There is nothing quite like going to Walt Disney World with your young child. You’ll always remember the way their eyes light up when you walk through Main Street U.S.A. and glimpse Cinderella Castle for the first time, or their laughter when they tackle Toy Story Mania!
That joy, however, can quickly come to a crashing halt with an impromptu mental breakdown on behalf of parent and child alike. Don’t let the worry stop you from enjoying one of the best experiences you can have with your little one, and head to Walt Disney World. Here is a preliminary survival guide to ensure your Disney adventure is a magical one.
1. Make a plan for the day
Plan now to avoid confusion later. Start with the basics of deciding which parks to visit and when, and definitely book your FastPasses ahead of time. You might kid yourself and say you’ll make it to the parks for rope drop, but we both know that that is not a given if your toddler decides they want to sleep in or can’t be corralled fast enough to make it to the transportation depot in a timely manner.
Your FastPasses are key to enjoying the rides you think your child will enjoy the most, but choose wisely. The Mad Tea Party might be a staple for all toddlers, but you might not need to waste a FastPass on it as wait times can be pretty good for a ride like that. Be sure to consult the height requirements to know what rides your child can go on so you won't be dealing with a disappointed toddler heading for meltdown-town.
Get to know the different lunch and dinner spots to figure out your first choices and have a backup. You might not get a dinner reservation and you might also not like the looks of the long lines at Pinocchio Village Haus or Flame Tree Barbecue with no immediate action plan for an alternative. Save the potential drama and find a flexible option.
Ultimately for your plan, set out what everyone is responsible for in your party heading to Disney. From parents, friends, even your toddler, plan and lay out what is expected for everyone, whether that’s who's on the lookout for character meet and greets or who's on bathroom or diaper duty. Go in with a team mentality.
2. Plan for your plan to be destroyed
Going to Disney with a toddler is a little like going to war, according to my former Marine uncle. You can make all the plans in the world, but plan on those plans going sideways. Hyperbole aside, things will change when traversing Walt Disney World with a little one in tow.
It might rain. A key attraction might breakdown. Your child might take a tumble running after Winnie the Pooh (who is taking his fourth break in what feels like five minutes, causing the world to seemingly end). Things will detract you from your plan and that's okay. Knowing you'll have to make changes in real-time doesn't make your plan a failure, it just means you're traveling with a tiny human who is prone to constantly changing their mind and you're also competing with an ever-changing environment. Just roll with it.
3. Mobile Ordering
You have to eat and in addition to waiting in line for attractions in the heat, waiting in line for your food with a little one feels like a Sisyphean task that never ends. Cut the lines and save your sanity by popping open the My Disney Experience app and mobile order your food ahead of time or while you’re trying to nail down a coveted table.
This is a game changer for any parent, but particularly single parents who are already being pulled in five different directions and are on overload trying to ensure every kid and their current state is accounted for. Mobile ordering is more than convenient — it could save your sanity.
It’s going to be a long day for any toddler, be sure to bring something to keep your little one occupied. This could be a little light-up fan to keep them cool on a hot day or a small toy. Not only that, but bring a small backpack to carry all your essentials: sunscreen, sunglasses, band-aids, diapers, bottles of water, your child’s favorite snack, wallet, backup phone charger, everything.
Make sure it’s a small backpack. Not just a kids one, but one that can fit under a stroller with ease and one your child could pick up. You don’t want to burden yourself with too many bags if you can help it. If you have two little ones under 5 years old, try your best to still stick to the one pack. As you get off and on rides it’s so much easier to take it with you and it gives you a profound peace of mind not leaving it with your stroller.
5. Stroller with patience
Speaking of strollers, they truly are essential but can feel redundant at times when your jumping toddler insists on suddenly walking everywhere. Everyone needs a home base and even something to lean on once in a while. Don't leave it at home!
Stroller parking can be limited at times throughout the different parks, but there are many Disney cast members around helping keep the parking areas orderly. If your stroller is not in the exact same place where you left it in the designated area, don’t panic! An enterprising cast member likely moved it a few feet to make room for other strollers.
Also know going into any park that there will be times that it is hard to push your stroller through the crowds. Just be patient. The stroller is a good spot to plop your little one into and make it through the crowds.
You’ll also find that by mid-afternoon your toddler, who once leapt away from your stroller, is happy to sit in there and have a quick snooze. This brief moment of calm will allow you to perhaps sit down or grab a drink from the World Showcase in Epcot, and maybe even enjoy the sights. Cherish those moments.
6. Napping locations
Your toddler will need a nap. You know it, I know it, even deep down your little one knows it. What you won’t be able to anticipate is exactly where it will happen. Don't think you HAVE to go back to your hotel for a midday snooze. Each park has a few excellent locations to either get your child to nap or have a lower chance of being woken up. Here’s a quick rundown of potential options that might work for you:
" it’s a small world," with its repetitive music and gentle swaying of the boat, has put my oldest to sleep on numerous occasions allowing for a stroller transfer once leaving.
Liberty Square under the shade of the 100-year-old oak. You have to compete with the Muppets every now and then, but it’s still a calm location to sit down and rest together.
Stay away from train stations to avoid the loud whistles of the locomotive.
Walk past Tower of Terror on the way to Fantasmic! and you’ll discover a little shaded area along the path where the crowds have thinned. Enjoy it, all bets are off for a quiet spot in Hollywood Studios once Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens up on August 29th.
Most of DinoLand U.S.A. will give you multiple opportunities to find a semi-quiet spot to try and rest your child. Shade, however, is a harder-to-come-by commodity.
7. Do not try to do too much
Doing rope drop to fireworks is hard for an adult let alone a child that is still napping. You can't do everything, and that's okay! I know your trip may have cost you thousands of dollars and you want to get the most out of that, but you should focus on making memories, not crossing things off lists.
As the afternoon wears on and the heat peaks, find some shade, take a boat ride to Tom Sawyer Island instead of pushing for another long line attraction, or go for a gentle walk through the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail in Animal Kingdom. Try and simply take the tempo down once in a while. Walt Disney World parks are a marathon, not a sprint.
8. Don't take anything personally
Traveling to the grocery store with your toddler can be stressful, let alone the onslaught that can come from taking them to Walt Disney World. Things will be said by them that simply seem hurtful. Tantrums will happen from the calmest children. They will exert their will as much as they can to get their way. Do not take it personally. None of it.
Walt Disney World brings the absolute best out of kids. It can also bring out the worst. I always try and remember that we are there to be a family and make the most of the time and let things go.
It may be stressful to plan and even go, but don't pass up the chance to go to Disney with your toddler. They might not remember every aspect of the magic, but you will remember and the whole experience will leave a lasting impression on everyone.
Do you have some tips for parents who are thinking of traveling to Disney World for the first time with a toddler? I'd love you hear them!
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