Pros: Disney makes traveling with even the youngest children easy and fun for everyone
Cons: Expensive, but worth every penny!
It probably sounds like a no-brainer. Isnt Disney World designed for kids? Yes and no. There are plenty of tricks and tips to get the most out of your stay, especially with young children. I made my first trip to Walt Disney World in Florida when I was 3 years old and since then I have been back at least another 30 times. These are my answers to the questions I am always asked about planning a trip with preschoolers.
1 - Are My Kids Old Enough for a Disney Vacation?
I get asked this question a lot. My answer both of our daughters took their first trip at exactly 6 months of age. We go nearly every year so their ages at any particular time are not important, however if you only plan on making one or two visits while your children are young, then age is certainly something to think about.
I hear parents say that they want to wait until their children are old enough to remember the trip, 7 or older seems to be the number thrown around. However by that age many children are already too old for the magic that Disney has to offer. Children that old no longer believe that the person walking around in the Mickey costume is really Mickey Mouse. On our most recent trip our then 2 year old was in love with the characters and talked to Pooh just like she would talk to any real person, because to her Pooh was real. That magic seems to end at about age 4 or 5 for most kids. If you can, take your children before then. Even if their memories fade over time you will always remember the look on their face the first time they meet their favorite character.
2 - Does Disney Really Accommodate Young Children?
Admission for children 2 and under is free and there is plenty for children this age to enjoy.
Disney goes out of their way to make traveling with even the youngest children as easy as possible. Each of the four major theme parks has a Baby Center. Here you will find private areas for nursing moms, large free standing changing tables with a never ending supply of disposable pads, microwave ovens and bottle warmers and even some home style high chairs for feeding children who cant sit up in the standard restaurant high chairs. They also sell all of the supplies you may have forgotten or run out of diapers, wipes, rash cream, food, formula, pain relievers, pacifiers etc. There are also areas for older children to play.
Disney also makes it easy for everyone in your family to get on the rides, even if you are traveling with children you cant or wont. Many rides offer a baby swap just ask at the entrance. This system allows some members of your party to go on the ride while someone waits with the children. When the first group is done those that waited are allowed to ride without waiting in the sometimes long lines.
3 - Where Should We Stay?
That question really boils down to on Disney property or off? There is no doubt that staying at a Disney owned property is more expensive, but you are paying for convenience. You have the option of using the free Disney provided transportation to and from your hotel. There are early morning hours at the theme parks for guests staying on property. You cant get any closer to everything that Disney has to offer than by staying on property.
If your budget permits, I highly recommend staying on Walt Disney World property. A basic room at any of the All-Star Resorts starts at $99 per night and prices go up from there. However you may find that you save money at one of the Disney home away from home accommodations. The Fort Wilderness Cabins are often overlooked. While still pricey at $270 per night, the one-bedroom cabins sleep 6, with a double bed and bunk beds in the bedroom and a Murphy bed in the living room. The full kitchen includes stove, microwave, dishwasher, refrigerator, and eating/cooking utensils. If you dont mind cooking on your vacation this means that you dont ever have to spend money on eating out. We are members of the Disney Vacation Club (a condo timeshare) and even though it is vacation, we have breakfast in every morning as well as most lunches and dinners. This definitely helps stretch our food budget.
There are plenty of places to stay outside the gates of Disney World. You can certainly have a wonderful vacation staying anywhere in the area. Just make sure you know where the hotel is so you know how much time you will be spending on daily trips to and from the parks.
4 - Do We Need to Rent a Car?
If you stay off property, the answer is almost certainly yes. If you try and save a few dollars by using transportation provided by your hotel, make sure you know exactly what you are getting. Many hotels make one drop-off and pick-up at the Ticket and Transportation Center (TTC) each day. If you miss the bus youll be spending some of your savings on a taxi. Some run hourly shuttles, but if you miss that, it is a long hour with cranky children. Once dropped off at the TTC you still have to take Disney transportation to get anywhere other than the Magic Kingdom. You may find you spend a lot of your vacation making sure you are where you need to be when you need to be there. And you know just as you are making a made dash to the bus your child is going to have to go to the bathroom.
Even if you decide to stay on property I still suggest you rent a car. We always stay on property and we never use the transportation since. While the buses run on a fairly reliable schedule, holding a crying child for 10 or 15 minutes while you wait for a bus is not my idea of a pleasant way to end the day. Dragging all of the stuff we need for two children for a day is not easy to do on the buses, it is much easier to transport everything in the car. We like the convenience of being able to arrive and leave when we are ready not when the bus is. Parking is free for resort guests at all of the parks so this is a perk we always take advantage of.
5 - When Should We Go?
Walt Disney World is the type of destination that people flock to 365 days a year. The best time is between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Chances are it wont be warm enough to visit a water park, but the crowds are manageable. You also get to enjoy all of the holiday celebrations. Mid September (once the kids are back in school) is another great time to visit and the weather is still summer like so you can take full advantage of the water parks. Late April to early May is another good time as most kids are still in school but the weather is warming up.
One thing to keep in mind, if you visit at these off times the parks are not open as late as during school vacation weeks or during the summer. If you have older school aged children in your party you may not have a lot of travel times to choose from. Vacation periods are crowded, in fact the parks sometimes close to new guests because they reach capacity. But often the parks are open late into the evening giving you many more hours to enjoy the parks. Of course with young children late night hours are not particularly helpful.
Warning this may spoil some magic for you. The Christmas parade, live from Disney World on Christmas day is actually taped the first weekend in December. If you can go then you may be able to sit home on Christmas morning and see yourself on TV.
6 - Should We Rent or Bring Our Own Stroller?
No doubt about it, bring your own. The strollers go for $8 a day, and if you keep your receipt and wait in line again at the end of the day you can get back $1. You can do the math to know how much it is going to cost you. The strollers are all hard molded plastic that do not recline. The short straight backs make it almost impossible for a child to rest. There is limited storage in the strollers so plan on carrying everything you need. Even though your name is written on the stroller when there are hundreds parked outside an attraction it can be tough to find yours. And it isnt uncommon to go on a ride and come out only to discover that the Disney cast members have moved a line of strollers to a nearby area. It is so much easier to pick out your own stroller from the masses. Also, you need to turn the stroller in at the gate. That means carrying or forcing your children to walk to the bus or car at the end of a long, long day. For comfort, storage, convenience and expense bring your own stroller.
7 - Where Do We Go First?
Many families want to head straight to the Magic Kingdom on their first day since it is definitely the most child oriented park. That is exactly why you should avoid it. There are plenty of great kid friendly activities at all of the parks but once your children get a taste of the never ending fun at the Magic Kingdom they may not be happy visiting the more low key parks later in the week.
If you plan to visit EPCOT on your vacation, I suggest you start there, as it is probably the least fun for young children. Most of the rides are tame enough for even the youngest children, but are more educational in nature as opposed to being pure entertainment. The Imagination Pavilion offers some fun and if you children like fish The Living Seas is fun as well. There is a tiny play area in the Mission: Space Pavilion, and a Viking ship to explore in Norway. There are several craft areas for children where kids can color flags of various nations or decorate masks. Other than that it is lots of walking and movies which may or more likely not enthrall your young children.
If you children love animals then they will probably enjoy Animal Kingdom. This is a park you want to get to early in the morning so it is probably a good idea to go early in your trip while everyone is still fairly well rested. The animals are most active early in the morning and that gives your children the best chance and seeing some of their favorite animals. We quickly discovered it was difficult for our 2 year old to spot sleeping animals lying on the shaded ground.
Dont miss a stop at the Bone Yards play area. There are lots of slides and places to climb, although this play area is geared more toward school aged children. Still there was plenty to keep our older daughter happily playing. Dont miss the big sand box on the top level over the bridge. Buried under the sand are a variety of fossils for children to uncover, although it is still fun as just a pile of sand to play in.
MGM and the Animal Kingdom are probably nearly equal in kid appeal factor so which one to go to after EPCOT is a matter of personal preference.
Many of the rides at MGM are low key, suitable for young children and focus on entertaining as opposed to educating. Dont miss The Honey I Shrunk the Kids play area. We spent a lot of our most recent vacation here among the 12-foot high blades of grass and leaf shaped slides. This play area has enough variety to entertain the youngest toddlers through school-aged children.
If your children are Playhouse Disney fans make sure you get in line early for Playhouse Disney Live. The show is short but loud and seating is mainly on the floor. There are a few benches around the perimeter of the theater but the expectation is that you will sit on the floor.
The Magic Kingdom
Save the best for last. You might even want to allow a day off from the parks before you head to the Magic Kingdom. Perhaps take some to swim in the pool, play on the hotel playgrounds and get some rest. The Magic Kingdom will probably require at least two full days.
While there are a few rides with height limits that are not appropriate for young children, by and large everything in the Magic Kingdom is suitable for children of all ages. There is even a small kids are of the park, Mickeys Toontown. There is a small play area here but it is nothing special and your local park at home is probably nicer. In fact you often hear the refrain from parents We can do this at home, followed by a temper tantrum when parents pull their unwilling child from the play area. This play area is really geared for the 4 and under crowd who may not care what else there is to do in the park. So if you are going to get frustrated about sitting watching you child climb up and down two small slides and crawl through the small play house you may want to consider passing on this activity.
8 - Should We Dine with the Characters?
The larger than life characters frighten some children; others, like my daughter, cant get enough of them. I would suggest that you find out which category your child falls into before deciding where to eat. All of the parks have meet and great opportunities with the characters so take the time to wait in line and see how you child reacts.
Character dining requires Priority Seating, which is similar to reservations. You call 407-WDW-DINE and tell them where and when you want to eat. From there they will give you a time to arrive and you will receive the next table available for your party size.
The characters walk systematically through the dining room and visit your table. There is no need to chase them down. They seem to have the timing down well so that you see each character at least once while you eat. At some of the smaller restaurants you may get several visits. They do seem to try and keep the characters spread out so you get a visit, then a chance to eat before the next visit. Make sure you have your camera ready, as the characters are happy to pose for pictures.
The Crystal Palace
Located inside the Magic Kingdom, park admission is required to dine here with Pooh and friends (Tigger, Eeyore and Piglet). The food is served buffet styles and there is a lot to choose from. On our most recent trip we had breakfast and dinner at the Crystal Palace, but they serve lunch as well. Some breakfast choices are Mickey shaped waffles, French toast, omelets made to order, sausage, bacon, biscuits and gravy, hot and cold cereal, potatoes, breakfast breads and daily specials. Beverages are included with the meal.
Dinner is also a wonderful experience. There are salads, vegetables, pasta dishes and carving stations. There is a buffet area set up for children with typical favorites like pizza, macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets. The desserts are first class and there were at least a dozen to choose from.
This is one of the larger restaurants and definitely one of the more popular places to dine. The characters seemed a little rushed to get through the dining room and both times we ate here we only saw each character once. The buffet runs $15-$25 per person depending on the meal.
The Liberty Tree Tavern
Also located in the Magic Kingdom the Liberty Tree Tavern only has character dining for dinner. The restaurant has a colonial theme and the single dinner choice is served family style. Your meal starts out with salad. Then you get platters of turkey, steak and ham, mashed potatoes, stuffing vegetables and a breadbasket. You can get more of anything you want including the daily dessert.
We ate there Christmas night and this was by far our best dining experience. We didnt have Priority Seating we simply walked in and we were seated after a fairly short wait. The characters here are Minnie, Chip and Dale and the raccoon from Pocahontas (whose name escapes me at the moment). Each of the characters came to the table at least three times. Even though my daughter was not as familiar with these characters she still had a great time. Minnie was particularly patient and came to the table several times in rapid succession so my daughter got used to her. When my daughter warmed up to her, Minnie sat on the floor and invited my daughter onto her lap. We got some great pictures of that. In general the characters were not as rushed and we even got a few good pictures of the characters interacting with our 6 month old.
If characters arent going to work for your family there are plenty of great places to eat. All of the restaurants have a childrens menu of typical childrens food pizza, hotdogs, hamburgers, chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese. We also found out that many of the larger restaurants have infant carrier style high chairs so you do not have to worry about seating young babies is traditional restaurant style high chairs. Most will also allow you to bring in your stroller into the restaurants; this is especially helpful for children who are napping.
9 - Anything We Should Skip with the Kids?
Believe it or not, Disney World makes a great adult only vacation. That means that there are activities that are better enjoyed with out the children. If you want to take in some of the evening activities Disney has to offer consider signing your 4-12 year old children up for the Childrens Activity Centers available at many of the resort hotels. If you have younger children, you can have sitters come to your Disney property room for the evening.
Victoria and Alberts
With its expensive prix fixe menu, the elegant Victoria and Alberts is not a place for children. You can plan on dinner taking over 2 hours, which is well beyond the attention span of any preschooler that I know. The food is excellent, the service is impeccable and the setting is extremely romantic making this a dinner to remember, but not one to share with the children.
The large restaurant and night club complex makes for a great evening out. Children can go into several of the clubs so long as an adult accompanies them. However, most children are not going to be entertained by improvisational comedy at The Comedy Warehouse and will probably not enjoy the loud music at any of the dance clubs.
10 - And Other Tips?
If you dont mind carrying it, pack as much food as you want. You dont have to worry about sneaking it in; Disney long ago lifted their ban on bringing in your own food to the parks. This is especially helpful if you child is a picky eater or you want to provide nutritious snacks for your children, although fruit is available in the parks.
If you have a child who is still small enough to fit into a front style baby carrier, I highly recommend using one. There are lots of rides that you can bring a baby on, however many rides (especially at the Magic Kingdom) have a few twists and turns. You will enjoy the rides a lot more if you don't have to worry about anticipating a sudden direction change knowing that your baby is safely secured on your lap. I did not have any trouble with any safety bars getting in the way with either child on my lap.
If you follow just one piece of advice it would be to keep your children on their schedule as much as possible. If they normally take an afternoon nap try and go back to the room and let them sleep. While sleeping in the stroller a couple of afternoons will probably suffice, those snoozes dont really provide children with a quality nap. If 8 PM is bedtime then plan on being back in your room before then most nights.
Consider taking a day off from the parks in the middle of week. Spend the day at the pool and playground, maybe rent a movie and head to a favorite fast food restaurant for dinner. While the parks are a lot of fun they can be overstimulating to preschoolers. A relaxing day without schedules, lines and crowds can go a long way towrd gearing everyone up for the rest of the week at the parks.
Nothing spoils a vacation faster than a screaming, crying, impossible to please, over-tired child. Being on vacation, away from their toys and home is enough to cause even a well-rested normally easygoing child to throw at least a few tantrums. Add to that missing naps and too many late nights and you are asking for trouble. Yes, you wont get to see as many attractions if you go back to the room for naps, end your day before the park closes or even take an entire day off, but what you do see will be more pleasant and enjoyable for everyone.
Want More Information?
Walt Disney Worlds Preschooler Visit Page:
Other Disney World with Children Reviews
Where to Eat