Planning a trip to Disney World with kids can be overwhelming. These essential tips will help you make the most of your time and money while you’re in the “happiest place on earth”.
NOTE: THIS POST INCLUDES AFFILIATE LINKS TO PRODUCTS I HAVE USED AND LOVED, BUT AS ALWAYS FEEL FREE TO SHOP AROUND FOR THE BEST DEALS. SEE MY DISCLOSURE TO LEARN MORE.
Truths about Disney World:
- It is magical
- It is expensive
- It is exhausting
- It can be overwhelming to plan
A few weeks ago, we took an epic family vacation to Disney World. Phew…I am TIRED. But, really, we had SO much fun!
A little background on our group…
Our group included seven people…my husband and me, our three boys (7, 4, and 1), my brother-in-law (who is wheelchair bound), and my sister-in-law (who came to help with that brother).Because of our unique group, and because my husband was going to be in conference meetings for the first half of two of our park days, planning this trip was a challenge. I knew we were going in peak season (mid-June) and I hadn’t been to Disney World since high school (let’s not talk about how many years ago that was).
So, I did what I always do…I read EVERYTHING I could find and talked to anyone I knew had been to Disney in the past year. I armed myself with as much knowledge as possible, made a plan, and then prepared to throw it all out the window if necessary once we got there (cuz sometimes plans have to change…and they did).
I’m not gonna lie…this was one of the most complicated trips I’ve planned.
However, we figured it out, and we had a fabulous time! I tell you this to help you understand that no matter what your group looks like or what ages your children are, you can make your trip to Disney World AWESOME!
It just takes a little planning and a (very) flexible attitude.
Here is the best of what I learned through my research and from our experience in Disney World. I hope it helps you make the most of your time and money on your own trip!
Tip#1: Stay on-site in a Disney World Resort hotel
I originally thought that staying off-site would have been better and cheaper; however, staying on property at Disney comes with so many perks that it is totally worth it, even for this penny-pinching mamma.
What are the perks of staying in a Disney World Resort hotel?
- Free transportation to and from the airport via Disney’s Magical Express shuttle. This means you don’t have to pay for a rental car or parking at the hotel/parks. Serious $$$ savings.
- Free transportation around Disney World. The monorail, water taxis, and the shuttle bus system can get you pretty much anywhere you want to go in Disney World. Once you download the Disney World app, you can even look up when the next buses are leaving your hotel for the various parks and get an estimated travel time.
- You can schedule FastPass+ choices 60 days in advance. Anyone who buys a park ticket can schedule passes 30 days in advance, but resort guests get to schedule 60 days in advance. Yes, it’s crazy that you have to plan your daily itinerary that far ahead, but to get Fast Passes for the biggest attractions, you want to schedule them as early as possible or they WILL be gone. I scheduled ours about 45-50 days in advance, and already all Fast Passes for Avatar and Slinky Dog Dash were gone.
- You receive Magic Bands for FREE. Magic bands really are magic, in my opinion. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s basically a waterproof wristband that acts as your room key, park ticket, and keeps track of Fast Passes. You can even link a credit card to your magic band so you can pay for food (or anything else) in the parks just by tapping your Magic Band and typing in a PIN for security (so, NO, you don’t have to worry about your kids buying ALL. THE. THINGS). Non-resort guests can buy magic bands for around $15, but it’s included in the price of your resort room…a big savings for our group of seven.
- You get access to Extra Magic Hours. Resort guests get access to certain parks an hour or two early on certain days of the week. This “perk” is a double-edged sword though. Read more about why here. We actually avoided the parks with Extra Magic Hours, and I didn’t regret it.
Money saving tip: You don’t have to stay at a luxury resort to get the perks; ANY Disney World Resort hotel comes with the above benefits.
Where to stay in Disney World with kids
We stayed at the Grand Floridian because–and ONLY because–that’s where my husband’s conference was located (and we got a huge discount as part of the conference). We LOVED our stay there–it was pristine, convenient, and downright FUN! If you’ve got the budget to splurge, it’s fabulous! However, there are several other hotels that are a fraction of the cost and still come with all the perks.
In high school, my family stayed at The Dolphin Hotel near Epcot. It’s less than half the cost of the Grand Floridian, and it has a great location right next to the Boardwalk (and the back entrance to Epcot…did you know there was a back entrance???). My husband also loves Port Orleans (he’s stayed there on a business trip).
Another budget-friendly option that gets fabulous reviews is the Art of Animation Resort.
Want more information on where to stay at Disney World? Check out this in-depth review from Mouse Savers.
Tip #2: Plan for changeable weather and pack smart
In my mind, Florida was the land of beautiful weather and sunshine all the time–it is called “the SUNSHINE state” after all, right? Not entirely true in reality…
Especially in summer, be prepared for…
We went in mid-June, and most days the temperatures were in the upper 80s and low 90s, with HIGH humidity. By 9:00 in the morning, we were already hot and sweaty.
What to pack for a day in the parks with kids:
- Stroller – This is similar to the double umbrella stroller we have. It’s not fancy, and it doesn’t have a lot of cargo space, but I love it for travel because it’s lightweight and folds up really small. Water bottles
- Water bottles – It’s really hot in Florida, especially in the summer…seriously. I felt like I was melting. Bring LOTS of cold water. Consider getting flavor packets to encourage kids to drink more. (These are the packets I like because they use Stevia instead of Aspartame).
Money saving tip: You can ask for a cup (or five) of ice water at any quick service restaurant in the park. It’s a great way to refill and stay cool for free!
- Snacks – My backpack each day was filled with LOTS of snacks in an effort to avoid hangry kids…and it mostly worked! See tip #6 below for more information about how we did meals/snacks in the parks without spending a fortune.
- Ponchos – I was shocked when I looked at the weather forecast the week before our trip and saw rain every day! I worried that this would really complicate our trip, but it turned out okay.Rain storms in Florida are fast-moving, so usually you get great weather in the morning, afternoon thunderstorms roll in that usually last less than an hour, and then things clear up again in the evening.I ordered a big pack of ponchos from Amazon a few days before our trip and I was SO glad to have them. They were easy to throw in the backpack, and I didn’t feel bad throwing them away afterward because they were cheap!
- Glow sticks – This certainly isn’t a must, but it was really fun! I picked up a tube of glow-sticks at the dollar store before our trip, tucked them into my backpack, and pulled them out our last night at Magic Kingdom while we were waiting for fireworks to start.That one dollar bought me 15 minutes of peace while my boys happily oohed and ahhed as they activated the glow sticks and connected them into fun shapes. Totally worth it!
Money-saving tip: By bringing our own glow sticks, my kids didn’t beg for one of the crazy expensive light-up toys they sell in the park.
- Extra underwear/diapers/wipes
Tip #3: Prepare your kids ahead of time
Disney World is a big, crazy, expensive trip. It’s worth taking time to prepare your kids for what to expect. Here are a few of the things we did to make sure our kids were ready for our epic vacation:
- Earn spending money ahead of time: For three months leading up to our trip, our boys did daily chores to earn spending money. Some of their money went toward the general trip costs, and some went toward their own spending money. By the time we got there, they each had close to $50 to spend. Interestingly, my oldest son, ended up deciding not to spend most of his money on the trip because he wanted to save up for a big Lego set. Hooray for learning the value of money!
- Exercise: We took our kids hiking, on bike rides, and on walks to increase our kids’ stamina. As we did so, we talked about how they needed to get their bodies strong to walk around Disney World.
- Watch the movies: We had some family movie nights where we showed our boys some of the old classics like Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Sword in the Stone so they would understand the references to them in the parks.
- Preview the rides: We looked up a lot of the rides in advance so our kids would know which ones they could and couldn’t ride and pick ones they really wanted to do.
- Set expectations: I made it clear to my boys that there was no way we would be able to do EVERYTHING. We also talked about how sometimes rides shut down unexpectedly or the lines are just too long, and we would have to be flexible and make the best of it.
- Practice waiting: Anytime we had to wait in line at the grocery store, the zoo, or anywhere else, I would remind my kids that we would be doing a lot of waiting like this at Disney World.
Tip #4: Have an emergency plan
In a place where there is something exciting to see and do everywhere you look, it’s easy for kids to get distracted and accidentally wander off or get left behind.
Don’t assume it will never happen to you. After the terrifying experience of losing my son at the park last year, I’m a firm believer in teaching our kids clearly and frequently about safety. Your peace of mind your child’s safety is worth it!
Each morning as we headed out the door, I quizzed my two older boys on our phone number and reminded them how to identify a safe adult if they ever needed help.
My toddler is too young to talk, so he can’t memorize a phone number, but this is one more reason I LOVE Magic Bands. I made sure my little guy was always wearing his–not because he needed it for access to the parks or rides–but because if he ever got lost, a worker would have been able to scan his band and it would bring up our reservation and contact information. Way to go, Disney!
Tip #5: Get to the parks early (it’s like getting a 4th FastPass+)
If you want to make the most of your time in the parks, aim to get to the gate 30-45 minutes before opening time. It takes time to get through the security and ticket scanning lines, so if you get there right at opening time, you’re really already late.
Plus, the parks allow guests access to certain main areas of the park before the official opening time. This allows you to get a head start toward whichever ride you want to start the day with.
We got to Animal Kingdom about 30 minutes early, and we were held at the entrance to Africa until the official open time. Once the rope dropped, we headed to Kilimanjaro Safaris (best ridden early in the day because the animals are more active) and were on the ride in less than 10 minutes. Many people recommend doing Avatar for rope drop, but for our group that didn’t make sense, so we skipped it.
We didn’t do rope drop our second day (Hollywood Studios) because I wanted the kids get some extra sleep, but I’ve heard that rope drop in Toy Story land can get CRAZY…but it’s effective if you’re there early enough.
For our last day at Magic Kingdom, we did a TRUE rope drop for Seven Dwarves Mine Train. I hadn’t been able to get fast passes for it, so I knew rope drop was our best chance to ride it. We arrived about 40 minutes early, and we got in the line near the castle heading to Fantasy Land at about 8:30 (on a 9:00 AM open day). Twenty minutes later, I looked back and the line stretched almost to Tomorrowland!
Once the rope dropped, it felt a little like Black Friday shopping (which I avoid like the plague), but we got on the ride in less than 15 minutes! Wahoo! Yes, I’m aware that we really waited close to 45 minutes if you include the time waiting by the castle, but it was still much shorter than the wait we would have had later in the day. In fact, by the time the rope drop rush settled into line, the wait was already posted at 65 minutes! Shout out to Mouse Hackers, where I learned about this rope drop strategy.
Tip #6: Let everyone pick ONE must-do activity, and be flexible about the rest
Because you can schedule FastPass+ choices up to 60 days in advance, you really have to think through your itinerary ahead of time. We looked at descriptions of various rides and asked our kids about which ones they were really interested in.
I made a list of the top rides we wanted to go on in each park (including listing which ones did and didn’t have height restrictions), then I got fast passes for the most popular ones I could, and created a loose plan of action for the morning hours of each day.
There are some great resources that have detailed sample itineraries. Here are some of my favorite sites to help you plan:
I would not recommend trying to follow someone else’s itinerary exactly. Still, I found it really helpful to read several to get an idea of what a logical flow of activities might look like. I learned which rides were most popular, when certain attractions are busiest, and which things are near each other.
After our morning plan, we really just did whatever we felt like. We picked up additional fast passes where we could, and kinda flew by the seat of our pants.
Basically, I front-loaded my brain with as much information about rides, shows, and timing BEFORE going so that while we were there I had the information I needed to be more spontaneous in the moment
Note: Do NOT try to run full steam ahead all day. You’re parents. You know this. But if you’re an ambitious traveler like I am, you sometimes forget that. So, I’m reminding you. Take breaks during the day. We tried to break up rides with attending shows and other low-key activities so that everyone would get a little downtime.
One of my favorite memories of our trip is the time we spent near the end of our Magic Kingdom day at the splash pad (near Barnstormer). We got our feet wet, let the kids munch on ridiculously big lollipops, and relaxed in the twilight. Remember, it’s better to actually ENJOY doing fewer activities rather than running around like a crazy person to do everything and making everyone miserable (and, yes, I’ve been guilty of that).
Tip #7: Know which rides NOT to do with young kids
Know your kids’ limits. My four-year-old is a big talker (if you ask him, he isn’t afraid of anything), but he has a low tolerance for thrills in real life. He was tall enough to ride almost everything, but we chose not to take him on Space Mountain and Expedition Everest because we knew he would be terrified of going so fast in the dark.
Even some of the rides with no height restriction can be too scary for little ones…like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. We did Pirates together, and after realizing how much it scared our younger kids, we opted to skip Haunted Mansion. Even with telling repeatedly them it’s all pretend, young brains have a hard time differentiating between fantasy and reality.
Every kid is different. So, my advice is to start with tamer attractions and work your way up, gauging your child’s readiness.
One more note: be wary of taking young toddlers to the 3-D shows. I didn’t remember It’s Tough to be a Bug (Animal Kingdom) very well from my previous trips to Disney World, and I had NO idea it would leave my poor one-year-old screaming and clutching me for dear life. Poor kiddo. My older kids liked it, but it terrified my little guy.
Tip #8: Use FastPass+ and Rider Switch together
What is FastPass+?
Disney’s Fast Pass+ system allows you to reserve a time for various Disney World rides and experiences in advance. It’s included in the basic cost of admission, and it’s a HUGE time saver.
Note: You can only schedule three FastPass+ experiences per day in advance. But, one you use those three, you can get unlimited additional FastPass+ experiences, one at a time. Try to schedule your first three FastPass+ experiences during the first half of the day. This leaves you time to snag same-day fast passes later on.
Want to know more? Become a FastPass+ pro by reading this article from Mouse Hacking.
What is Rider Switch?
Rider Switch (AKA – “parent swap”) is another service Disney offers. It allows adult guests to take turns waiting with children or other guests who are unable to ride. The waiting adult gets a special pass to go through the fast pass line (with up to two additional people!) once the first adult finishes the ride and can switch out.
Here’s how this looked for our family:
Parent #1 goes on the ride with two older kids while parent #2 stays with the toddler who is too small to ride.
Once parent #1 is done riding, parent #2 goes to the fast pass line (and takes the two older kids for a SECOND time). My older two boys LOVED the rider switch because it meant they got to go on several rides TWICE!
These two services are great in and of themselves, but they become REALLY powerful when you learn how to use them together.
How to use rider switch and FastPass+ together:
Only the people going on the ride the FIRST time need a FastPass+. Those riding second (after the switch-a-roo) DON’T need a FastPass+. They will have their own special rider switch FastPass+.
This means that you can divide and conquer. For example, schedule Mom a FastPass+ for Splash Mountain with one child, and Dad a FastPass+ for Thunder Mountain with the other child. Everybody still gets to ride both rides because of the parent swap, but you’re able to schedule FastPass+ times for more rides in advance. Brilliant!
Smart Moms Plan Disney has a great description of ALL the ins and outs of using rider switch and FastPass+ together. (Note: Since she wrote the article, Disney has stopped giving out paper tickets. They just scan your magic band or park ticket card to add the rider switch FastPass+).
And if you have any reservations that doing this might be “cheating” the system, read this article. It will put your mind at rest (and make you feel better about how tired you are at the end of EVERY day of being a parent).
When planning your rider switches, remember to plan something fun for the ones who will be waiting, too! Most of the big rides have great attractions with no height restrictions nearby that the waiting party can do.
Good “no height restriction” rides near popular big rides:
- Space Mountain – Buzz Lightyear, Astro Orbiter, Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor
- Splash Mountain – Toddler play area (right by the Splash Mountain bathrooms), Country Bear Jamboree
- Seven Dwarves Mine Train – Winnie the Pooh, Prince Charming’s Carousel
- Dinosaur – Cretaceous Trail
- Primeval Whirl – Triceratops Spin, The Boneyard
- Everest OR Kali River Rapids – Maharajah Jungle Trek
- Avatar – There’s a fun musical play area near the Navi River ride
- Tower of Terror OR Rockin’ Rollercoaster – Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy
- Slinky Dog Dash – Toy Story Mania (or just walk around…there’s such great eye candy in this part of the park!)
- Star Tours – watch the Jedi Training Academy
Tip #9: Be smart about food
A day at Disney involves walking miles, and both you and your kids need fuel to keep you going. Hangry families are not making magical memories.
The good news is Disney welcomes you to bring outside food and drinks. I love reasonable people.
Here’s how we did meals in the parks:
Breakfast: bagels, yogurt, and fruit in our hotel room (our room had a mini-fridge and we were able to request a microwave, too!)
Lunch: peanut butter and honey sandwiches, fruit, and assorted snacks (I made sandwiches each morning before heading out).
Dinner: Purchased in the parks.
By following this plan, we only at out for ONE meal a day, which saved us a ton of money. We also bought a few snacks along the way…after all, who can say no to Dole Whips???
Money saving tip: Adults can order kids’ meals at Disney…apparently they take the kid-at-heart thing seriously. 🙂 Alternatively, sometimes it’s cheaper to have multiple kids split an adult meal, rather than buying several kids’ meals.
Time saving tip: You can see restaurant menus and order food using the Disney World app. I loved that we could browse menus while we were in line for a ride, pick out what we wanted to eat, and even order it all before we even got to the restaurant. When we got to the restaurant, we could just bypass the lines and go directly to the pick up counter. Hooray for efficiency!
Side note: Pecos Bill’s Tale Tale Inn & Cafe (Magic Kingdom, Frontier Land) was my favorite quick service restaurant I’ve ever eaten at in theme park. Seriously. I got a chicken, bean and rice bowl served in a taco shell. The seasoning on the chicken was delicious, and they have a big salad bar where you can add as many toppings as you want: lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, salsa, etc. Because the salad bar is unlimited, you can pile on the toppings and get a lot of bang for your buck. I’m usually really underwhelmed with theme park food, but this place was a delicious exception to the rule.
A word about snacks…
Whenever I travel, I get SOO burned out on junk food, so I really made an effort on this trip to plan for food that was easy to transport but also healthy.
Good snacks for Disney World:
- applesauce pouches
- fruit leather
- whole apples
- trail mix
- granola bars
During our days in the parks, I let my kids have snacks any time they wanted. When we were in line, waiting for shows, sitting on a curb–ANYTIME they asked–I pulled out the food. It kept them happier, and made everybody’s day better.
Tip #10: Become BFFs with the Disney World App
Disney’s app needs to become your new best friend (at least for the duration of your trip). Seriously, you can handle pretty much ALL the logistics of your trip through the app.
First things first. Download the app. It’s available for both Android and Apple.
Next, create a My Disney Experience account and link your tickets and hotel reservation to your account. You can also connect with other guests so you can plan together (helpful if you’re traveling with extended family or friends).
Now things get fun. Take some time before your trip to familiarize yourself with its features and how to navigate it. The app has a lot to offer, but it’s not always intuitive.
Here are some of the things you can do in the app:
- view your tickets/reservations
- see the bus schedules to and from your resort from other locations
- see park maps and real-time wait times for rides
- find restrooms near you
- schedule (or modify) FastPass+ experiences
- make dining reservations, see menus, and even order your food
- see and purchase photos from your PhotoPass
As the de facto trip planner/daily schedule decider (like those official titles?), I used the app ALL. THE. TIME. It helped me know when to be at the shuttle stop, which rides had short waits, to book same-day fast passes, and even order food. Having all this information on my phone was so much easier than looking it up in a guide book or even on a paper map.
And they lived happily (albeit exhausted) ever after!
Honestly, there is still more I could write about our experience, but for the sake of not making this post rival the length of War and Peace, I’ll stop here. I’ve given you the BEST, most essential tips I know, and I hope you find them helpful!
If you have any questions about ANYTHING I’ve written about (or that you wish I had written), please let me know in the comments and I’ll try to answer them.
Likewise, please share your own experiences!
Have you been to Disney World? If so, what are YOUR best tips? What are your FAVORITE attractions and places to eat?