[Updated May 2017] We've been to Disney five times with our daughter and though we aren't experts we consider ourselves 5 time survivors! It really is an ideal trip for our family. My husband is quick to mention that it's not a vacation for the adults. So true. But it's worth it to see the look on your kid's face. Priceless. We plan on having more relaxing vacations when we aren't bringing the under 9 crowd. I've put together some Disney tips we've learned along the way:
Tip #1: Photography: The first 4 years, we pre-ordered the photopass. If you buy it ahead of time, this entitles you to order the cd sent to you when your vacation ends and you can get the photos printed from anywhere. We ended up with 120-150 pictures on a cd. It was great for large group shots, family shots, even a few of Avery that we weren’t able to get. The photo people are everywhere. You just give them your photo card after each photo. These guys aren't experts and there is overuse of the flash for sure. As soon as you get your card, take a picture of the number on the back with your cell phone. That way if you lose the card you can still access the pics or get a new one printed. I am a photography hobbyist so I love taking my own photos but it's nice to make sure someone else can get that hard-to-get-shot. The BEST Disney photography website EVER. Another fav of mine is the olloclip for all you iphone users. IT is awesome for getting more in your shot. On one trip I only brought my dslr into each park once, then relied on my cell phone and the photopass. The most recent time, I only used my iphone & olloclip and shot iphoneography. I'll likely do this from now on. It was just so much work to carry the camera.
Tip #2: Quick Service: The best quick place to eat at Magic Kingdom – used to be the Bakery on Main Street but that was recently taken over by Starbucks. We've been to Cosmic Ray's and Sleepy Hollow (note food poisoning episode was here) and prefer to just stick to sit down and snacks. IMO the best quick place to eat in Epcot w/ the “healthiest” food is in the Land in future world. Lots of variety and again yogurts, chicken/rice, noodles etc. Other good Epcot bets: French bakery & Norway. If you are going to have access to car/grocery store you could pack a cooler and bring cheese sticks, snacks etc. We brought granola bars, Stretch Island Fruit strips, and cereal for snacks during the day; it was very helpful. I used resealable snack bags from this etsy store – easy to carry around the cereal. On a previous trip we ordered from garden grocer - it was amazing - snacks & bottle waters galore, right to your room the day you arrive. This most recent time, we had a time share with full kitchen. We ate a nice big egg sandwich breakfast and packed some light snacks and water.
Tip #3: Restaurants: Sit down restaurants are a nice way to get some air-conditioning; the food is pretty good too. In the Magic Kingdom, I really enjoyed the salad at Liberty Tree Tavern and the Plaza on Mainstreet makes a mean Rachel (it's not on the menu but ask for it - if you like your Reuben's with turkey). At Epcot I've eaten at the Coral Reef Restaurant. The group as a whole enjoyed their food; mine was a bit salty - but you can expect that from a low-sodium gal like me. This past year we did do a character breakfast at the Grand Floridian. It was okay - mind you I'm not running back for the food and don't forget 2 of the character Pooh & Tigger don't speak. If you want to see Mickey & the Princesses there is a “fastpass” to see them on mainstreet/Magic Kingdom. Many of the “princess” characters are at Epcot as well: Snow White is on almost every hour in Germany, Alice & Mary Poppins are in England (as well as Pooh and Tigger), and Aurora and Belle are in France. The indoor character greets have very little natural light - keep that in mind if you want a really nice shot! By far the best sit down restaurants we've experience are at the Polynesian - the Kona Cafe and the Swan & Dolphin. The Kona cafe had the freshest food - very impressive. We love the Italian place at the Swan. You do need a car somewhat to travel there. You can take a few transfers or a taxi. This most recent time, we discovered the Wine Cellar in Epcot's Italy. Fabulous. Walk right in if you are there around 5:30pm. No reservations. Nice Italian food (same as restaurant) and we got a flight of red wine. Kid friendly though very few kids there.
Tip #4: Rides: Tomorrowland Tram. Do not underestimate this fantastic ride and a sure kid-pleaser. We simply rode this when we were tired and needed to rejuvenate. Be aware as my father-in-law can attest to - even though it's slow moving you do need to move quickly into the car. It took him 3 tries to get in a tram. Other sure bets at Magic Kingdom with “never” a wait: Mickey’s Philharmonic, and Carousel of Progress – real cute and air conditioned. Avery loved Dumbo, Peter Pan and the Carousel when she was younger. At almost 9, she was obsessed with the roller coaster rides and rode all of the "mountains" at MK. Note, that Space Mountain is a bit more harrowing than I remember as a kid.
Tip#5: Napping for young kids: If you are early risers you can do the parks early and go for a swim/nap in the pm. One day we did not make it out of Magic Kingdom. There is an outdoor – but covered eatery in Tomorrowland in Magic Kingdom that is often not in service. We were able to go there and Avery took an hour nap - in her stroller. It was semi quiet and near restrooms. The place is called: Tomorrowland Terrace. Now that we are older, just the adults nap in the condo or pool side. LOL.
Tip #5: Clothing: Wear shirts with sleeves covering the shoulder and bring hat/sunglasses. As the sun is beating down on you midday, your pale, white northeastern skin is taking a beating. My sunscreen tip is to strip down before applying sunscreen. Doing this before dressing is key. I then brought sun face sticks and sunscreen spray for legs and arms in the park - to re-apply. Be sure to check the EWG's skindeep sunscreen guide.
Tip #6: Water & Bathrooms: Bring empty water bottles on the trip, BPA free ofcourse. Three years ago my husband developed kidney stones due to dehydration. That was an unpleasant trip home. This year we brought Nuun tablets. Since we drank a lot of liquids there was a lot of potty use. All the places were clean and well kept so that was a bonus. We brought an extra pair of underwear just in-case when we had the under 5 crowd.
Tip #7: Swimming: If you have non-swimmers bring a set of water wings. Though Avery took lessons I was stunned she thought she could just jump in the pool at the hotel when she was 3. I had a heart attack when she jumped in the 4ft deep end without me. Avery never wore water wings before but at a large pool I felt much safer knowing she had them on. And she wasn’t clinging to me every sec in the pool. On our third trip she used her inner tube to float around and she was much more conscious of the deep waters. By our 4th trip, she was a great swimmer!
Tip #8: Hotels: For hotels, we are by no means, Disney “pro’s.” On the most recent two trip we stayed at the Port Orleans Riverside - moderate hotel on Disney property. I really enjoyed our stay there. The rooms were recently renovated (past few months) and the grounds were immaculately kept. We loved the main pool and after a few days we figured out the food situation - what were the healthier choices - we mostly had breakfast there and I think one lunch/dinner. I would not hesitate to stay again! Previously we stayed at the Dolphin/Swan while technically not a “Disney” hotel, it’s on the Epcot property. There are several eateries and while 3 of them are mostly kid friendly (Dolphin side) they will set you back some $$$. We ate mostly cereal and fruit in the morning so the café was perfect for us. Twice we splurged for the buffet since there were mickey waffles. And you gotta do it once. On the days we stayed pool side, again we did the café and Scott and I split a sandwich – they were huge. From Dolphin/Swan you can walk to Epcot or take the ferry and go in the back entrance (very cool). We stood near the entrance to watch the light show at night and it was so easy to leave when we were done. There are shuttle buses to Magic Kingdom. You can imagine sometimes there is a long(er) wait. This never bothered us since it gets you to MK door to door. But if you have reservations for a character breakfast – this can be hairy. We’ve witnessed adult meltdowns. True story. Our first year we stayed off property at Caribe Royale Suites. And while a suite was super nice – it was a nightmare to get to the parks. Nightmare. Drive car to parking lot of ticket center. Unload stroller. Get on tram w/ stroller and kid. Get off tram and walk to ferry or monorail. Fold up stroller. Ride monorail. Open stroller again. You get the picture. It was approx an hour time frame to get to MK. Our most recent trip we did a time share at Sheraton Vistana Resorts and it was AWESOME! I can't imagine going back to Disney property since the time share was so spacious and packed with amenities. Not to mention the 7 pools and really good food poolside.
Tip #9: Footwear: Wear sneakers. Sure, no one likes a farmers tan. But picture me with flip flops throwing the camera and stroller in the bushes while my kid takes off down the crowded Disney path, all the while laughing (Avery, not me). And no, bystanders were not laughing. I saw mostly people shaking their heads, been there done that. Scott was standing in line for lemonade. Lesson learned. This year I invested in some very comfy TEVA's. Yes, I actually sprinted around the store in them to try them out.
Tip #10: Strollers: We brought our umbrella stroller which had an arm strap; sometimes we used it, other times, Avery rode Scott's shoulders. In lieu of renting one at the actual parks, a friend actually rented a stroller for $15 a day and they brought it to her hotel room! Perfect! There are stroller parking sections everywhere at Disney. We carried a nylon backpack to fit everything in and Scott mostly wore it (hehe). It was so much easier to have your hands free.
Tip #11: Disney Dining Plan no go. I priced the differences before hand and then checked receipts after. There is no way we'd eat our worth per meal with the disney dining plan. We did it ala carte and we easily saved $200-300. The best was stocking up on Florida oranges in the morning to bring in the parks. A great refreshing treat midday. And the worst deal of all - the refillable mug. Absolutely the worst IMO. The only thing offered is soda and juice (and water) but who's going to get the mug and get water? I saw kids drinking this for breakfast. I almost had a heart attack. Stay away from this. Buy lemons at the store and just drink water with lemon. This past year we had Honest juices from the garden grocer and it was so nice when a juice was tempting to just have our own. A final thought on the dining plan - many places insist you take all the items on your plan. We've witnessed many frazzeled parents get to the front of the line and be sent back just so they could get their appetizer.
** This is not an inclusive list of tips, just things we've learned along the way. Enjoy your trip!!