Disney World the First time: 10 tips for taking little kids

My family recently got back from our first trip to Disney World...and now I feel like I'm one of those Disney experts...everyone knows one, right?!  Anyway, I thought a Disney tips series might be beneficial so here goes my first one...

We basically had no plans to go to Disney despite our four year old princess' pleas because our son was only 20 months at the time.  However, when my husband had to go to Orlando for business, we decided we'd at least save on his airfare by the rest of us joining him on the last day of his business meeting.  We only booked our trip about 3 months out because that's when we learned of the business trip so I was a little behind the eight ball to start.

I did a lot of research for our first Disney trip with the kids including reading The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids 2013 which I found extremely helpful and talking over tips with friends who frequent WDW.

Here are my top 10 tips for Disney World first timers.

1) Go off season: Disney World's off season varies, but any time during the summer, long holiday weekends (MLK, Presidents Day, etc), and holiday weeks (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Spring Break) are by far the busiest. We just so happen to pick one of the least busy weeks of the year -- the first week in February. The crowds were minimial -- relatively speaking.  We waited no more than 5 or 10 minutes in line for any rides and we got to go on all the kids rides and even some of the headliner adult rides like Rock & Roll Roller Coaster and Soarin' in Epcot.  This site has a great visual graphic of the crowds during each week to see what part of the year is the best time to visit Disney World. 

Squeezable Fruit Grabbers are great on the go
2) Pack Your Own Snacks:  Disney World allows guests to bring in their own snacks and drinks.  By doing this you can save a lot of money on your Disney vacation.  I went to BJ's (a wholesaler like Costco or Sam's Club) and stocked up on packaged snack food like crackers, fruit snacks, a variety pack of squeezable fruit/vegetable pouches (each pouch is a serving of fruit/veggies), and dried fruit trail mix.  We had four park days so I made up one snack pack for each day in a large freezer bag, plus a snack bag for each of the flights.   By making up snack bags ahead of time I avoided wasting time doing this each morning of our trip and simply threw the freezer bag of snacks in our back pack.  You could even include juice boxe, but since I was mailing them I was slightly concerned they'd puncture so I skipped it, plus we got the Disney Dining Plan (more on that below) which comes with a free refillable mug so we were set for drinks.

3) Send a Box: With fees so high on heavy luggage it may be worth it to mail a box of stuff like diapers, wipes, formula, and your pre-packaged snacks directly to your hotel.   My son only drinks soy milk.  Since I knew the hotel would not have it, I ordered a box of aseptic soy milk from Amazon and had it shipped directly to my hotel so it was waiting for us.  Aseptic basically means it does not need to be refrigerated until it's opened.  The Disney resort rooms all have refrigerators so once it was opened it was fine (even if your room does not just continually fill the ice bucket and keep the milk on that).  In addition, I mailed our pre-packaged snack bags down about two weeks before we left and it was waiting at our Disney resort when we checked in.  If you are staying at one of the Disney resorts you can call and ask for the exact address where to send the package. It is a special PO Box, not the resort's address so be sure to call first.

4) Use pre-3 to your advantage: By traveling to Disney World right before your youngest child's third birthday, you take full financial advantage of their age.   (You only need park tickets, meals, etc for kids 3 and over.) My 20 month old son enjoyed Disney World as much as my 4.5 year old daughter.  He knows all the characters, went on all the rides, and LOVED the shows and entertainment.  However, because he wasn't yet two we saved close to $1,000 on his airfare, park tickets, and meal plan (kids 2 and under eat off everyone else's plate).

5) Consider a Disney Package with room, tickets and the Disney Dining Plan:  Because we were traveling off-season we got an incredible deal when we packaged our room, meal plan, and park tickets.  Per day it only cost my husband and I each $34 a person to eat and my daughter only $12- that included a snack (something like a bagel for breakfast), a counter service meal for lunch (includes drink, entree and dessert) and a sit down meal (drink, entree, dessert) everyday.  The free refillable mug was good for coffee n the morning and then could be refilled as a "water bottle" to take to the park.  Since my son wasn't on the plan he had to eat off our plates, but at most of the restaurants -- especially buffet-style restaurants -- they allowed him his own plate for free.  The character meals are all included as part of the dining plan (Cinderella's royal table takes table service credits) but the rest are just one - just like eating at a regular restaurant.)  If you were to go without getting the dining plan lunch might look like this:

         $2.50 drink
         $12 burger/fries
         $5 dessert

That's almost $20 just for lunch and dinner is at least double that.  Even if you knock off the dessert you're still winning by getting the dining plan, especially if you have a child under three because you're basically paying $80 for a family of four to eat all day.  I should point out we DID NOT pay out of pocket for any food or drinks at the parks or our resort -- with the exception of tips, which is standard and not included in the meal plan.

6) Plan your meals:  Have your meals planned out ahead of time so you know how you're going to use your Disney Dining Plan credits.  If not you may end up using too many snacks one day and not have enough to get breakfast on the last day.  The Disney Dining Plan meals are loaded on your resort key card as a "pool" so you can use them however you want.  Since it was myself, my husband, and my daughter and we were staying for 5 nights our meal plan looked like this at the start of our vacation:

10 table service
5 table service kids meals
15 counter service (kids are not distinguished)
15 snacks

The counter service meals and snacks are not assigned to a specific person. That means if you don't take your child up to the window to order a counter service meal you can actually get them an adult meal.  For example, a kids chicken nugget meal included 3 nuggets, but the adult portion was 8 nuggets.  We got that instead and my kids split it and it was just one counter service meal.

7) Have an itinerary: My family thought I was nutso for the detailed Disney World Itinerary I planned out, but without it you're stuck wondering "what should we do today?  Before we left I had decided which parks we'd be going to on which day and planned our meals accordingly (often times when and where you can get your meals determines what park you'll go to that day -- unless you get the park hopper and can get in and out of more than one park in a day.)  I had a list of "must do" rides that were kid-friendly for each day and park and even suggestions on the order (although we didn't really stick to that too much of the time).   I also included a note about which FastPass we should get first to ensure we made it on the most popular rides.  I planned in our lunches, dinners, and nap breaks accordingly.  By having our 4 day Disney World Itinerary we literally saw and did everything we had hoped to do.

8) Get to the parks early - When you're traveling with little kids you likely won't be able to stay at the parks all day (see below on scheduling naps), so by getting there early you take advantage of having a longer day.  In addition, the parks are least crowded the first hour or two and you can often ride several rides quickly without a wait.  On our first day at Magic Kingdom we rode Peter Pan, It's a Small World, and the Merry Go Round back to back to back with no wait. 

8) Return for Naps: Both of my kids still nap so I was planning that we'd return to the hotel daily to let them sleep.  It may seem like a waste of time to take a 3 hour break in the middle of the day, but if you don't your kids will be a cranky mess and you will be even worse.  These are not days when your kids will be in bed by their 7:30 bedtime.  Mine were up at least 2 hours late every night, but still got up at the same time so naps were essential to keeping the sanity.

The first day both of my kids returned and napped for several hours.  The second day  my son fell asleep in the stroller for two hours and we decided to stay at the park straight through. By 6 pm we were all dragging as we waited for the nighttime entertainment.  The folowing day my daughter had an appointment at Bippity Boppity Boutique so my husband and father in law took my son back for naps - they all ended up sleeping.   On our last park day we were all so tired from our go-go-go trip that we decided to skip returning to the park and just went to the pool at our resort.

Disney wore these 2 out...it caught up with them at dinner the last night
9) Plan a break day:  We only had four park days and I wanted to see as much as we could, since I'm not sure when we're returning. We knew we wanted two days at Magic Kingdom so that left just two more days for three other parks.  This time we decided to skip Animal Kingdom after mulling it over with some friends who go to Disney very often.  It was a good choice to do Hollywood Studios with the little kids because of all the Disney Jr. stuff they have going on there.  Also, the park is small which makes it easier to walk around.  The only thing I wish we had done differently is to have enough time to schedule a low-key day.   The parks are intense, there's a lot going on, there's a lot to see and do, there's a lot of walking and pushing strollers up hills and fighting crowds and waiting in line.  A recharge day in the middle of the trip where maybe we went to the pool, slept in, or visited Downtown Disney would have been a great way to get our energy level back up.  Unfortunately with only four park days we didn't have time to do this, but the next time we go I will at least plan for a half day without going to a park so we can all have a little bit of a relaxing vacation.

10) Shop around for Stroller rentals: Disney World rents strollers but it's likely not as convenient as you may be thinking.  They're that hard plastic (similar to the grocery cart cars), they don't recline and you must return them pretty far away from the bus or monorail stop -- leaving you left to carry your kids.  We rented a double stroller a (City Mini Double Jogger) from Kingdom Strollers.  It was less expensive, they delivered and picked up the stroller from our hotel at the start and end of our trip, it was comfortable for the kids, included a small cooler that was attached to the stroller, and easily collapsed for the bus rides to and from the park.   (I used a small umbrella stroller at the airport for my son while my daughter walked. The stroller stayed in our hotel room the entire trip since we used the double rental for the parks)

Click here to read the 4 Day Disney World itinerary we followed


Anonymous said...

Thanks for all of the tips! :) I'm loving reading all about your disney trip. We're taking our two girls in September for their first trip. 5 5 almost 3 when we go. I am SO excited!! :) Oh, and pre 3 is free, not just pre 2. We're going a month before my daughters 3rd birthday so I'm LOVING that. :)

Melissa Viscount said...

You are so right! It's 2 and under are FREE!!! I think it's the best time to go...they get so much out of it and you save so much! Have a super time...it really is magical.

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