Day 117: Disney World: A Guide for Families With Young Children

I’m going to write a few thoughts about successfully navigating Disney World while it’s still fresh in my mind.  All of the usual caveats apply, as I explained yesterday.

First, before I do anything else, I sit down and figure out how much money we are able and willing to spend on the trip.  I try to come up with a hard number, but more often than not I come up with a “best case” number and a “worst case” number.  Everyone has their own financial reality, and everyone has their own financial priorities.

Second, I figure out when we want to go.  Timing depends on a lot of different things, but I like to look at crowd predictions, here and here.  In the grand scheme of things, it might not seem like planning a trip around crowds make sense, especially with several moving pieces like work schedules, school exams, and extracurriculars, but it’s worth knowing what to expect, if nothing else, especially if young children are involved.  When we lived further away, I also checked airline prices before booking, and of course, because we stay on Disney property, we check what the room rates are going to be, because for us, especially now, that is the biggest single expense in planning a trip to Disney World.

Third, I think about how long we should stay.  There are a lot of factors to consider, of course, and I always think about what I think our kids can do, realistically, without completely losing their minds, and also how much we can take.  The length of the visit also has to be squared with the budget, and other timing restrictions, which is why I have it as my third step.  For us, because we have young kids who typically have a structured routine and who normally eat healthy and balanced meals, we have learned that three days is the ideal stay, four days is pushing it, and five days approaches burn out.  It’s easier to justify the cost of one of the nicer hotels if we stay three nights, and it becomes increasingly painful as we approach five, but park tickets decrease as you add days, so that’s also worth considering.

Every family is different, but I always keep in mind, in addition to the factors mentioned above, that no one has a good time if the trip becomes more stressful than fun, there is a lot to see and do and sometimes that can result in serious overstimulation for children and adults, and Disney World typically means walking between five and seven miles per day for us (pushing a stroller and/or carrying a child, because we have young children) and staying up much later than usual, while probably not sleeping in much, and possibly not napping.  If it were me, and I were going for the first time with young children, I would schedule two or three nights and plan on two solid theme park days, maybe three if I thought it might be our only trip.  I say this all as someone who has had a decent amount of travel experience in this country, but only with my own children – your children might be completely different and have no problem staying for a full week, or they might be completely overwhelmed after the first day.  Make your best guess and consider it a learning experience.

Fourth, I think about what we want to do, which also determines where we want to stay, and whether it makes sense to pay for access to the club level.*

We know we love Epcot, so in the past, we have stayed at Disney’s Beach Club (attached to Disney’s Yacht Club, and they are, more or less, the same hotel), which is walkable to Epcot and is right next to the boardwalk.  It’s a beautiful resort and has an amazing pool area and a sand-bottom pool.  I would say this is one of the more polished resorts, and is probably a good choice for a family looking for a more well-rounded getaway that includes substantial time at the pool.  Note:  Only guests staying at this resort have access to the pool, and they strictly enforce that rule.  On the other hand, getting to the Magic Kingdom, which is the best park for young children and has the most rides and activities, is inconvenient from the Epcot resorts, because it requires taking a shuttle bus, which requires folding a stroller, and convincing young children to sit still while large and sometimes loud strangers squeeze up against them and sometimes step on their toes.  I can tell you from experience that the last thing I want to do after a long day of Magic Kingdom adventures is wait in line for a shuttle bus for thirty minutes and stand on a bus, legs braced and children hanging from me, for another twenty minutes.  Still, if it’s something we are only going to do once on a trip, I would say it’s worth it.  Full disclosure, the last time we stayed there, we had some difficulty getting the staff to resolve some issues with our room.  It was eventually worked out, but it took a lot of trips to the front desk to deal with managers, which is not typically how we like to spend our vacations.

If the Magic Kingdom is a priority, staying at one of the Magic Kingdom Properties, as opposed to one of the Epcot properties, probably makes sense.  For us, that means staying at Disney’s Polynesian Resort.  It’s right on a little lake across from the Magic Kingdom, and our room had a great view of Cinderella’s castle and the fireworks and boat parade.  There are a lot of activities for kids, a great splash area near the pool with waterslides, and boat rentals.  Getting to the Magic Kingdom is easy, because the monorail is on the second level of the resort, or there is a boat that goes directly there from the dock (riding the boat still requires folding strollers, but the monorail does not), and Epcot is relatively easy too, because the transportation center is next door and is very walkable.  I do think, even for Disney, the food is below average, although there are a handful of things on the menu that are decent, and I lacked the willpower to stop eating french fries.

Fair warning, when you look at the prices at these hotels, you might think to yourself, “Wow, these accommodations are going to be amazing – I could book a five-star hotel in Paris for these rates, so I can just imagine what that will get me in Orlando!”  You could think that, but you would be wrong. The rooms are nice, some more so than others, but they are not fancy, and what you are really paying for is the experience of being right on property.  Also, staff members, or “cast members,” tend to be patient with children, which is a definite plus.

If I were planning a first trip to Disney World with young children, not knowing for sure when we would go back, I would plan on at least one full day at the Magic Kingdom and at least one full morning or afternoon at Epcot.  I would also buy the “park hopper” option, so that if we went to one park in the morning, took a break, and felt like we wanted to try a different park at night, we could do that.  If we lived somewhere cold, I would go in the middle of January or early or late February.  I would plan on one entire morning at the pool, and maybe one afternoon, one full day, possibly broken up, at the Magic Kingdom, and a full day at Epcot (but we are nerds).  We have not done the Animal Kingdom, because everyone we know who has been said it was nice, but disappointing, and they would rather go to a regular zoo.  However, if I were determined to book a longer trip, one day driving around and looking at animals might be a nice break from the other parks.

When we have figured out what we want to spend, when we want to travel, how long we want to stay, what we want to do, and where we want to stay, we book our travel.  We also book any special reservations or character meals as soon as possible, because those things fill up quickly, even when the crowds are reasonable.  The princess breakfast in Cinderella’s castle is pretty wonderful, and I’m glad we went when we did, because our six year old has already moved on and is no longer impressed by princess things.  Thirty days in advance we start to plan more of the details, like which color magic bands we want and which parks we want to do which days, so we can make our “fast pass” selections (basically, a fast pass reserves a spot to go to the front of the line for three rides for each day).

For the Magic Kingdom, with young children, Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh should be at the top of the list for fast pass reservations.  We also like the the Speedway, Aladdin, and Under the Sea (not Ariel’s Grotto, which is nice, but not a ride), and the lines can be longer for those rides.  For kids who meet the 35″ requirement and who like adventure, the Barnstormer is a lot of fun too.  The lines for the Mad Tea Party, Carousel, and It’s A Small World tend to be pretty reasonable, especially first thing in the morning.  I would not use a fast pass space for Dumbo, because there is an indoor play spot to use while waiting in line, and that can be a great place to give kids a break from being outside, and a good opportunity to let them run around in an enclosed space.  For Epcot, Soarin’ is a great option for kids who meet the 40″ requirement, and reserving Nemo might make sense, but in our experience the line moves pretty quickly.  When the kids are old enough, Test Track is pretty exciting.

When I start to think about making reservations for meals, I also think about what things I want to pack.  When we lived too far away to drive, it was more challenging, but there were some things I always thought were worth packing.

When we fly, each of our kids (who are able to walk well enough to hold a hand and ramble around) carries a small back pack with a few toys.  We avoid toys that have little pieces, because those tend to disappear and cause unnecessary stress, but someone always has a pad of paper and crayons, markers, and/or colored pencils, someone has books (the little ones do not carry books – it would be too heavy, and their back packs are too small to fit anything like that), there are usually some blocks (it is amazing what kids can build and pretend with five or six varied Duplo blocks when there is nothing else to do on a plane), a few race cars or trains (our oldest son once managed to fit a rather large pirate ship), and enough snacks to make it through the plane ride, assuming a three or four hour delay.  We like that approach because it gives each a child a sense of independence and importance, and also teaches them responsibility and cooperation (because they end up carrying things for each other).  I carry a bag with extra snacks, waters, some kind of surprise activity book, a few emergency toys for the baby (and diapers and a change of clothes for him), any medications we might need, and an iPad in case we get really desperate.  Somehow a lot of other random things also get shoved in when I’m not looking and it becomes too heavy for anyone to carry comfortably, but that’s pretty standard.

I try to think about things I can put in the suitcase that won’t be too heavy.  I usually pack a couple of boxes of Annie’s bunny crackers (our kids love cheddar and the snack mix), and anything else I can think of that will travel well.  Not to state something that is probably obvious to everyone else, but packing fruit tends to not go very well, and packing a case of water ends up not being worth it because it tends to put bags over the weight limit (it might save a few dollars on purchasing bottled water, but the $50 overweight fee eats into that pretty quickly).

We know what we are getting at Disney, so although we try to sneak in a few carrots and celery sticks and bites of pineapple where we can, we know we will not be eating the healthiest food, so we try to eat as well as possible before we go.  We try to stick to our normal routine as much as we can, even though the house is buzzing with excitement, and we try to keep things relatively calm.  If there is a healthy food option in the airport, we take it.  When we go to Epcot, we eat whatever “real food” is available, which is more than most other places.  There is a Starbucks right on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, and although I typically don’t drink coffee or eat there, it is one of our regular stops.

I recommend packing 1.75 outfits for each day.  So, if we are going for four days, I pack seven basic outfits.  For the boys I might only pack three pairs of shorts, but seven shirts, and for the girls (our girls like dresses) three dresses, two shorts, and two shirts.  Depending on the time of year I would include two sweatshirts or sweaters and two pairs of pants.  I don’t pack anything fancy, but I might pack one “nicer” outfit for each child, just in case something comes up.  I would also pack two bathing suits per child, which is a lesson learned the hard way, but I will not embarrass one of my children by sharing.  Let’s just say children get to be overstimulated and sometimes have so much fun they wait longer than they should when they have to go to the bathroom.  Along those same lines, we discourage our children from drinking pool water.

I do not pack anything fancy for myself.  This last trip I packed two pairs of shorts (it got to be about 88 degrees every day we were there), one light casual dress, two pairs of yoga pants, one pair of jeans, six or seven shirts, and two light sweaters, because anything cooler than 85 degrees gives me a chill these days.  I always make sure I pack a comfortable pair of sandals, but if I had sneakers, I would probably wear those instead.  I also make sure the kids pack comfortable shoes that fit well.  We always bring sunscreen and hats for the more sensitive children, but there is a lot of opportunity for shade, so depending on the time of year, it may not be necessary.  We skipped the sunscreen this last trip, and even the baby and HW, who are both very sensitive and refuse to wear hats, only got a little pink one day, and never burned.

If we don’t fly, as we did not this last trip, we do things differently.  We did not limit the children to one bag per child, and we should have, because although in my head I thought, “It’s going to end up in one big pile anyway,” and that was true, there is enough chaos that is unavoidable, and it’s worth avoiding it when possible.  Next time, I would stick to one “fun” bag for each child, as if we were going to get on a plane.  I also let them bring their sleeping bags, because although we had plenty of beds for everyone, sometimes it can be fun to curl up in a sleeping bag and have a “sleepover.”

I spent more time planning out healthy food options, because I knew I could pack more things.  I recommend a case of water, especially if club access is not an option, one apple per day per child, one banana per day per child, some other vegetable snack for each child for each day, a large bag of organic popcorn, and whatever other healthy snacks are familiar.  I do not recommend packing “treats,” because part of the fun is buying those.  This time we opted not to bother bringing a cooler, because we had club access and a fridge in our room, but next time I would bring a cooler and put all food items in it, except for the fruit, which I would handle myself to avoid bruising from bell services.  We also brought our own wine and beer, and I would definitely do that again, although that is another thing that is less important with club access.

We also like to let the kids help with the planning.  We don’t put it completely in their hands, because that would be unfair to everyone, especially them, but we take input on which rides to make a priority, which parks to do more than once, and even where to stay.  Our kids love maps, and think it’s great fun to navigate around the parks.  It might not be the quickest way to get somewhere, but sometimes doing something quickly is overrated, and I would say that’s true of Disney World, and something I wish I had remembered more carefully this last trip.  When faced with mobs of people and exhausted children, sometimes I get caught up in efficiency overload, and I would recommend avoiding that if possible.

A few special notes and suggestions:

-Bring your own stroller.  Renting a stroller can be $16/day for a single or $30/day for a double, and it is a hard, uncomfortable seat.  The rented strollers also have to remain in the park, so it won’t help with long walks outside of the parks.  We invested in a City Mini GT double stroller three years ago (after our Stokke was stolen from our front yard), and have put on hundreds of miles.  It folds up easily and is solid enough to carry 100 pounds of children, with plenty of storage underneath, as I’m sure any good quality double stroller does.  It also easy to fly with and they will check it at the gate at no cost.

-Bring a baby carrier.  This is especially important for children under three and children who are not used to spending a lot of time in a stroller.  If you’ve never worn a baby before, now is a great time to start practicing.  Trust me.  There are only so many miles one can walk with an infant or a toddler in arms.  Bring the stroller, definitely bring the stroller (because it can carry all of the things you don’t plan to buy but will buy) but count on young children to spend half of their time (at most) riding in it, and the rest of the time in the carrier.  Again, Disney can be overstimulating, and the best solution to that is holding a baby or toddler close, and it’s much easier to do that for long periods of time with a good carrier.  Granted, I’m not in super excellent shape, but I have a lot of practice carrying babies, and I couldn’t manage Disney without a carrier.  I would recommend practicing with one before the trip and figuring out which kind works best for you.  Disney World is not the place to try a new carrier – worrying about dropping a baby is the last thing anyone wants to add to the list of things to think about, and no one wants to discover at the end of a long day that it is impossible to stand up because of shooting back pain.  I am partial to Sakura Bloom ring slings (I think the silk is worth the extra money, but I love the linen too).  The sling is completely and easily adjustable and can fit me (5’1″ and 85 pounds) or my husband (6′ and 190 pounds) perfectly and comfortably, with a newborn or toddler, it folds easily and can be stashed anywhere, and that’s what is familiar to our children, but whatever you use, make sure you and your child are both comfortable, and if you try one option and it doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to try another.  Boutique baby stores are usually really great about letting new parents try a few before they decide on one.  At some point I will write a separate post about my many and varied experiences with baby carriers, because I think I’ve tried and owned just about every option out there, but that is as much relevant information I have on the topic for today.

-Bring your patience and stay positive, even when things don’t go as planned.  Kids don’t want or expect everything to be perfect, but just about anything can be an adventure.  Three rides with a fun, enthusiastic, and engaged parent is better than twelve with a grumbly one.  To that end, know your kids’ limits, and know your own limits.  They are at Disney World – they are going to love whatever they do with you.  We were amazed by how much even our young children loved visiting the different countries in Epcot.  Granted, we are nerds, but find something you are excited to do, and find a way to share it with your children.

-I have never lost a child and never plan to, but I make sure that the older children know which resort we are staying at, and what a “cast member” looks like in case we are somehow separated.  Now that we all have magic bands, I also make sure they keep them on at all times.  Obsessing over safety can be a bad thing for everyone, but we encourage our children to be aware of their surroundings, to keep one hand on the stroller or on an adult in crowded areas, and to keep their eyes up from the ground and make sure they can always see one of us, even in less crowded areas.  We don’t use scare tactics to stress the importances of these steps, but we do emphasize how important it is, and we try to make it part of every day life.  Put your shoes on before you leave the house (unless you are our two year old), keep your hand on a grown up in crowded areas.  Brush your teeth before bed, make sure you can see a grown up.  Know your home address and phone number, know your hotel information.  It just becomes part of the routine.

-Eat a Mickey-shaped something.  I’m partial to the ice cream bar, probably because I don’t normally eat ice cream, but it can be a cake, a waffle, whatever.  And don’t forget to look for hidden Mickey shapes all over the park and hotels.

And this post concludes the Disney World and vacation posts for a while.  I know it can be extremely annoying to read about another person’s vacation, especially four thousand words about someone else’s vacation, but hopefully this information is useful to someone, or if nothing else, hopefully I remember to look back at this before we plan our next trip.

*Whether the club level is worth it, I think, depends mostly on budgeting concerns.  If there is room in the budget, I think it’s probably worth it for most people, but if there is no way to make it fit, and keep in mind whatever you plan to spend, you should double it, it’s something we have lived without and not regretted.  There is more information about what club level includes and where it’s available here.  Keep in mind that the continental breakfast, snacks, and drinks are nothing special or fancy, but the fridge is always stocked with bottled water, which might be worth the extra money alone, depending on how many people are on the reservation and how much water is consumed.  We would have spent at least $50 per day on water alone, and probably another $70 on breakfast (I was able to pack fruit and other things to supplement the provided breakfast).  The view from our room was also amazing, and for us, added to the experience in a serious way.  We would not have been willing or able to wake up the kids to see the fireworks, but we were able to watch them together on the balcony while our children slept, and it was a really nice way to end the day.  This is one of those times I am not ashamed to admit HW was right to spend the extra money on club access.

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