A Disney vacation holds the potential of being a trip of a lifetime, full of magic, wonder, and joyful memory-making experiences. For many Disney-bound families with young children, a trip to the Walt Disney World Resort requires extensive planning, saving, and decision-making. Certainly, there should be an appropriate level of spontaneity within your vacation, but when you are a Disney “rookie” and are heading to the most magical place on earth with young kids, your best bet is to plan, prepare, and plan again, all the while remembering that sometimes even the best laid plans go awry. Far too often we have witnessed those parents at the park who have reached their sanity’s limit, looking harried and miserable and like they’d give anything to hop on the next plane out of there. Heading to the Disney Parks can be a stressful experience for families with young kids, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are our top 10 tips for Disney “rookies” with kids to help promote more magic and less mayhem.
10. Give Lofty Expectations a Healthy Dose of Realism.
Children are unpredictable, can I get an ‘amen?’ One day they love Sofia the First, the next day they downright refuse to drink out of their Sofia sippy cup. To assume that your upcoming Disney vacation will be the best vacation you ever have had or ever will have is probably not a great idea. It’s a tall order to fill—putting tons of pressure on yourself—and you might just be setting yourself up for failure. Disney vacations ARE awesome, don’t get me wrong, but they sometimes don’t go according to plan, especially when there are young children mixed into the equation. Tell yourself that it will be fun, no matter what happens. Give your plans some wiggle room to breathe. If your Disney day ends up looking nothing like what your Fastpass+ reservations tell you it should look like, don’t beat yourself up. I’ve started a Disney Park day with the best of intentions (even mapping out my nighttime fireworks viewing spot in advance) only to arrive at the park with kids that really just needed a “rest day” back at the hotel instead. So back to the hotel we went for super early naps and while I was bummed, I realized that in no way would it have been better to have stayed at the park, forcing my family to adhere to my schedule. If you have young children, sometimes they just need a break (more on that to come), sometimes they just want NOTHING to do with the characters, and sometimes you will wait an hour for a ride only to get to the loading dock and have your child loudly refuse to board the ride. It happens. It might happen to you. And it’s okay.
9. The Art of Distraction is a Beautiful Thing.
The Carousel of Progress—a classic Magic Kingdom attraction and one of my favorites, so naturally I had to take both of my young children on it with me. While my daughter was totally into it, my toddler son was not having it one bit. He wanted to stand on my lap, crawl over me to the row behind me, and more than anything just wanted to be set free. I panicked. I felt trapped. This particular attraction probably has emergency exits, but at the time I didn’t know what to do. He was getting louder, squirming out of my arms. I dug into my purse looking for something…anything…and then my fingers grasped a crinkly-sounding object and my heart lifted. A granola bar! I swiftly unwrapped half of it and my anxiety instantly evaporated as my son gladly took a bite, situated himself nicely on my lap, and finished out the attraction perfectly. Crisis averted! The art of distraction can come into play all over the Disney Parks and it doesn’t always have to be food related. If there is a small, non-cumbersome toy that would keep your child occupied while waiting in line, bring it with you! If you found the perfect parade-viewing spot but will have to claim it an hour before it begins, why not take one of those Mickey Mouse Grab n’ Go Play Packs or any other portable coloring/sticker books to entertain your kids in the meantime? Disney understands the need for distraction as they’ve incorporated interactive technology into the actual wait lines of the more popular attractions. They realize if you are preoccupied, you might just forget about the long wait. Since there is a lot of waiting at the Parks, it is best if you plan ahead and anticipate a distraction of some sort for your little ones.
8. Don’t Try and Do it All
Or do, but anticipate meltdowns and frayed nerves by the end of the day. I understand the desire to want to do it all, especially after I’ve had my first cup of coffee and am rearing to get into the Parks. But there is so much to do at The Walt Disney World Resort as a whole that it might be near impossible to accomplish it all, even without kids in tow. Trying to fit in all the popular rides and park hopping on the same day will be tough. Not impossible, but definitely tough. Is it worth it? That’s up to you to decide, but in my experience I count myself lucky to even get in a small handful of attractions with my children in one day. Children need breaks. Heck, parents need breaks. Demanding too much out of your family can lead to disastrous results. If there are attractions that you MUST experience, look to see if you can grab a Fastpass for it. The Fastpass+ option is a real timesaver, but you can only grab a few of them. It can be disappointing to leave the Parks knowing you didn’t get to do EVERYTHING you wanted, but focusing on the awesome things you DID get to accomplish while you were there is a much healthier and happier way to reflect on your vacation.
7. Talk to Your Child about What to Do if They Get Lost
If your child is old enough to understand, make sure they know what to do if you get separated from them. Show them a Cast Member when they enter a park, even introduce them to one when you arrive. Show them their uniform and name badge. Point out that they can help them if they can’t find you. This is certainly not a subject you want to have to even think about when going to Disney, but kids do get separated from their parents. Sometimes the crowds are really congested, sometimes kids will follow after a person that maybe looked like one of their parents from behind (this exact thing happened to me as a child!). Tell the child not to panic, but to find the closest Cast Member and they will help them. If you have older children, choose a landmark when you arrive (the carousel at Magic Kingdom, the Tree of Life at Animal Kingdom, etc.) and designate it as the spot to go to if you get separated and can’t reach each other by phone.
6. Catch your Zzzzzz’s
Without plenty of rest/sleep, you can kiss your magical vacation goodbye. Recharging those batteries is essential to enjoying your vacation. Going, going, going all day every day is not the way to do Disney with small children. Balance out a full park day with a relaxing pool day the next. Or simply go to bed early and then come back to the resort for naps in the middle of the day. Rest does wonders for your state of mind, and there is no benefit in driving everyone to the point of exhaustion. Even relaxing in the middle of the park can do the trick sometimes. For instance, check out the hub grass at Magic Kingdom, just past Main Street, U.S.A. Here, you can spread out a blanket (or just sprawl out on the grass itself—it’s as soft as carpet!), take your shoes off, and kick back for a bit. I’ve even seen folks napping out here! Trust us, there will be plenty of peaks on your Disney vacation, but there needs to be a good amount of lulls just to balance it all out.
5. Take Advantage of the My Disney Experience App/Website Before You Go
While we’d never recommend planning out every minute of each day, making Fastpass+ and/or dining reservations well in advance is a must for the more popular attractions and restaurants. Rarely will you be able to walk right up to a Disney restaurant and get seated right away without a reservation. Some will even turn you away completely for being fully booked. Popular restaurants like Be Our Guest and popular attractions like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train get scooped up first, so take advantage of your 60-day Fastpass+ reservation window and your 180-day Disney dining reservation window IF you’re staying at a Disney Resort. The My Disney Experience page will come in handy for parents vacationing with children, because it gives them the freedom to choose an attraction/restaurant seating that would accommodate their schedule the best. For instance, if you wait too long to secure a coveted restaurant reservation you might only get the option of late night seating, which might not be in the best interest of your kids.
4. Try Not to Overspend
Disney tickets alone are expensive. Tack on a resort stay and food and you will already be paying a pretty penny for your vacation. When visiting the Parks with children, it’s hard to keep them from wanting to buy everything in sight. So many of the merchandise is at their eye-level and practically begging to be bought. If you are attempting to cling to a budget of any kind, our tip would be to try and get their souvenirs OUTSIDE of the Walt Disney World Resort. Most all of the big box chain stores nearby will carry plenty of Disney goodies at a much cheaper price point, saving you a ton of money. You can even purchase souvenirs in your hometown before your trip and stash them away in your suitcase. If you hide the souvenirs until you get to the hotel room, they won’t even realize you didn’t get them there. The concierge at the Disney Resorts will also happily leave the souvenirs on the bed for you if request this at the front desk, adding a nice surprising touch after returning from a full day at the parks. If you want to buy your kids a souvenir at a Disney Park, simply give them each a budget and try your darndest to adhere to it. It’s not impossible to find a $5 souvenir in the gift shops, and often times it will make them just as happy as a $20 souvenir.
3. Go to Epcot
Contrary to what you might have heard, this park is just as much for children as it is for adults. Perhaps it wasn’t always this way, but they have since developed enticing and interactive activities, attractions, shows, and experiences that appeal to young children just as much as adults, even inside the World Showcase. Do yourself a favor and make sure you experience this fantastic Disney Park with your children!
2. Test out the “Character Waters” with a Character Dining Experience
If this is your first time vacationing at Walt Disney World with your children and don’t know whether or not they’ll love or hate the larger-than-life Disney characters, why not book a character dining experience at a Disney resort before you head into the parks? This will give you the perfect opportunity to indulge in a delicious feast of various buffet foods while mingling with Disney characters, who will show up at your table in various increments throughout your meal. If your children don’t love them, then you will find out here before you chance waiting an hour for a character meet and greet inside the Disney Parks, only to have to leave immediately because they are screaming their head off at the sight of them (yes, this DOES happen). Some children just need a little “dress rehearsal” before the big show. “Check out Top 10 Character Dining Experiences at Disney World.”
1. Have a Wonderful Time
If you purpose to have a good time no matter what hiccups might sneak into your day, you will have a good time. Above all else, don’t let circumstances dictate your vacation. Choose to have a blast at all costs, no matter what.
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