Going to Disney as a child is exciting. Going to Disney as a mama is so, super-duper, over-the-top, can you believe it?!, even MORE exciting.
Disney is magical. But Disney is overwhelming.
I wanted to make the absolute, tip-top, most of our trip. So, I did what any good former graduate student does: I researched. I did hours upon hours of research. I consulted. With many, many emails and messages with two different, much more Disney-knowledgable momma friends. And from all these resources, I was able to come up with a pretty good game plan. Honestly, the trip exceeded my wildest expectations, and I think the planning, and the promise to myself to also be spontaneous during the trip (which can be quite challenging for me!), had a lot to do with that.
Just prior to, and even during, our trip, I was contacted by five different friends who are planning trips to Disney later this year with their kiddos and asked for tips, suggestions, advice, etc.
I thought a post outlining all of the information I gathered from my pre-trip research, and during-trip experiences, may be helpful for first-time-Disney-goer-mommas. And also? We are planning to go back in exactly two years, when we will have 5- and 3-year olds, and I will likely need to look back on this post to save myself the time of re-researching (fun new word).
A quick disclaimer: This information is based on MY opinion. This was my first trip to Disney as a momma, and I know there are mommas out there who are much more Disney-knowledgeable than me. But the following represents my opinions and own advice:
When to go: As far as age of the child? I think that age 3 to 4 is probably a great time to plan a first visit. Banks was just in complete awe, and I think a lot of this had to do with his age. It was so, so special to see Disney through his eyes.
When to go: As far as time of year? It just so happened that my hub's annual work conference was scheduled in Orlando the latter part of the week; so, we planned our trip for the first half of the week, which was the first week of February. I was excited about going this particular week based on this graphic I found on Pinterest. Just based on our personal experience, I think this was an AWESOME time of year to go. There were minimal lines the entire day at Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios (the three parks we visited). As in, walk straight on to some rides, wait 10-15 minutes max on other rides, and wait in line for only 35 minutes for just one ride. All day. Amazing.
Also? The weather was to die for. We wore light jackets in the morning but were very comfortable in jeans and short sleeves the rest of the day, with the weather in the 70's and sunny. Lucky? Perhaps. But I think Florida weather is pretty mild during non-summer months.
Packing for the trip: Because I knew it would be a little chilly in the mornings but warm in the afternoons, I packed outfits that were layered for easy transitioning for the temperature changes throughout the day. Also? I anticipated that we would be absolutely exhausted at the end of each day (This definitely proved true); so, I packed our suitcases in order of the days we would wear specific outfits, complete from under-garmets and shoes to jackets and jewelry (OCPD? Yes. But I so appreciated that I had done this ahead of time because it took the thinking out of it when I was tired from a fun day at the park and preparing for the next day).
Oh, and there are Disney packing lists galore on Pinterest. I thought this one was pretty thorough, although I definitely modified to suit our needs and eliminated some of what she suggested.
Also, if you can believe it, I DID NOT TAKE MY PURSE. Not just to the parks. I DID NOT TAKE MY PURSE TO FLORIDA. Disney is not a time to be high-maintenance. I threw my wallet and lip gloss into the backpack my hub carried around the parks and we were on our way. It felt bizarre, but I really didn't need it.
Packing for the parks: One key tip I can offer? All you need for the parks is a large backpack with a lot of pockets. Each day, my hub just threw the backpack on and we were ready to go. Within the backpack, we had my "good" camera in its case, my point-and-shoot camera, our phones, a sandwich baggie containing first aid items (i.e., a first aid kit from Target-just in case, sunscreen, lip balm, etc.), a sandwich baggie containing "health" items (i.e., hand sanitizer, hand/face wipes, Clorox wipes, a Tide stick, extra hair rubberbands, etc.), sunglasses, a matte for characters to sign (more on this below), our Disney cards (which serve as credit cards/admission passes for guests staying at Disney resorts-easy peasy), our jackets, and snack packs.
Regarding the latter, yep!! You are allowed to take your own snacks and drinks into Disney parks. So. I pre-packed snack bags for each day, containing things like protein/granola bars, goldfish, Ritz crackers, and gum. I labeled each bag for the park in which we would use it (again, hello OCPD) and just tossed them in my suitcase (again, to take the thinking out of it) and then threw the appropriate snack pack in the bookbag each morning before we left the hotel. Easy. And a major money saver.
Also, we did NOT take a stroller. We did not want to deal with the hassle of traveling with one or pushing one through the park. We had been advised that it may be helpful, as you average walking 5 or 6 miles a day, which is tiring for those little 3-year-old legs, but we opted against it. Instead, my hub (mostly) or I (sometimes) just carried our little guy when he wore down.
Accommodations: I strongly, strongly encourage those who are planning a Disney trip, and are able, to stay on Disney property (i.e., in one of the Disney resorts). Not only is this very convenient as far as distance to the parks go, but there are quite a few perks as well. Perhaps my favorite? FREE transportation, all day every day, to all of the parks. For us, this was in the form of constantly running shuttle buses. You simply walk out of your hotel and get on the bus headed to the park you plan to visit. So easy! Same for when you are returning home at the end of the day. Other resorts have access to the monorail, boat rides, or are even walking distance to some parks. This is a great resource for those who are looking for more information on where to stay.
Also? The staff are SO friendly. I had several phone conversations, pre-trip, with Disney staff to set up our character meals, ask questions, make specific hotel room requests, etc., and they were all so happy! And helpful! And nice! Our package also allowed us to take advantage of an awesome dining plan, resulting in three different character meals within the parks as well as convenient and delicious non-character meals both within the parks and at our hotel. This was all set up with the help of a Disney employee, over the phone, about a month before our trip. BUT. And this IMPORTANT. Apparently, many people plan their Disney meals 6 MONTHS IN ADVANCE. Because we decided to go just two months ahead of time, we did not have this luxury (nor did I know to schedule the meals right away). Luckily, there were still great character meals available when I called to schedule all of our dining experiences. I will say, if we had been taking a little girl, who undoubtedly would have wanted to dine with Disney princesses, we probably would have been out of luck, as I know those character meals book up quickly. So, if you are going later this year, BOOK YOUR MEALS NOW!!!
Also? We opted to get a "Hopper Pass." This basically means we could hop around between parks as much as we liked over the two days we had it. This turned out to be of huge benefit to us because, although we originally planned to do Magic Kingdom the first day and Animal Kingdom the second, we realized on the second day that we didn't need a full day at Animal Kingdom with a 3-year-old. So. We changed our plan, mid-day, and opted to finish out our trip at Hollywood Studios. This made the day versatile and fun and easy to modify thanks to the Hopper Pass.
Now, I will say, at least at Animal Kingdom Lodge, you are NOT paying for a huge, immaculate room with super comfortable beds. Nope. The room itself was just average. But. You are paying for amazing views, fun experiences, Disney park convenience, delicious, authentic meals, and friendly staff. Oh, and you get Extra Magic Hours (i.e., access to parks during hours when they are closed to the general public). Nice!
Disney Days Game Plan: If you haven't already gathered in this or my previous posts, I tend to be quite the perfectionistic schedule-freak. A personality pro? Sometimes. A personality con? Sometimes. For this trip? Both. I will say, I think it helped when it came to planning our days at Disney. I knew our time was limited (two days at the parks!), and I wanted to capitalize to make sure our little buddy got to see every single thing I thought he would love. So. I researched. A lot. A lot. A lot. And, thanks in large part to this awesomely awesome post, figured out which rides/shows were "must sees" for a 3-year-old boy and which were skippable. Thank goodness I did this! Because y'all? As I said, Disney is overwhelming. There is a LOT to see and do and limited time. So, we had a tentative itinerary, mapped in large part based on where in the parks we needed to be for our specific, pre-scheduled meals, as well as which areas we needed to hit first thing in the morning in order to escape lines due to high crowd appeal (just FYI, go to Fantasyland FIRST in Magic Kingdom-we walked straight on three popular rides with no lines!).
At the same time, I tried to be spontaneous, too. When my little guy saw an attraction not on our tentative itinerary, we made sure to make it a priority. Case in point? This awesome race car ride that he ended up loving. Finally, use those Fast Passes!!! Basically, if a ride has a long line (which, for us, meant longer than 20 minutes), you can get a Fast Pass, which gives you a specific time frame you can come back and basically jump to the front of the line. Awesome! This was a key reason we didn't have to wait in lines. We would simply get Fast Passes for popular rides and then go take advantage of rides with smaller lines while waiting for our Fast Pass time to come. Worked out great!
For those going during busier Disney seasons, I would strongly suggest bringing activities your child can do in line to keep them occupied, such as an iPad or iPhone (or other smart phone) with child-friendly games, crayons and coloring books, stickers, etc.
Making the trip special: Anyone who has a 3-year-old knows they love to test limits, which results in frequent "No's" (am I right, mommas out there?!). We wanted to Disney to be a special, memorable trip for our buddy; so, we made it a point to minimize the "No's" and maximize the "Yes's." It was so fun to say "Yes" so much more than "No" and see how excited our little buddy got (Gum?? Yes! Extra desserts? Yes! Chocolate milk with every single meal? Yes! Yet another souvenir? Yes!).
Also, rather than take an autograph book, I bought a frame with a matte from Target. I packed only the matte, which we kept in a folder (to protect it) in our park bookbag each day, along with different colored Sharpies, and had the characters sign it. I am going to put it back in the frame, along with a photo of my little buddy from the trip, and put it in his room. A sweet memento that will remind us all of this magical trip.
Final suggestions: Make sure to leave room in your suitcase for souvenirs. Also, if you are staying in a Disney resort, or other nice hotel, try to schedule in some down time. We did this the first day we arrived. We were able to take advantage of the beautiful sunset views of the land and animals, explore the hotel, and have fun at several different spontaneous hotel events before getting a good night's sleep.
Oh, and obviously, the gender of your child will largely dictate the activities planned for your park days. For us, with a little boy, we skipped out on meals/visits with princesses and events at girly boutiques, etc., and focused our time on all things boy. Just plan accordingly (as if I needed to say that).
Lastly, we made it a point to make the trip special from beginning to end. A special Disney countdown was started two weeks before the trip, personalized shirts were made, a special rolling suitcase for our little traveler was purchased, etc. We wanted our little guy to know how special this trip was. I think he got the point. I know we did.
So, that's it. Just a little ol' post, right? Sorry for all the details. Disney is overwhelming as a first-time momma attendee. But also? Completely special, magical, exciting, and over the top amazing.
I hope this helped! Have fun! I'll look forward to hearing about others' Disney experiences. And I'll be re-reading this post myself in two years...