Tackling Disney with a Toddler

I’m going to start this post off with a disclaimer: I am from a theme park family. Since I’ve married into a non-theme park family I have learned that not everyone does theme parks the way that my family does: ALL IN, FULL TILT. I share the photo below for context.

Disney World consists of 4 theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios), 2 water parks, a shopping area called Disney Springs (FKA Downtown Disney), a sports complex, golf course, and more than 25 hotels.

I’ve been to Disney World more than a dozen times. I’ve marched in a parade there and been backstage. My most recent trip was different. This was my first time going to Disney as a parent. Upon return, I have lots of thoughts on what worked well and what I’d do differently.

First, a few of my general thoughts on Disney:

  • I firmly believe there is no bad time to go. That said, there are definitely busier times and hotter times. School holidays, particularly in April and December, are the busiest times to visit and are priced the highest.
  • Staying in the Disney bubble is worth it (aka stay at a Disney hotel). Disney includes transportation, extra hours in the parks, priority dining reservations, and other perks for resort guests
  • Photo pass / Memory maker is worth it. You get all your photos from the rides and character meetings, plus all the family photos you want to take from the photographers scattered around the park. Great for #proofofmom. Book early for a $30 discount.
  • Magic Bands (watch-like devices that allow you to tap into the parks, rides, hotels, photo pass) are worth it if going for a few days but definitely not necessary. Two things to note: there’s a discount if bought early and you will need a Magic Band to get some of the photo pass photos.
  • There are two ways to do Disney: the full-blown week-long Disney trip where you do all the parks, the waterparks, Disney Springs, you DO DISNEY or a couple of days combined with a beach vacation. If combining with the beach, Cocoa Beach is about an hour away on the Atlantic coast. This was always my family’s favorite option. Nowadays, I prefer the Gulf Coast. The beaches of Clearwater, St. Pete, and Treasure Island are about 90 minutes away depending on traffic. You can also fly into Orlando and out of Tampa to cut travel time. 

There are a lot of Disney bloggers out there and I suggest you do some research before going. I found these posts on the best Disney resorts, the best Disney pools, and Disney Character Dining very helpful for this trip. I also follow @dishingondisney and think Alyssa has tons of great tips! She’s a Disney planner and after booking our recent trip, if I plan to DO DISNEY in the future, I’ll be working with a Disney planner because the logistics of booking are A LOT.

Now, on to the main point of this post: 

Tackling Disney with a Toddler

What We Did Well:

  • IMO, 2 days in the parks was the most I’d want to do with any child under 5. I have plenty of friends and family who feel differently, so I think this one is a know yourself (and your kid) kind of thing. I’ve also been told to do 2 days, rest day, 2 days, but for us, 2 days was enough.
  • Have a plan: I knew what rides we wanted to ride and what the average waits were. I also knew what rides we would skip if we couldn’t get a Lightning Lane (LL) pass (looking at you Avatar).
  • Genie+ when it makes sense, skip if it doesn’t. Our daughter DOES NOT do well in lines, even those with lots of activities to keep you busy. Genie+ was a no brainer for us, and I’ve included more on it below.
  • Bring your own water bottles! You can refill throughout the park and get ice at the restaurants to keep you hydrated without spending a fortune.
  • Bring a small cooler for snacks/sandwiches/milk. We have some dietary restrictions so it was actually easier to BYO  for lunch and snacks. There were plenty of picnic tables and benches to eat at. This is a great way to save money! We grabbed extra plastic bags from housekeeping and filled up from the ice machines to make sure everything stayed cold. If you are flying in, you can get groceries delivered to your hotel.
  • Keep all the stuff in your stroller basket in a bag. You have to fold up the stroller to take the train and parking lot trams. Having everything in a bag, and being able to toss all the loose items we accumulated throughout the day into it made this a much smoother process.
  • Bring your own stroller fan and misting fans. While they sell the misting fans in the park, they are double the price of these that I got on Amazon before the trip.
  • Pack a spare outfit or two. There are lots of water attractions that are great to cool down at, but leave you with a soaked child.
  • Accept that you will not do it all. We weren’t able to get a LL pass for Peter Pan and no chance we were waiting an hour to ride. Same with Avatar. But, we were totally ok with that!
  • We skipped the big kid rides. This made sense for us given our 35” child who doesn’t want to be left behind for anything. 
  • If you can, get a resort view room for the fireworks or book a resort you can see them from in a common space (I think this applies to the Grand Floridian, Contemporary, and Polynesian). The fireworks started at 9:20pm when we were there, which is way past our daughter’s bedtime. We were able to watch from our balcony, then IMMEDIATELY put her to sleep. She was out about 10 minutes after the show ended. One thing to note: she generally won’t sleep in a stroller or a car seat. I think this is less of a big deal if your kid will fall asleep in transit back to your hotel. Again, know your kid.
  • Don’t forget to wear and bring lots of sunscreen and hats! We also tried to time it to take in a show in the afternoon so we could sit in some air conditioning and rest a bit.

What I’ll Do Differently Next Time:

  • Deal with water bottles differently – I used a stroller caddy (this one, which I generally love) for all our water bottles but I saw someone using the Mom Hook for them and was very jealous. Next time, this will be my move.
  • Get an ID tag for the stroller. When you are searching for your stroller among the 300 parked in the lot, a tag can help. So can a balloon. A quick search on Etsy for “Disney Stroller Tag” yields lots of cute options.
  • Book dining reservations early. The character dining fills up quickly. Chef Mickey (our first choice) was booked over a month out from when we went. Tusker House is apparently the sleeper character dining experience. We were able to get a reservation a week out, and plenty were still available day of. 
  • Research dining options in the parks. I was very focused on rides but failed epically at pre-planning meals. This left us hangry the day we didn’t BYO and stuck with chicken tenders and pizza. Not the worst situation to be in, but not the best. 
  • Establish one person to be in charge of all things Disney app. We had a world of troubles with travel companions getting delinked, LL reservations getting deleted, and other issues. To Disney’s credit, I was able to chat with a cast member on the app and work it all out, but I also lost 2 hours of my day dealing with it.
  • Appoint one person to be in charge of autograph books. When no one owns it, it gets forgotten. I speak from experience. But, Disney is Disney and they will let you send the books in to get the autographs you forgot. This takes time though (even if I was multi-tasking to get my Genie+ issues squared away).
  • Get in the park earlier! This may be aspirational with a toddler, but TBH the toddler and I were ready to go by 8am, it was the rest of our group that was slow going in the morning. Perhaps in the future, she and I will set out early, try our hand at the rope drop, and meet up with folks later in the day.
  • Don’t visit the animal trails at Animal Kingdom during the hottest part of the day. This one isn’t really a toddler tip, but an FYI. The animals are all resting in the shade so it’s a bit of a letdown.

My Complete Thoughts on Genie+

TL:DR – I’d definitely get it again. 

Genie+ is an add-on that enables you to book “Lightning Lane” access to certain rides and attractions. This means you reserve a time and basically get to skip the line at your appointed time. You have 1 hour to tap in for your LL reservation. You can only have one LL reservation at a time but you can make your next one pretty much as soon as everyone in your party taps into the ride. 

Genie+ is a dynamically priced per-person add-on. The day we went, it was $22 per person. 

We decided to get Genie+ for our Magic Kingdom day, and skipped it at Animal Kingdom. I monitored wait times on the app during the 2 weeks before we went and got a sense for the average wait times for certain rides. At Animal Kingdom, that was a max of 30 minutes, assuming we skip Avatar. At Magic Kingdom, several things were over an hour. We have a very impatient toddler so 30 minutes is about the max line time we could manage. Since that would have severely limited our Magic Kingdom options, we spent the money.

Some tips for maximizing your Genie+ experience:

  • Buy it the day of and book your first Lightning Lane at 7am when it goes live for resort guests. We bought it the night before and then had to get it fixed the morning of because Disney applied it to the wrong day. There’s probably a smarter way to deal with it, but I didn’t do the research. 
  • Be strategic about using your Lightning Lanes. Pick a LL that’s in an area that has other rides with shorter lines so you can go to that area, ride 1-2 rides with short waits, then use your LL as close to the start time as possible. Then, you can book your next LL while boarding the ride!
  • Use it for a mix of the BIG attractions and moderate lines. This enables you to get more rides in, even if you miss some of the big rides. Again, this is a personal choice. You will get fewer LL times for big attractions though, and usually will average only 2-3 LLs in a day according to Disney. We were able to use it for 7 rides and character meetings utilizing this strategy.

How we used it:

I knew that the Princesses, Mickey, Jungle Cruise, and Peter Pan had the longest lines for when we wanted to do. Again, we were skipping the big kid rides like Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, and weren’t even trying to get on Tron. I grabbed a Cinderalla slot at 7am for 10:30am. That set us up to start in Fantasyland. Once we were in the park, we had about an hour before our LL time so we casually made our way there, stopping to take photo pass photos and buy a balloon. We rode the tea cups (10 min wait) and Winnie the Pooh (30 min wait) then headed over for our LL time. As soon as we all tapped in, I booked us for the Jungle Cruise in 2ish hours. That gave us time to ride the carousel, eat lunch, then walk over to Adventureland. We were still a little early, so we rode Aladdin (10 min wait), played in the water fountain, and watched the Tiki House show. 

After tapping into Jungle Cruise, I lucked out and got a Pirates of the Caribbean LL right away so we went straight over. After that, it was a LL spot for Mickey in about an hour. That gave us time to catch part of the parade, get a Dole whip, and take the train around to main street. After Mickey we LL’d for Buzz then the race cars. Unfortunately, Minnie does not have a LL option, so we waited it out (45 min). I booked a slot for Under the Sea hoping we’d have enough time to hit it before the reservation expired. We did and planned for this to be the last ride before heading to the train to leave for the day. However, our toddler had other ideas and managed to sneak in Dumbo (10 min) and Barnstormer (10 min) before actually leaving! All in all, Genie+ saved us about 5 hours of wait time and made it easier to know where we needed to go and when, eliminating some decision fatigue. I’d definitely use it again on future trips! 

I mean, magic!

There’s something truly magical about Disney World no matter your age. Watching our daughter literally dance with glee meeting Minnie, Mickey, Donald, and Daisey was the best. I can’t wait to do it all again! 

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