List 11: Navigating Disney World with a Toddler and a Preschooler

I went to Orlando for a conference last week, which was a perfect excuse to extend my trip through the weekend and have my family come down so that my three-and-a-half year old son and 18 month old daughter could have their first Walt Disney World experiences.

I solicited advice from people on which parks to visit with kids as young as mine. A lot of people said that each of the major parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom) had something to offer. In the end we did one evening at Epcot after some of my conference events then spent the next three days at the Magic Kingdom. I’m sure people will tell me about all the great stuff I missed at the other parks, but for us the signature park had the most to offer and we had a great time.

After clocking almost 20 hours in the Magic Kingdom I learned a few things about navigating the park with a toddler and a preschooler:

  1. Clearly mark your strollers. At the hotel my husband thought it was strange that our strollers were festooned with huge, obnoxious, bright yellow plastic ribbons with our last names written on them. Once we got to the park he understood. There are seas of strollers outside each ride. A uniquely bold indicator will help you to find yours quickly.
  2. Two strollers are better than one. This probably isn’t true if the kids in your group outnumber the adults (in which case I wish you strength). For us though, it was great having two single strollers instead of one double. The singles maneuver through a crowd much more easily. Plus, we could split into two groups so that our little girl could nap and ride age appropriate rides while the boy went on bigger kid attractions like the Barnstormer and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
  3. Wear comfortable shoes. There will be walking. A lot of walking. And occasionally running to catch the monorail in order to not miss the shuttle back to your hotel. Don’t worry if your athletic shoes aren’t as cute with your outfit as your sandals. There will be someone (likely many people) at the park who are dressed far worse than you.
  4. Check park schedules before planning your days. Closing time at the Magic Kingdom varies from 7 pm to 11 pm depending on the day of the week and special events that might be scheduled. Don’t get your hopes up for a late night on a day when the park is closing early.
  5. Go on an off-season weekday if you can. I won’t encourage you to pull older kids out of school for a trip to Disney World, but I will say that on a Thursday and Friday in the middle of September few lines exceeded 20 minutes. On Saturday most lines were three to four times as long as they had been on the previous days, meaning that on the weekdays we were able to do three to four times more stuff.
  6. Go earlier in the day. Yes, I know you want to go late to see the Electric Light Parade and the Fireworks, but even on Saturday the waits before noon were far shorter than later in the day.
  7. Use Fast Passes. This system of getting a ticket to have a shorter wait for a ride later instead of waiting in line now is a brilliant innovation.
  8. Prioritize your Fast Passes. In most cases each person can only get one Fast Pass and won’t be eligible for another until they reach the riding time on their current Fast Pass (see item 10 for an exception). As a result, be sure to Fast Pass the rides you most want to go on first.
  9. Don’t Fast Pass Winnie-the-Pooh if the wait time is less than 30 minutes. The line for the Pooh ride is full of toys and interactive displays that are visible from the Fast Pass line which can cause a feeling of longing in the kids being rushed to the ride. A 25 minute wait lets a kid have the full experience, but if waits creep up past that you may want to go with a Fast Pass and endure the whining about wanting to play with Pooh’s toys.
  10. Wait before you Fast Pass Dumbo. This may just be an off-season thing, but we got “Bonus Fast Passes” for Dumbo with our Fast Passes for both the Winnie-the-Pooh ride and our Mickey Mouse photo op. I doubt the arrangement is reciprocal.
  11. Check wait times before you Fast Pass. Remember what I said about how short many of the lines were on Thursday and Friday? I still saw people rushing to get Fast Passes even when waits on those rides were at five or ten minutes (which is what you’d wait with a Fast Pass as well). Perhaps they really didn’t want to ride Buzz Lightyear for another hour, but I’m guessing they were just blindly following advice about getting Fast Passes.
  12. Get your next Fast Pass before riding your ride. Usually you will not be able to get a fast pass until the one hour window for your current Fast Pass begins. Instead of rushing to the ride you’ve been waiting for, rush to the distribution for the next Fast Pass you want so you’ll get an earlier time slot. You’ll also miss the initial rush of people who show up at the ride the moment their Fast Pass can be accepted.
  13. Get a smart phone app. There are a variety of available apps. I was using Verizon’s Disney Parks Mobile Magic for Android. It told me current ride wait times and current Fast Pass times being distributed. It also alerted me when rides were temporarily closed as Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain and Winnie-the-Pooh all were at various times during our visit. The up to the minute info helped with planning our next ride and our next Fast Pass.
  14. Realize that wait times change quickly. A lot of people are using smart phone apps and are going to rush to that 10 minute wait like you are. If you see a short wait on a ride at the other side of the park realize that the wait may have increased substantially by the time you get there. This is important for setting preschooler expectations. You may not want to promise exactly which ride is coming next until you see the wait time when you get there.
  15. Sell rides with long waits as special. Set preschooler expectations for rides with super long waits by describing them ahead of time as very special rides that you only get to ride once.
  16. Ride density for little ones is best in Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. There are some things for kids in Adventureland and Frontierland, but if you have limited time and don’t want to waste it walking across the park stay in Tomorrowland and Fantasyland where there are a lot of kid friendly attractions close together.
  17. Warning: The Magic Carpets of Aladdin can be a scary and stomach churning ride if you put control of the lever in the hands of a three-and-a-half year old.
  18. Pirates of the Caribbean can be scary for little ones. Although the ride is technically for all ages the characters are a bit creepy and the scenery is strewn with skeletons. My boy had no interest in going on it again. In contrast, the girl was tired when we went in and the dark boat ride put her to sleep despite the din of guns and cannon fire.
  19. The Barnstormer is a fun gateway roller coaster for the 35″ and taller set. It’s also hidden in a corner behind Dumbo, which keeps its lines relatively short. My son rode this at least six times.
  20. Delay the introduction of the Teacup ride. Kids love the Teacups and will want to ride over and over again, which is possible because the line moves quickly. Unfortunately, the adult operating the teacups will be getting quite an upper body work out, and queasiness from all the spinning is likely. You may not want to let your kids know they exist until later in your visit.
  21. Young kids appreciate the “lame” rides too. Rides like the People Mover and the train that circles the park may seem boring compared to other attractions, but little kids enjoy them. This is great since the waits tend to be short and the rides are comparatively long. (The People Mover is 10 minutes. If you stay on the train for a complete circle it takes 20 minutes.) These are great ways to kill time while waiting for a Fast Pass to come due or when grown up stomachs are recovering from the teacups.
  22. The Stitch “ride” is more show than ride and your child will be trapped until it is over. I didn’t go on this one, but reviews from my husband and son were not favorable.
  23. Point out Mickeys in the scenery. The Mickey Mouse motif is ubiquitous at Walt Disney World. Kids get a thrill out of seeing Mickey even if it’s just as a silhouette of ears on a sign. “Look! It’s a Mickey!” is a great distraction from “Look! We still aren’t on the ride!”
  24. Grab the parade and show times schedule even if you don’t care about parades and shows. The parade and show times are printed on fliers available at the entrance to the park. Grab one. Parades are great times to go on rides since many people will watch the parade. It’s also good to know when parades and shows are going on so that you can avoid trying to maneuver through the unmoving crowds on Main Street or in front of the castle.
  25. If you need to leave the park during a parade allow extra time. Sadly, our hotel bus schedule was not conducive to leisurely parade watching. Our kids enjoyed the parades while being carried by parents frantically trying to make it to the monorail.
  26. Grab a paper map. When you grab your parade and show schedule grab a park map as well. Sure there is a map on your smart phone app, but it’s nice to save your battery when you can.
  27. Bring your own food and drinks if you can. Food at the park is expensive, so if you can bring some of your own you will save a lot of money. There are plenty of tables where you can eat.
  28. Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe has food and entertainment. The Starlight Cafe in Tomorrowland is a nice dining spot because there is a lot of seating, and there is an animatronic alien for entertainment. Sure his jokes are lame, but he does a good job of keeping kids entertained while adults finish their meals.
  29. Sunshine Cafe in Adventureland is a good place to buy milk for multiple kids. Most places in the park only have small cartons of milk, but the Sunshine Cafe sells pint bottles which are a better deal if you need milk for more than one child.
  30. Lollipops are better treats than ice cream. Whether you bring them from home or buy them in the park lollipops are better treats than ice cream because you don’t have to wait until they are eaten or melt. Save the wrapper or (even easier) bring a sandwich baggie and you can store the lollipop while you go on rides.
  31. Bring your own souvenirs. You can find Disney stuff everywhere now and for a lot cheaper than you’ll find it in the park. Most of my kids’ souvenirs came from Old Navy and Target. Plus, if you bring stuff from home you know you have space for it in your luggage.
  32. Ears are a souvenir you should buy at the park. Don’t let your children become bitter like my husband whose parents never bought ears for him and his sister. Just buy the damn things. The best selection of ears I saw was at the Town Square Theater. I wish we would’ve waited to get ours there instead of at the first open air stand where our boy spotted them.
  33. Don’t be an idiot who forgets the ears in the stroller when you go in to get pictures taken with Mickey and Minnie. Luckily no tantrum arose from this major failure in my mothering, but there was disappointment all around.
  34. Remember that meeting the characters is about meeting the characters and not about pictures. We have some okay pictures with characters, but most are disappointing. The important thing is that my kids were thrilled (even the girl who hasn’t watched hundreds of hours of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse). I keep telling myself this when I see the incredulous look on my sons face in his pictures with Mickey.
  35. Reapply everyone’s sunscreen. You’re on the go all day and are going in and out of buildings. Still, everyone is getting a lot of sun. Reapply at meal times or set an alarm on your phone so you don’t forget.
  36. Big sunglasses are great for blocking the sun and not looking like a total sap. I tend to cry rather easily. Big sunglasses helped to hide the fact that I was a total mess when I watched my kids enter the park for the first time, when I heard the music from Up playing on Main Street, and many other times far too numerous and lame to mention.
  37. Save a little surprise for the plane ride home. Managing kids on a plane can be difficult, even more so when that plane is taking them away from the magic of Disney World. An additional little surprise on the plane can help. I was able to pick up some little Mickey Mouse themed packets with a small coloring book, crayons and a sheet of stickers from the dollar bins at Target, which were great return flight distractions.
  38. Grab something extra in case of an emergency. Because they just cost a dollar I even had an extra packet, so when the kid across the aisle looked longingly at my daughter’s book I was able to give another one to his mom. On a bigger scale, my mom had an extra Mickey Mouse stuffed animal that served as a place holder when we could not find my son’s just as we were ready to go to the airport. (As expected the hotel maid found ours, but that wouldn’t have helped on the plane.)
  39. Bring help. Does this all sound very complicated? It sort of is. We were lucky to have a pair of Disney-loving grandparents who were happy to accompany us. They were able to entertain the kids while my husband and I went on Space Mountain and the Haunted Mansion. We also were able to split into two groups to accommodate the varying nap needs and height limitations of my children.
  40. Book a massage when you get back. Taking young children to Disney World is a lot of fun, but it is also a lot of work. Try to give yourself a reward for enduring the chaos. It will also help undo the toll that all the walking, stroller pushing, diaper bag hauling, children carrying, and ride rumbling that your body just endured.

Have you taken young kids to Disney World? What are your tips?

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