10 Tips for Enjoying Disney World with Kids

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.

girls on Disney Dumbo ride, 2012

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.

with Cinderella, November 2006

Jo-Lynne with the girls at Cinderella’s Royal Table 2012

with Ariel, 2012

And Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary Hotel is another fun one.

our family at Chef Mickey’s, 2006

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.

Disney World Christmas 2009

Disney World Christmas 2009

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!

Pool at Disney’s Saratoga Springs 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.

R at Hoop De Doo circa 2009

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.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and if you have any tips to add, feel free to leave a comment!

For more details on specific resorts and attractions, check out the rest of my Disney posts, and you can see all our 2012 Disney photos on Flickr.

Comments

  1. says

    I can’t keep quiet on a post about Disney! Great pics! We also love Hoop Dee Doo–it is a must for us every trip!

    I’d like to offer an alternate view of the dining plan. We actually love it because it helps us enjoy our vacation more. We are quite the tightwads, so if we are paying for everything out-of-pocket, we tend to say no to fun snacks or pass on more expensive meals. By paying for the dining plan ahead of time (or visiting when it is free with a package), the cost is taken care of up front, so we can enjoy ourselves and say “YES!” while we are on vacation. I don’t think it is the best option for everyone, but it helps us to let go and enjoy the magic! I also agree that November is a great time to go. The week before Thanksgiving week is my absolute favorite week–low crowds, great temperatures, and beautiful decorations!

    I’m leaving for the Christmas party and a DIsney cruise six weeks from today. Can’t wait! Thanks for sharing your tips and experiences. I never tire of reading about my favorite place! :)

    • says

      I agree on the dining plan. I would get too worked up every time we spent money on food if we paid at each meal. I like just using credits that have already been paid for. Well, kind of. We’ve been lucky enough to get the dining plan free for our trips, so it makes it a no brainer. (Eat free at Disney for a week? Sign me up. LOL)

      • says

        HOW do you get the dining plan for free? THAT makes no sense to me. I have heard of ppl doing that, but what is the secret?? Again, I am spoiled, as my mom pays for our trip and I have never looked into this.

        • Sarah says

          It was free when we went last year. The deal was that if you pay listed price for your resort you got the meal plan for free. But you don’t get it with DVC. We rented someone’s points and saved about 40% (a random last minute upgrade made it closer to a 60% savings). We ate breakfast in our room and took pbj for lunch a few days which allowed us to afford snacks on those days. I feel like our room savings was much more than the free meal plan.

    • says

      I can see that side of things too. Honestly, my mom pays for most of our meals, so I am spoiled. Still, she is a finance guru and she determined that it isn’t really a better deal financially, at least not for us and the way we eat. But if I were going alone with my family, I might be tempted to do it for the reasons you mentioned.

  2. says

    We are heading to WDW in February – 7 years since our last WDW Florida trip, and 4 years since our Disneyland Paris trip.

    Can’t wait – and I think lots of your tips will apply to us – although we are renting a villa, so car is a must, and I think we plan to not eat much in the parks at all, apart from snacks.

    We are definitely park hopping, and will probably split up between the thrill seeking males and the shopping seeking females.

    The novelty of shopping in US stores (Target, Anthropology and more are calling my name!!!) is also a bit hit with us – just marvelling at the choice of breakfast cereal, and gazing in wonder at the range of M&Ms can keep us entertained!!!

    This year we will also include Universal, and are splurging out on Discovery Cove too – can’t wait, less than 100 days (but who’s counting?!!)

    • says

      You are hilarious. Yes, all those cereals choices are QUITE the entertainment! ;-)

      I really wanted to do Discovery Cove and Universal but once we got down there, we decided to stay on Disney property since those parks were all paid for and the others were extra.

  3. says

    I went to Disney several times as a kid (once with my school!) but have yet to brave it with my own children. I have to talk my husband into it (he’s never been)! Ditto on the Hoop de Doo review! I loved it as a kid and will never forget my DAD going on stage! :)

  4. Hannah says

    We’re going to Disney in January and we are so excited! I loved your tips! We went 3 years ago with my in laws (they are DVC members too) and we went to the hoop di doo revue and I absolutely loved it. Unfortunately, they didn’t so we aren’t going back this time. I’m bummed but really how bummed can you be at Disney World?!?!?

      • Hannah says

        I think it should be illegal too! They thought it was too country for them, but considering we live in Indiana, I’m not sure that’s possible :)

  5. Lee Ann says

    I can’t believe how much the place has grown! I first went a couple of months after the park first opened in 1971 ( I was 6) and have been there over 20 times since. Last time was 7 years ago, and it was too much. I remember when there was only 2 resorts and tickets for each ride, E being for the most popular ones, and Space Mountain was a new ride! I feel old!!

    My brother’s family usually goes in January when there is hardly anybody there.

    • says

      Yeah, it is getting ridonkulous. Honestly I am kind of tired of it. I’d rather go somewhere new, but the kids love it and it’s a family deal.

      Is it cold in January? It was actually really cold for us – thus the girls in coats over their princess dresses.

      • Danielle says

        YES! it is cold in Jan. Last year we went for Christmas and it was cold and wet. My husband and I enjoy the cold weather, therefore we are taking my son for his first birthday (12/27/12) this year and plan to celebrate New Years there. We typically stay at Fort Wilderness with my inlaws. We Love it!
        P.S. you have to call wayyyy in advance for reservations though… Apparently Christmas and New Years are a popular time. Last year Magic Kingdom closed at 11 am on Christmas day b/c they reached maximum capacity.

  6. says

    I love this tips i am hopping we might get there soon again. We did the princess table not the hoop doo review we will have to try that next time.

  7. Hilary says

    We always do the free dining plan as well but I think we would pay for it if we didn’t get it free. We usually eat a quick service breakfast, then a snack for lunch, and then a sit down restaurant for dinner. Sometimes we switch and do the sit down for breakfast and the quick service for dinner. Since we don’t really eat lunch I don’t feel like it is that much food but when you add desert to the meals it can be a little much. But my husband it he cheapest person I know and if he looked at the menu and saw that we were going to spend $100 on a meal for the three of us we would be stuck eating burgers and fries for the entire week. So I am happy just being able to go to the nice restaurants. We also love the Hoop de Doo Revue and will be taking our 4 year old daughter for her first time in September. Another favorite is Raglan Road at Downtown Disney. They have the best steak I have ever eaten and the Irish dancers are a lot of fun to watch.

  8. Kris says

    I cannot figure out how to book the meals prior to going to Disney. I have two boys ages 7 and 6 and we have been twice in the last four years. We like the flexibility of picking a place where we end up during a meal time. We have also brought our food into the park. A nice Panera Bread to go meal sitting at an outside table is a welcome to otherwise standing in line to get seated or wait for food. My kids are not interested in a sit down meal during the day. We had a wonderful time at The Wilderness Lodge and the view from our table one evening. A very pricey meal but relaxing after we ended our day at MK. I don’t want to be a slave to where we eat. I have heard people rushing to their reservation and that instead was the focus of the day, meeting up for food. I think food is food, and I enjoy a fancy meal, don’t get me wrong. I’d rather have the focus be on the atmosphere and rides!

    • says

      I have rushed to meals to make a reservation, and I definitely hate that. But I have also found ourselves waiting for hours (we usually are a group of 7, so hard to find a table last minute) and I hate that more. LOL. We also stay on property so no opportunity to bring Panera but that sounds MUCH better than most Disney quick service meals! :-)

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