Just like most kids, my children are absolutely crazy about Disney. They love the movies, they love the music, they love the characters, and they love just about every piece of Disney-themed merchandise they can get their grubby, little hands on. And, like the dutiful little Disney fanatics they are, they’re constantly asking my wife and I to take them to Disney World.
Fortunately for the kids, we’re fans, too.
We’ve been fortunate enough to go to the parks a few times now, and every time, we learn something new that can make the trip easier. Of course, most of the time we learn those things after they would have been useful, but we file that information away for the next time we make it to Orlando. However, I realized that it would be kind of greedy for me to just sit on this information, so I figured I’d share it with other parents so they could reap the benefits of our trials and errors.
This list is based on several different trips to the parks, and with children at different ages. I even asked some friends for their own tips for good measure. Hopefully, some of these tricks will help you to get home with as few meltdowns and broken bones as possible, and with the same number of kids as when you left the house.
Before the Storm
Planning early can be one of the most effective ways to keep control of things in the parks. Make sure that you communicate clearly with your kids before leaving the house, and the entire time you’re in the car/van on the way there, because once your kids see their first glimpse of Cinderella’s Castle, the front gates, or even a brightly decorated sign pointing to the Magic Kingdom, there’s a good chance (particularly if it’s your first visit) that they’re not going to hear a word you say. The only way to prevent them from checking out the instant they smell a churro is to prepare them long beforehand.
Speaking of preparing beforehand, don’t make the mistake that we did our first time and just plan to buy your tickets at the gate. Gate prices are higher than you’ll find most other places, and there are plenty of places to buy discount Disney World tickets online. Plus, if you buy your tickets early, you can also sign up for other packages that will open up more Disney experiences for your family without digging quite as deeply into your wallet.
You may not have the option to decide when you’ll be visiting the parks, but if you do have a choice, then save yourself a load of trouble and go during the off-season. Not only are the parks almost comically crowded during the summer, Orlando summers are hot, humid, and all-around unpleasant. You and your kids will all be happier if you’re not dealing with the crowds and the heat.
Download the Disney app before you leave home, and link it up with your family’s tickets. The app has maps to show you exactly where to go in the parks (including bathrooms!), as well as when and where characters will be for signings, the best places to eat, and—perhaps most importantly—you can even use the app to sign up for fastpasses. You can check the Disney World website for more info on how the app works.
Speaking of phones and apps, though, bring extra battery packs for your phone. Between calling and texting family members if you split up, using the map, and the inevitable moments when your child gets bored waiting in line and wants to play a game, your batteries will run out. But as long as you have an extra, fully-charge battery pack (or two or three or five), you should be fine.
If you have a kid who is interested in some of the more adventurous rides but may still be a bit anxious, you can find videos of a lot of them on YouTube. Watch them with your kids at least a few days before you leave on your trip. Give them time to decide whether they’re feeling up to the challenge or if they want to wait until they’re a bit older. They may surprise you!
Plan ahead with your kids to see what they really want to do the most. Have everyone rank the things they want to do and make it clear that everyone will get to do the things that are most important to them, and everyone will have to be okay with that. Make this agreement when you’re at home and excited about the trip so that you won’t get blindsided by disagreements when everyone is hot, cranky, and only focused on what they want to do. If it’s already clear that everyone can do the most important things to them, everyone will be a lot happier.
Also, if you or any of your kids are even slightly prone to motion sickness, don’t do the teacup ride. Just trust me on this one.
Inside the Park: An Overview
The instant you step through the turnstile, it’s go time. Hopefully you’ve prepared, because now comes the test. Are you ready? You’d better hope so.
The first thing you should do upon entering the park is set a specific place to meet up in the event that you get separated. (It’s not fun to think about, but there’s a chance that it will happen.) Find a cast member with a name tag and introduce your child to them. Point out the name tag, its shape, and how it shows the cast member’s name and where they’re from. There are a lot of different areas in each park, and the cast members’ uniforms are different all across the park. If you teach your child to check for the name tag, though, they’ll have an easier time knowing who to talk to if they get lost.
Follow the plans you made, but realize that interruptions are going to happen, and eventually, your plans are going to fall apart. That needs to be okay, too. Just try to make sure that everyone gets to do the top thing or two on their list. If you and your spouse need to split up to make that happen, that’s fine. One of you can take some of the kids to ride Aladdin’s carpets while the other takes the rest to get Elsa’s autograph.
If you’ve got teenagers, let them go off to ride Space Mountain on their own while you keep track of the younger kids, or even just take a moment alone with your spouse to breathe. Just make sure to plan a set time and place to meet up again, and be clear that meeting up is the priority. If you set specific expectations beforehand, it’s less likely that you’ll run into problems.
Here’s a tip that might seem a bit hard to swallow, considering how much money you’re dropping on tickets, but believe me, it will make your life a lot easier and your family a lot happier. Take a break from the park partway through. Get to the park as early as possible—you want to enter as soon as the rope drops. Follow your plan and hit all the rides, making solid use of your FastPasses. Live it up until sometime around 1:00 or so.
Go back to your hotel if possible. If you’re staying at an on-site resort, go enjoy the resort itself for a while. Grab a late lunch. Take a nap. Enjoy the swimming pool. Relax for a while. Afternoons are the hottest, busiest, most miserable time at a Disney park, so don’t put yourself through that. Once you’ve refreshed yourselves, gotten something to eat, and are ready to go again, head back into the park around 5:00 or 6:00, then take the park by storm again and stay as late or as long as you can.
Dining, Disney Style
Just like everything else Disney does, the food at the parks is a production. If you’re planning to eat in one of the busier theme restaurants, you’ll want to get reservations far in advance. Reservations open up 180 days in advance, and for a lot of the big restaurants like Be Our Guest, that’s about the same time they’ll fill up.
You’re allowed to bring food into the parks, as long as you don’t bring hard-sided coolers, so be sure to pack snacks you know your kids will eat. Everywhere you go, the food will be expensive, so if you’re hoping to save a buck or two, bringing your own food can help ease the financial pinch. Bring water bottles with you (they cost around $3 apiece in the park, if I recall correctly), and if you need to refill them, ask for ice water at any of the fast-dining locations. They’ll give you cold cups of filtered water that you can use to refill your water bottles.
I do recommend grabbing a Dole whip, though. It’s worth splurging for. Again, you’re welcome.
Where Every Store is a Disney Store
There are a lot of gift and souvenir shops at Disney World, and they can be a lot of fun to browse, but those knick-knacks can get expensive. Be sure to set your budget beforehand, and stick to it. If you want to give your teenagers some money for souvenirs, put it on a Disney gift card and let them know that it represents all of their souvenir money.
While some of the mementos you can buy at Disney World are exclusive to the parks, a lot of them are also available at your local Disney Store as well. Keep an eye out for clearance sales, and you might be able to nab the same tiara that would have cost you $15 in the park for $3 at home.
This next tip came from a friend of mine, and I’ve got to say, it changed my life. When you’re shopping in the different stores and you spot a souvenir that you like, don’t buy it immediately. Instead, pull out your phone and take three pictures: one of the item, one of the price tag, and one of the store sign. As you’re waiting in lines throughout the day (and you will be waiting in lines), go through the pictures and decide which items are at the top of your lists and delete the rest.
If you want to keep the pictures of the souvenirs to remember them, that’s fine; just delete the photos of the price tags and store signs. At the end of the trip, if you’ve discovered that you really want a particular item, you can go back to the shop and get it without falling victim to impulse buying. Seriously, when my friend told me about this, it changed my life.
A Few Final Things to Keep in Mind
Quite possibly the most important thing to remember on your Disney vacation is that you will not be able to do everything. Even if you went full-force the entire time you were there, it would probably take you about two months or more to get to everything, so it’s best that you recognize that it’s just not going to happen—and that’s okay! Don’t let missing something that you wanted to do ruin all the other wonderful things about going to Disney World with your family!
Schedule more time to spend at the pool than you think you’ll need. The pools at the resorts are amazing, and it’s nice to have some downtime with the family. While your kids will probably have a few excited memories of meeting Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and all their other animated friends, often it’s the simple opportunities to just play together that will stick with them.
Also—and I can’t emphasize this enough—don’t yell at your kids. Don’t tell them that they’ve ruined the vacation. Don’t complain about how much the trip cost. And don’t argue with your spouse in public, either. You’re adults, and just because you’re at Disney World, that’s no excuse to behave like a child. Keep your expectations low and just enjoy being in the Happiest Place on Earth with your family.
And finally, my last point: It’s. All. Worth. It. Yes, traveling with your family from your home to the middle of Florida can be stressful. Yes, it can get expensive. Yes, you’re going to be absolutely exhausted at the end of it all. But there’s nothing in this world that’s quite like seeing the look of wonder on your child’s face as they watch the fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle or the water at Epcot.
There’s nothing that quite equates to the feeling you get when your little boy grins at you as the two of you ride through the Kilimanjaro Safari past animals he’s only dreamed about before. And when your daughter clings to your leg and smiles shyly when Belle waves at her? That’s what makes it all worthwhile, my friends. That’s what gives the Magic Kingdom its magic.