Disney is a magical place, perfectly suited for families with small children. But it can be overwhelming if you’ve never been before! What to pack, where to stay and how to make the most of your days with little kids? It’s all here!
I shared about our Disney experience with our kids more than 2 years ago and had an overwhelming response to share my tips and tricks. Sorry it’s taken me so long to write this, but I’m planning another trip and finally sat down to share what I’ve learned along the way!
Our Disney Experiences
My husband and I planned our first Disney trip as adults when our daughters were 6 and 2. We wanted to have our oldest experience Disney World while she was in the little girl magical age of 5-6 years old. And my 2-year-old was still free because she wasn’t 3 yet.
We didn’t know anything, so I dove in head first to learn about Disney. And I would say it was a highly successful trip. I’ll share my dos and don’ts below. But my biggest tip for first timers is to use a free Disney Travel Agent.
We use our friend, Ellen Duncan at Magic on Main Travel. She’s wonderful for helping us plan our trip to helping us book our dining reservations and fast passes. (Not sponsored, just love her!) If you don’t have someone you know already, I’d highly recommend sending Ellen an e-mail!
Disney Tips by Category
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Art of Animation resort, which is a Disney value resort. We were originally booked at the Caribbean Beach Resort, but since it was under construction, we decided to stay at the Art of Animation resort, which saved us $700 and our room was Little Mermaid themed. It was awesome! The only draw back was that we were always the last bus stop from the parks and our room was 3/10 of a mile from the bus drop off. Other than a LOT of walking, it was awesome.
Later in the year I went back with my best friend for a weekend and we stayed at the All-Stars Movie Value Resort. We got a preferred room after my experience at Art of Animation and it was right by the main lobby and the buses. So, that was super nice. It was a fine value resort experience, but the only drawback being the buses had to travel to all 3 of the All-Stars resorts, which made for some very long bus rides to and from the parks.
We are going again with our kids in May 2020 and staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge Resort. I am SO excited, because I’ve heard it’s amazing. And I will report back on our experience once we return.
Character Dining: We really prioritized the character dining events during our first time, which was pricey, but awesome. I’ll give you the low-down on each one that we did, but I will say that we overbooked a little bit in that we met Ariel 3 times, Cinderella twice and Rapunzel twice during our stay. If I had it to do over again, I would have picked 3 unique meals to meet characters and then used our fast passes to meet the rest. While the dining is a great way to rest and enjoy meeting the characters, the money adds up very quickly.
BEST Character Dining: By far I loved the Bon Voyage Adventure Breakfast at Trattoria Al Forno at Disney’s Boardwalk. It feautures Rapunzel, Flynn Rider, Ariel and Prince Eric. It was super nice and the characters were very cute. My daughter’s favorite princess is Rapunzel, so this made it extra special for her. She was decked out in her full costume and wig, as well as Pascal on her shoulder. Flynn Rider was hilarious. He gave us his signature smolder look and told me he hoped I got his nose right. Hilarious for those of us who know the movie by heart. The other positive thing about the Bon Voyage Breakfast is that you don’t have to go on one of your park days. It’s at the Disney Boardwalk, so my daughter and I went on our off day and took a Lyft ride to and from our hotel. Super quick and easy! The food was good as well, and not a buffet. I got the King Triton Shipwreck al Forno and took half of it back to the resort for my husband. It was very filling!
We also enjoyed:
- The Tusker House at Animal Kingdom for breakfast (meet Mickey, Donald, Goofy & Daisy)
- Be Our Guest at Magic Kingdom for dinner (meet the Beast)
- Akershus Banquet Hall at Epcot for breakfast (meet Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Belle & Ariel)
- The Crystal Palace at Magic Kingdom for lunch (meet Pooh, Eyeore, Tigger and Piglet)
If you don’t have an off-park day, then I would recommend going on your Epcot park day since it’s right around the corner from the Skyliner Enterance/International Gateway Entrance.
Worst Character Dining: By far the worst character dining was Hollywood and Vine Diner at Hollywood Studios. Yes, we got to meet Minnie Mouse. But the food was sub par and the cost was more than anywhere else we ate. For the four of us, it was more than $200 for crappy, buffet food. No thank you!
In 2020, we are enjoying 4 dining experiences:
- Trattorio al Forno for breakfast at Disney Boardwalk is one of two repeats from our last trip. It really was our favorite!
- ‘Ohana for dinner at the Polynesian Resort – I’ve hear amazing things about the all-you-can-eat meat dinner. No characters, but a festive, Polynesian environment.
- Chef Mickey’s for breakfast at the Contemporary Resort – I hear this one is so great for meeting the Fab 5!
- Be Our Guest for dinner at Magic Kingdom. We loved it so much, we’re going back! It’s great for lunch reservations, too, but you won’t be able to meet the Beast during lunch.
Daily Schedule: If you have toddlers who won’t nap in a stroller, I highly recommend doing what we did. We got up early and tried to get to the park before “rope drop.” (Just google Disney World Rope Drop if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) We immediately went and rode the rides we didn’t have fast passes for since the crowds were smaller early in the morning. We would eat lunch in the park and stay until early afternoon, then when the parks were getting really busy, we would head back to our hotel for a nap. This is where I wished our room was closer to the lobby of our hotel, because walking a long way with toddlers who needed naps after being in the park for 6 hours wasn’t super fun. It’s worth it to pay for a preferred room close to the bus stop and lobby, especially if you have toddlers.
After naps, we would head back to a park for dinner or the rest of our fast passes and stay until 9-10. One night we closed down Magic Kingdom at 1 am.
This next time we’ll have a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old, neither of which still take naps. So, our plan is to get up for rope drop again, but stay at the parks until we are too tired or have done everything we wanted to do. I imagine we’ll have some days that we’ll come back in the late afternoon and have dinner at our resort. But I’ll report back after the trip and let you know how that went!
Favorite Rides: By far our favorite rides were the Barnstormer and Seven Dwarf’s Mine Train, both in Magic Kingdom. Barnstormer is a kiddie roller coaster back in the right corner of Magic Kingdom. Both days we were in MK, we headed straight there and rode it multiple times. We rode Mine Train twice. Once with a fast pass and once during extra magic hours at night.
Other Rides we Loved (I’ve denoted the ones that need a fast pass with FP):
- Magic Kingdom Rides: Peter Pan’s Flight (FP), Under the Sea Adventures of Little Mermaid, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh & Splash Mountain (FP)
- Animal Kingdom Rides/Shows: Flight of Passage (FP) (my kids didn’t ride before, but they will this time), Na’vi River Journey, Expedition Everest (FP) (my 6-year-old did this, but not my 2-year-old), Kilamanjaro Safari, Festival of the Lion King (FP)
- Epcot Rides: Soarin’ (FP), Frozen Ever After (FP), Test Track (FP), The Seas with Nemo and Friends,
- Hollywood Studios Rides: Toy Story Mania (FP), Tower of Terror (FP) (my kids didn’t ride this one last time, but they will this coming time). Toy Story Land and Star War’s Galaxy’s Edge weren’t open when we were there before, so we will spending a LOT of time there this time. I have visited Toy Story Land with my best friend and it’s amazing. My kids are going to LOVE it!
About Magic Hours: If you stay in a Disney resort, you’re able to be in the parks during “magic hours,” which vary by day and park. Sometimes parks will open an hour earlier for magic hours or stay open a couple more hours in the evenings. So, check your schedule to see if you want to utilize those. We found that the parks with magic hours were more crowded during regular hours because it was the regular crowd, plus everyone staying in the resorts. And then it thinned out during the magic hours and we very nice with short lines and less people.
This next time we’re NOT going to the parks that have magic hours that day, instead we’re going to a less crowded park during the day. And if we feel like it, we may use our park hopper passes to “hop” over to the park with magic hours that evening. We will skip any of the early morning magic hours altogether, though. It’s exhausting to walk all day long, stay out late at night and then try to get up super early to maximize those magic hours. So this next trip, we’re sleeping in a bit and taking it a little slower. It will also help because we booked our tickets almost a year in advance and will be able to schedule our fast passes at the 60-day mark, which we didn’t get to last time because we booked after the 60-day window had opened.
Is the Memory Maker worth it? 100% yes! There are Disney photographers at every character greeting and all over the parks ready to take your magical pictures. And Memory Maker is the service that allows you unlimited photos in and around the parks, which will then be stored in your Disney account. I cannot recommend it enough! You don’t have to carry around a camera or worry about getting the shot! Just let them record your magical visit. If you purchase it more than 3 days before your visit, you will save $30.
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Daily Presents from Minnie Mouse: Because I didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg on toys at Disney, I went to the store beforehand and bought little gifts to give to my girls every day while we were there. I went a little overboard and included a note from Minnie each day with a clue about what we were doing that day. They LOVED it.
I bought fun activities like coloring books, ImagineInk books, Water Wow books, small stuffed animals, glow sticks for our Magic Kingdom day, mini playsets (perfect for letting them play with when you’re waiting for food at a restaurant), Doorable figurines, t-shirts, pajamas, sunglasses, Minnie Mouse/Mickey ears,
Strollers: I highly, highly recommend renting a stroller if you have kids ages 6 and under. If you just have 1 child who is 6-7 and they are good walkers, then it might be fine without one. But our 6-year-old needed the stroller, for sure. And the 2-year-old is a no-brainer. We rented a double Bob stroller from Kingdom Strollers, which was awesome. The heavy-duty stroller was a life saver. When we go back in May 2020, we will be renting a single Bob stroller from Kingdom Strollers for our 5-year-old. Even though she’s a good walker, I know it will still be too much for her. I’m honestly concerned how our 9-year-old will be able to walk the entire way, but she’s too big for a stroller and I assume we’ll just have to go slower to accommodate for her walking.
What to Pack for Disney with Kids
- Trash bags for taking home dirty laundry. If you have mesh laundry bags for doing laundry while you’re at Disney, I would highly recommend them. We did laundry on our day off in the middle of our trip and it was a great thing! You don’t have to pack quite as many clothes if you know you can wash and dry them.
- Stroller hooks. Someone recommended these to me and I honestly thought they were a frivolous purchase. But they were so useful! I purposefully bought water bottles with loops on them so that we could hang them on the stroller handbar and that’s exactly what we did.
- Snacks and Drinks. You can take food and non-alcoholic drinks into the parks, which I highly recommend. Because sometimes people get hangry and lines to the restaurants are long and it’s nice to be able to pull out a pack of peanut butter crackers and eat them right there. Last time I brought a suitcase of food and drinks because we drove. But this time I’m ordering groceries ahead to have them delivered to our resort, even though we’re driving again. We’re using GardenGrocer.com, which will waive the delivery fee if you have an order over $200 and will give you 10% off if you place your order 60-days before your trip.
- Portable Phone Charger – Using the Disney app during your days in the park is a must, so your phone battery will drain faster than on a normal day. Grab a portable phone charger or two so you don’t have to slow to to charge your phone!
- Filtered Water Bottles. We used our refillable filtered water bottles every single day we were there and they were the best investment! We brought a stroller hook and just hooked them to the stroller handlebar. You can get free water at all of the quick service restaurants. My only recommendations is that you use one with an attached lid (we lost one of our lids, because it didn’t attach) and get one with a loop so you can hang it on the stroller.
- Glow sticks and glow necklaces. At night the Disney peddlers come out with fun glow sticks and glow toys. It saves a bit of money to bring your own while giving your kid that magic experience!
- Disposable Ponchos. It’s Florida. It WILL rain on you at some point, and we were so glad we brought these ponchos with us. We had them right there when we needed them. And obviously they are much cheaper than having to buy ponchos in the park. I loved that we could just throw them away when we were done with them instead of trying to put a wet jacket back into our bag.
- Backpack. We packed a backpack each day with our ponchos, snacks and kid-related items. I also packed an extra set of clothes for each of us in case there was an accident or we got too wet. My husband usually wore the backpack while I wore a cross body purse. This time I’m planning on taking my cross-body sling bag with me that I wore to Disney when I went with my best friend. It protects my stuff more when riding wet rides and it just feels more comfortable to me.
- Soft Sided Cooler. Disney will only allow soft-sided coolers in Disney World. If you want to pack perishable food items or want to keep drinks cold, this is a good option. I know we had one when we went before, but I think we’ll skip it this time since our girls are older and we can pack non-perishable snacks and drink water from our water bottles. **If you rent a stroller from Kingdom Strollers, it comes with cooler to use while you’re at Disney.
- Duct Tape. I know it sounds funny, but if you have a toddler who is likely to remove his or her magic band, I highly recommend bringing duct tape. 😜 We put our 2-year-old daughter’s magic band on her ankle and put duct tape around the band to keep her from taking it off. Since our trip, I’ve discovered BitBelts, which help keep your magic bands secure. And since magic bands come off pretty easily, I’m buying them in both the small size and large size for our next trip for all of us to use and will report back after we’ve tried them.
- Dish Soap & Bottle Brush. It’s great to have these on hand in the resort room in case you need to wash anything, like your water bottles.
- Multiple Good Walking Shoes. You will walk a TON at Disney. (Think 10 miles a day.) And I would recommend taking at least a couple of good walking shoe options in case one pair gives you blisters. We took tennis shoes and Keen sandals for every family member and I even wore my Birkenstock sandals some days because they are so comfy. On the days that a lot of rain was predicted, we wore our Keen’s so that our feet could get wet and still breathe.
I’ve tried to think of everything I could think of that helped me when I went to Disney for the first time. Honestly, I could spend hours reading Disney blogs and learning the ins and outs of how to schedule our days. But if you want to relax on your first trip and let someone else do the planning, I can’t recommend Ellen Duncan at Magic on Main (a free service when you book through her) to help you plan your trip for you! (This isn’t sponsored, she’s just who we use and love!)
Let me know if you have any other helpful tips or questions in the comments!