If you know me at all, you know I love traveling (understatement of the year). When Rob and I first started our journey’s throughout Europe, we would often work closely with a travel planner to finalize the in’s and out’s of our trip to make sure we dotted all our i’s and crossed all our t’s. After a while, however, we felt comfortable enough to plan everything on our own and I often joke that each trip is a star towards my travel agent exam :) Needless to say, my Type-A self feels pretty comfortable planning trips all over the world…
…Enter Disney. I’ve been a small handful of times in my life — I’m absolutely not an expert, but I’ve at least been to the parks and thought I would have no trouble planning this since I’ve tackled multi-country trips in the past, right? Wrong. Oh how wrong I was. Disney is a special sort of beast, complete with all sorts of “insider” tips and tricks that make your life easier, so they say. I’m here to share all my knowledge with you! This is a trip that was planned by a mom and dad with a one and four year old boys, so that you can have a reference of what we were working with!
First up, Disney World:
NARROW YOUR FOCUS
Orlando, if you don’t know, is overflowing with things to do and see, so my first tip would be, after determining how long you are traveling, to narrow down exactly what you want to do. Since we had little kids, we knew wanted to focus on Disney & Universal parks — saving things like Legoland, water parks, and Space Center for a return visit. We were visiting for 5 full days, excluding the days we arrived and left, so we planned for 3 days at Disney and 2 days at Universal. To play it safe, we planned on 2 days at Magic Kingdom (MK), 1 day at Hollywood Studios (HS), and 1 day at each of the Universal Parks (US & IOA). We ended up whizzing through MK, so we decided to change our plans and visit Animal Kingdom (AK) on our extra day. Pro Tip: If the park reservation system is still in effect, book what you THINK you need at MK first. It’s by and far the busiest park and the first to sell out, so you want to ensure you have those reservations secured. AK or Epcot are typically easier to book at the last minute.
Oh and don’t try and be a hero and plan anything for the day you arrive. Trust me… everyone is exhausted and you likely cannot get into your hotel room to refresh, so it’s not worth it. Arrival day should be just that :) We did dinner out the first night is Disney Springs and that was more than enough after an exceptionally long day!
STAY ON THE PROPERTY
If at all possible, stay on the property. Trust me — I really, really tried to avoid this. The cost differential alone seemed to make it not worth it, but after multiple people tried to convince me otherwise, I finally gave in. As I mentioned, we aren’t ones to travel to Orlando on a regular basis, so we figured we might as well make the most of our trip — I totally understand this isn’t feasible for everyone, but staying on the property gave us a lot of flexibility to:
1. Ability to leave the parks for naps and return later in the day without having to drive super far.
2. Early entrance and late departure to/from the parks is exclusive to those staying on the property.
3. Shuttles!!! Avoid driving if you don’t want to have a car!
Also the staff is just as amazing as everyone says they are — we experienced some of that infamous “Disney magic” on our first day; Corey at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, you truly save our trip!
By the time you’re reading this, it’s totally possible Disney will have a new fast pass system in place since it seems every changing. No matter what system they have, do your research on it WELL in advance as it will be a lifesaver for your visit. The Genie+ system was not super intuitive, so I read blog after blog until I understood every aspect of it… or so I thought. There was still a bit of the learning curve the first few hours of actually using it, but it was so helpful that it saved us an entire DAY at MK. We would book our next ride right after “tapping” in to the previous ride so we we always knew where we were going next. We saved HOURS of waiting (which would’ve been hours of whining — hello, one and four year olds!)… most, if not every ride had a 60+ minute wait that day. And if you think you missed a slot on one of the popular rides, keep checking — they continue to open up!
This app also allowed us to order food, find where we were in the park, and locate bathrooms at the drop of a hat! Hop on that free wi-fi and enjoy!
Bring as many of your own snacks as possible! If you are going through the park, you might not have a ton of time to stop! Disney does have AMAZING food, so be sure to set aside time to grab your favorites!
If you have kids under 5 years old, do not depend on Disney stroller rentals… it’s basically a giant piece of plastic that no one could ever actually nap. In-park naps were essential for our visit, so trust me on this! Bring your own and save the time and $$$ at the rental counter!
Be sure to check out the entertainment! Disney actually has some really cool shows that our kiddos loved! The fireworks, of course, were especially magical. They change from day-to-day, so plan your park visit accordingly with the entertainment you want to see!
The child swap program is AMAZING, taking full advantage of this so both parents can ride — as a bonus, your kiddo gets to ride twice!
Plan an “off” day! We didn’t do this to save the expense of an extra hotel night, but if you can, it would make a great reset between parks!
Our next stop was Universal and we were SO grateful to go here second! The entire system was much less convoluted and we enjoyed it even more than our time as Disney World! I don’t have a lot different to share here, but I’ll give a few quick tips!
STAY ON SITE:
Again, staying on the property has a ton of perks! We stayed at the Hard Rock (which has the greatest kid-suites ever) and were able to walk to both parks and City Walk. Game changer. You could also take the ferry! We didn’t use our car once :)
The US properties also allow early entrance AND free fast passes to those who stay on site! Double win!
And, bonus… Universal Parks have a lot more “adult” rides than Disney so there were things we wanted to ride without making our young kids wait in line for no ride at the end! Rob and I took turns going back to the parks at night — alone — while the other watched the sleep kiddos so we could enjoy the parks a bit too! It was so easy to do so by staying within walking distance.
The food in the parks? Not so great. This is more your standard park fare of burgers, hot dogs, fries, etc. Take some time to seek out advanced options so you can plan being in that part of the park near lunchtime! Wizarding World has some great options!
This, of course, needs an entire section to itself :) :) Our oldest loves Harry Potter as much as Rob and I do, so we went here first thing each morning and essentially had the whole place to ourselves while everyone else waited in lines! We did the short show at Ollivanders, selected a wand, drank butterbeer, and explored the shops before the park even officially opened for the day.
The frozen butterbeer and the butterbeer ice cream were to die for. The stuff in Honeydukes I could take or leave (although I love the cute packaging), but definitely get your fill of butterbeer!
You can only ride the Hogwarts Express if you have the 2-Park ticket, so purchase that for at least one day so you can experience the train — it’s totally worth it! And you land right in Diagon Alley!
I’m sure there are million more things I could share, but I’ll leave it there! The TLDR? Do your research in advance — it will save you so much time, and so much stress while you are at the parks so you are able to fully enjoy the experience while you were in it! I won’t lie… the first day and a half of our trip we kept looking at each other, asking why we came here in the first place and by the end? We were asking when we could go back!