This year we took our third family vacation to Disney World, and I’ve also gone a handful of times by myself for work so I feel like that pretty much qualifies me for expert status. At the very least, we have learned what works for us and what doesn’t, so I thought I’d share. Because that is what I do.
10 Tips for Enjoying Disney World with Kids
1. If you can swing it, stay on the monorail.
My parents are part of the Disney Vacation Club (DVC), which is basically a time share, Disney style. This means we always stay on Disney property and we always stay in one of the DVC resorts. Because we travel with them, there are seven of us so we have always stayed in one of the three-bedroom grande villas. I won’t lie, these accomodations are spendy, but for a large group, they are ideal because there are four full bathrooms, a full kitchen, sitting area, and large dining room so you can cook some meals and stay together without feeling like you’re on top of each other.
For our first trip back in 2006, we stayed at Old Key West. It is one of the oldest DVC resorts and quite a ways away from the parks. The Disney busses provide transportation, but you have to allow a lot of time to get from place to place.
We got spoiled on our second family trip in 2009 when we stayed at the Bay Lake Tower, the newest DVC resort property which is attached to the Contemporary hotel — the oldest and original Disney World hotel. Just because it is old doesn’t mean that it’s weary. It has been kept up fabulously, and it is my favorite of all the resorts. It has the best restaurants (we ate a delicious breakfast almost every morning at The Wave — the best kept secret on Disney property, if you ask me) and it is just. so. convenient. You can hop on the monorail and get anywhere you want to go in record time.
This year we stayed at the Saratoga Springs resort.
While Saratoga Springs is lovely, it is a sprawling property, and just to get to breakfast at the main building was about a mile walk. Plus it is a good 20 minute bus ride from most of the parks. Add to that a 20-30 minute wait for the bus and this housewife is getting cranky.
Thus, my love affair with Bay Lake. Besides the amenity of the monorail, you can easily walk over to the Magic Kingdom, and there is a convenient ferry that also takes you to some of the other resorts and parks. All this to say, as far as we are concerned, the ease and convenience of staying on the monorail is well worth the price. I’d be willing to shorten my trip in order to stay in one of the monoral resorts.
2. Consider renting a car.
We tried a car rental for this trip, and if you stay in one of the outer lying resorts, it really does save you some time in transit. A lot of the fun character meals are located at the resort properties, not at the parks, and to get from one resort to another using Disney transit usually means taking 2 different busses. With a 15-20 minute wait every time you want to catch a bus, this can add up quickly. The car really helped cut down on travel time when we wanted to get to another resort for meals and attractions. On the other hand, we did not find it handy to drive to the parks. You have to park and ride a shuttle, and it really doesn’t save you any time at all.
Of course, you can avoid all this hassle if you just stay on the monorail!
3. Park Hopper tickets are worth it. The dining plan is not (see #9).
Another thing we did differently on our second trip was to purchase Park Hopper passes. This allows you to go to multiple Disney parks in one day. Trying to save money this year, we went back to regular park passes and we regretted it. Especially when you have as many different age groups represented as we do, it helps to have the flexibility of being able to hop from park to park.
It also gives you a lot more restaurant choices because many great restaurants are located in Epcot, but we only wanted to spend one day there.
Okay, all I have done so far is tell you to spend more money. Here are a few money saving tips:
4. Get some food basics for the room so you don’t have to buy all your meals out.
We didn’t make any big meals in our room, but it was nice to have some fruit and milk and cereal and bread for toast and sandwiches so that you can grab a quick breakfast or lunch in the room. This saves time and money. You can get grocery delivery, or if you have a car, you can drive to a nearby market.
Also? The coffee at Disney World is a travesty. For the “happiest place on earth,” they sure could use a Starbucks or ten.
They say it’s coming. I say it’s WAY overdue.
I have a friend who travels with her Keurig. That is a LITTLE over the top for me, but at least purchase some decent coffee to have in your hotel room. You seriously cannot get a decent cup of coffee anywhere except the high end restaurants.
Speaking of food and saving money…
5. Reconsider the dining plan.
Everyone I know who goes to Disney regularly swears by the dining plan. We tried it for the first time this trip, and we won’t ever do it again. While it was convenient to swipe our card wherever we went for snacks and meals, it was a lot to keep up with, and we found ourselves eat a lot more than we normally would, just to use up our points. We decided that we’d much rather pay as we go. For us, we think that is more economical. But everyone needs to consider their eating habits and take this advice with a grain of salt.
6. It is easier to cancel a dinner reservation than make one at the last minute.
The Disney dining reservations fill up fast — especially the good ones. I was too laid back planning this trip, as it was our third and I wasn’t as obsessed with the planning as I had been in past years. Unfortunately we were’t able to get reservations at some of our favorite restaurants.
I recommend making a basic travel itinerary and grabbing the restaurant reservations you really want about six months before your trip. No joke. Most allow you to cancel with just a few hours’ notice (the pre-paid events are the exception, but even then, you usually have 72 hours to cancel without penalty.) So make sure you grab the ones that really matter to you so you don’t miss out.
One of our favorites is Cinderella’s Royal Table at the castle … for obvious reasons.
And Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary Hotel is another fun one.
7. October is crowded at Disney World.
This is the first time we went to Disney World in October. Our other two family Disney trips were in November, and it was much less crowded then. Plus, the Christmas decorations are sublime.
I’ve also heard that September is a good month to go.
8. Have a plan, but be prepared to be flexible.
It’s good to be flexible. In fact, I highly recommend it. But I learned this trip that it’s better to have too many plans that not enough, especially when traveling with kids. They are too overwhelmed as it is, without having to make decisions about where to go and what to do. You’re better off making those decisions for them, and giving them fewer choices. At least, this seems to work best for our crowd. However, don’t be a slave to your schedule. Be willing to be flexible, otherwise you will be too stressed out to have a good time. And definitely make some time to enjoy your resort!
I also highly recommend being willing to split up so that kids of different ages can all do things they enjoy. My husband and son often went off to do big kid rides, and sometimes even spent their time at a different park from the rest of us, but we all met up for meals.
9. The Disney strollers are a life saver!
We didn’t plan to rent a Disney stroller this year, as our kids are 7, 9 and 12. But after the girls begged for one, we relented, and we agreed that was the best decision we made the whole trip. We sprung for the double, and while they are really too big for it, it served its purpose. Not only were they not as tired and cranky from all that walking (have I mentioned? It is A LOT of walking.) but we knew were they were and didn’t have to worry about losing them in the crowded parks. That peace of mind was well worth the effort of strolling that beast.
10. If you spring for only one extravagance, go to the Hoop De Doo Musical Revue.
We’ve done this three times and it never loses its charm. For one thing, there isn’t a Disney character in sight, and let. me. tell. you. After a week of Mickey and Cinderella, it is a welcome reprieve. Plus, it is an absolute blast. We were all laughing till we cried. I mean, just look at this face.
This year they actually got my son up on stage to participate in one of their skits. I promised him I woudn’t post a picture, but it was awfully cute!!
The Hoop De Doo Revue truly is fun for all ages, although I wouldn’t recommend taking really little kids. It is one of the few things that we do each year that our entire family enjoys.
For more details on specific resorts and attractions, check out the rest of my Disney posts.