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It’s been about a month since we returned from our first trip to Disney World as a family, and while it was every bit as exhausting as I expected, it was also just as magical as I expected. I was only slightly worried that a trip to Disney wouldn’t be worth it with such a young child, but I’m happy to report that I would 100% do this trip again. I don’t regret the money we spent, the vacation days I used, and the sore feet I came home with.
One thing I love about Disney World is that there really is something for everyone at every age — there is so much for toddlers to do and enjoy there, and there’s even more that’s better suited for older kids or teenagers or adults. We could take Selah back a few years from now and have a totally different but still wonderful trip.
Taking a toddler to Disney World can be super fun, but it is a lot of work. I hope these tips will help you adjust your expectations, prepare well, and maximize every moment of magic!
1. Visit during off-season.
A big perk of going to Disney before your kids are in elementary school is that you don’t have to stick to school breaks when planning your trip — which are some of the busiest times of the year. I highly recommend going in the off-season if you can, because the crowds are significantly lower and often the weather is better. Disney has done a better job of evening out crowds lately, so you do have to be careful around Halloween and Christmas parties. Many schools also take fall breaks now, so early in October used to be a good time to visit Disney but now is quite busy. Consult a crowd calendar before you book your trip for crowd predictions. You can find my favorite crowd calendar here at WDW Prep School.
2. Plan, plan, plan.
I promise, you will have so much more fun and be less overwhelmed if you take the time to plan in advance. It is impossible to do everything at Disney, so researching the most toddler-friendly attractions and making a plan of action will keep everyone sane. I picked 2-3 attractions I wanted to do each hour of the day, which was pretty doable and still allowed for some flexibility. I also made sure each set of attractions were located in the same area of the park so we wouldn’t be running back and forth all day.
3. Let your toddler lead.
This may sound a little contradictory to #2 . . . because it is. Don’t hold on to your plans so tightly that you ignore what your child wants to do. I learned this lesson the hard way on day 1: I planned the popular movies rides (Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, etc.) for first thing when the park opened, because those lines tend to build up a lot during the day. But Selah was really upset that we didn’t get to meet Minnie Mouse first thing. I thought she would just forget about it, but for much of the day she was in a sour mood.
When we finally met Minnie Mouse at the time I had planned for, she perked up and had the time of her life for the rest of the day. I rearranged our plans for the remaining park days to make sure we met characters first thing, even if it meant missing out on some of the attractions I was looking forward to.
Your planning was not a waste of time if you need to change course; the goal of planning is to make sure everyone has the most fun possible, and sometimes that means changing course.
4. Make a safety plan.
Before you enter the parks for the day, talk through the safety plan with your child. I wasn’t sure if a two-year-old would be able to understand and remember what to do, and fortunately I didn’t have to find out, but I would rather have a plan than not.
I got these ID bracelets and explained to Selah that if she ever couldn’t find Mommy, Daddy, or Gramma, she should find a grown-up and show them her bracelet so they could call one of us. At the park, I pointed out the cast members and said she could ask them to help her, or she could look for another mommy that has a stroller and ask her for help. I assume that someone with a stroller will know what to do with a lost child!
Finally, snap a picture of your toddler so you know what he or she is wearing should you need to report them missing. It’s easy to forget those little details!
5. Pack well.
Pack a bag specifically for your toddler and fill it with things to keep him or her entertained in line, while waiting at restaurants, and during lulls. I found some small Disney figurines and kept them in a zipper pouch, and they were a hit for imaginary play in line. I also packed Disney-themed coloring books, crayons, and stickers, plus a new Minnie Mouse doll. The Minnie Mouse doll made for a fun way for Selah to interact with the characters — she loved to show it to them and let them hug it.
Pack another bag with your regular diaper bag essentials, snacks (you’re allowed to bring food into the parks), reusable water bottles, sunscreen, a first-aid kit, cooling towels (they really work!), and anything else you might want to have on hand in the park. This packing list and this one were both super helpful.
6. Eat a solid breakfast.
This can be tricky depending on where you’re staying because most hotels don’t offer complimentary breakfast (Disney hotels definitely don’t, and many off-site hotels don’t either). We are big breakfast eaters, and we all get cranky if we’re eating just cereal or granola bars, so it was important to us to find a hotel that had a hot breakfast buffet included. We stayed here and while the hot breakfast wasn’t amazing, it did have everything we needed and it kept us full for a long time — and again, it was free! We bought a snack or two at the parks in the morning and could easily make it to a late lunch.
7. Arrive at the parks early.
We arrived most days in time for “rope drop,” which just means the moment the park opens and the crowds are allowed inside to get to the attractions. Most Disney parks actually open about an hour before the official opening time, so you can wander around the shops and grab snacks and then be first in line to the popular rides. At Magic Kingdom, the whole Main Street area is open during this time, and then at about 5 minutes before the official opening time there is a character show in front of the castle. It was such a fun way to get a slow start, enjoy the ambience of Main Street, and kick off the day by seeing all the characters. For the first two hours or so, the parks are not super crowded so you can get on a bunch of rides right in a row without standing in long lines. Plus, the weather is cooler is the morning and you can get a lot done before nap time.
Also, the earlier you get to the parks, the more time you save at each leg of the journey. This is especially important if you’re staying off site and trying to get to Magic Kingdom, because it is a quite a process to get in — paying for parking, finding a spot, taking a tram to the front of the lot, getting through security, and then waiting for a Monorail or a ferry to take you to the park entrance. On day 1, we arrived at the parking lot at 7:30 a.m. for a 9:00 opening, and it took us less than 30 minutes to get through all the steps — there was no wait at any of these steps and we got a spot at the very front of the lot. On day 2, we arrived just 30 minutes later at 8:00 a.m. and it took over an hour to get through all these steps.
8. Book FastPasses for late morning.
If you plan to get to the park in time for rope drop, you can ride the popular rides first (anything you didn’t get a FastPass for), use FastPasses in the late morning (after 10 a.m.), and then do lunch and naps in the early afternoon. Once you use all three of your advance FastPasses, you can book more that same day. So while your child sleeps, you can try to snag an extra FP for late afternoon. I booked many of our FastPasses for the afternoon when I anticipated Selah would be waking up, but she went down later and slept a lot longer nit he stroller than I expected. I had to change my carefully laid plans when it was clear she was going to sleep right through the FP window, so I wish I had used them earlier in the day.
9. Bring or rent a high-quality stroller.
If you want your child to nap, do not bring a cheap umbrella stroller that doesn’t recline, and definitely don’t rent a stroller from the parks (they are made of hard plastic and look pretty miserable for sitting, let alone sleeping). We gate checked our stroller, but if you don’t want to bring yours to the airport (or if your stroller is too big to get through security), there are tons of stroller rental services that will deliver a stroller (and a rain cover!) to your hotel room and pick it up at the end of the trip.
Not only is a stroller necessary for tired toddler legs and nap time, it made a great place for us to store our extra shoes, bags, and water bottles so no one had to carry a backpack. We brought our City Mini GT (which is what a lot of the rental companies provide) and added these side bags to it for extra storage, and it worked out perfectly. You could also consider this cooler attachment if you want to bring water or sandwiches (Disney allows soft-sided coolers) or this one if you want more organized storage.
10. Make nap time comfortable and familiar.
It can be hard for kids to make the transition from going, going, going at the park to taking a nap in a setting they aren’t used to (in a stroller, in daylight, surrounded by heat and noise). If your child sleeps with a blankie or stuffed animal from home, bring it with for nap time in the stroller (or better yet, bring a duplicate so the real thing doesn’t get lost!). If it’s going to be hot during your visit, for sure bring a stroller fan — if you put the shade all the way down to block out the light, it can get really toasty underneath. If your child is used to white noise at home, you might want to consider bringing a battery-operated white noise machine. This all may seem a little excessive, but I promise, anything you can do to create a setting where your child can take a long, comfortable nap is worth it. That break is necessary for everyone!
11. Take breaks — even unplanned ones.
I highly recommend planning a sit-down meal for lunch every day, if you’re willing to spend the money. I prefer a sit-down lunch to a sit-down dinner because at midday everyone is ready to be off their feet for an extended break in the air conditioning. We loved Skipper Canteen and Be Our Guest at Magic Kingdom (Be Our Guest is technically a Quick Service restaurant, but you need a reservation to eat there, and the whole experience was on par with Table Service).
Throughout your day, listen to your body and to your children and take breaks whenever they are needed. It is not worth pushing through your schedule and running everyone ragged. One or two missed attractions are a million times better than a meltdown.
12. Bring an extra adult.
When it comes to Disney, the more the merrier! My mom came with us, so we had a 3:1 adult to kid ratio, which seems like overkill but it was actually perfect. (Especially since I was pregnant and not really able to carry Selah for extended periods of time.) It also gave everyone a chance to have a kid-free night — my mom watched Selah at the hotel for us one evening while Dan and I got dinner at Epcot, and another night Dan took Selah for the night so my mom and I could try an Irish restaurant at Disney Springs. Especially if you have more than one kid, invite the grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, etc. You don’t have to do everything together all the time, but an extra set of hands can make a huge difference. Plus, it’s so fun to have those shared memories with other people!
13. Have your child wear shoes that can get wet.
It rains in Florida. Like, a lot. And throughout the parks, there are little splash pads and random puddles (of what is hopefully water) and plenty of situations in which your child’s shoes might get wet. You could bring a change of shoes, of course, but I found it easier to just have Selah wear shoes that are water resistant. Plus, it was so hot that I didn’t want her to have to wear tennis shoes and socks all day. These Natives were perfect — and they didn’t cause blisters, even when wet!*
14. Know when to call it quits.
Especially if you’re arriving at the park early in the morning, it’s very possible that your toddler won’t make it through to the night shows. If you’re staying on site and want to make those evening events a priority, consider taking a long midday break, coming back for the evening, and then sleeping in the next day.
Since we were on a short trip and staying off site, we needed to maximize those early hours. We were hoping to push through to the Ever After fireworks our first night, but Selah was exhausted, overstimulated, and still miserable from getting sunscreen in her eye. (We were also afraid she was coming down with a cold, which fortunately never materialized!) I was bummed to miss out on a show that I’d heard was amazing, but I also knew we wouldn’t be back to the hotel until past 11 p.m., and that would make the next day way less fun for everyone. I’m so glad we prioritized getting a good night of sleep — it’s tempting but just not worth it it to push your kiddos too hard.
15. Find a way to keep the memories alive.
The main pushback I got when I told people I was taking my not-quite-three-year-old to Disney World was that she wouldn’t be old enough to remember it. Did I really want to spend the money and do all the work for a trip she would barely remember? It was worth it to me because 1. the magic (especially the illusion of the characters) is real to her at this age, and 2. I was committed to keeping the memories alive and helping her reconstruct them after we got home. Much of our memory is made up of shared experiences and storytelling — sometimes it’s hard to know what we really remember because we witnessed it and what we remember because we’ve heard the story told so many times.
I took a ton of pictures while we were there and I plan to make a photo book of our trip that we can look through together, retelling the stories and remembering the details as go. Selah might not remember the trip exactly as it happened forever, and perhaps those memories will get fuzzier over time. But I know the experience and the magic she felt is lodged in her heart — and as her mom, I’m so thankful that I have those memories in my storehouse too.
Bonus tip: Keep your expectations realistic.
This is not going to be relaxing vacation. You are going to be exhausted, sore, and — when all is said and done — possibly unsure about whether the trip was worth it. If you keep in mind from the beginning that the point of the trip is to make memories with your kids, it will help you maintain the necessary perspective when things get tough or when you’re feeling overwhelmed (or when you get home and are so stinkin’ tired that you’re really regretting dropping that kind of cash on a “vacation” that was so. much. work.). See my point above, and I promise in time these memories will soften — the hard parts will fade away and you’ll be left with the most magical and heartwarming moments.
If you have any questions about our experience or the tips I’ve shared here, feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love hearing from you!
What tips would you add to this list?