Cream bar melted all over it!
Don’t Force the Characters
Meeting charatcers is one of my favourite things to do at the parks. But for some kids, especially those who might not have met any characters before, thy might be a little skiddish, even afraid. Don't force them to give the characters a hug or even get close if they're not feeling it. What I like to do is be the first one to give the characters a hug or start talking to them, just like I would to any other real person. It takes away the strangeness at least a little bit. I interact with the character while also trying to get the kids into the conversation as well. "Goofy did you crash your motorcycle? Lucas did you see Goofy's motorcycle?!" It's a nice way that they can respond or interact without actually talking to the characters themselves if they too shy. I know that when Lucas first met the characters he didn't want to say hi or even talk but as soon as he left he couldn't stop talking about them and wanted to go back. I think the key there was I didn't force him or create a traumatic experience where he was crying and screaming. I allowed him his feelings and after a few more meetings, he loved chatting them up and giving them hugs!
Bring your own Drinks & Snacks
One of the key things I learned was that the kids would get hungry whenever and wherever. So always have something on you. Yes, Disney food is fun and delicious but sometimes you can't wait to get to the restaurant or wait in line. Bringing your own snacks also means you'll save a ton of money. The same applies to water. Bring lots and lots of water, it gets so warm in Orlando and having plenty of water on hand will help keep everyone happy and hydrated.
Let them Run Free
Kids hate being constrained and restricted. And after waiting patiently in line all day sometimes they just need to let loose. And instead of constantly preventing them from that there are lots of play areas in Disney where you can let them do just that. Areas like the grassy knoll in front of Magic Kingdom or Tom Sawyers Island. There even is a splash pad in Epcot. Animal Kingdom has "the boneyard" play area which is awesome! Hollywood Studios doesn't have anything labelled "play area" yet although the new Star Wars land might have something new once that's opened. There are some cool areas to run around in the new Toy Story Land which younger kids will love exploring.
Buy Souvenirs outside the Park
While buying a few souvenirs at Disney will be great fun for your kids, there are plenty of "souvenirs" at Disney parks which you can easily buy much much cheaper outside the parks. Head to Target before you go to the parks and pick up a bunch of different items which are all Disney themes (they even have Disney themed sections at target) which you can buy and then surprise your kids with throughout the days with. This will prevent them from asking to buy things at the parks since they'll already have their gifts. One of the best things I picked up at target was the glow bracelets in the $1 section. I bought 24 for $2! and a few lights up necklaces as well for a buck each which saved me almost $40 compared to buying at the parks! Whereas things like Mickey's ears are unique souvenirs to buy at the park, bubble wands and even a lot of Disney character clothing is best purchased outside the park.
Avoid lines with Apps
Don't leave home without downloading the my Disney experience app. The My Disney Experience app will enable you to check wait times at all the attractions in all the different parks at Disney world. Even if you don’t have access to a data while you’re away, all the Walt Disney World theme parks offer free Wi-Fi. This app is beneficial when dealing with little ones as you can quickly check wait times so the kids won’t have to be as patient and will get to sometimes walk right on the ride.
Consider getting my ‘Memory Maker’
In all the different Walt Disney World parks there are designated photographers set up ready to take your picture. After the photographer snaps their pics, they'll give you your first photo pass card or if you have a magic band, they’ll scan your magic band and all the photos they take will appear on your 'MyDisney Experience' app or online. If you’ve purchased 'Memory Maker' in advance or even decided to purchase it while at the parks, all the photos that the photographers take will appear there without watermarks for you to download. If you’re travelling with a large group of people, all of them can also use your memory maker. That means that even if you’re not with them, they can scan their magic band and the photos will appear in your account.
Memory maker doesn’t come cheap, it's $169 USD if you buy it at least three days before your trip or $199 if you buy it after that. But here are the reasons I feel like it’s worth it. As someone who loves photos and the memories that lie within them I frequently will hire photographers to take some pictures of my family and me while on vacation. This is expensive and when compared to the cost of memory maker, it’s cheaper if no comparable to a one-hour photos session. All over the park you can get great photos with characters, in front of attractions and even take what’s called a magic shot. A magic shot is when you'll be positioned in a certain way and a character will magically appear when the photos are processed in your account. Memory Maker is immensely fun and it also means that you don’t have to worry about handing someone your phone or setting up a tripod to get a photo of everyone in your group. It’s a carefree way to get amazing photos of you and your entire family! While it might not be for everyone considering the cost, I would highly recommend it if you feel like you have some extra money to spend.
Mobile ordering is key with little kids because it means you don’t have to wait in long lines. Simply ask what they’re feeling like and you can mobile order two dozens of different restaurants across all the parks. You can order from far away and then simply tap when you’re ready to pick it up. All you’ll need to do is walk right up and grab your food. All the payments are done through the app so you won’t even have to worry about finding your credit card in the stroller full of stuff. This saves so much time especially when it’s busy since not a lot of people know about the mobile ordering just yet because it's just recently been introduced. There are even some secret menu items available only on the mobile ordering app that you can find which are extra exciting! Mobile ordering is also available for many snack counters and for items like the Dole Whip which often has a long line, this is again, a huge time saver.
Prepare for Breaks
For little kids or even big ones alike, prepare to take breaks throughout the day. Orlando can get extremely hot and in the heat everyone gets exhausted. Allow breaks to eat food, relax on air-conditioned rides, or even just wander in the shade finding hidden Mickey’s. There are lots of places to take breaks which are also attractions. The 'Carousel of Progress' as well as the 'Hall of Presidents' in the Magic Kingdom are awesome, air-conditioned rides which almost never have lines. You can watch a show or even take a nap while sitting down in the air conditioning.
The people mover in Walt Disney World is another one of those attractions that you can ride, right away, that both allows you to have a neat experience will also resting. The ride is almost 20 minutes long and takes you all around Tomorrowland. It’s a popular ride for people with small children who often will take a nap while riding on the people mover. Although not airconditioned, it's still very relaxing. Epcot most famous ride, 'Spaceship Earth', is another one of those rides that almost never has a line and at 16 minutes long, is a great place to relax.
Don't Force Kids to ‘Be Brave’
One of the things that I saw over and over again while I was at the park was adults forcing their kids to go on rides when they were clearly afraid and in tears just by telling them to ‘be brave’. I understand the idea of encouraging kids to try something new, to see if they like it, some kids know what they like and know what they don’t like. There’s no point in traumatizing a small child simply for your own amusement. If you feel like they just need a gentle push that’s understandable but a kid who’s having a full-on meltdown while being pushed onto a ride really doesn’t want to ride it. Know their limits. If there are some thrill rides you're excited for but your kids might be a little to young to ride, see if you can split up your group. The little ones can go ride Dumbo while the older ones can get their thrills on Space Mountain. While I really wanted to ride 'Haunted Mansion' I knew that my little three-year-old wouldn’t be up for the task. So my husband and I simply waited until he went home for a nap with the grandparents for us to ride it just the two of us.
It's Your Trip Too
One of the most important things to remember is: it's your trip too. If you're not having fun, the kids won't either. If you plan your day with activities you loathe just to entertain your kids, they'll sense your energy and won't have the good time you thought they would. There are plenty of things everyone can enjoy so make sure you pepper into the trip something which makes your heart fly. A small, but meaningful thing for me, is a to start the day with an iced coffee and Main Street bakery treat while sitting under the yellow umbrellas with a view of Cinderella Castle. While the kids might not be up for the coffee, they can't refuse a sweet treat of their choice. Everyone wins!
What are your trips and tricks for surviving Disney with little kids! Let me know in the comments how you make your trip to the Magic Kingdom that much more enjoyable :)