Visiting Disney World with Young Kids


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After mentioning our recent trip to Disney World, I’ve been asked lots o’ questions about traveling there with little kids (a toddler and preschooler, to be precise).  After sending several answers via email and Facebook, I realized it was much easier to type it all up in a post.  I’ve rounded up the things that made this trip successful for us, and I hope they’ll be helpful to you as well.  I could write a book, specifically about visiting with special needs (that post is coming, I promise!) but here’s the “best of” tips that we found helpful to make our trip to Disney World one of magic and not meltdowns.

tips and tricks for visting Disney World or Disney Land with Kids and Toddlers

But first— why (on earth) would you want to go to Disney World with toddlers?  I mean, rumor has it that Disney can be noisy, pricey, and overstimulating.  Everyone has different opinions and circumstances, but here’s why we decided to bite the bullet and go now as opposed to waiting until later:

  • Did you know kids under three are FREE?  For almost everything, including the character meals.  Take advantage while you can, it can save hundreds of dollars (if not thousands, depending on how long you stay).  Of course Bee decided the week before that he was ‘free’ (three), but we brought his birth certificate to prove he was two just in case they asked {they didn’t.}
  • Sure, they may not remember every detail and the tram in the parking lot may be the most memorable ride the entire trip, but if you do it right they’ll love the experience of it all.  And Disney is all about the experience!  Side note: Noodle remembered all of it.  And loved it all. 😉
  • Let’s face it– Disney is fun.  Even for adults.  Especially for adults!  I was surprised how much it made me feel like a kid again– and I’m not a ‘Disney’ person.  Or at least, I wasn’t.  I might be now.
  • This face, meeting Winnie the Pooh for the first time (she was enthralled, y’all!):
Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers

That face says it all, and it was worth every penny.  As was this one:

Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers

Rapunzel was a hoot.  She spent a full minute talking in character about playing chess and living in a tower and how this one time when she did THIS and THAT… and as you can see Noodle was totally surprised!  Of all the characters she met, she keeps talking about meeting ‘Tangled’ and how much she loved her hair.  Even if she looks skeptical here, ha!

Now that you know the why, here’s the how.  This trip may have been quickly planned and quite last minute, but planned it was after thinking through every facet and attempting as much research as possible in a limited amount of time.

Before You Go:

Choose dates carefully.  Any time you can go to Disney World is a good time, because it’s the most magical place on earth, right?  That being said, there are times that are way less crowded than others, and we hit paydirt with our timing– the first week in September.  Kids were all back in school (except us, with preschoolers, woo-hoo!)  The parks do close early if attendance is light, but we left by 3PM each day anyways so it didn’t matter.

Do your research and plan– but then, be flexible. By far the best investment I made was the book The Unofficial Guide to Disney World with Kids.  Yes, it was huge but a quick read filled with advice, maps, and important information.  The jackpot in this book were the itineraries.  They are plans based on statistics to give you the best chance at avoiding long lines.  Luckily we went at a low-crowd time so they were more like a sketch than all-out schedule, but did help us plan.  It also has a section listing each ride, its description, things to look out for, and it’s user ratings by age.  It’ll help you plan which rides to AVOID– super helpful with kids (for example, do not go on the Stitch ride!)  That being said, as much as you plan you’ll need to stay flexible.  Rides will be closed.  Weather might not cooperate.  Kids… well, they might not cooperate either.  Enjoy the experience as best you can– be informed, know your goals, and then let it ride!

Ship snacks to your hotel ahead of time.  This probably better applies to those who are staying on-site or have kiddos with food allergies, but we fell into neither of those categories and I still shipped a box of snacks and ‘Take and Toss’ straw cups for kids.  I wasn’t sure what our hotel would be like, and I didn’t want to spend our precious time grocery shopping.  We stayed in a hotel suite with a kitchen (we got a reallllly good deal), so I shipped a box of things like mac and cheese, cereal cups, cereal bars, goldfish, and a few other family favorites.  It was nice to have them on hand for snacking, in the parks, and even at the airport on the way home.  You can also use a site like Strollers and Groceries to deliver groceries to your hotel but I discovered it after I’d already sent the box.

Reserve a stroller and it delivered it to your hotel.  As mentioned above, you can rent strollers and have them dropped off right at your hotel.  Why not just rent at Disney?  Because it was handy to have something to transport the kids through the parking lot and you can’t do that if you rent at the gate.  We rented a Double BOB through Kingdom Strollers and it was great.  I would say, however, that hauling the BOB around collapsed is. not. easy.  It’s big and awkward!  Thankfully we only had to do it a few times, the rest of the time we rolled that bad boy everywhere and it was comfortable for the kids and easy to manipulate through Disney World.  Morning of checkout we dropped it at the hotel concierge and we were off!  {we didn’t need it at the airport, so if you do need a stroller at the airport this might not be a great option for you.}

Noodle loved the BOB!
Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers

Weigh whether to stay on-site or off.  We didn’t stay on the Disney property because we got such a great deal on our hotel, but we definitely agreed that those who did stay on-site had it easier when it came to getting to the parks.  If you stay at Disney you can zip back for naps really easily, cut off tons of time on the commute, and use Disney transportation from the airport.  That being said, it was fun to have the flexibility to eat outside of the park and hotel– and it’s much cheaper staying outside the parks, too (both in the hotel costs and food costs).

Make meal reservations, especially for character meals.  Have you booked your dates yet?  Stop what you are doing, and don’t walk, RUN to book meals.  Apparently they fill up quickly, which we didn’t know (and couldn’t do much about, since this was a last minute trip).  We ended up booking the only character meal we could get, which was at Tusker House in Animal Kingdom for breakfast.  It’s not that the food is amazing or that the ambiance is great for these meals, but the chance to watch your kids spend a minute with their beloved characters (without waiting in line) is priceless.

Breakfast at Tusker House
Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers

If you go in summer, plan for the heat.  We went in September and the temps were well into the nineties, so I can’t imagine what July would be like.  One thing that helped was we got an igloo 1/2 gallon beverage cooler and filled it at the hotel with spring water and ice.  It hooked right on to our stroller, and we drank water like it was our job.  We each had our own Nalgene water bottles, too.  The kids’ Nalgene bottles were especially great and saved us tons of money by not having to buy water in the park. I also spotted fans that misted water on Amazon and at Dick’s Sporting Goods if you want to try to get one before you leave, but they also sell them in the park (we didn’t buy them, but if it’d been 2 degrees hotter I would have caved and got them!)

Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers

If it’s really hot, stay away from certain rides like the Speedway which not only has a hot waiting area but it’s also hot on the track.  Another biggie– popsicles!  The kids got them every afternoon just before we were ready to leave.  It cooled them down– temperature wise, and emotionally, too.  It’s a proven fact a Mickey Mouse shaped ice cream can calm most hot and irritated kiddos.*

*okay, our sample size was small and the study might be slightly skewed, but for the Lemonade kids it was totally true.  😉

Know your kids.  Duh, of course you know your kids!  More specifically, know what they can tolerate, what will freak them out, and what they’ll love.  Plan to spend time doing what they’ll love, avoid the freak-outs, and take advantage of the tolerance.  I’ll detail this more when I write about traveling with special needs because it’s key, but let’s just say we quickly found out Noodle couldn’t handle anything dark and loud, but the spinning teacups were her BFF (surprising, considering her history with reflux, but we went with it).  Bee tolerated everything, even if his face did look like this when we met the characters:

Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers

During Your Stay:

Go Early.  I say this because you will want to take naps (see below).  If you stroll into the parks mid-morning, it will be more crowded and by the time you have lunch it will be time for naps.  Also, and this is BIG– if you are staying off-site be aware that the trip to Magic Kingdom is not quick.  There’s the commute to the parking lot, then parking, then taking the tram to the Transportation/Ticketing Center, and THEN you need to take a boat or monorail to the park.  Even if your hotel is only a few miles from the hotel, this trip can easily take an hour (hopefully less, but in high season I bet it’s not super quick).  Animal Kingdom was a breeze, we were able to park close enough to the gate that we didn’t need the tram and there were no hoops (or boats, or monorails) to jump through to get there.  Even so, popular rides like the Safari and Expedition Everest get busy quickly!

Naps are essential– for everyone.  At first our plan was to have the kids nap in the stroller at the park, but after really thinking it through we realized it was more important to have happy kids than check everything off our to-do list.  Therefore, we made sure to leave the park for naptime.  Sure, they often fell asleep on the way to the car but getting into the cool A/C and having them nap on the way to the hotel was perfect.  Then we swam and enjoyed the hotel the rest of the day.  We (the parents) even took a few naps in shifts, and they were much needed.

Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers

Baby Swap.  Disney allows a family to ride an attraction in shifts while only having to go through the line once.   Mouse Planet explains the Baby Swap here, it’s very detailed!  We didn’t need to use it because the lines were so short (sorry to keep bringing that up, I do know I’m totally jinxing it for the next time we go).  That being said, some rides (like Expedition Everest) has a single rider line and you could literally walk right on.  Something to keep in mind should the kids fall asleep in the stroller or are eating popsicles and you have some time to enjoy the more thrilling rides in shifts.  Hello, Space Mountain!

Comfy shoes.  A friend is going to Disney World this month and she thought it was silly to ask about shoes, but I’m telling you, it’s NOT silly.  Comfy shoes are essential!  I bought new sneakers for the kids and made sure they were broken in before leaving.  Yes, they spent most of the time in the stroller but there were times when they had to wait in line or they ran around so comfy shoes were key.  As for me, I debated what to do.  My feet have many issues, so in the end I wore my best sneakers and brought flip flops to wear once we got back to the car (probably my fave part of the day, getting to the car and changing into flip flops!)  Just make sure whatever shoes you wear will not only be comfortable, but remain so for 6-10 hours of running around for miles (literally, the average person visiting Disney will walk 5-8 miles each day and that’s a lot of wear and tear if you are going for several days straight!)  In addition, it’s not easy walking like around a track.  You are waiting in line, pushing strollers, holding kids while walking, veering around people, stopping suddenly– you get the gist.  Now, go get comfy shoes!

Snacks.  Pack them, or prepare to stop and buy them every few hours.  Keeping everyone’s energy up was very important.  In Magic Kingdom we had a churro break; when I was there as a child my dad bought us churros, and it was neat to do the same for my kids.  We all gobbled them!  I mentioned the afternoon popsicle break, and we also packed a few favorites for when we needed to wait in line or the mid-afternoon lull when a pick-me-up is needed.

Notice here that in addition to the animal crackers, Bee loved the storm drains.  Yes, the drains.  Let’s not discuss the fact Disney is so imaginative they have hoof prints, leaf prints, fake peanuts near Dumbo, and tire tracks embedded in the sidewalks depending on which area of the park you are in… it was the storm drains that enchanted this little guy.

Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers

Play, play, play.

In the foreword of the Unofficial Guide to Disney World with Kids, the authors describe visiting Disney World not as a destination, and not even as a journey– because doing so would mean it’s about getting from point A to point B.  Rather, it’s a dance.  You start, you stop, you twirl, you dip.  But the entire time, try to enjoy it.  That metaphor was absolutely right on target.  Sure, everyone wants to ride the attractions.  But having a mix of rides, shows, character meets, snack stops, and playtime is so key to enjoying the ‘dance’.

We only visited two of the parks– Magic Kingdom for two days and Animal Kingdom for one.  Building time to play into those visits was (oh, I have to say it, just once!)– magical.  In the Magic Kingdom we spent 45 minutes exploring Tom Sawyers Island.  No lines, just climbing tree houses, ducking into caves, and running over the barrel bridge.  In the Animal Kingdom, my kids loved The Boneyard.  It was shaded, had a water feature, and they must have spent 30 minutes on the slides.  My husband looked at me and said: “we went to Disney World, and they spent most of their time on the slides?!”  But check out these faces!

Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers
Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers
Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers

They’ve revamped the Dumbo ride in Magic Kingdom by adding another ride to double the amount of riders, but even better they instituted a beeper system for waiting in line.  You walk into the ‘big top’, and they hand you a beeper to signal when it’s time for you to ride the attraction.  In the meantime, kids play with the fun games and play equipment and don’t even notice the wait.  Since we didn’t actually have a wait in line, we went in regardless and played until Bee was ‘all done’ and ready to leave.  The perfect pitstop for restless toddlers!

Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers

Take a day off, or two if you have time.  Plan a pool or ‘downtime’ day.  Our kids loved the pool, so taking the day off was all part of the adventure for them.  Doing so allowed for some much needed R&R for all of us!

Photos.  Photos are a very important part of my life.  Case in point: there are a ridiculous 32,453 photos stored on my laptop.  With that out in the open, I’ll be honest– I didn’t take that many pictures at Disney.  I didn’t want to walk about with a video camera or camera, catching moments on ‘film’ but not in real life.  I’m really happy with the balance I found between the two, even if it meant missing a moment on camera but experiencing it with my heart.

Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers

That being said– Disney offers Photopass which means you get a card you’ll show the photographer each time, and they’ll take your photos and they get automatically added onto the account.  It’s a great service, and free until you want to order the {very expensive} prints.  Of course, that didn’t stop me from ordering a few.  😉  But I’m happy we balanced taking our own photos, getting a few on Photopass, and taking it all in myself and not just through the lens.

Letting go.  The first time I went to Disney World with my husband we literally ran around the park from the moment we got there until they closed at midnight.  My feet ached, we didn’t eat dinner until 10PM, and we slept in late the next day.  It was a blast!  But that was for our lifestyle, then.  Our lifestyle, now, means following a new boss– the kiddos.  We decided before we even got on the plane to enjoy every facet of this trip as much as possible.  With kids, sometimes that means the tram in the parking lot is their favorite thing ever.  By embracing it and letting go of preconceived notions we all had so much more fun.

Maybe we rode Dumbo five times in a row and Mickey’s Philharmagic terrified Noodle so badly I had to bolt with her to the Emergency Exit and we ate at the Pinocchio Village Haus both days in Magic Kingdom because we found the perfect corner and Bee took an extra 5 minutes to walk anywhere because of his fascination with the storm drains– coming from someone who has a hard time letting go, I’m glad I did.  Enjoying Disney as a dance and not a destination made a world of difference.

Tips for visiting Disney World or Disney Land with Young Kids and Toddlers
There it is, in a nutshell.  The trip I was terrified to take but turned out to be one of my all-time favorites.  Have you been to Disney?  Have a hint, tip, precaution?  Which attraction was your favorite?  Did you have a park you preferred over the others?  What about a hotel you loved?  Please share in the comments, or start a discussion on the Making Lemonade Facebook page!

Coming soon: Traveling on an Airplane with Kids and Visiting Disney World with Special Needs.

Got questions?  Ask away!

Many thanks to my PSMM gals for advice in planning for our trip:  Karen Hudson Sweitzer, Susan Simon, Nancy Vecchione, Hillary Chybinski, Heather Wray, Raya Buffy Fagg, Jennifer Oxenford, Beth Heller Christian, Gina Badalaty, Devon Weaver, and Colleen Kennedy.

Linking up with: House of Hepworths
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