If you are thinking of planning a trip to Disney World, you will have many, many decisions to make– what’s the perfect age for a first trip? Is it worth it to stay in a Disney hotel? Does the Disney Dining plan make sense for your family? When is the best time of year to go– and is it okay to pull the children out of school? Of course, the answers all depend on your family, and you’ll find guide books and websites packed with information to help with the decision-making process. Here are the stories of some real families who read the books, searched the websites, and then got out there and Did Disney with their children. This is what they learned.
Game plan: Spend Some Money to Make the Trip as Easy as Possible on Everybody
Children: Ages 2, 5, and 6
Jenny and Bernie decided to do Disney, but made a conscious decision to avoid trying to do everything. Jenny says, “We told the girls they could each pick five things that they really wanted to do, and told them we would do our best to do those things.” They skipped the Park Hopper choice and just did one park each day. Jenny and Bernie decided to stay in the Polynesian, a Disney luxury hotel, even though it was expensive because they felt it was the most convenient. They loved being so close to the park, with the choice of the monorail or ferry to get them back and forth. They also went with the Disney dining plan and felt it worked well for their family. It freed them up from having to worry about bringing food in, and they used it for two character meals– dinner with Cinderella at the Grand Floridian and breakfast with Pooh at the Crystal Palace –and were very happy with both.
They focused on getting there early in the morning and left the park every day in the early afternoon: “We napped, swam in the hotel pool, and just hung out. Those are some of our best memories of the trip.”
Game Plan: Minimize Meltdowns on Moderate Money
Children: Ages 2 and 4
Tara and Brad went for the economical All Star, a Disney budget resort, but opted for a suite: “We’d put the girls down at 7:00 in the bedroom and this plan let us have an adult evening with a glass of wine.”
Key to their success: “We came home every day for lunch and a nap.” They also brought food with them to the park– sippy cups, muffins, granola bars– because having to wait in line for a something to eat just leads to melt downs. This family found that driving to the park made more sense for them than waiting on shuttles from the hotel, and they also rented a stroller off site so they could take it to the car rather than turning it in at the park. The Park Hopper Pass worked for them, allowing them to tailor what they wanted to do each day.
Goal: Flexible, cost effective fun for three generations
Group: Ten people, three of them children ranging in age from 16 to 6
After checking on the cost of hotels, this family opted to rent a house for a fraction of the price they would have paid. The house was clean and large; it had room for everybody– and a heated pool. “I know some people are nervous about VRBO, but this worked great for us,” Robin says, “There was a big selection of places and price ranges.”
Their game plan: “We ate breakfast at the house and headed in to the park in two cars. We had the flexibility of doing things together or we could split up.” The house they rented was about 6-10 miles away from the park. In retrospect they would have preferred one of the many VRBOs closer to the park to avoid some of the traffic.
Family #4 - Veterans Returning to Disney, Having Learned from Many Previous Trips
Children: Ages 13 and 10
Goal: Do it all
Strategy: Make a plan and stick with it
This family has made many trips to Disney over the years, the first when the children were 18 months and almost 5. They don’t bother with a suite because they hit the park all day and collapse into bed afterwards. Why spend time in a hotel room when you are in Disney World?
They stay on site, choosing the mid price ranged Port Orleans: “We like that it is close to the parks, but the French Quarter, where we stay, is nice and quiet.” Tricia packs a well stocked cooler and a toaster oven, and plans their time zealously, making the most of early openings, and late hours. They catch the Electrical parade in the Magic Kingdom, the fireworks at Epcot, and spend a day in the water parks. Secret weapons: Will carries an insulated backpack with snacks of hummus and veggies, and uses his inside knowledge on the best places for adult beverages at Epcot for afternoon breaks. They’re all pros at the Fast Pass, and know which rides are especially beautiful at night, and that ponchos work for rainy days or wet rides.
Family #5 - My Family’s Experience
Our first trip to Disney was planned to celebrate our princess-loving daughter’s 4th birthday. Though we worried that she was too young, somehow both she and our 9 year old son were the perfect ages to appreciate all the magic. Children celebrating a birthday are given a big birthday button that wins them all kinds of special attention, which was a lot of fun.
One lesson we learned was to plan early. We wanted a suite, and since all the other on site suites were booked, we stayed at Old Key West, which felt more like an apartment or time share — we felt a little too removed from the action. We also learned that we probably could have lived without a suite. The room was far less important than we thought; we spent very little time there. We also paid extra for Park Hopper passes but ended up not “hopping.” Since it was our first trip, we just did one park each day and found plenty to keep us busy.
Two big splurges made our trip especially memorable for us. One was impulsive: We got caught up in the magic madness and bought tickets for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas — this allowed us entrance to the Magic Kingdom after it closed, and we stayed until almost midnight. It was less crowded and there was a beautiful holiday festive feeling in the dark, with all the rides and Cinderella’s castle all lit up. Our children loved the “free” Christmas cookies and hot chocolate, and the Christmas parade with toy soldiers. (Mickey’s Not Very Scary Halloween Party is also very popular.)
Our other extra was hiring a babysitter through one of the services for a grownup night out. Our sitter came to our room with a backpack of fun activities, and we got to have a relaxing kid free dinner alone.
Top Tips From Compiling All the Family’s Experiences
- The most important tip is to plan your trip to coincide with Disney’s less busy seasons. Two families in visited in April, two in November, and one in January.
- Plan your trip well in advance. Six months before the trip isn’t too early to make hotel reservations.
- Choose what activities are important to you and plan around them. Even though it sounds compulsive, you really need a detailed game plan for each day. Several guide books feature “touring plans” tailored for different age groups and length of stay. We actually tore one out and carried it with us
- If you have a child who is even REMOTELY stroller age, bring or rent a stroller, even if you haven’t used it in months. When no one is in it you can use it to haul your back pack, there is plenty of stroller parking so it’s easy to abandon it when you don’t want it, and it will save you when your small child inevitably gets too tired to keep up.
Useful Websites and Guide Books
- Walt Disney World with Kids (Kim Wright Wiley): a great book for planning, advice on the best views for parades and other events, and ratings of the “scare factor” for rides.
- The Unofficial Guide: Walt Disney World (Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa): Detailed and helpful touring plans, reviews of restaurants and rides from the authors and readers– very helpful and informative.
- www.mousesavers.com: Tips for saving money on tickets and reservations, and reviews from fellow travelers.
Caroline Baxter Lambert likes to read, think, and write about parenting issues. She is the mother of two ever-evolving children.