Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Disney with Laurel, Violet, and my Mom for a preschool media event. I admittedly was a little concerned about how the trip would go, given Violet's fiery nature and some sensory sensitivity issues, but it was an amazing adventure. I found myself making notes about the things I wanted to share that made our life way easier at Disney. I hope these tips are helpful to you as you consider or plan a visit to Disney!
1. Book a resort hotel. I highly recommend booking a Disney resort hotel, both for logistical (see #2 and #4) and recreational reasons. Because the reality is, there likely will be times when you want to be close to home base and relax. We stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, which is simply awesome. The hotel is situated to provide savanna views in which a variety of animals and birds roam (it was rather mind blowing for my city kids to look out the window and see giraffes and antelope!), and offers lots of kid-friendly programming and a kid’s center. The pool is also great and the shallow wade-in side + deeper side/slide made it fun for both Laurel (9) and Violet (almost 3 at the time).
2. Use the Disney Magical Express. OK, so this is awesome. Disney offers free motorcoach transit via the Disney Magical Express to and from select WDW resort hotels. This service is so great that I'd recommend you first check which hotels offer Disney Magical Express and then select from those options. Simply make your reservation and special luggage tags will be sent to you. We checked our luggage in Boston, bypassed baggage claim in Orlando, headed straight for the DME Welcome Center, hopped the bus to our hotel, and our luggage later arrived directly to our hotel room. AWESOME. On departure, simply check in at your hotel's Magical Express desk and the next time you'll need to handle your luggage is at baggage claim at your destination airport. Not having to schlep luggage while negotating the girls, Vi's stroller, and my mom was beyond fantastic.
3. Bring your own stroller. If you have even a remotely “uppies!”-prone little one (as I do), bring your stroller. Disney does have strollers available on site, but for little ones you’ll want your stroller to help you get through the airports. Also, there are designated areas to park your stroller at Disney and it will be easier to spot yours in the sea of strollers if it’s your home model. I brought our Maclaren Triumph and it was perfect -- lightweight but fully functional.
4. Use Magic Bands. Magic Bands are simply awesome. You can use them to enter the parks, unlock your hotel room door if you’re at a Disney resort (OMG I loved not having to scrabble around looking for a room key card), check in at FastPass entrances (see #5), and use them for Memory Maker photos.
5. Use FastPass. In general, I’m not super patient waiting on long lines and it’s even worse with an almost 3-year-old in tow. I simply love FastPass. I almost felt a little bad blowing past people in the regular line, but I was so, so happy to use it!
6. Download the My Disney Experience app. The (free) My Disney Experience app is super handy for things like making reservations and checking on wait times on the go. It’s also GPS-enabled if you need help getting from the tea cups to Thunder Mountain.
7. Map your route. I'm a fan of jotting notes on paper maps and I recommend getting the brochure maps in advance and plotting your route so you’re not backtracking all over the place (like we did on Day 1 at the Magic Kingdom before I got my hands on a map).
8. Survey your crowd. As you map your route, check in with your kids about what they want to see most then plan accordingly. For example, if your kid's top priority is to meet Minnie Mouse (as Violet's was), try to plot your route so you arrive just before or at the begininming of the meet and greet start time so you’re not standing in a huge line. Given #5, I prioritized FastPass attractions!
9. Enjoy the shows. Initially, the girls were really excited about rides so I was laser focused on that aspect of the parks. However, at Hollywood Studios I realized how awesome the shows are (we saw Disney Junior Live + Beauty and the Beast). Not only are the productions fantastic technically (this former theatre geek notices everything!) but the shows offer you a chance to sit and relax for 20-40 minutes, whereas if you’re on and off the rides all day you’re on the move pretty much constantly.
10. Pack wisely. I'm a light packer and in my opinion the essentials are: water, snacks, sunscreen, wallet, phone (I used my phone camera to take pictures during the trip), and maps. For the first time in a million years, I also felt compelled to bring a change of clothes in a plastic bag for Violet and this proved to be a major life saver on the last day of the trip, when Vi barfed all over herself (and me). Travel and different foods can take their toll on kids; it’s good to be prepared. (Next time I'll also pack myself a backup shirt!)
11. Be flexible. Though in general, yes, it’s good to plan, be flexible. The reality is, the Disney properties include an abundance of entertainment options. It is totally fine to not see everything (is it even possible to see everything??), especially if it means you can enjoy a more relaxed vacation with your family. My general approach was to query the girls and my Mom about what seemed most fun (#8) and notate those things on the map (#7) and then visit what we had energy for or didn’t have a huge wait (not everything is FastPass accessible #5) and not worry about the stuff we didn’t visit. It was awesome.
12. Have faith. Disney is a truly incredible operation. Obviously, there’s no shortage of kids’ activities, but it also feels as if they are prepared for anything. There are baby care areas, the transit system is incredible (without any pre-planning it was super easy to navigate the monorail, tram, and buses), and the staff takes dietary issues seriously. This may seem crazy, but I actually decided to take a big leap and see if I could get Vi off her rice milk bottle on this trip by going cold turkey. I told her several times in advance of the trip to prepare her and she did it no problem. However, when I did ask if rice milk was available (in a cup) at meals, the waitstaff immediately asked if I wanted to talk to a chef about any allergy concerns.
In a nutshell, I was thrilled to see how doable Disney was while traveling with three people (ages 2, 9, 78) with very different needs. And this was possible thanks to both logistical tactics (#1-10) and mindset (#11-12). I hope these tips are helpful to you and if you have others, I'd love to hear about them in the comments below!
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Disclosure: I traveled to Disney as part of a preschool media event. My family's travel expenses were covered, with the exception of one freakishly expensive airline ticket. Editorial was not required in advance to attend; I'm sharing this post because I want to help make your life easier if you head to Disney, and so I can remember these tips the next time I visit!
Image credits: Christine Koh