Disney World parks in Orlando, Florida, are unparalleled in their ability to transport children to a world of boundless joy and imagination. The thought and effort that the “cast members” and Imagineers put into the attractions do a lot to ensure that the experience is as painless and enjoyable as possible. But the parks can only be responsible for a child’s fun up to a certain point. The fact remains that in order to ensure Disney World fun, parents need to do their part, too. And for first-timers taking young kids, a lack of preparation and high expectations can work to create a disaster in the happiest place on Earth.
The harsh truth is that a Disney World vacation requires thoughtful planning, months of preparation, and a good amount of hustle. Otherwise, the experience will be a mess of long lines, expensive food, and exhaustion. But it doesn’t have to be that way. So, start by managing expectations. Here’s what you need to know.
Harsh Truth No. 1: Planning a Disney World Vacation Takes Months
It’s not an exaggeration to say that planning a trip to Disney World takes months. And that seems, in some ways, by design.
Disney World draws millions of visitors every day, and making sure that all of those people can take advantage of the park’s amenities requires some serious scheduling. So, if you want your kid to meet their favorite Disney personalities at “character meals,” you’ll have to make your reservations well in advance. That’s particularly true of the more popular meals featuring Disney princesses.
The Disney Fast Pass system also requires some serious forethought. A Fast Pass is essentially a way that park visitors can jump the line on popular attractions by reserving a time to ride or visit. However, times tend to get booked well in advance, particularly for the more popular rides.
Add to all of this the fact that the parks are physically massive. It’s no wonder that there are giant tomes released yearly to help families navigate their experience: You’ll want to pick one up and use it.
No. 2: A Disney World Vacation With Young Kids Is Not About the Parents
There’s plenty at Disney World to thrill adults and older kids — the new Avatar Flight of Passage ride is a fine example. But parents with young kids should probably put their big-boy and big-girl ride dreams on hold if they want to have a seamless experience.
The thing is, if you’ve prepared enough to get Fast Passes, you’ll want to reserve times for attractions that appeal to the children in order to reduce wait times. That will leave parents who want to ride the bigger, faster rides with the option of queueing up for over an hour on the more popular rides to get their thrills. There are workarounds, but it usually means downtime for the kid or splitting parents up.
It’s simply easier if parents of young children put their own desires on the back burner and accept that maybe the biggest thrill at Disney World is in seeing how much fun their kid is having.
No. 3: Parents Should Not Try to Sleep In on a Disney World Vacation
Getting to the parks after 10 a.m. is what you could call a rookie mistake. By the time mid-morning rolls around, parks are already getting packed and lines for attractions begin to grow unreasonable. This is not a vacation for lying around in bed.
The best plan of action to maximize exploration and fun at Disney World is to arrive at the park at what’s known to pros as “rope drop” — the time when the park opens the attraction. It varies from park to park, but in most cases it’s around 8 a.m. or 9 a.m.
Arriving early will help parents of young children strategize their day. Because queues are much shorter in the morning, it’s possible to walk on to attractions like the tea cups at the Magic Kingdom or Soarin’ at Epcot and reserve Fast Pass time for later in the day to skip the long lines. Arriving early also has the benefit of avoiding the hottest parts of the Florida day and avoiding the crush of the crowds. By 1 p.m., you can take a break at the hotel pool or leave the park for lunch and come back later in the evening for fireworks.
No. 4: You Can Lead a Kid to Big Thunder Mountain, but You Can’t Make Them Ride
Many rides at Disney World have height requirements, but a lot of the faster rides, like Big Thunder Mountain in Magic Kingdom or Expedition Everest in the Animal Kingdom, can be ridden by an average-size kindergartner. But just because they can ride doesn’t mean they’ll want to, or should. The fact is that for younger children, a lot of these rides are terrifying. And the anticipation while waiting in line — hearing the screams and watching the cars speed past — might be enough to make a young kid balk at getting on at all. It’s important not to force the issue for everyone’s sake.
There is some good news should this happen, however. Disney World offers parents a “child swap” option for most rides. This way, if a kid decides not to ride, one parent can ride while the other parents waits. Then, at the end of the ride, the parents swap the kid and the parent that was waiting can ride without having to wait in line again. It’s not ideal. But when a kid gets spooked, it’s a good solution.
No. 5: The Resort or Hotel Pool Will Be Just as Exciting for Kids as the Park
It can be super-disheartening for parents who’ve spent thousands of dollars on the trip to realize that their kid would have been just as happy to splash around in the resort pool all day. Just expect it, and don’t take it to heart.
No. 6: Strollers at Disney World Are a Blessing and a Curse
Kids, with their tiny legs and feet, will have to cover a lot of ground walking around the park. That said, every park has stroller rental or allows strollers to enter. But while they’re great for keeping a kid from getting too tired, they can also be a logistical nightmare.
Because the queues are too narrow for strollers, the parks offer designated stroller parking areas. These, for all intents and purposes, act like stroller parking lots and come with a parking lot’s worth of hassle. Not only do you have to find a spot and remove the kid prior to getting to the line, you have to find the stroller when you get back and often wait for others to clear out before you can get on your way again. The whole thing can start to feel pretty ridiculous when the walk between attractions is short.
If parents do plan on bringing a stroller, make sure it is easily identifiable and plan a route that keeps stroller parking as infrequent as possible.
No. 7: Parents Need to Be Realistic About Their Disney World Budget and Stick to It
Every parent’s dream is to make a Disney World vacation happen with minimal financial chaos. To do that, parents need to make sure that they understand the full cost of a trip to Disney World. Finding budget lodging and low travel costs is possible, but the parks themselves have certain fixed costs and surprise expenses that catch some unawares. For instance, parents who are not staying in a Disney World resort will need to prepare for the cost of parking, which is around $25 a day. Parents also need to take into account souvenir costs. Some mouse ears and a bubble wand can add up.
It’s important for parents to take everything into consideration, including meals in the parks versus meals outside the parks and ancillary entertainment costs like video rentals at the hotel or swim toys. And once it’s all accounted for, don’t budge. A fierce determination to say “no” in the park will keep families from hemorrhaging money.
No. 8: Whining Still Happens at Disney World
Yes, Disney World is rightfully called the happiest place on Earth. It is pretty damn great when everyone is feeling good and plans are working. But young kids lack the understanding of how much work went into the planning of the trip. And when they get uncomfortable or tired, they will whine, despite their magical surroundings. It’s enough to make a parent lose their minds. Just understand that kids don’t change into perfect angels when they walk into Disney World. You’ll still need to be a parent. That said, the parks can be overwhelming — sometimes it’s just too much for a kid. So, while discipline and consequences are important in the parks, you can also cut a kid some slack when they’ve overdosed on imagination.
No. 9: Parents Should Never Forget Disney World Is Hot, Literally
Parents traveling from cooler climates in cooler months may think the heat in Orlando is no big deal. But even in January, temperatures in Disney World can be well into the 80s. It’s important to keep kids hydrated and coated in sunscreen. Nothing ruins the House of Mouse faster than a dehydrated and sunburned kid. Consider the heat and plan appropriately.