Going to Disney World with toddlers and preschoolers is a heck of a lot of fun, but can be a bit of a challenge, especially if you’re not prepared. Here are 13 tips and tricks that will help your family’s trip go more smoothly, keep everybody happier, and give you more bang for your buck.
1) Start the fun early.
I’ve always thought a big part of the fun of going to Disney World was the weeks leading up to it. I remember playing “go to Disney World” with the girls, where 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.
I’ve mentioned it before this book is by far the greatest Disney the best book out there for planning your Disney trip, whether you have little kids or not. It’s also as funny as heck in some spots. Don’t be put off by how huge it is; it’s an easy read and definitely not the kind of book where you start at page one and read straight through.
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.
2) Arrive at the parks in the morning as early as possible.
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.
3) Take naps!
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.
4) Skip Hollywood Studios unless you have tons of time.
I’m sure I’ll get a lot of disagreement on this one, but here goes: I personally don’t care much for Hollywood Studios as a whole. Now I do absolutely love both the Aerosmith Rock n Roller Coaster and the Tower of Terror, but since your 2 year old is probably not going to ride either of these, I consider Hollywood Studios to be completely skip-able for preschoolers. I would recommend not going there unless you’ve already seen Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and spent two full days at the Magic Kingdom.
One caveat to this: If you have Park Hopper tickets, then you might want to consider going to Hollywood Studios for one evening when Fantasmic! is scheduled. See Voyage of the Little Mermaid and/or Beauty and the Beast — Live on Stage, and then head over early to grab your seats for Fantasmic!, which is amazing.
Important Note: This post was originally written before Toy Story Land came to Hollywood Studios, thus completely changing the entire situation at Hollywood Studios for little ones and pretty much causing everything I said above to probably be false.
I have not been to Toy Story Land, so until that happens, I refer you to my friends Karyn and Steven’s Toy Story Land Guide.
5) 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.
6) Know what to do if the kids get lost (and better yet, prevent it from happening).
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.
7) Bring 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.
8) Know that the Baby Care Center is your friend.
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.
9) Take advantage of Rider Switch.
Rider Switch (also known by its more fun name, “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 cream cheese 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 Baby 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.
10) 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.
11) Have fun!
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!