Disney World!! You've just had three children who love princesses and pirates...where are you going?? You're going to Disney World!
If you save your pennies and plan it right, Disney World (in Florida) can be a spectacular family vacation. It also has the potential to break your piggy bank, overstimulate your kids, and leave you feeling overwhelmed all around. My family took treks to Walt Disney World in my childhood, and we've now taken our three children on two trips (first at ages 1, 3, & 5 and then at ages 3, 5, & 7). We are far from experts. If you search the web for Disney, you'll find hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who are experts, but I do think we've caught on to some good ideas on how to enjoy your family time at Walt Disney World.
So, here are my seven (it was good enough for Snow White, it's good enough for me) tips for making the most of your money and time at WDW:
1. Save, save, save:
Whether you surprise your children with the trip or plan your vacation way in advance as a family, make sure you have an ample fund from which to pull for your Disney trip. There are a ton of ways to save like staying at a well-themed discount resort or staying off site or camping at Fort Wilderness. Park ticket prices are lower per day the longer you stay at Disney World. Dining plans can be a great and affordable option, too.
My advice is to have a budget in mind, work to save to get there, and plan according to it. You can easily overspend (and not even know it!) so do your research on Disney's sites or call their info line and ask ANY questions you have.
We opted to tell our children in advance. For each of their birthdays, we gave our children Mickey-shaped silver tickets. Building off of Willy Wonka (a movie the kids loved), the idea of a golden/silver ticket was so exciting! We counted down the days until our vacation together. We worked to set aside the funds, and let our children play a role, too. We were intentional in choosing to eat at home and save our money for the Disney trip. Knowing that a fabulous vacation was at the end of the road made the skipped pizza meal easier for our children to handle. Of course, we had to make other sacrifices as well, but we wanted our children to understand, in a small way, the value that our choices make in big investments.
2. Think carefully about your energy
Our travels have been with little people ages five and under so we've taken advantage of strollers. We are not stroller people (basically having our kids out of strollers as soon as they were able to walk). However, Disney days are long, and young legs and spirits can wane. Though we don't own a double stroller, we learned about renting a stroller in Orlando. We arranged for ours to be delivered and picked up at our hotel so we had no hassles with any kind of transporting.
Also, Disney has an AMAZING transit system. Once you're in or near a park, you can likely take a free bus, train, tram, monorail, or even boat to get to your destination. Take advantage of all of those options! Our kids at younger years enjoyed the bus and boat rides as much as the shows.
And this is no surprise, but still worth noting: Make sure everyone has reliable - like they've worn them in well - and comfortable shoes for the journeys.
3. Do not underestimate the power of a great pool day
This tip came from my sister-in-law, and it helped ALL of us a ton. Right in the middle of our stays in WDW, we planned a full day of pool time. I was so tempted to book another visit to the Magic Kingdom and pack in another visit to It's a Small World and The Haunted Mansion. But, after two days of walking and experiencing it all, we needed some downtime, unstimulated.
Disney resorts have incredible pools and water features, and if your hotel doesn't have one that you like, you can take advantage of another hotel's options. Do your research here because the slides and splash pads are so fun! They gave our family time to laugh and to splash and to play together in a different way than the rides and shows allowed.
If you're not able to make a whole day of swimming, consider blocking off time for a longer meal or a stroll through Disney Springs to break up all of the attention-grabbing excitement. You'll have a smoother, happier trip because of it.
4. Do not try to do it all
This is a huge one, especially when you have small children. There is always more to see, more to do, more to buy. Do not push your crew to ride all the rides and get exhausted. Do not try to do it all.
We all know that you saved and paid big bucks to take this trip, but Disney can be so stimulating for children that it can quickly zap their attention spans and patience. Avoid being "that" parent, making their children hug a character while the child is bawling from exhaustion!! When we traveled with nappers, our family would get into the park when it first opened, head back to the hotel for lunch and nap, and then go back into the parks for an evening of fun. For our older children, this break was a great chance to play with new souvenirs and recap the day's fun/plan for more. And for the littles, it was an essential part of a joyful experience! And let's be honest, we parents could use a little down time, too.
If you know that you want to see certain lands or rides, do your research! Get the fast pass plus or Magic band to make your wait times quick and easy. Consider looking into site like Easy WDW that has cheat sheets for every park, thinking through what days are least busy, the best times to go to rides for the smallest lines, and a guide to the parades and special shows that you will want to see.
As a general rule of thumb, we planned out the three rides we wanted to do in every park and hit those as soon as the park opened. With young children, you're already awake early - use that to your advantage and get to the gates before they open!
5. Have your souvenir plan thought through
Disney is an incredible marketing machine, and everywhere you go, there is something to purchase. Don't be caught off guard, getting everything you don't need or want. Keeping budget in mind, you can purchase giftcards with set dollar amounts for children to use towards gifts they want. You can set an overall dollar limit on what they might bring home. We had a rule of one small souvenir each day so that when we went to each of the different parks, the kids could get something to remember the day. It saved us a lot of aggravating conversations about begging for items because we all knew the plan. And even a 3-year old could stick to it!
Think about double duty gifts, too. We watched the parades in mid-November, and the weather turned cold. We bought everyone Disney beach towels and used them as blankets for the fireworks' show! If you're looking for something off season and don't see it in a shop, ask a cast member because they likely have what you're looking for in the back. :)
6. Eating can get you.
I know there's a ton of advice out there on how to save money eating at Disney World. And I encourage you to look through some of it. The dining plans can be a great choice. Planning ahead can be a great choice.
We were on one end of the spectrum and shipped a box of food to our hotel to meet us there. We had a kitchenette (YES!) so we shipped down basic cereals, pb&j, snacks, and other non-perishables. When we came back for naps, we'd fix sandwiches and applesauce. And we had mac & cheese more than one night for dinner. We always had granola bars and Goldfish crackers ready in our backpack to avoid spending a lot of money on snacks. We all had refillable water bottles, and refilled in fountains as needed. We made a decision to save our money on food and spend it elsewhere.
Disney has a ton of high quality food experiences that are just as good as a themed ride. Consider splurging for one or two. For example, character meals are bucks up, but also a really memorable experience. We loved our time at the Grand Floridian breakfast with Mary Poppins and a whole crew of other characters, and eating with the princesses in the castle was a super special experience for our little girls.
7. LET YOURSELF BE IN AWE
Disney does everything over the top. Everything is bigger, louder, brighter than you imagine it will be. It's highly likely your kids will be amazed. And, if you're like me, you might go one of two ways: you could put on your skeptic hat, or you could jump in with two feet. Let me highly encourage you to go all in.
Look at the entire experience through your children's eyes!! Take pictures with the characters, wave to the parade dancers, run to get in line again for Space Mountain, wear your mouse ears. No one is too old or too cool for the magic.
We're hoping to make another trip soon with our kids now 6, 8, & 10. And we'll be using all of these tips and maybe some of yours!! Have you made a family trip to Walt Disney World? What are your recommendations?
P.S. If you're hear from Hear Motherhood, welcome, welcome!! Make yourself at home. If you are ready to listen to a fun conversation between two friends on motherhood, traveling, and the lessons learned: tune in here.