Tuesday, May 21, 2013

6 quick tips for taking the kids to Disney World

our family has been to Disney World in Florida twice, and it definitely ranks as one of our favorite vacations. both times, we completely surprised the kids and didn't tell them we were going until the DAY OF! i wrote about our first trip here and our second trip here. but i get asked a lot about tips for taking kids to Disney World. if you are planning a trip to Disney World, first and foremost, make the most of it and have FUN! 

here are my 6 quick tips for taking the kids to Disney World: 

1. best time to go: i have heard from "insiders" that the best time of year to go to Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida is after Easter, after Spring Break, and at the first of the New Year when everyone goes back to school in January. we went the week after Easter in 2009 and it was perfect weather, and smaller crowds. we went the week before Easter in 2013 and it was unusually cold and crowded. that said, the weather and crowds did not spoil our fun. Disney World is special, magical, and memorable regardless. other than the time of year, also consider your children's ages for the best time to go to Disney World. the first time we went, Bubba was 9 months old and Big Girl was just 4. we were contending with naptimes, strollers, diapers, diaper bags, newly potty trained, breast-feeding, and sippy cups. lots of work, still fun. this time, our kids are 4 and 8 and it was a breeeeeeze in comparison. no strollers, independent potty-ers, no naps, no diaper bags, self-feeders! at 8, i was a little worried that Big Girl had outgrown the Disney Princesses, but when we got there and she saw that big beautiful castle, she fell in love with them all over again! and at 4, Bubba was the perfect age to get the "magic" of Disney.

Hollywood Studios
2. where to go: Disney World is made up of several parks - Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon, and Downtown Disney. for our kids' ages, 8 and 4, and younger, our favorites in this order are Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot. i recommend doing some research before you go. look at what each park has to offer as far as rides, shows, and characters, and decide which park(s) your child(ren) would enjoy best! at the time we went, my kids were big fans of Toy Story, Disney Princesses, Star Wars, and Cars, so we made sure to go to the parks where those characters were featured. we have never been to Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach. if you have kids that are older and have longer stamina (no naps needed, can withstand activity/stimulation for 8+ hours) i recommend the Park-Hopper option which allows you admission into more than 1 park on 1 day. we were only "tough enough" to do this once, we went to Magic Kingdom for a few hours in the morning, went back to the hotel for naps, and went to Epcot for dinner. i say "tough enough" because going to 2 Disney parks in 1 day with 2 young children is only for the strong!
watching the parade at Magic Kingdom
3. where to stay: on Disney property or off? that is the big question. we have stayed both on and off Disney property, and there are pros and cons of each. again, do some research to see what best suits your family. the best part about staying on Disney property, for us, was the free* transportation to and from the parks. (* staying on Disney property is a little bit more expensive so i'm not 100% convinced of the $avings) there is a fee to park at Disney parks - it was about $15 when we were there - so we saved big money by using the Disney bus system. however, using the Disney transportation means being confined to the Disney transportation schedule. on some days, the bus route took so long for pick-ups and drop-offs that we were on the bus for 45 minutes one-way when we were only 5 minutes from our hotel. there are other perks to staying on Disney property but that was the biggest one for us. when we stayed off property, we liked it because it felt like a totally different vacation from Disney. it was nice to "escape" after a full day of Disney overload, and retreat to our un-Disney Marriott resort. we had a rental car and paid for parking, but the hotel was less expensive than any of the on-property accommodations. we liked having the rental car so we could go out to eat and tool around Lake Buena Vista.

autograph book
4. what to eat: Disney World has a "meal plan" option to add on to park tickets, which get you meals and snacks at the parks. we have never bought the meal plan and here is why- amusement park food is fast food (think: burgers, grilled cheese, corn dogs, processed, cotton candy) and we prefer healthier options (think: organic, natural, whole foods, home-made), plus, Bubba eats gluten-free. other than that one time we bought ice cream as a special treat, we have never spent a dime on food at any of the Disney parks! on our first day at Disney, we go to the local grocery store and stock up on fresh fruits, sandwich fixins, and other natural snacks. Disney parks allow you to bring in your own food! by packing a backpack full of our own food, and bringing refillable bottles for water, we saved a TON of money and ate healthy as usual. some of our favorite on-the-go healthy snacks: Angie's all-natural popcorn, Happy Squeeze, GoGo Squeez, PB&J on Udi's GF bread, natural trail mix of nuts and dried fruit, Simply Go-Gurt, and Betty Lou's GF fruit bars.

Hollywood Studios in coordinating colored shirts
5. what to wear: matching t-shirts are the thing to do at Disney World. practically everyone does it! and i concur. one year, i made custom matching Disney t-shirts for my kids. our most recent trip, i dressed all four of us in coordinating colors. it's really a no-brainer. first of all, it makes packing and "what to wear" really easy. second, in a sea full of people, you want to easily identify your family members, especially your little ones, and matching shirts makes it easy to spot your people. another good reason for going matchy-matchy is for your photographs. you will take LOTS of pictures! and not only will the kids look incredibly adorable in matching shirts, but it will also help you remember which day you were at which park. for instance, looking back at our photos, i can remember that we all wore green shirts on the day we went to Animal Kingdom. also, wear comfortable shoes for lots of walking and standing. i do not recommend flip-flops. i recommend bringing rain ponchos (~$1 in the camping aisle at Target), and a light sweater/jacket for everyone. and sunscreen!    

meeting Donald Duck at Animal Kingdom
6. a few more things:

  • ID bracelets - definitely get these and put them on your child(ren) each day for your peace of mind. these also make great "if found, return to" tags for backpacks, bags, and strollers.
  • Parades - try to catch at least one during your visit to Disney World. they are entertaining, a few minutes to sit and relax, and an opportunity to see multiple characters at once.
  • Photo Pass - Disney park photographers will offer to take your picture with characters and at scenic areas of the parks. take advantage of this! it's no obligation, you get to see the digital copies when you get home and decide to purchase if you choose. if not, no big deal. 
  • Autographs & Character Greetings - definitely get/make an autograph book and make this part of your Disney experience. (i made our autograph books) the lines are sometimes insane, but the look on your child's face when she gets up close and personal with her favorite Disney character is well worth it! i have waited in line for more than an hour so our family could "meet" Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and i will never forget the looks on my children's faces! 
  • Fast Pass - this is a line-jumper option for some of the rides and shows at the Disney parks. think call-ahead seating. before you go to the park, map out which rides or shows you want to do, and see if they offer a Fast Pass for it. if there is a Fast Pass for your favorite ride/show, get it first thing. this is a huge time-saver! it can mean the difference between waiting in line 75 minutes or 15 minutes. on our last visit, we got a Fast Pass to meet four Disney Princesses, and we got in to see them in 5 minutes whereas others were waiting in line for more than an hour! 
  • Play areas & Baby centers - each park has play areas and Baby Centers. the play areas make great spots to wait for a Fast Pass to start, have a snack, or let restless children run off some energy. Baby Centers are clean and air conditioned buildings for changing diapers, nursing, bathrooms, and first aide.  look for them on the park maps and take advantage!
  • Souvenirs - gift shops and kiosks are every where you look at Disney World parks. plan ahead to prevent your kids from catching a case of the "i wants." what worked for us was letting our kids know ahead of time that they had a certain dollar amount to spend on 1 souvenir but they couldn't buy it until the last day of our visit. that way, they had all week to "shop." we gave them other guidelines, too: their souvenir had to be Disney unique - it couldn't be something that we could buy at Target, it had to be a long-lasting gift (no balloons, candy, coloring books) and it had to be something that every time they saw it or played with it, it would remind them of this vacation. on our last day at Disney World, both kids were so excited to choose their very special gift.

what am i forgetting? what tips can you share from your experience at Walt Disney World or Disney Land?