I last visited Disney World 17 years ago on spring break from my second year of college. So you can imagine how different it was when my husband and I flew to Orlando for a 48-hour visit this past May with our three-year old and four-year old. Disney always brings the magic, there is no denying that. But it’s a whole new ball game when you bring your young ones to experience the magic with you for the first time.
So here are some secrets we have to spill, and some confessions from our trip – things that I was surprised by, things that might surprise you, things that would surprise everyone . . . but at the end of the day, Disney is amazing. It is always amazing. On that note, when can we go back?
1. Disney’s FastPass+: Completely awesome and great for families. Gone are the days when you have to wait in line for 45 minutes for your favorite ride. With the advent of Disney FastPass+, each ticketed family member can choose up to three rides per day at one park to “FastPass+.” Fastpassing a ride allows you to to get in an expedited line for the ride of your choice at a designated time of day and, in our experience, wait no more than 15 minutes. This changes the game completely with little kids! No patience for lines? No problem. Got places to be (like a melting-down toddler who needs a bed)? You’re in luck (more than you would be otherwise, anyway). By taking advantage of Disney’s FastPass+ system, you and your little ones can get to the rides of your your choice, experience them without the long wait time, and be on your way. A few tips on how to use the FastPass+ system:
- Book your FastPass+ reservations as far in advance as you are allowed, which is up to 60 days in advance of your check-in if you are staying at a Disney Resort and up to 30 days in advance of your visit if you are staying at a non-Disney property.
- Do you research ahead of time. Did you know that Peter Pan’s Flight has wait times that exceed 150-180 minutes during peak season? Yes, that is ridiculous. Completely ridiculous. If your kids are Peter Pan fans, then you better be FastPassing+ that one. Also immensely popular rides that tend to have long lines? Big Thunder, Splash Mountain and Space Mountain. Good ones to FastPass+. And what’s that? You want to meet Elsa and Anna? Well, stay at a Disney Resort and FastPass+ that sh*t right now. Because there is no getting in to see Anna and Elsa unless you reserve a FastPass+ at 12:01am on the night you are 60 days away from check-in. That is one hot ticket, my friend. This list of ride wait times might come in handy when you are working out which rides to Fastpass+. It seems accurate based on our visit, however I would say that you should definitely also Fastpass+ the Seven Dwarves Mine Train if that interests you. Wait times always exceeded 90 minutes during our visit and no FastPasses+ were available at the time of our visit (they had all been pre-booked).
- Showing up at your FastPass+ ride and realize the regular line is just as short as the FastPass+ line? Take a minute to open the My Disney Experience app (more on this below) on your phone and change your FastPass+ selection to another ride for a later time. Hop in the regular line of the ride you had originally chosen to FastPass+. FastPass+ selections are precious; you don’t want to waste them.
- Used all of your pre-booked FastPass+ activities for the day? Use one of the FastPass+ kiosks in the park to create a new FastPass+ selection (yes, you can obtain more FastPass+ selections after your original three have expired; it just requires you to do so via the kiosks in the park – an awesome bit of information that many other park-goers will know nothing about).
- Do you know how good it feels to pass people waiting in long lines for old favorites like Thunder Mountain, The Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s a Small World, etc? So good. Did I feel guilty for using our FastPass+ activities the way they were intended to be used? Not at all. So get on it people, study the FastPass+ system, learn it, and use it! It makes the Disney experience all that more enjoyable with kids.
2. Magic bands = the coolest things ever. It’s so true. Disney never disappoints. In fact, they go above and beyond in nearly every respect. This includes sending you (and each person traveling with you) personalized, color-coded “magic bands” in the mail before your trip if you’ve made reservations to stay at a Disney resort. How do magic bands enhance your experience? Besides just being cool and encouraging excitement about your trip to Disney in advance, you can use them to unlock your hotel room, pay for food, drinks, gifts, and other items in the parks and at your resort, and check-in at your FastPass+ attractions. Our kids loved the independence of being able to enter our room on their own. Similarly, they enjoyed matching the Mickey ears on the band to the Mickey ears at the FastPass+ ride entrances to get in line. Wearing and using their bands made them feel in charge of their experience.
3. A 48-hour trip to Disney with two kids under the age of 5 = complete hangover. I know I’m getting older, and I’m okay with that. But when I tell you I felt like I had a hangover after two nights and three days of Disney, I’m not kidding. I think our bed times over the three days averaged to nearly 11pm. We ran on adrenaline during our time in the park, but when we got back? Pure exhaustion! My ability to stay up late and function normally the following day is not what it used to be!
4. I rode Dumbo five times. Five times, ya’ll, five times. Let’s just say that my three year old was OBSESSED with the ride and her ability to single-handedly control the flying elephant. I am a good mom, I really am. Why? Because while I was riding Dumbo (five times) my husband and my son were on Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain – two of my absolute favorites! And did I get to ride them this time? No. But guess what, I got to ride Dumbo five times. I’m not bitter — at all.
5. I have never suffered from whiplash so bad as when my three-year old drove at the Tomorrowland Speedway. It was brutal. So if you’re reading this and you’re smart, you’ll send your three-year old on the speedway with your significant other.
6. Breakfast in bed still rocks. Our three year old turned three our second day at Disney. We promised her breakfast in bed. When the kids woke up, they placed a very excited call to room service, ordered up breakfast, and fifteen minutes later – voila! Mickey Mouse waffles with syrup and whip cream in bed in their pjs. It really doesn’t get much better than that.
7. On that note, you can’t go wrong by staying at a Disney Resort. You can’t get Mickey Mouse waffles at a non-Disney property. Nor can you ride the monorail or boat to the Magic Kingdom (or other parks) from a non-Disney property. And you definitely won’t be spotting any characters or indulging in character breakfasts at non-Disney properties. So, while prices are high, staying at a Disney resort is worth it when you have little kids. We stayed at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. It was perfect. We didn’t have (nor did we need) a rental car for the weekend (we took Disney’s Magical Express bus from the airport to/from the resort). Staying at the resort allowed the kids to live the Disney experience the whole weekend. And they loved it. Food at the resort was top-notch and the pools were tons of fun.
8. They weren’t kidding when they said to book dining far in advance. So here’s the thing: everything I read on Disney’s sites (and second-hand sights offering tips for Disney World) suggested that you book special dining occasions (say, dinner at the nicest restaurant at your Disney resort or a character breakfast in the Magic Kingdom) far in advance. In fact, I’ve read that breakfast with the characters can often be completely booked 180 days in advance. That is A LOT of days in advance. Unfortunately, we only planned our trip about 50 days in advance and I disregarded all of the online advice about dining. In the week prior to the trip, I panicked a bit and called several restaurants in the park trying to book a character meal. Absolutely nothing was available (at a reasonable time, at least). The best restaurants at our hotel were also fully booked at specific times (breakfast and dinner) when we arrived. So heed my advice: if a character meal or a nice meal at your resort is important to you, book it as soon as you know you’re making a trip to Disney. You can always cancel when you get closer to the date if need be.
9. All girls don’t want to be (or meet) princesses. My three-year old loves to watch the movie Cinderella. She also sings the Frozen soundtrack in the car daily. But that is where her love of princesses stops (at least for now). She doesn’t want to dress up like one, she doesn’t like to pretend she’s one, and she really couldn’t care less about Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, or the myriad of other Disney princesses out there. Since the Elsa and Anna meet and greet is such a hot ticket, I couldn’t get a FastPass+ when I tried (about 40 days out). What I was able to get was a Cinderella meet and greet FastPass+. My husband and I had the perfect plan to split forces and he would take our son on roller coasters while I took our daughter to meet Cinderella. But that never happened – because our daughter never had one iota of interest in meeting Cinderella — or any other princesses in the place, for that matter. She nearly threw a fit when I told her we were going to meet Cinderella (and not the good kind). After asking her three times if she was absolutely sure about forgoing the experience, I switched our FastPass+ to Dumbo. And guess what? We ended up riding it five times (see number 4).
10. Stroller rental prices are outrageous! But I guess this is Disney World after all, land of the over-priced lemonade and Mickey Mouse ear balloons. We paid $31/day for a double stroller. It was functional, but certainly did not look that comfortable. If we had done our homework, we could have rented a much better stroller (City Mini or BOB) for a much lower price from an outside party that delivers to the park. So if you’re looking for options, check out this site – Military Disney Tips – to get some ideas.
11. Unexpected favorite (new) rides: Buzz Light Year Shoot and Spin, Astro Orbiter, and The Magic Carpets of Aladdin (with the spitting camels being a bonus) – all super-fun with kids and ones that were new to me. Of course, all of my old favorites like Pirates, Thunder Mountain, It’s a Small World, etc. still stand — but these were great new additions!
12. My Disney Experience site and app: Visit the My Disney experience website to plan your visit. Using the site (and/or the associated mobile app), you can scope out the rides and entertainment schedule, make your FastPass+ selections, and book your dining. Make sure that you’ve downloaded the app to your phone so that you access your itinerary, view a map of the park (which features ride wait times that seem to be generally accurate), and switch up your FastPass+ selections when you’re in the park. Using the app while you’re on the go will help you make the most of your visit.
13. Early May is a sweet time to go. We avoided the big crowds and although it was in hot, we did not totally melt.
14. A special shout-out to Disney Parks Moms Panel, which is a fantastic resource and seems to have the answer to almost any question you could ever conceive of about a visit to Disney.
15. No, we did not avoid the meltdown.
Now Go! And enjoy!