Have you been thinking about planning a Disney vacation with your toddler(s) but are overwhelmed at the prospect of doing so? Between fast passes, dining plans, character meals, character meet and greets … it’s enough to make your head spin.
If you have decided you want to take your child(ren) to Disney World, we want to offer you some tips that will make your planning and vacation run smoothly. I have posted before about why I took my young children to Disney World, and I must admit, I am a convert. I could go twice a year if it were financially feasible. I am definitely in the camp that toddlers are not too young too bring to Disney for many reasons:
- under three years old, they get in free (!!)
- It will never be as magical to them once they realize the characters are merely people dressed in costumes
- When they are school-age, you will have to plan trips only during school holidays.
There are hundreds of unofficial websites and blogs dedicated to Disney World vacations, not to mention the Pinterest boards and podcasts galore. It can certainly feel like information overload, but it does not have to be. If you are a planner, there are an abundance of tools to help you with that task. But if you just want to take your kids to Disney and not stress in the planning stages, here are some tips to help you navigate planning a vacation to Disney World:
1. Create a My Disney Experience account.
2. Hire an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner.
Make sure you use an authorized Disney Vacation Planner. The best part is, it’s free to you. These planners are reimbursed by Disney. I recommend Mindy Horner of Once Upon a Vacation. Several of our contributors have personally used Mindy for planning our Disney vacations and cannot say enough good about her or her invaluable services. They can plan as many or as few activities as you wish. They can also help you with the hard-to-get reservations. For example, Mindy was able to get us a dinner reservation for Be Our Guest. Trust me when I say this is one of the most sought after dinner reservations at the moment.
We always drive to Disney. We have been three times, and it is more convenient for us to pick up and go and stop when we want/need. If the kids misbehave, they will bother no one but you. Plus, they can sleep easier. Driving means easier access to personal needs items. We leave around 6pm and drive through Tallahassee, Florida where we rent a hotel room for around $115/night. We leave the following morning around 7:30/8:00 am and make it to Orlando before lunch. We pack snacks, dual DVD players, and watch Disney movies pretty much the whole way. It helps get the kids excited for what is to come. It works for us and helps us save some money. Our rationale is that attempting to fly with the carseats, travel time to the airport, parking, potty-breaks, waiting for the Magical Express, etc. seems like such a hassle. The obvious downfall to driving is the time. But my kids go to bed at 7:30, so if we leave at 6pm, we get to cover a lot of miles during sleep time before stopping for the night so we can rest. Southwest does fly directly to Orlando from NOLA, and they do not charge for one checked bag. I say let your budget and your kids’ personalities be your guide here. Driving is not as terrible as you envision, but if you can afford to fly, it would be much quicker.
For our most recent trip, we did the dining plan that offered one snack, one quick service and one table service per person/day. The dining plan is only available if you stay at Disney property on-site, and the days of your plan are based on the number of nights you stay. I did the math, and it was only cost-effective because of the number of character meals we did. Otherwise, I would say unless you are a family of big-eaters, you would probably spend less paying as you go. However, it was nice to know that the vacation was paid for long before we even arrived. Some say it is more convenient to have the plan, but in truth, if you stay on property, you link a credit card to your magic band. With a meal plan, you still have to swipe your magic band at every meal so there is no real difference there.
The way you do save a bit of money with the meal plan is if you plan on doing several character meals. Those tend to be pricier and are covered the same as a non-character (i.e. less expensive) sit-down meal. We did one character meal/day, so it was worth it. But be warned, it is a lot of food. I think we will skip the meal plan next time we go, or opt for one quick service/day. Here is a list of all dining options and which characters are at certain restaurants. Another option is to just wing it and do all quick service meals. Or reserve one character meal and go with the flow the rest of the time.
You do not need a dining plan to make dining reservations; you only need to link your park tickets to your My Disney Experience Account. You can also pack meals and bring them into the park. You can bring a soft cooler bag with snacks and drinks into the parks and enjoy a nice family picnic for a fraction of the price. Finally, and as it relates to dining, alcohol is served at all parks except Magic Kingdom where it is only served at the Beast’s Castle for dinner at Be Our Guest restaurant. Another added bonus to character meals is that the characters come to your table which eliminates the need to stand in long lines waiting to meet some of them. Here are my recommendations for character meals:
- Chef Mickey’s breakfast buffet at the Contemporary Hotel
- Hollywood and Vine breakfast with Disney Junior at Hollywood Studios
- Be Our Guest Dinner at the Beast’s Castle in Magic Kingdom
- Breakfast in Magic Kingdom (make an early reservation and get access to the parks before everyone)
- Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in Epcot
- Tusker House Breakfast in Animal Kingdom
5. Lodging – On-site vs. Off-site:
We stayed at the Caribbean Beach Resort and LOVED it. It was a moderate resort, but it’s all newly renovated. The room had two queen beds and a small pullout bed, perfect for our 3.5 year old. The bathroom boasted double sinks, a shower/tub and toilet. There was plenty of storage for all of our clothing and incidentals. The moderate and value resorts are not on the monorail route, and thus you either have to drive to the parks every day (you won’t have to pay because you get a parking pass at check-in) or take the bus to the parks. Depending on when you go, the busses can be very crowded. We went during moderate crowds and were pleasantly surprised with how quickly we were bussed to the parks. We did drive to Animal Kingdom on our last day and that went smoothly as well. Staying on the monorail route has its positives. If you think the kids need to go back for a nap, you can get back to your room relatively easy and then right back to the park in no time. Also, you do not have to fold up your strollers on the monorail. If you can financially swing it, staying at a resort on the monorail route is ideal but it is not terrible to take the busses or drive your car. Resorts along the monorail come with a much higher price tag.
If you stay on-site, your magic-bands are included in your vacation package price with the purchase of park tickets. They are super convenient because your entire vacation plans and hotel room are linked to them. Don’t worry; you need a pin number to make any charges. If you stay off-site, you can purchase magic bands and link your itinerary through your My Disney Experience Account. One more bonus to staying on-site – if you fly, you get transportation to and from the airport and your resort. Although truth be told, several of the private hotels and resorts located near Disney World offer complimentary shuttle services for their guests as well.
6. Stroller Rental?
Absolutely a must. We rented ours from Kingdom Strollers, and it was a positive experience. It was at our resort when we arrived, and they picked it up from our resort on our last day. The stroller was in excellent condition when we received it. If you are flying, you may need your stroller in the airport. If you drive, leave yours at home and have a rented one delivered to your hotel. They deliver to off-site hotels as well.
7. Fast Passes?
Some of our contributors opt to not do fast passes, and some plan them months in advance. If you are staying on site, you can login to your My Disney Experience and make your reservations 60 days before arrival (30 days if staying off-site). A fast pass gives you a time window for the ride/attraction of your choosing, and you are able to bypass everyone waiting in line. You are allowed to pre-book up to 3 fast passes/day. Once you use all 3, you can add one at a time at kiosks set up throughout the park.
Too much planning? No worries. When you arrive to the park, find a fast pass kiosk and schedule a fast pass. I strongly recommend reserving them prior to arrival for young children if you are going during a busy time when the wait times can by over one hour for certain rides. I observed a 2+hour wait time for the Anna and Elsa character meet and greet when we were there last month. Here are my recommendations, by park, for toddlers:
Hollywood Studios: Toy Story Midway Mania :: Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage :: Disney Junior Live on Stage :: For the First Time in Forever – a Frozen Sing-a-long :: Voyage of the Little Mermaid
Epcot: The Seas with Nemo and Friends :: Turtle Talk with Crush
Animal Kingdom: Kilimanjaro Safaris :: Festival of the Lion King :: Finding Nemo the Musical
8. Grocery Delivery
If you are doing a meal plan, you probably don’t need to do this. We brought much of our ordered food home. We ordered from Garden Grocer whose prices were totally reasonable, and our order was perfect. If you do want to bring snacks into the parks or aren’t doing a dining plan, consider this convenient service. Plus, they deliver wine. Enough said.
9. Memory Maker
Memory Maker is explained here. Essentially, you can grab any Disney cast member with a camera, have them take your picture, and then link the photos to your account with your magic band or park ticket. You do not have to worry about bringing a camera because you have countless photo opportunities. You can view the pictures on your account almost immediately. And the best part? When you come home you can download all the pictures. For us, it was much easier to rely on this service for our pictures than to try to manage capturing the memories ourselves.
10. Park Hopper
For a fee, you can add a feature to your tickets that allows you to visit more than one park per day. For us, it was not worth it because we knew trying to accomplish two parks in one day when we were not staying on the monorail was not going to happen. If you stay on the monorail, it may be worth it if you think your kids would be up for it. For us, when we left in the morning, we knew we wouldn’t be leaving the park until the kids were ready to call it a day. Most days, that happened around 7:00pm.