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I will always have special memories of our very first Disney World vacation as a family. My girls were ages 2 and 4, and my son didn’t exist yet. We went with my parents, whose idea it had been. (I had thought we would wait a few years before going to Disney, and am glad now that we didn’t.)
Even though we only went to two of the four parks, even though we didn’t have a single character meal … that trip was wonderful because the girls were excited about everything.
So if you’re getting ready for a Disney trip with little ones, you are in for a real treat.
And now I’m going to indulge in some nostalgia while I try to cover everything you need to know about taking toddler and preschool-age kids to Disney World — the questions I had, the things, we did right, and the things I would do differently.
Preparing Kids for Disney World
I’ve always thought a big part of the fun of going to Disney was the weeks leading up to it. I remember playing “go to Disney World” with the girls pretty much every day. We pretended the couch was the car and we “drove” there, and immediately upon arrival ran up to hug Winnie the Pooh (ah, if only it were that easy.)
Then they would “ride” various rides, including going down the slide on our backyard swing set, pretending it was Splash Mountain.
We also enjoyed snuggling up in bed together in the evenings and reading a section from this book, which gave us a general idea of what was where and got all of us excited for the trip.
It’s thorough, easy to read … and sometimes laugh out loud funny!
Other ways of building excitement (for yourself as well as the kids) include making or buying a Disney countdown calendar, watching your favorite Disney movies, or playing Disney games together as a family.
The Best Disney Parks for Toddlers
This is one of the most common questions people tend to ask, especially if they’re only able to go to the parks for a couple days. Unfortunately, we totally messed this one up on our first trip. My NASA-loving husband was dying to ride Mission:Space at Epcot, and since we didn’t spring for the Park Hopper tickets, we were stuck there for the rest of the day. And in my opinion, Epcot isn’t the best park for an entire day with a 2 and 4 year old.
Note: Personally, I still wouldn’t recommend getting the Park Hopper tickets when your kids are that little, especially if you’re concerned about saving money. Just make better decisions than we did about which parks to go to!
In my (and most people’s) opinion, the Magic Kingdom is by far the best park for a toddler.
Here are some of the attractions there that are great for little kids:
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
This is a great ride with a somewhat interactive queue. There is a3 foot, 2 inch height requirement, so some toddlers won’t be tall enough. Others will be, but the ride will be too intense for them. (It is a roller coaster, even though it’s a tame one.)
If you do ride it, you definitely want to get a Fastpass for this one OR hit it the second the park opens.
Peter Pan’s Flight
This was officially Rachael’s favorite ride after our first trip, when she was 4 years old. To this day, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is one of her favorite books.
The lines for this one are almost ridiculously long (although I think the queue is a really good one), so definitely get a Fastpass for it.
It’s a Small World
People love to hate on this ride, but your toddler will almost certainly love it. It features over 300 audio-animatronic children in traditional costumes from cultures around the world singing the theme song (which, according to
Wiki, is the most publicly performed song of all time.
POV Ride — It’s a Small World in the Magic Kingdom
Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid
This ride is easy to forget, especially since it’s in the very back of the Fantasyland, past Enchanted Tales with Belle (another good choice for toddlers). But it’s a great little ride, with short wait times and an interesting queue. Rob made sure we rode it on our last trip, proving that it’s not just for toddlers or females.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
I love anything involving Winnie the Pooh, and this ride is no exception. Just a heads up: when Rebecca was 2 years old, the heffalump section frightened her a little.
Walt Disney World Railroad
It’s easy to forget this ride even exists, and it isn’t one that gets a lot of buzz. However, it’s great if a) You have a kid who loves trains; and/or b) The idea of traveling through the park without being on your feet appeals to you.
We usually get on the train at the Main Street station right at the entrance of the park and then get off at either Frontierland or Fantasyland. You can also choose to take a 20-minute scenic tour around the entire park.
Dumbo the Flying Elephant
Boy, did we get gypped. Back when my girls were little, this ride only had one carousel, and the line had no shade and nothing to do, so you had to endure the heat while desperately trying to keep your kids entertained during the long wait.
Now, instead of having to wait in line, you get a pager and your kids can play in the Storybook Circus indoor play area until it’s your turn. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of kids like the play area better than the ride itself.
Inside the Dumbo Storybook Circus Queue at Magic Kingdom
This is a simulation of a riverboat cruise traveling down the major rivers of Asia, Africa and South America and passing audio-animatronic jungle animals. The tour is led by a Cast Member who gives a semi-improv narrative full of corny jokes. There’s a decent chance they’ll led your kid come up the front and steer for a couple minutes.
Pirates of the Caribbean
According to Wiki, this was originally envisioned as a walk-through wax museum attraction, but was changed to a boat ride concept after the success of It’s a Small World at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
It sounds like a scary ride, but it really isn’t. I think most toddlers would do just fine. (I would not, however, recommend The Haunted Mansion for real little ones.)
The Magic Carpets of Aladdin
M daughter Rebecca commented on our last trip that this was one of the most underrated rides in the park. I like it because I always get a Dole Whip at Aloha Isle when I’m finished.
Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover
I still call this the “WEDWay People Mover,” partly because that’s a lot easier to say. Some may call this a boring ride, but even if it is, who cares? You get to sit in an air conditioned area for 10 full minutes.
My son Benjamin, who was all about cars when he was little, loved this one on his first trip to Disney when he was 3 years old. If your child is too short to drive, he can still steer the car while you sit next to him and work the foot pedal. The cars travel at 7 mph and travel on a guard rail, so no skill is required.
Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin
This is a combination of a dark ride and a shooting gallery. Sure, it isn’t as impressive as Toy Story Midway Mania in Hollywood Studios, but your 2 or 3 year old isn going to love it.
Arrive at the parks before they open.
Ideally you should allow yourself at least 30 minutes to get through transportation & security and still get there before rope drop, although we’ve rarely managed to arrive quite that early ourselves. When you’re in the Magic Kingdom (which is, of course, by far the best Disney park for toddlers and preschoolers,) make a beeline toward Fantasyland.
If your kids who are sensitive to loud noises (like mine were), but you still want to enjoy one of the Disney firework shows, consider getting these noise protection earmuffs created just for babies and toddlers.
In my opinion, this is absolutely critical and works nicely with #2 above. One of the perks of getting to the parks early is that you can leave around lunchtime, or just after, go back to your hotel room, and take a nap and possible a dip in the pool before heading back out to the parks for a few hours in the late afternoon and evening. This may seem like a time-waster, but it isn’t. Trust me, your kids will need a nap and so will you. If you take only piece of advice from this article, take the afternoon nap.
The Best Kids’ Shoes for Disney World
Come up with a “Must Do” List
No matter how hard you try, you perfectly planned schedule that looks great on paper (or screen) is going to get de-railed somehow. Trust me, I know. Things will take longer than you thought, or someone (not necessarily a child) will suddenly become very hungry and have to eat right now, no matter what your meticulously designed itinerary says.
That’s why it’s smart to have a “Must Do” list before you go. No matter how badly things go out of whack, at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you did the things people really, really wanted to do. Whether it’s getting your picture taken with Ariel, riding Dumbo, or eating a Mickey ice cream bar, find out what everybody is looking forward to the most and then stay focused on those things even if all else fails.
How to Prevent Kids from Getting Lost at Disney
Disney cast members recommend that you take a photo of each child before arriving at the park that morning so that it will be much easier to look for them if they do happen to get lost.
Something like these waterproof travel ID bracelets are a good idea, or writing information on the inside of your child’s Magic Band with a Sharpie marker.
When you arrive at the park in the morning, point out to your kids that the cast members all wear white name tags, and drive home the fact that if anyone in the family gets lost or separated, they should immediately find the nearest cast member and ask for help. Tell your kids that they might have to go to the nearest ride, restaurant, or store to find a cast member; that way they aren’t aimlessly walking through the crowds and grow more panicked the longer they go without finding one.
A fun way to make it easier for the family to stay together and keep from getting lost is to wear matching family vacation shirts.
Your Toddler Needs a Stroller!
Some people have strong differing opinions about this (and, interestingly, I heard that there are WAY less strollers at Tokyo Disney), but I would recommend a stroller for each child five and under.
Fine, call me an indulgent parent with lazy kids. But Magic Kingdom is 105 acres (Epcot is 300!) and I do not want to find out what will happen when I tell an exhausted four year old who is past ready to go back to the hotel that we have to trek through the blazing Florida heat for another fifteen minutes first.
Other than their obvious purpose, strollers are also a convenient way to store the things you need to bring into the parks, like snacks, water bottles, sunscreen, sunglasses, wet wipes, etc.
I personally don’t recommend the Disney rental strollers, because they are fairly expensive, bulky, and the hard plastic looks uncomfortable. (Note that we have never actually used the rental strollers; that’s just my impression based on what I’ve seen.)
We just brought cheap umbrella strollers with no frills which worked pretty well. However, if you’re getting a new stroller for the trip, I would recommend getting an umbrella stroller with a canopy and a basket, especially if you have one or more kids still in diapers.
An organizer attachment like this one isn’t a bad idea, either, for storing all the afore-mentioned snacks, wipes, etc.
Make sure that the stroller folds easily and, as funny as this may sound, practice folding it a few times before the trip. You don’t want to struggling with it, along with a cranky toddler and/or spouse, while you’re trying to board the monorail or Disney buses at the end of the day.
You’ll want to mark your stroller so that after you’re done riding Peter Pan’s Flight or Dumbo you don’t spend ten minutes trying to it again in the stroller parking lot. This can be as elaborate as a cute personalized Disney stroller tag from Etsy or as simple as tying on an old bandanna that you still have from your college days.
The Best Strollers for Toddlers at Disney World
Disney World Baby Care Centers
I am eternally grateful to my daughter Rebecca, as she was fully toilet training before our first trip to Disney World when she was two and a half. Other parents, however, may not be so lucky, or maybe be traveling with children even younger. Fortunately for them, there is a Baby Care Center located inside each of Disney’s four parks.
The Baby Care Centers have not only padded changing tables, but also private nursing rooms complete with rocking chairs, a feeding area with high chairs, a kids’ play area with a TV and books and toys, bathrooms that are equipped with potty training snap-on toddler seats, and even a kitchenette fitted with a microwave, bottle warmer, sterilizer, and purified water.
If all that wasn’t enough, they also have a small convenience-type store set up that sells diapers and wipes, baby food and formula, toddler snacks and juice, and even things like sunscreen, feminine products, cough drops, and hand sanitizer.
Just look at what a nice, well-stocked place it is!
Using Rider Swap at Disney World
Rider Swap (also known as “Rider Switch,” or, my personal favorite, “Baby Swap”) is for rides that you and your spouse want to ride, but that your child can’t — either because they don’t meet the height requirements and/or because they’re too scared.
The best way to explain it is with an example.
In this case, an example where there happens to also be an older child in the family, although obviously it works the same way whether you have an older child or not.
Example: You, your spouse, and your 9 nine year old all want to ride Space Mountain, but your 3 year old is with you and obviously can’t ride it. What do you do?
Go to Space Mountain and ask the cast member at the entrance of the line for a Rider Switch Pass. (Ideally you would have a Fast Pass, just to make life easier for everybody, but the FastPass is not required to us Baby Swap.)
Your spouse and your 9 year old go on Space Mountain while you and your 3 year old go split a pretzel at The Lunching Pad.
Then, when your spouse and 9 year old get back from the ride, you get to enter the FastPass line and ride Space Mountain along with your 9 year old.
Do you notice who really wins out here? The 9 year old! Just another example of how life is good to the first-born.
It’s a smart idea to do “practice runs” of the Rider Swap process when you’re at home so your toddler understands how it works and doesn’t get confused or scared, thinking they’ll be left behind. Little kids love acting out stuff like that anyway. If your kids are like my girls, they’ll want to practice it many more times than you actually care to.
Along those lines, before you go on your trip, measure your kids’ height, and let them know what they can or cannot ride so there’s no disappointment at the last minute when they discover they’re not allowed on something they were looking forward to.
Buy your souvenirs before you leave home.
We personally never did this, but I decided to include it here because so many people swear by it and you can save a ton of money doing it this way. It also saves time, as you won’t have to wander around shopping for mouse ears when you could be riding Dumbo. However, there is something to be said for enjoying the shopping experience while you’re at the parks. It all depends on what your family enjoys.
Our girls never wore princess costumes to the park (they never asked to and I always thought they looked hot and uncomfortable), but if your little girls will want to do that, definitely buy them before the trip, preferably right after Halloween.
Another plus about shopping early is that you have a lot more choices. Of course you’re find plenty of mouse ears at the Disney parks, but you won’t find any quite like the ones on Etsy.
This may sound obvious, especially if you’ve never been to Disney World before, but sometimes it’s easy to think that you researched and planned this trip for months and it’s costing a ton of money so everything had better go perfectly. Allow for some flexible, don’t force your kids on attractions they don’t want to ride, and let your own inner child come out and play for a while!