In January 2019, my family spent five days and five nights in Disney World (plus one night and one day in Universal Studios Orlando). Planning a Disney World vacation can seem like a full time job so I wanted to share some tips and lessons learned to help you plan your trip.
Please note that I am not a travel agent. In fact, my biggest recommendation for planning a Disney World vacation is to work with a Disney Travel Planner. There are many reputable companies, and lots of Disney Planners will work with you for free if you stay on property (check fees with them before you begin planning). These professionals have insight into the must-sees and when to see them, plus, they can book everything for you from your hotel to your meals to your FastPass selections. One that DC Area Moms Blog recently highlighted is Pixie Vacations in this post.
To get you started, I will answer the most common questions I get asked about Disney World. I hope it helps you plan the trip of a lifetime!
How old should my kids be when we visit Disney World?
There is no right age for Disney. I know a lot of people want to wait until their kids are old enough to remember the experience, and that is understandable. It is a very expensive vacation and therefore frustrating if your kids don’t remember it. On the flip side, you want to go when it is still magical for your kids — when they are over-the-moon excited to meet the characters and get their autographs. We took our first trip when our oldest was three and a half and our second was 17 months. It was such a tremendous thrill watching my oldest experience the magic and she does remember bits and pieces of the trip. My second slept through the entire thing except for the moments he cried every time a princess came near him. He was free (kids under three are free in Disney), so we felt like we didn’t waste a lot of resources, except maybe energy, on bringing him. Our second trip was for those same two kids at ages 6 and a half and four. I think those ages would have been wonderful, but we had to cancel the trip a week before because I was pregnant with my third and my doctor didn’t want me to go during that summer of Zika.
That brings us to January 2019 when we brought an eight and a half, a six and a half and an almost two year-old. The older two were the perfect ages to experience the magic and go on the big rides, while still willing to go on the small rides with their sister. I don’t think the same magic will be there if we go in a couple of years, but during this trip they approached getting autographs from characters, riding Space Mountain and experiencing It’s A Small World with equal excitement and enthusiasm. This all being said, you know your kids. If your kids are older, but they are terrified of characters and rides, don’t bring them even if it feels like something you should do. If your kids are very little and meeting a princess would make their entire world, it is worth considering a trip.
Should I stay in a hotel on the Disney property?
I have friends who stay off property so that they can save some money. It can definitely be a cost savings, you just have to factor in the cost of transportation to/from the airport and the parks. You should also remember that there are different cost levels of Disney properties and there are often cost-saving specials offered throughout the year.
There are advantages to staying at a hotel on the Disney property. The first is free transportation from the airport to your hotel and back (the Magical Express) and free transportation to all of the parks and to Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney). One big perk of the Magical Express is that you check your luggage at your home airport and your bags magically show up in your room. On the way home, you check your bags at the resort and you don’t see them until you arrive at the baggage claim at home. That is a huge perk for people travelling with kids and therefore too many bags. If you decide to rent a car or drive to Disney, you get free parking at the parks if you are staying on property although you do have to pay to park at the hotel.
The second advantage is that you can start making your FastPass reservations 60 days before your trip and you can make your meal reservations 190 days out. If you do not stay on property, you can only make those selections 30 days and 180 days before your trip respectively. Also, if you stay on property, you can reserve all of your FastPasses/meal reservations at once on the day you become eligible. If you don’t stay on property, you can only make the reservations one day at a time for the specific day of your vacation that is 30/180 days out. For the most popular rides/meal reservations, the extra time could make a difference.
The third reason is that there are special park hours for certain parks each day, which means you can get into the park early or stay late and hit the rides before things get too busy or after they calm down. You also get free MagicBands if you stay on property. While not mandatory, MagicBands are a very convenient feature when running through the park with kids. They serve as your park tickets and can be connected to your Memory Maker. As a side note, I highly recommend the Memory Maker package. This allows you to have Disney photographers throughout the parks take your picture so that you can actually be in the pictures. They are also using nicer cameras than an iPhone, know the right spot to stand and can add fun features like your kids holding Tinkerbell or a frog sitting on your partner’s head. You get to keep all of the digital pictures and download them to your phone/computer. But back to the MagicBands, if you stay on property, they can also serve as your hotel room key, they have the ability to charge things back to your room and they can be used to redeem meal plan points if you choose the meal plan. In fact, you can only do the Disney Dining plan if you stay on property.
Should I do the Disney Dining Plan?
We have always done the Disney Dining Plan. The biggest reason is that we have always had a child under three and therefore he/she ate for free, which made the plan worth it for us. There are different versions of the Dining Plan, so you should review your options. We chose the one that provided one quick serve, one sit-down meal and two snacks per person per day (alcohol is included). It was PLENTY of food and we had snack credits left to play with on the last day (pro-tip: you can use the snack credits to buy certain food items that you can bring home as souvenirs if you have credits left at the end). The Dining Plan can save you money if you use it wisely. You need to eat all of your meals/snacks and you need to choose some high end restaurants that would be expensive otherwise. Don’t worry, this is Disney, most of the high end restaurants are very kid friendly and you can get some incredibly delicious meals. Our favorite meal was Ohana at the Polynesian. You can also use those sit-down meal credits for a variety of fun character meals giving you the ability to have a nice meal and meet some characters who you would otherwise stand in line to meet at the park. In other cases, there may not be a cost savings to getting the Dining Plan. In those cases, the consideration is whether you want the all-inclusive vacation feel so everything is paid for before you land in Orlando. You should also note that Disney does free dining promotions. The 2019 free dining dates are July 5 through September 30.
Which Parks should we go to?
There are four main Disney Parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. If you can make it work, I recommend going to all four. They each offer different experiences. If you only have time for one and you have not been to Disney at all or at least have not been in a while, Magic Kingdom is your go-to. Depending on your goals and stamina, you can do Magic Kingdom in a day, but you can also spend a few days there if you prefer. On each of our trips, we did 1.5 days in the Magic Kingdom so we had another opportunity to do the things we did not have time for on the first day. It also gave us more Fastpasses so we had a better chance of getting to do the things at the top of our list.
Epcot is often overlooked, but it has some really good options. The Frozen ride and Soarin’ are both worth the trip. They also have an excellent princess breakfast at Akershus, which is cheaper/fewer meal credits than the one at Cinderella’s castle, and tons of characters to meet–many of whom you won’t find at other parks. The food options are good because of the “countries” you can visit including fun adult beverage and dessert choices.
Animal Kingdom has the Avatar Flight of Passage ride in Pandora (get a FastPass–the regular line was 2.5 hours when we were there in the off-season), which is a fantastic ride and totally worth it for kids who are big enough to ride (they need to be 44 inches tall). It is also the most different from the other parks, and the safari is excellent and open to all ages.
I will admit that I did not love Hollywood Studios during my first visit, but Toy Story Land was a game changer. The Slinky Dog Dash (again, get a FastPass!!!) was one of the best rides overall and it is visually a really fun space. That is also where you will find everything Disney Junior and there is a Frozen Singalong that I thought would make me want to poke out my eyeballs, but instead ended up being a highlight.
If you don’t have a lot of time, but want to try everything, the Park Hopper pass is good for you. This will allow you to spend part of the day in one park and then switch to another. Another advantage of the Park Hopper is if you want to go to an evening experience (more on that later) in a different park than where you spent the day. Lastly, the early/late magic hours are a good way to get in some extra rides before the crowds, but those extra hours also often make the park more crowded once the gates open to the public because so many people came in early. With a Park Hopper, you could do the magic hours in the morning and then head to another park or spend the day in a less crowded park and then switch parks for the after hours time.
What else should I know before heading to Walt Disney World?
- “It isn’t Disney if someone isn’t crying.” This was my motto the entire trip. It was not necessarily one of my kids crying, although there were many times that it was. This is a place focused on kids and kids get tired/hungry/cranky/irrational. This will be a magical trip AND your kids will cry. Keep your expectations in check. The huge advantage of Disney is that most people are in the same boat as you are and you get a lot of sympathy and help from other parents when you need it. Plus, the people who work at Disney are total pros. They are excellent at helping out with children in the middle of a tantrum and I had a wonderful experience with a cast member (that is what they are all called–no matter what they do) who out of nowhere rewarded my oldest daughter for exceptional behavior. This also means that you need to know your kids. We are a go go go family, so we were in the park from opening until closing, but that is not a good choice for everyone. Plan to go back to the hotel to take naps if your kids need that. Bring snacks with you in case your kids get hangry. You are allowed to bring in your own food. Setting up your day with your kids’ schedules in mind will set you up for a much better experience.
- Buy things ahead of time and make a decision about souvenirs. There are a few things you are likely going to want to have with you, but are much cheaper to get ahead of time. My biggest example is autograph books. They are very expensive in the parks. You can get Disney themed autograph books on Amazon for a fraction of the price. Protip: buy clickable Sharpie markers to sign the autograph books–those are the easiest for the characters in the big costumes. If you are going to do pin trading, that is something you can also get ahead of time either on sale at the Disney store, at a Disney Outlet or online. I bought a number of Disney themed shirts for my kids before our trip. Disney is the land of matching and themed shirts. Many people make or buy creative ones ahead of time (reading people’s shirts was one of my favorite parts), but you can get something simple at Target and it is way cheaper than buying it there. One day I may be the person that makes my family wear matching shirts that I ordered from Etsy, but for now, a $6 Target Minnie shirt was perfect. There are non-Disney things you may want to buy and bring with you such as ponchos (a fortune in the park) and snacks. Our first trip, I actually bought Disney souvenirs ahead of time and gave them out when we got back to the hotel each night, but my kids are too old for that now. Which brings me to souvenirs…there is no right answer to the question of how many souvenirs should you buy, but you need to have a clear and clearly communicated plan before you head to Orlando. Most rides dump you right into a gift shop, so setting expectations beforehand helps you deal with the in-the-moment impulse to buy or the constant whining you may encounter.
- If you want to get onto more rides, skip the parades. Thousands of people pour into the streets for the parades, which mean they are not going on rides. If you are open to missing the parades, head over to the rides you could not get a FastPass for or the ones you want to do again.
- Use the Disney app. Use it! The Disney app is the best way to manage your reservations and your FastPasses, it tells you ride wait times and where to find characters. It is also helpful to know that there are characters hidden all over the park. Checking out the app or speaking to cast members working near the gate can help you find characters that you may have otherwise missed (and who don’t have long lines because a lot of people do miss them).
- If you have the energy, check out the add-on evening programs and parties. There are VIP dessert parties that get you better seats for fireworks and there are special dance parties with characters hidden in the parks. These extra events add a little something special to an already wonderful day.
- If you have small children, but want to go on bigger rides or have bigger children who want to go on bigger rides, take advantage of Rider Switch. This allows one adult to stay with the young child who is not big enough to go on the ride and everyone else can go on the ride. Then when the group is done, the adult who didn’t go can now get in the FastPass line (even if he/she did not have a FastPass) and bring two people with him/her. This allowed my big kids to ride a number of rides twice–once with my and once with my husband while the other adult waited with the toddler. If you have a FastPass for a ride, you can use your rider switch on that ride all day. If you don’t, you have an hour to use it from the assigned time. Two important notes: make sure you check in with the people running the ride to get your rider switch and make sure to bring the small child with you when you do. They need to see you actually have someone who is too small for the ride in order to schedule your Rider Switch.
- Done with your FastPasses? Once you have used all three of your FastPasses, you can sign up for more — one at a time. Please note that if you did a Rider Switch for a ride that you had a FastPass for and have not yet gone on the ride, you can not get a new FastPass until you go on the ride.
Have you been to Disney with your kids? What tips or suggestions would you add?