10 Tips for Traveling to Walt Disney World

Planning a family vacation to Walt Disney World? We’ve got the top 10 tips for traveling with your family to Disney from a parent who’s been.

It’s not a matter of if you’ll take your kids to Walt Disney World—more likely, it’s a matter of when. This family getaway is a rite of passage for parents as much as children. I’ve returned from Disney with a boatload of wisdom and ideas for how you can make the most of your own pending trip.

brothers with sword in the stone
Who’ll pull the sword from the stone, Chip or Dale? Maybe both! At Disney World, anything can happen.

1. Get a MagicBand.

Every Disney World guest gets three FastPass+ tickets per day. That means you can choose to skip the main standby line at three rides or shows of your choice. Unlike a few years ago, the new FastPass+ system doesn’t make you rush over to an attraction at a specific time. Whenever you show up, you can use your FastPass+. MagicBands are part of this new system. This handy bracelet, which gets scanned at each attraction, acts as your FastPass+ tickets, as well as your Disney hotel room key and park admission tickets. You can also use it to charge any purchases on Disney property back to your Disney hotel account. Best of all, the bands will be sent to your home (the kids can pick their favorite color!). You can activate your FastPass+ tickets online, and preselect which attractions you want to hit. MagicBands are free for Disney hotel guests; otherwise, they cost $13.

2. Don’t force the fun.

When your preschooler complains for the zillionth time about being hot or when your wait-time to see Peter Pan exceeds reasonable expectations, remember why you came. If he drops his ice cream on his new Handy Manny tee, if she has a pee-pee accident while your turn in line is fast approaching, or if Dad left his wallet in the room, remember why you came. We tend to set unrealistic expectations for ourselves all the time; more so when we are on the vacation of our kids’ dreams. Just don’t forget that life happens (tantrums and dirty diapers included) even amidst the dream world that is Disney. Roll with the punches and let your kids do the same—even if that means heading back to the hotel early to ease tired feet.

3. Surrender to the magic—the magic of now.

It’s tempting to give the world a play-by-play of your every move on Facebook and your child’s every smile on Instagram—but don’t. You can always post an album upon your family’s return home. Remember: You’re there to experience joy, and make some actual memories—you know, the kind you can think back on and feel all warm and fuzzy about, not the kind you have to access with Wi-Fi.

preschoolers holding hands
Preschool-age is the sweet spot for Disney World. The magic will never be more real, especially on new kiddie attractions such as Enchanted Tales with Belle.

4. Choose a hotel that suits your needs.

Maybe the name of the game is convenience, in which case a stay at the Grand Floridian, with easy access to the Magic Kingdom via Monorail, might be in order. Perhaps your child is the biggest Finding Nemo fan ever, and letting him loose in a wondrous waterworld with Nemo and friends would be a dream come true; then picking Disney’s Art of Animation Resort—with the best kiddie pool I have ever seen, hands-down—is a no-brainer (and, since every room in this affordable resort is a suite, you can stay up chilling like the adults that you are while the kiddos hit the sack in their own space). Identify your priorities, then pick a hotel based on the amenities that mean the most to you.

5. Rise and shine.

Getting an early start is key to a successful experience, in my opinion. Chances are your gang’s used to getting up with the sun for your daily routine of school, work, etc.—do the same on the days you visit any of the theme parks, and sleep in on off days (see No. 7). We loved that our early park entry meant fewer crowds and more moderate sun, and our son appreciated that after a midday break at our hotel (think: nap or a little TV), we were able to return rejuvenated in the dark for the must-see electrical parade and another chance at our favorite attractions.

walt disney world castle at night
Take a hotel break midday, and your kids will have the energy to take in the incredible nighttime sights.

6. Make reservations for character dining.

When I visited Disney World as a child, Mickey and friends roamed the grounds, and half the fun of wandering the park was being on the lookout for who you would meet: Would it be Minnie or Cinderella or Pinochio? These days, the swell of visitors and the scope of the park make it nearly impossible for any of them to roam so freely. Instead, lines queue up in specific locations for kids to meet-and-greet their movie friends. If you have a toddler or preschooler in your brood, I highly recommend paying for at least one character dining experience, even if it means cutting back on spending elsewhere during your trip. The belief in the characters that little ones hold in their hearts at this age is priceless, and giving them the guaranteed experience of interacting with their favorites—not just saying “cheese” in a posed picture after waiting patiently in line—is wonderful (definitely a highlight of my own trips). Bonus: The food in every one of these dining experiences was stellar, with plenty of healthy options in the buffets. The just-opened Be Our Guest Restaurant in Belle’s Castle in Fantasyland is the hottest ticket. You can book reservations for it, as well as other popular eateries such as Cinderella’s Table, at disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining 180 days in advance. Exactly. For the most in-demand tables, dinner reservations are often gone 179 days out.

boy hugging handy manny
Character dining options go way beyond Mickey. And you don’t need to give up anything for the fantasy: The food is uniformly excellent at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

7. Take breaks from the action—guilt-free.

Not only can the whole Disney environment seem overwhelming, but it can add to the pressure we often put on ourselves to make our rare big family getaway “the best ever.” Face it: It’s not possible to see everything in the Magic Kingdom in one trip. You’ll never meet every one of your kid’s favorite characters, you’ll never see every single show, and you’ll never make kids of varying ages happy at the same time at every moment. So while you’ll want to milk your Disney trip for all it’s worth, remember that there’s great appeal in down-time and relaxation, too. Don’t feel bad about taking a full day to lounge by your hotel pool, or opting out of a theme park in lieu of another Florida excursion such as seeing the crocs at Gatorland or cheering on the Atlanta Braves during spring training at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

8. Limit the stuff.

Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and every other park is a consumer’s dream—if you can imagine it, you can likely buy it with Mickey’s ears on it. Set a budget for yourself and let the kids choose physical reminders sparingly. One special item is more likely to spark their memories and imagination than a slew of things that lose their charm in a pile in their closet. And who wants to carry all that stuff, anyway? If you plan on returning throughout the years, consider encouraging the children to start a pin collection—there’s an adventurous aspect to the endeavor that lends the idea of “getting something” more genuine value.

9. Indulge in some nostalgia.

As much as things change, some things—like the magic of Disney—stay the same. You visited Disney World as a kid, right? Pull out the pictures or (seemingly ancient) videos to share memories with the family. Or dig up your own ‘vintage’ Mickey ears to don on the plane ride there to get kids amped (and take some amusing share-worthy selfies). Didn’t go to Disney when you were little? Go back in time by watching the early Disney videos—which aren’t available for sale or download, believe it or not!—on screens throughout Disney properties. My then-4-year-old loved them so much I’ve looped a video of his wondrous laughter for an instant bad-mood-buster.

10. Plan ahead, then surrender.

The folks at Disney know a thing or two about equipping guests: The magic bands that allow you to use FastPass+ (see No. 1) also hold identifying details about your child should you become separated, and a DVD and online tools brilliantly aid visitors with every aspect of planning. Even if you’re not a Type-A parent, take advantage of at least some of these pre-trip amenities to avoid being overwhelmed upon arrival. Doing so will help you stick to a budget, but more importantly will help you divvy up your time to see the things you—or, ahem, your kids—really want to see!

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