Someday I can't wait to take our kid to Disney. I was thinking it would be in the much distant future, but Sarah Joy, mom of Henry (3) may have convinced me that traveling to the Magic Kingdom before the age of three is the way to go! Here she shares all her expert tips for any of you hoping to go Meet the Mouse:
So, maybe you want to go to Disney World or maybe your child wants to go to Disney World or MAYBE you really don’t want to go at all, but want to be slightly prepared should the day ever come that you want to plan a trip. Here is a quick rundown of things to know when preparing to head to see the Mouse!
I am by no means a Disney expert, BUT I have found that it is a surprisingly affordable vacation for small families with children under the age of 3! Because of this, I have gone with my son five times in his short little life plus a one day stop in at Disney Land in Anaheim!
Admission is free for children under 3! Additionally, the under 3 crowd doesn't pay a per head charge at buffet meals (most character meals are buffet style) AND if your child has a 3rd birthday during your stay, you still get your entrance ticket based on age upon arrival!
First things first, pick a date. I would love to say you HAVE to plan to go far in advance, but you really don’t. I’ve planned Disney vacations with as little as three weeks notice, and we had just as much fun as the trip planned the recommended 180 days out. Why 180 days out you ask? At the 180 day mark from check in, you can begin to make your dining reservations! This can be important if you have a big group or want to enjoy a lot of character dining experiences, but don’t let it keep you from planning closer to your desired trip date!
Dining reservations: Disney has, essentially, it's own version of OpenTable through their website and app. For sit down meals, it is advised to have a reservation to avoid wait times! The reservations go open 180 days prior to your check in date, so your reservations for meals can serve as your "anchors" to plan your trip around! You can cancel up to 24 hours out without penalty, and there is always a reservation to snag day of... just might not be an ideal meal time.
When traveling to Disney with a toddler, I highly recommend staying on site for the transportation alone. In addition to the ease of getting from resort to park plus to and from the airport (included for FREE in your stay!), it makes getting back to the room for a midday break much easier. If your child still takes a nap or even sometimes takes a nap… plan on naps! Everyone is exhausted after a full morning in the parks and this way you can avoid the classic 4pm meltdowns all over Magic Kingdom. I tend to stretch bedtime a little later as well, and a big midday break helps!
I always suggest a resort that has DIRECT routes to the Parks. My favorite for budget friendly trips is Pop Century. If you are traveling with a larger family, Art of Animation is another great option! There are three levels of resorts at Disney, and the Value Resorts (Pop is one!) can be cheaper than off sight properties! If you are looking for a cheaper stay or to cash in points, the Swan and Dolphin hotels on sight at Disney are not themed but are SPG hotels and you can use points! They have great transportation to the parks and large rooms BUT no complimentary transportation to and from the airport. During different times of year there are promotions that will include a free dining package with a resort stay, but those usually only pop up during VERY low traffic times. At the end of the day, though, staying on property includes transportation to and from the airport, "extra magic" hours at the parks where a different park is open for extended hours for on sight guests ONLY, and you still get a Disney level of service even after leaving the parks!
Snacks. So, if you aren’t a Disney person you probably didn’t know that you can bring any food or drink you want into the parks (save alcohol)!! This can substantially alleviate the budgeting woes of overbuying snacks in parks. My biggest “hack” is filling a gallon zippy bag with snacks for each day you are going to be in the parks and label it with the date. I think about the normal snack intake in a day and double it… a good mix of healthy/savory/sweet/plus some candy for long line behavioral assistance (aka bribing… but who bribes their kids?!). I then make one extra bag just in case!! If you have pre-marked the day or date on the bag, it makes getting out of the room in the morning that much easier!
And while we are on the subject, gallon zippy bags. Bring at least 2-3 empty per day. I put a change of clean clothes in the zippy bag to keep in our day of park bag. If there is an accident or a need to change, swap out the cleans for the dirties and everything stays contained!! These are also great to keep ponchos contained should the weather act up.
For each park day try to have at least a loose plan of three rides or experiences, at least one meal reserved or planned, and always plan to give your kids options that don’t involve back tracking all over the park. For example, when in Adventure Land at Magic Kingdom I will give my toddler the choice of two rides in close proximity. This gives him some control and opportunity for input but doesn’t force a trek from Dumbo to the Jungle Cruise.
Fast Passes are a free benefit of having a park ticket. Similar to making a dining reservation, they can help give your day a plan ahead of time. Walking into Disney without a plan can be super overwhelming. But, if you know that you want to spend a day at Magic Kingdom, you can pick up to three rides to "reserve" ahead of time. There is an hour window that you can show up to the ride and go to a shorter, faster queue. Sometimes with toddlers you make plans and create expectations that have to be adjusted, BUT if you can have an idea of what is coming it typically makes for a less challenging day! Also similar to dining plans, you can typically snag some fast passes same day if a nap or park distraction comes up. There is no penalty for not showing up, other than losing one of your passes for the day!
Finally, keep your expectations in check. How much do you accomplish on a weekend day with your whole family? My guess is one or two errands, one meal with everyone sitting together, and maybe one birthday party or outing. Use those guidelines to prepare yourself for the trip! If you have realistic expectations for what you can do each park day, every added ride or character stop or treat is a mega bonus!!
Henry LOVES the characters and roller coasters! For months after a trip he will tell you all about how fast the 7 Dwarves Mine Train ride is or how he saw Goofy.
PS Pack an external phone charger, because the only thing more rare than gum on the sidewalk at Disney is outlets for a quick charge!