At first I thought there was no reason for me to write anything about our trip to Disney. There are so many resources out there with exhaustive amounts of information on Disney run by people who know the park far better than me. Those sites can help you with a lot of your logistics, but I wanted to write about actually getting through the trip with kids and with your sanity intact.
Our Disney trip was mostly for the kids (I’ve been plenty of times, they’d never been) but I also wanted to have a good time. I didn’t want us dissolving in meltdowns and tantrums, I wanted some quality family time. We were really successful so I thought I’d share some of what I learned along the way that is less about our specific plans and more about the kind of guiding principles to use while you plan to make your trip really enjoyable. Planning this kind of trip can feel overwhelming, especially with all the new bells and whistles, but you can do it and you can have fun.
The Things They Don’t Tell You
Let’s take just a minute to be thankful for all the Disney websites.
That said, think about where you are on the scale of Disney obsession. If we make it a scale from 1 to 10 I’m at about a 6, with a long history of going to parks, family connections to them, and a lot of nostalgia. To run a Disney website, you’ve got to be at least a 9, which is not a bad thing. But it means you’ll have a different set of priorities and opinions. If you’re a 3 or a 4, where you’re really just there for the kids, you need to take a lot of what these sites say with a grain of salt.
Even the budget sites I looked at still recommended staying on property, even though you can find places to stay off site that are nicer rooms at half the price. Because for a 10 on the Disney Scale, being on property is almost always going to be worth it. So make sure you go into your reading and researching with an estimate of how many grains of salt you’ll need to add to what you read.
So let’s run through the parts of your trip that may be not so magical:
- The food. Sure, Disney can be a very fancy destination for foodies… if you’ve got the cash. But I wasn’t going to spend over $30 a plate at all, not to mention every day. That leaves you with a lot of very mediocre food. I chose our hotel partly because of the food court and all the options it provided, but after we went once we never went back. It was not good. You can find some good food at a reasonable price (we did!) but you’ll need to do research. TripAdvisor and Yelp are useful.
- The bus. Oh lord, the bus. Over and over sites would tell me how the bus transportation would make my life easier and simpler. As a long time resident of a major urban center where I used public transit every day, I was happy to do it. Except this was like riding the bus to work with a bunch of people who have never ridden a bus in their lives. Plus a lot of cranky toddlers. And 5 double strollers. And that’s after it comes, a few times we had over half an hour sitting and waiting with no information on when a bus would be there.
- Lines. There will be a lot of lines. A lot. We went on the off season and we still only walked on to rides a couple of times the whole trip.
- Crowds. Again, we went on the off season and there were still people everywhere. And all the people have giant strollers or scooters.
- Privacy. You will have none of it. On our third day, I was in the shower for around a half hour because I was just so happy to be by myself.
- On Property Hotels. You are paying for the “convenience” of the bus system (okay, the airport bus and airline check in on site is pretty sweet) and the theming of the property itself. Your hotel room will not be as nice as your average Hampton Inn. (To be fair, I do love a Hampton Inn.) It was pretty darn tiny. I could hear every toilet that flushed in our entire building all night long even though I wore earplugs. Our pool was just fine, but it was busy even on a day with a high of 77 during the off season. I can’t imagine summer.
- Kids Meals. I’m shocked I didn’t run into a Disney Kids’ Meals rant during my research. If you are okay with your kids eating chicken nuggets and mac & cheese for every meal for your entire trip, then you’re set. Otherwise you’re going to have to do some deep research (and possibly spend more money) to find healthier options that won’t break the bank.
- Inflated prices. Disney is going for dollars, we all know it. Budget accordingly.
- Other people. While plenty of people are thrilled to be at Disney (and hopefully you are, too) but you’ll be surrounded by people having a not-great day and having it quite loudly. They may be next to you in line or at the next table at dinner or the next seat on the bus. You’re gonna need some grace.
Now that we’ve run through that, let’s talk through how to manage it.
Ah yes, the old put your own oxygen mask on first rule. If your kids are going to have a good time, you need to be happy and comfortable. So think about the things you need for that!
For this trip I wanted a lot of convenience. It would be the kids’ first time to the park and my first time bringing kids. Going as an adult gives me a lot of flexibility and I knew there may be some unexpected issues with kids. I chose to stay on property because I wanted to simplify the experience, get all the perks, and see how they did. I hoped that taking some of the work off my shoulders would help me relax. This was pretty successful!
I also didn’t want to worry about money on this trip. I did all of that before we left. I started saving a year before our trip, which gave me time to make sure I had all our costs covered and then some. We didn’t do a dining plan, so I left for the park with money set aside for our meals and other purchases. I used my Simple card as I was saving to keep our “fun money” separate from our everyday budget. I connected my card to my MagicBand so I could leave my wallet and purse behind.
Even if we could have managed a Disney trip financially before now, I wouldn’t have gone because I know me. Stroller life is not my life. There was no way I’d set foot in the parks until both kids could manage the walking on their own.
I also know that I don’t like to be spontaneous but I do like to be flexible. I hate HATE spending time after a ride debating what to ride next. I had a basic itinerary for each day before we left and then each night we’d talk it through so we were all on the same page. We left plenty of room for changes, but mostly this helped us keep from walking back and forth across the park constantly. The kids are pretty good about letting me set an itinerary or letting me set out some options they can choose from. This worked well for us on site.
Know Your Kids
This is going to be a lot for any kid. It’s also going to be a lot of delayed gratification. There are a lot of things they would like to have where you will say no. Even if you spoil your kid at Disney, there will always be another thing they want around the corner.
Have a plan about what you’ll say yes to and talk about it with your kids in advance. The whole time we were planning this trip, I was also talking to the kids about how we were saving our money for Disney World, so when they wanted to go to the arcade or the trampoline place I’d remind them that our extra money was going to our trip. Before we went to Disney World I told them that they were able to pick out something within a specific price range. I also told them they could have one treat each day. For my kids it was a good balance of special treats and knowing in advance what they were going to get so they could plan accordingly.
Set a basic schedule and build in recharge times. We had a plan to make the first day the longest, with a short second day, and a late start with a lazy morning on day 3. We ended up sticking to it pretty well and we talked it through ahead of time.
Know whether your kids are able to effectively gauge their own level of energy. If they aren’t, you’ll need to keep tabs on them and look for signs of fatigue. Graham is great at speaking up for himself and each day he was able to let me know when he was done. But my kids are “let’s go to bed early tonight” kids when they’re tired, so I could trust them to make that decision. If your kids aren’t that type, you’ll need to keep your eyes on them and give them advance warnings of how much longer/how many more rides.
Know how you’re going to use discipline. We all need to use threats or rewards for good behavior, know what you want those to be. In the heat of the annoyed moment it’s easy to throw out a “Stop it or we’re all leaving right now,” and that’s fine if you’re actually willing to stick to it and everything that goes along with that. It may end up being worse for you than it is for your now-tantruming kid. For Tessa it was pretty easy: her birthday pin was her ticket to a free dessert at every meal and dessert is basically the thing she cares about most in the world. Getting to wear her birthday pin meant she had to keep whining to a minimum and it was a pretty effective incentive.
If your kid is eligible for a disability pass, make sure you’ve read up on it in advance and have a plan. For us it was about avoiding anxiety that can build up the longer we wait in line. Being able to do that waiting out of line made it much easier for Graham to get through the day and avoid a worry spiral. We still waited in shorter lines to help the kids work on their waiting skills. The first day we had to get used to planning around that built in wait time, but by the second day we were much better at it.
Single parent note: The park is not easy for single parents with more than one kid. It’s a tall order to ask another adult to come with you, but I would definitely consider it, especially for younger children. Kids under 7 cannot go on a ride alone, so if you have two kids under 7 it’s going to limit what you can do, especially if kids disagree on what they want to ride.
Do Your Research
Look, I wish I could say you don’t have to research this trip. I wish I could say you can just wing it. But your kids are going to be overwhelmed and unpredictable and you need as much control over the situation as you can.
If you haven’t used the new app and FastPass system, I recommend reading up on it. It’s significantly harder to figure it out in the park than it is in advance. I don’t love this system, you shouldn’t have to be booking specific rides so early, but in the end it was one less thing to worry about when we were there. Even if you’re only booking those FastPasses the day before, I’d still recommend booking them ahead. By the time we could get more at around 4pm, all the good rides were booked for the day. For rides where you can’t use a FastPass but that have a long wait, try going right at the very beginning of the day, during parades when crowds go down, or in the evening when families with small kids have headed home.
Don’t take advice blindly. I did some crowdsourcing while I was planning because I was worried that I wasn’t ready for a visit with kids. I wanted wisdom from friends who went regularly. It turns out I took hardly anyone’s advice. Ultimately I realized that other people’s trip priorities aren’t mine, and we were definitely operating on different budgets. Other people’s “can’t live without” things were my “why would I do that?” things. It turns out that I was pretty darn ready. I just had to trust myself.
I knew food would be an issue for us since Graham is not a normal kids meal kid. I read every single menu for every single restaurant in every single park we visited and made notes in a Google doc to make sure my kid who won’t eat mac & cheese or hamburgers would have good options each day that also gave us adults food worth eating and would keep us within our budget. Did it take a long time? Yes. Did it pay off? Absolutely. It was much faster to check that google doc on my phone during the day than to pull up a bunch of different menus when we were hungry and hangry.
The My Disney Experience app was incredibly helpful for us. It did stall a couple times when we tried to do something extra like book a dinner reservation or order food in advance, but otherwise everything was really smooth and I used it constantly during the day. It kept me from having to remember things like fast passes and meal reservations, it helps you plan by showing wait times, and it comes in handy in a pinch if you’re looking for bathrooms nearby.
Don’t forget things to keep your kids happy outside the parks. We brought card games for evenings back in the hotel and plenty of activities for the airplane.
Make a packing list. If you’re going to be going without a rental car, you’ll be hard pressed to get anything you forget. I kept a memo on my phone that I added to for a few weeks before we left whenever I thought of something new. I knew exactly what I’d be putting in the small bag I’d take into the park (phone, extra battery, collapsible water bottle, mini sunscreen, TableTopics cards to use in line, snacks) and I even managed to get to Orlando WITHOUT FORGETTING TO PACK ANYTHING. It is an actual miracle. (I did forget to turn the heat off while we were gone, though. Perils of leaving home at 5 a.m. with kids.) If you do need stuff and don’t have a car, Orlando does have Amazon Prime Now service, we had several groceries delivered to our hotel.
What We’re Doing Differently Next Time
First off, hooray for a next time! As a Disney lover I was hoping the kids would have a great time. And since they do well in situations where they are familiar with things and can think them through in advance, I knew that for any vacations the ideal spot is somewhere they have visited before. It’ll also give them the chance to have that pre-trip excitement when you know what’s coming. I checked in with them regularly to see how they felt, we talked through once again that this would mean saving our money to come back, and they agreed that it would be worth it.
For the kids everything worked out really well. But I struggled with the crowds, the food, the buses, etc. The kids didn’t enjoy the hotel experience so much that I feel like we have to repeat it. And the thing I wanted most during our trip was to get us all out of one small hotel room together. We’ll be staying off property next time. We can probably get a 3 bedroom house to rent for around half the price of our hotel. I’ll have to add the price of a rental car and on site parking, but the privacy and space will be well worth it and it’ll still be cheaper overall. It’ll give us easier access to off-site food and even the ability to cook in our own kitchen. It’ll be a longer drive in, but I’m not sure it’ll be that much longer since we won’t have to wait for an unpredictable bus.
Initially Graham wanted a longer trip. Ours was only 3 days in the park with some extra time on site before and after since our flight there was early in the morning and our flight out was late in the afternoon. But ultimately we were all beat after 3 days and agreed that we don’t need any more. Even though we never made it more than 8 hours in the park at a time. Every site I visited made it sound like anything less than 5 days wasn’t even worth the trip. (Again, those grains of salt.)
This trip my Mom was kind enough to come with us. I knew Graham would struggle with being alone on rides where only two riders could sit together. But now that he’s experienced and feels more confident, he won’t need the support on the next trip. Having an extra adult was great, we could split up for rides and end the day at different times. But it’s a huge ask to have someone join you on a vacation that’s on your schedule rather than theirs and comes at significant expense. For next year we may see if friends or family are interested in joining, but we’re not going to add more kids to the crew (I’m trying to diminish the chaos next time, remember?) and we’re going to plan as if we don’t get any additional companions so that we’re ready for that scenario. Plus, with car rentals included we’d all need to come and go at the same time which removes one of the major bonuses of having an extra adult.
I’d love to hear what you learned from planning a Disney World vacation, especially any tips to help us pick a vacation rental for next year! What did I leave out and how was your experience the same or different?
We paid for this trip and all the trappings out of our own pockets, no sponsorships here.