Our little family recently went on our first real vacation in…four years? More? Typically our trips are centered on spending time with out-of-state family, so we rarely get a chance to do anything that feels like a true getaway.
Until a few months back, when two friends decided to plan a trip to Disney World and asked if we wanted to go too.
Um, that would be an affirmative.
The last time I went to Disney, I was about 12, and I certainly didn’t have a toddler in tow. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I immediately set out to gather tips and tricks from people who know a lot more about the parks than I do.
I’m thrilled to report that our trip went even better than planned–and we escaped without any real toddler meltdowns or disasters.
So while there are plenty of Disney blogs out there you can read (written by what I’m sure are people who know a lot more about Disney than I do), I thought it might be helpful to share my tips for making the trip go smoothly with a toddler.
Ready, set, DISNEY.
1. Go in January.
I’m not sure Disney really has an off-season anymore, but if it did, it would be January. The buzz of the holidays has died down, and there are no major events in this month the mouse deems worthy to celebrate. As a result, you are more likely to get some kind of discount, particularly if you book your hotel, park tickets, and meals together like we did.
Plus, think about it: It’s January in FLORIDA. While the weather was pretty chilly at night an in the early morning (pack legitimate jackets and sweatshirts, folks), the rest of the day was perfect. No one wants to be dripping sweat when they meet Ariel, you guys. Even better, the parks tend to be less crowded, which is great for people who hate crowds so much they actually moved states to avoid them.
2. Stay on-site if possible.
Yes, I’m sure you can find a cheaper hotel in the Orlando area if you need to, but hear me out: Not only are the Disney hotels extremely accommodating, the convenience can’t be beaten.
Let me tell you a story. It’s called: Parents Always Have to Carry Too Much Crap. I may have given away the ending. The point is, as a parent, you are constantly carrying other people’s junk. Disney gets this. They feel you. Which is why, when you stay on-site, they offer this magical gift: They pick up your luggage from the airport. And deliver it to your room. And then, when you check out, they check it in at your hotel so you can go to the airport without your luggage and not need to carry it again until you land in your home airport.
Can I just tell you that these facts were three of the top five things I was most excited about experiencing on my trip to Disney? (The other two were meeting princesses and Tower of Terror.)
Even better, you don’t have to rent a car because the Disney Magical Express takes you to and from the airport, and the shuttle service takes you to and from the parks each day. No fighting traffic, no searching for parking. It’s like you’re way more important than you actually are.
If you factor in what transportation (and mental duress) would cost you to do all those things yourself, you might just find that this actually is the best deal out there.
3. But be sure to pack what you need immediately in your carry-on.
The only downside to having someone else pick up your luggage like you’re Beyonce? You’re not actually Beyonce, you so have to wait about three hours (or sometimes a little more) for your luggage to be delivered to your room.
To make sure you’re not left without anything essential (like a swimsuit if you want to hit up the pool or your Disney gift cards if you plan to go to Disney Springs), pack it all in your carry-on.
4. Do. The. Meal. Plan.
I really can’t emphasize this enough. Since I’m not a Disney fanatic (merely an enthusiast), it’s not terribly hard for me to imagine why there are people–and parents especially–who hate Disney. One reason? The food is expensive, yo. I mean, $9 for a basket of fries? I get it.
That’s why the meal plan is essential to enjoying your experience. If you follow my previous tip and go during the off-season, you’re more likely to get a packaged deal that includes meals. The plan is extremely generous (one quick service (or counter service) meal, one sit-down, and two snacks a day, plus your refillable mug for the resort), and some of us didn’t even have enough of an appetite to eat everything. PLUS, as of 2018, patrons over 21 can get an alcoholic beverage with their quick service an sit-down meals, which is basically an unheard of deal.
Trust me when I tell you that your enjoying every meal at Disney hinges on you doing this plan.
5. Use Instacart to get groceries delivered.
Whether you use the meal plan or not, there are undoubtedly a few grocery items you’ll want to buy outside of Disney. (Think: bottles of water, baby food, milk, etc.) Instacart lets you outsource your shopping. A real, live person will go to your desired store (even Whole Foods!), make your purchase, and deliver it to you at your hotel. They even text you if an item isn’t available anymore to have you okay a substitute.
It’s a genius way to avoid having to buy bottles of water or unnecessary breakfast items that you know you can get cheaper elsewhere.
6. Get a rolling bag or strap for your car seat.
Truth talk: You don’t need a car seat at Disney unless you plan on driving yourself (see tip #2), but I wanted to bring ours for the plane since Vivi needed her own seat for the first time and a) I knew this would be safer and b) I thought she might stay seated easier if it was a comfortable chair. (I was right on both counts, for the record.) Either way, anyone who has been a parent for more than five seconds knows that car seats are a pain in the rear to transport (remember that instant classic Parents Always Have to Carry Too Much Crap?).
The last thing you want to do is lug one around in your arms through the airport. Solution: a tether that straps it to your rolling carry-on. I’ve also heard this backpack version is good, but truthfully, I think that would be way more tiring than simply rolling it along.
7. Invest (or rent) a lay-flat stroller.
I knew that our having a good time on this trip would completely hinge on whether or not I could get Vivi to nap every afternoon. I may have (ironically) lost sleep worrying about whether or not it would happen.
To parents who are also worried about this, I offer this reassurance and suggestion: For one, your kid is most likely going to be exhausted each day. The constant mental stimulation of Disney tires everyone out, not to mention the excitement and actual physical effort required to spend the day there. Make it work for you by ensuring your stroller is a stimulation-free environment. It is essential that it lays flat and has an oversized hood to shut off your child from anything visually exciting.
Our stroller is small and compact, which is perfect for the city, but didn’t provide the aforementioned necessities. So we rented a City Mini Baby Jogger from Rent Baby Gear of Orlando. Their service is great–they dropped the stroller off at our hotel and then picked it up on the last day. My friend also rented a crib for her baby. It was convenient, easy to steer, laid back totally flat, and had a spacious sun visor that cut Vivi off from the characters and sun so she napped a couple hours each day.
8. Make sure those princess dresses are comfy.
Vivi is just now entering the world of loving all things Disney princess, but she’s also a toddler who hates if there’s an itchy tag in her shirt. That being said, I knew she wouldn’t be able to stand a full day in an official Disney princess dress dripping with tulle and rough edges.
So I was so excited when I discovered Little Adventures princess dresses and dress ups on Instagram. Their dresses are all machine washable and made from soft materials, and the quality is (I think) even more authentic looking than some Disney versions. Vivi loved her dresses, wore them the entire day at the park, and still wears them now for play time.
Tip: Before you buy, do a little digging online and on Instagram to make sure there’s not a coupon code available. She does a lot of blogger collabs, and I ended up getting two for the price of one.
9. And plan your outfits around the weather.
We were probably slightly unprepared for how cold it got at night, but in general, each park also tends to be hotter or colder depending on its makeup. For example, Animal Kingdom has a lot of open-air, cement areas, so it holds a lot of heat. Epcot has a giant lake in the center and generally feels cooler than whatever the temperature says. Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios can be crowded, but they have a good mix of indoor-outdoor rides and events to keep things balanced.
No matter the time of year you go, keep that in mind when planning Disney outfits. (Oh please, like you’re not planning Disney outfits.)
10. Buy souvenirs ahead of time.
Remember when I talked about the reasons people hate Disney? Souvenirs are one of those reasons. Because, truth talk? Those little plushies and pins are dang expensive. Get around it by buying yours before you go, and then presenting your child with a new toy each night.
We were actually extremely fortunate to have friends who love us and our daughter who bought her gifts before and during our trip. Vivi had the bubble wand, a light-up toy, and received three “buddies” throughout the vacation that she still loves on regularly. So get awesome friends, or bargain shop before you go.
11. Prepare for the fireworks.
Vivi actually LOVED the fireworks every night, but some little ones are overwhelmed by the noise. Pack a hat with earflaps or buy a pair of these noise canceling headphones to keep little eardrums protected during the booms.
12. Simplify your bedtime routine.
Everyone will be exhausted by the end of the day (yourself included), so don’t feel bad about keeping your bedtime routines short.
We simplified ours by giving Vivi a good swipe with a baby wipe, having her wash her hands and brush her teeth, putting her in her jammies, and then lights out. If you want to really do Disney at an expert parent level (or if you’re just dealing with a really little baby), bring their jammies to the park and dress them for bed right before the fireworks each night. That way, you can easily pop them into bed as soon as you get back to the room. Then in the morning, make sure everyone gets a real bath before you dress for the day.
13. Use the Disney app to plan rides and character meet-and-greets you don’t have FastPasses for.
FastPasses are truly wonderful (we only waited in about two lines the entire time), but since you only get three per park, you’re going to have to be strategic about the rest of your stay. The Disney My Experience app lets you not only track characters and navigate to rides, but it also gives you an estimated wait time for each thing. So if the line for Avatar Flight of Passage or to meet The Little Mermaid is under an hour, get over there now. (Just kidding, Avatar is NEVER UNDER AN HOUR.)(But it’s worth the wait in line, trust me.)
14. Wake up early to book FastPasses.
Speaking of FastPasses, they are no joke. You’re allowed to book three per park, but there are rules about the tier of the ride (aka, you can’t book all three roller coasters in Magic Kingdom because they’re top tier). And most of the rides you would actually need a FastPass for book up fast (no pun intended).
So make a plan. Because I was traveling with a group, we broke up the parks amongst three of us so we could book everything at once (you just have to link your reservations so you can add names outside your immediate family). Decide what is most important and book them as early in the day as you can. Once you use up your FastPasses, you’re allowed to book more later in the day. You can book your passes as early as a month before your trip.
Do NOT slack on this. These suckers are gone in a flash, so it’s worth setting an alarm so you’re up the moment they open up to you. Disney will send you about three letters and emails reminding you when the day is coming, but put it in your calendar too. As much as most normal adults hate waiting in lines, toddlers HATE waiting in lines, so the happiness of your trip depends on this.
15. And when all else fails, child swap!
Add this to the list of things Disney knows are annoying for parents on vacation. Because there are obviously rides that your little one won’t be big enough to go on, Disney will have one parent wait in line and then be given a Child Swap pass for the other parent to skip the line to ride. That way, someone is always available to watch your toddler, but you don’t have to wait in line twice.
It’s as genius as it sounds. Plus, each Child Swap pass is good for up to three people, which is how I got to go on Flight of Passage TWICE. #winning
16. Prepare your child to meet characters.
It’s not at all out of the ordinary for little kids and babies to be scared of the characters. Vivi was basically terrified until we went to a Winnie the Pooh-themed lunch at Magic Kingdom (they all look like giant stuffed animals, so I think they were less scary somehow). After that, she was generally great but sometimes needed a way to break the ice.
It’s a good idea to prep your kid to meet their heroes so they don’t panic or freeze up. Autograph books are good because kids don’t really have to say anything, but it can also be helpful to have your child prepare a question (great for the princesses who can talk) or a high-five (for the mute characters). For Vivi, a nose boop was the perfect ice breaker. Once she booped Piglet’s snout or Mickey’s nose or Olaf’s carrot, she was good to give hugs and smile for photos.
And for my final three tips, a few safety suggestions:
17. Write your phone number inside your child’s Magic Band.
In all honesty, Disney is not the worst place in the world to lose your kid. Just kidding: EVERY PLACE IS HORRIBLE TO LOSE YOUR KID. What I mean is, Disney is what you’d call pretty serious about having a good image with families, so if a kid goes missing, they shut that park down until the kid is found.
They also tag..er…give everyone a Magic Band (which operates as your room key, holds reservations and Fast Passes, and links to a credit card to make purchases). What they don’t advertise as much is that your Magic Band is really a tracking device. They use it for a variety of innocuous reasons, like tracking traffic in the park and being able to show you the professional pictures you take throughout the day. But it could, in an emergency, be useful in finding your kid as well. (Disney, if you’re reading, I also think the children’s bands shouldn’t be able to be removed by anyone other than the parent. Put a code on that thang. Just saying.)
Aside from that, a simple thing you can do to help your kid be found if they wander off accidentally is to write your phone number inside their band. Vivi was actually pretty good about keeping hers on (Tip: Tell them it’s their MAGIC PRINCESS BAND! in an excited voice when you give it to them.), and slightly older will most likely have even less of an issue.
18. Take a picture of your kid every morning.
Listen, you’re probably going to do this anyway (see the aforementioned planned Disney outfits!), but it also has a really practical motivation: If your kid goes missing, you can’t be expected to remember every detail about what they were wearing in the middle of that emotional strain. Now you’ll have a super-current photo to share with park authorities at a moment’s notice on your phone.
19. Don’t be ashamed to use a harness if necessary.
No judgment, folks. Disney can be a wild place, and toddlers are wild people who don’t understand most boundaries. If you’re raising a roamer, consider a lightweight toddler harness to keep them close and safe. We actually bought this one. We didn’t end up using it since she was either held or in the stroller most of the time, but I liked knowing we had it if things got hairy.