Today I’m going to go all in and talk about that one thing that we all kinda sorta pretend doesn’t exist; the dark side of a Disney vacation. Now don’t get me wrong, bringing your family to Disney is a magical experience, a fun trip and can be some of the best memories your family will ever make.
If you do it right.
We’ve all either been there or have seen families with young children, and sometimes even older ones, with anything but smiles on their faces.
Kids are grumpy, hot and sweaty being kids, as they are known to do and parents are frazzled, so busy trying to ensure that their little ones are having fun, that they push and pull and drag them here and there trying to fit everything in and essentially take the fun out of the entire experience, for everyone.
Tired kids and frazzled parents do not gel normally anyway, add to the mix lots of money spent on the trip, extended travel-time and off-kilter daily schedules and in the Summer, excessive heat can make some parents swear off the entire experience entirely.
But, it doesn’t have to be that way, it’s quite possible to get the most magical experience for your family with little to no stress if you’re prepared. Read my tips below for traveling to Disney with young children.
Opt for Character Dining
A large part of visiting the Disney Theme parks is to actually meet your favorite characters. When I first took our older kids to Disney World in 2005, they were 5, 6 and 7 at the time. We purchased (at home) Disney themed autograph books and spent a great deal of time tracking down meet and greet opportunities.
They LOVED the idea of ‘getting autographs’ their faorite being lunch with Winnie and Friends at The Crystal Palace. It was a relaxed pace, fantastic buffet by the way, and just an all around fun experience. Toddlers are most likely not going to be the most patient when it comes to waiting in line for character meet and greets, so I highly recommend character dining instead!
A few years ago for my youngest at 2 years old there really was no need to get autographs, he was just happy to meet the characters and eat Mickey waffles at Chef Mickey’s. To me, the cost beats waiting in long, lines for 30-60 minutes and you get the added benefit of food, so there’s that!
Split Up Your Days
Until our youngest is about 7 years old and provided we are staying either on property or within reasonable driving distance (20 minutes) from the theme parks, we will opt to split up our days. Doing the parks this way of course takes some planning; you’ll want to check park open and close times and familiarize yourself with the myriad if calendars online that show busier days vs. less crowded ones.
This is almost essential for the sanity of everyone in the family. I usually plan which park we visit based on that information online and we plan on waking up relatively early and arrive usually between 9 or 9:30 and stay in the park until about 1:30.
At that point we’ll go back to the condo and have lunch (I bring and prepare a meal to be cooking in the crockpot and set it before we leave in the morning) and rest while the toddler naps.
Around 4 or 4:30 we’ll head back into the park and stay until closing; generally around 9 or 10 p.m. This option saves money in terms of food and we can have a nice dinner in the parks as well as a snack and it also keeps spirits high, eliminating over-stimulation and crankiness.
Definitely Do Epcot
I will always, every time recommend Epcot for young children. It makes me sad when I hear people discount Epcot as educational and thus, boring for their little ones. There’s so much to see and do, and as any parent of a toddler knows, they find delight in the most basic of things most of the time.
A riverboat ride through plants and vegetation shaped like Mickey, will be a delight. Each country in World Showcase has a dedicated Kidcot FunStop where kids can interact with people from that particular country; they’ll collect stamps from each country on their Duffy Bear passport. (Disney World recruits representatives from native countries to do contract work in their native World Showcase ‘country’.)
It was fun for Zach to interact with cast members and have his Duffy Bear signed and stamped; we particularly enjoyed seeing how they wrote his name in Japan, China and Morocco.
Attend a Hard Ticket Event
On our last Disney trip we knew that we didn’t want to go to Animal Kingdom but that Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios were definite, given the 2 year olds interest in all things Mickey and Jake and the Neverland Pirates.
It worked out in our favor, rather than spend an entire day (because we split our days into BN/AN- before nap/after nap) to attend Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. This “hard ticket” allows you into Magic Kingdom with a special wristband at 4 p.m. and access to special events and shows, plus free hot cocoa, cider and cookies at various locations throughout the park.
We had a relaxing morning around the condo and then ventured out around 3:30; Zach had had a nap prior and we had all eaten by then so we hit the park around 4 and managed to stay until 11:45.
The best part of this is event are the special events throughout; we stumbled upon a dance party with Goofy Santa and Pluto at Starlight Cafe after we had a quick dinner at Cosmos! The same holds true for the Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party!
Travel in the Fall/Winter if you Can
As someone who has lived in Central Florida in the summer, and has visited Disney in July, it is not the ideal time to go. In 2005 I took my (at the time) school-aged kids to Disney right after school ended in Massachusetts., it was just too hot. My favorite time to go is around the holidays.
We prefer the week after Thanksgiving through the first 2 weeks of December; again check crowd calendars and be aware that a lot of sports groups and cheer groups travel to Orlando at that time of year. Always check your crowd calendars online!
Don’t Try to Fit it ALL In
Let’s face it, we all want to get our moneys’ worth and for some, it’s a one and done type of thing but regardless of whether or not you’re going for the first and only time or if you go several times a year, don’t try to do everything!
It kind of goes without saying but like I mentioned before, there are so many parents trying to make their kids see and do everything and have fun and everyone loses out this way. Just do what you can, enjoy it for what it is and you’ll look back on the experience with fond memories.
Take Advantage of the FREEBIES
This is where research online comes into play, there is so much you can do that won’t cost you anything. The best freebie in my opinion, is the sing-a-long with Chip and Dale at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort.
You’ll get to roast marshmallows (bring your own chocolate, graham crackers and marshmallows to make S’mores – I even packed long marshmallow wooden roasting sticks that I bought from Amazon) They show a movie after the sing-a-long!
Buy Some “Souvenirs” in Advance
The dollar store is a great place to stop in on a weekly basis leading up to your trip. You’ll be able to find several Disney related items that you can stash away until you leave.
I was able to get pencils, crayons, puzzles, books, an on-the-go chalkboard and so many other things for the trip. They make great surprises to pull out when waiting in a long line, driving or when waiting for your food to arrive to assuage any impending meltdowns. Check out my other tips for budget-friendly Disney Souvenirs.
Plan, Plan, Plan But Be Flexible
Check your crowd calendars and find out the best parks for the days you’ll be attending, plan out your “must do” activities/shows/rides and stick to your plan as much as possible with a toddler. I’ve heard of so many people with young children going into the parks not knowing what to expect or just expecting to waltz in and immediately begin having fun.
You really have to know what you want to get out of each individual park in advance especially if you don’t travel to the theme parks often. There are countless books and websites devoted to theme parks with a family, so do your research and create an itinerary based on your family’s interests.
Now, that’s not to say you’re going to account for every minute in the park because that can be just as stressful and because there are so many things to do and see, you’ll want some flexibility.
Disney World with a toddler is not something to dread and you don’t have to necessarily wait until they’ll remember the trip; taking photos and talking about the “remember whens” will keep the memories alive forever and isn’t that what it’s all about?