When you practically live in Mickey’s backyard, the one question you get asked over and over again is, “What are your tips for visiting Walt Disney World?” (OK, that’s the second most asked question. The first is always, “Can you get me free tickets?” The answer is no).
Given our habit of spending more time at the Disney parks than any playground in our neighborhood, I tend to get asked this question even more than the average Central Floridian. Friends, family and readers of this here blog all want to know my secrets.
The good news about Disney is that there are SO many resources to plan your trip. I’ll list some of them at the bottom of this post (I’m not going to steal my own thunder). But after probably more than 100 trips to Disney over my lifetime, I’ve learned some things along the way. This has been especially true over the past few years now that we’ve gotten to know Disney from a whole new perspective — as parents.
I could write for hours and hours and still not tell you everything I know about the parks. But I don’t have that kind of time. Instead, I’ll try to highlight some of my best practices and I hope that some of you will share yours too in the comments section. I may also update this blog post from time to time, so if you’re reading this today, chances are it might be slightly different when you’re planning your trip next year, for example. Keep coming back!
And a couple more caveats before I get started:
— I’ve only ever stayed at one Disney resort (Wilderness Lodge — loved it!) and that was when I came with my parents in 2002. I know all of the resorts fairly well as a visitor but not necessarily as a guest. So don’t bother asking me about Disney Dining Plans, the bus schedules or crowds at the pools.
— We tend to avoid the parks during the very times you’re likely to visit — all of June, July and August; the weeks surrounding Christmas and spring break.
— We don’t do lines. That’s the perk of living here year-round — we can hit the parks on the day with shorter lines. So I can’t tell you how long it will take you do everything on your Magic Kingdom wish list in late December, for example. Sorry!
— My daughter has literally grown up at Disney. She made her first visit there at 8 months old and has probably been to the parks at least 50 times by this point (man she’s spoiled!). Therefore, she’s not afraid of characters, loud noises or crowds. In other words, she may not experience the sensory overload that’s likely to occur with your 3-year-old who has never been to a place like Disney. Although she still hates fireworks, so I have some tips for that!
The following list will cater pretty heavily to families with toddlers. As my daughter ages, I may update this. But for now, here are some the things that have helped our family navigate Disney like pros.
1. Two words: rope drop. The rope drop is a great ceremony that they do every morning just inside the ticket gates. If possible, at least one day of your visit, try to get here for this. That requires being through the ticket gates at least 10 to 15 minutes before the official opening time. Before the Magic Kingdom is offically open for the day, the train will pull into the station and all of your favorite characters will welcome you. It can be very crowded but there are two reasons to suffer through the throngs of people: a) it’s your first chance to see how your kids will react to the characters (from a distance) and b) this is your best chance of knocking out Fantastyland.
As soon as they drop those ropes, you are going to beeline straight for Fantasyland. It will be hard to rush through the excitement of Main Street USA but you must do it. You can come back later. E.’s all-time favorite ride is Peter Pan and it notoriously has the longest lines in Magic Kingdom. If you go straight to it following the rope drop, you can snag a Fast Pass (or hop on it), then head over to Dumbo, the other mega-line. There is no Fast Pass for Dumbo, so I’d suggest snagging your Peter Pan Fast Pass, then getting Dumbo over with if you plan on doing it.
If your kids (or you) don’t really care about Dumbo, I’d suggest skipping it in favor of Aladdin in Adventureland, which is essentially the same ride. I understand the iconic appeal of Dumbo, but, in my opinion, it’s not worth the current awful line, which usually leaves you standing in the hot sun. But if you can get on it with a reasonable line, you’ll get that quintessential Disney shot.
Afterwards, I’d go ahead and knock out everything that you want to do in Fantasyland (or grab a Fast Pass at Winnie the Pooh to come back later). E. is terrified of Snow White still, so I think it’s a bit much for younger kids. I also heard from a friend with a 2 1/2 year old that he was frightened by the dark sections of the Pooh ride. But the Mickey’s PhilharMagic Show is great for all ages and so is Small World, obviously.
Whenever E. is desperate to get on a ride quickly, the Carousel is always good for quick entertainment. The line is rarely longer than 10-15 minutes — max.
2. Otherwise, just go at your own pace all day. You can drive yourself crazy trying to do it all. But there are plenty of things to do that don’t have the crazy lines of Fantasyland and Splash Mountain. In Frontierland, there’s the Country Bear Jamboree show and Tom Sawyer’s Island. The latter is great for letting cooped up kids run off some steam. There are forts to explore and fun bridges to cross.
There’s also a small playground near Splash Mountain that is good for letting the little ones stretch their legs. It’s shaded, and if you have two parents in your party, I’d suggest letting one parent sit with the kids for a bit while the other runs back out to the top of Main Street to grab a Fast Pass for the Mickey and Minnie meet and greet or the Princesses Meet and Greet. Both are in the same building and lines can range anywhere from 15 minutes to 90+ minutes. These new greeting areas are in the building attached to Tony’s Town Square Restaurant, right inside the main entrance. I didn’t suggest grabbing a Fast Pass when you first came in because you’re only allowed to have one fast pass at any given time. Hit the Fantasyland Fast Passes first, then go down your list of priorities.
Other less popular but still fun things are: the Tiki Room, the Aladdin ride and the Swiss Family Robinson House in Adventureland. The little ones won’t get the story behind the Swiss Family Robinson house but it’s another good place to let them stretch those legs by climbing a lot of stairs! Remember, it’s all about tiring them out so that they’ll actually ride in the stroller without objection!
When E is cranky about lines and crowds, we also love to hop on the steam-engine train that circles the park. You can ride the full loop or get off at one of two stops (Main Street or Frontierland — there’s usually three stops but the third is closed right now because it’s in the new Fantasyland construction area).
3. Get to know the Baby Centers at all four parks. When I was nursing, E. and I spent A LOT of time here. They all have private nursing rooms if your baby is like mine and a distracted nurser. Also, if you’ve forgotten anything, they’re sure to have it (for a cost). They’re stocked with everything from diapers to wipes to sunscreen to baby food. They also have nice baby changing stations and small playrooms if you want to let your over-stimulated kids relax for a little bit. I’d say the Magic Kingdom’s Baby Center is the least nice of the four parks and Animal Kingdom’s is far and away the best (it has a HUGE playroom with movies playing on a TV).
4. Don’t even think about meeting Rapunzel. OK, maybe you’ll get lucky but I’ve never seen this line less than 60-90 minutes long and it’s not a fun place to wait. Maybe by the time E is 12 she’ll meet Rapunzel.
5. As for dining, I’m not saying the food is the best but one of the best spots for views is Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe in Tomorrowland. If you can push through the crowds (seriously, it gets packed in there because it’s one of the bigger walk-up spots for lunch) head toward the outside balcony and enjoy your view.
1. This is your best park to relax. From the wider paths to the shaded nooks for lunch to the fabulous shows to the (duh) animals, Animal Kingdom is always a nice day. As soon as you come in, grab a time guide and see what times The Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo are showing. If possible, try to hit them both because they’re both great.
You’ll also want to grab your safari Fast Pass as soon as possible. And don’t forget to do both walking paths — Pangani Forest in Africa and the Jungle Trek in Asia. Many of our best memories are from these paths, and give your kids a great gift — let THEM lead YOU. They can’t get lost and for once, it gives them a chance to “control” the map and take charge. It’s always E’s favorite part of the day.
2. For lunch/dinner, grab something from the walk-up counter in Asia then find a table along the river. One of the best parts of Animal Kingdom is all the hidden little spots to grab a seat and eat. In Asia, there are a bunch of tables in tucked into shaded areas along the river. It gets you away from the crowds and the view is good!
3. Our favorite spot to watch the parade in Animal Kingdom is on the path between Asia and Africa. It’s shaded and tends to be less crowded than other spots along the way, especially Africa, where the parade starts (the spot in Asia is near the very end of the parade route). We like to save snack-time for the parade. Then, as we’re sitting in our parade spot waiting for it to begin, E. can either munch on something we brought from home or on a popsicle, which they sell from carts right along the path. After all, we know how hard waiting can be for a toddler!
4. Looking for a spot in this park to let your kids run off steam? Head to the Boneyard in DinoLand USA. There are tons of slides, rope climbs, tiny caves and giant dinosaur footprints that roar when the kids step on them.
5. For more ways to take it easy at Animal Kingdom, check out my previous post Off the Beaten Path at Animal Kingdom.
1. First off, when you have smaller kids, you do not need a full day at Hollywood Studios. So make this the day that you plan on spending some time back at the hotel pool! The No. 1 attraction here is Toy Story Mania. Heck, I think that’s the No. 1 attraction at all four parks right now — there’s ALWAYS a long line. So, if you have any interest in hitting this ride (and you should. It’s really a great ride), make a beeline there as soon as you arrive and grab your Fast Passes for later in the day.
2. Hollywood Studios is a “show” park. That means, you may not stand in a lot of lines but you’ll spend some time waiting in your seats for shows to begin. But they’re all worth it — the Beauty and the Beast and the Little Mermaid shows are great. I haven’t been to the Disney Junior – Live on Stage show since they added Jake and the Neverland Pirates but I’ve never been that big of a fan of it. You have to sit on the ground and it gets crowded. But if your kids are crazy over Mickey, Jake and Handy Manny, it’s probably worth hitting. The shows are also a great time to do some ride-swapping with your spouse. For example, the Tower of Terror is probably my favorite ride of any park. So many times, we’ll try to time a Fast Pass for it during the Beauty and the Beast show, which is right next door. I’ll do the ride and my husband will take E. to the show. Then, later, we’ll switch — he’ll do a ride while I take E. to the Little Mermaid show. We’ve found that easier to manage the child swap program, which I think has some organizational issues.
3. There’s one thing you MUST, MUST, MUST do — the Muppets 3-D show. The reason E. was so excited to see the new Muppets movie was because of this attraction. It’s adorable.
4. Again, looking for your spot to let to kids run it out? Head to the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground adjacent to the Streets of America. It’s a little hard to keep track of the kids in here because of all the slides and tunnels, but it’s pretty self-contained, so they won’t be exiting the area. The playground is also next to one of our favorite dining spots, the Studios Catering Company. It’s a walk-up counter service place but it’s in the shade and has plenty of seats. Oftentimes, one of us will head over here to order lunch while the other lets E. run around before lunch at the playground next door.
1. OK, I may have lied before — THIS may be the most relaxing place you’ll go with your kids. And that’s only because there’s not much for the little ones to do. For the parents, the World Showcase is great. At first, we struggled to keep E. entertained while we walked around looking for interesting foods and drinks. But then we discovered the magical allure of Duffy. Epcot offers Kidcot stations in every country. You start at any of them and get a large paper cut-out of Duffy, Mickey’s teddy bear. Then, as you travel around the World Showcase, Duffy gets a new stamp in each country and there are oodles of Sharpies for the kids to color their Duffys. All of the Kidcot spots have workers from that country, and many times, they’ll even write your child’s name in a different language (i.e. Chinese or Japanese). All of these spots tend to be in the countries’ gift shops (of course) but we’ve actually had a lot of fun exploring toys, musical instruments and candies from other countries.
2. The Living Seas with Nemo and Friends rarely has a long line and it’s a cute ride. Plus, when you get off it, you’re in an aquarium (it’s not a great one, but it’s a nice relaxed way to get the kids out of the sun for a bit).
3. If you didn’t get to see Mickey and friends at the other parks, you can knock the “Big Five” out in one shot at Epcot. Right next to the Fountains is a meet and greet with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto and Goofy. The line can be long but it’s sometimes worth it to see them all at once.
4. Use the time guide to find out what time the different musical acts are playing in the World Showcase. Our favorite acts are Off Kilter in Canada and English Channel in England (obviously). And E. is OBSESSED with the maze around the stage in England. I’m not kidding, she’d spend three hours there if we left her. So, yes, this is your Epcot spot for letting the kids run around. Grab a beer in England, a bench in front of the maze and let the kids run themselves tired.
Phew! That’s a lot of information. I don’t mean to overwhelm you, but these are some of the things we’ve learned along the way. I recently sent Marie, who I’ve met through Twitter, some tips for her trip to the parks with her 2 1/2 year old. Here’s another great piece of advice she sent me after her trip:
I thought I’d share with you what we did for his naps, in case you have friends who have kids who still take naps and don’t know what to do about them. We walked him around in his stroller at the different resorts: the first day, we took the monorail back to the parking lots and from there, walked to the Polynesian and the Grand Floridian. They have really nice little walkways, it’s quiet and there’s lots of fun stuff to see. The second day, we took the boat from Magic Kingdom to the Wilderness Lodge. They have an awesome trail that goes all the way to their little camp, with horses to ride and look at, a playground etc. When A woke up, we rented one of those surrey bikes and had a great little ride.
If you’re looking for more research, some great resources are:
— Easy WDW: This site gives every day a crowd rating and helps you plan your time at Walt Disney World based on a variety of factors like park hours and special events.
— WDW Moms Panel: Got a specific question? These are your girls.
— Apps, apps, apps! There are SO many Disney apps on the market now. The two that we can’t live without is the WDW Park Hours app and the Disney World Wait Times app. The first not only gives you park hours but it lists all the special events for the day and times (parades, fireworks, stage shows, etc). For the wait times, I have the free version for my Droid and my husband has it for his iPhone. It’s saved us so much time by helping us to decide if it’s worth walking across a park for a favorite ride if we already know the wait time.
— And check out my Disney page, which features all the posts I’ve done about the parks and special Disney events.
Now it’s your turn. What are some of your favorite Disney tips? Or, if you have a specific question, leave me a comment and I’ll let you know if I can help! Enjoy the magic!