We are just back from a trip to Disney and the words to “It’s a Small World” are still circling my head. Disney truly is a magical place. It’s a celebration of happiness and imagination- but wow is it exhausting. You can’t wing a trip to Disney. You really need to do a lot of research, planning and preparation far in advance, so I am here today to tell you what we learned on our adventure. Pour a cup of coffee, and get comfy because this is a lot of info to take in. Actually- just go for the wine, you will need it!
Deciding whether or not to buy the Memory Maker Package
Memory Maker– we paid $149 for the memory maker package. If you don’t pay in advance, it costs $169. I felt it was worth every penny. This is probably the first vacation we have ever been on that I am actually in the family pictures. Here’s how it works: there are professional photographers throughout the park. When you see one, just ask them for a picture and they will tap your magic band and poof, it is in your phone. At the end of your trip, you get to download and keep all of the photographs you had taken. Most of the big rides will take a picture and send it to you. Each character greeting will have a photographer there (except for the character dining). I didn’t feel like we were taking a lot of pictures, but in the end we had 134 pictures to take home! If you don’t do memory maker and then want to purchase photos separately, it costs about $70 for 7 pictures so we definitely got our moneys worth. My son did Jedi training, and that alone made it worth it. They had 2 professional photographers covering the event and we got over 20 excellent pictures of the show which I would have never been able to get from my vantage point. If you are doing a special event like that, I would invest in the Memory Maker. We also received bonus pictures from Memory Maker. These were professional pictures of famous landmarks or star attractions from each park that were very helpful when I was making our photo book. Also note: Shutterfly has a really cute Disney Album theme. I made the kids a photo book that they love to look at every night while we are reminiscing.
Do we need a dining plan?
Disney Dining Plan– we did the mid-level dining plan which included a table service meal, a quick service meal and 2 snacks for each person per day. That was the perfect size package for us and although it was confusing at first, we caught on very quickly. Whenever you order a meal, just ask the servers if you have any questions. We used our table service meals for the character dining experiences. I tried to book a character meal for breakfast inside of the park each morning because it gets you into the park before it opens which allows you to get a head start and also grab some great photos with no people in the background. It was most worth it for Hollywood and Vine at Hollywood Studios because it allowed us to sign up for Jedi Training before the flood gates opened (see more on this later). The character meals also allow your kids to meet the characters without having to wait in line for hours.
Note: if you need to change or cancel a dining reservation, do so 24 hours before otherwise you will lose your deposit. For dining shows, you need to cancel 48 hours in advance. If you are running late for a reservation, they will give you a 15 minute grace period. After that, it is first come first serve.
Disney really has thought of everything. We stayed on property, so were able to use the Magical Express. This is a large tour bus that picks you up at the airport and drives you to your hotel. Most magical of all, Disney will send you luggage tags before your trip so when you check your bag at the airport, you don’t have to wait around at the baggage claim. It’s just important to note, your bag will appear in your room within three hours. We were going straight to the park, so we just had to keep whatever we needed for the day in our carry on. I had a backpack diaper bag that was packed up with everything for the park and my husband had a carry on with whatever we were ditching in the hotel room.
You will also have luggage tags for your return trip. This was great because we could check out of our room, check in our bags at the front desk and not even see them again until we got off the plane! They will also print your boarding passes for you. This enabled us to spend one last morning enjoying the Magic Kingdom before heading home. I will also note that you will leave your hotel three hours prior to your flight. That gives you a whole lot of time at the airport, but with all of the construction and traffic they would rather get you there on the early side. Don’t worry, there is a Disney Store at the airport, just in case you hadn’t burned through all of your cash yet (Hint: you will have).
Best of all- the Magical Express is free! We didn’t have to rent a car so we didn’t need to bring car seats. The bus also enabled us to bring our own stroller (see more below) since they could store all of our luggage underneath the bus. The Orlando airport is currently getting a major renovation, so we did have some trouble finding the bus terminal, but the signage should be better when the new airport opens. As with everything Disney, it was very organized. We just scanned our magic bands, went to the line for our hotel, and got straight onto the bus. We only had to wait 10 minutes for some other passengers to board. We were told that it can take up to an hour and a half to reach your hotel. This just depends where you are staying and how many stops they have to make along the way. The Polynesian was the first stop and we were there in a half hour. I had a hard time booking lunch reservations because I didn’t know how long it would take us to reach the park. I ended up canceling our lunch res and just grabbed a quick service meal the first day.
You 100% need a stroller. My friend has an 8-year-old who still insists on getting a stroller at Disney. You will cover so much ground, it is really a necessity. Plus, it will allow your child to nap if needed. And they will need it. My kids are out of the daytime napping age range, and they napped. So the biggest question for us was whether to bring our stroller or rent one there. I ended up bringing ours, which is a double City Mini. For me, it came down to having my kids contained at the airport. The gates were long and far and we had a lot of time to kill at the airport. I had never flown with a stroller, but it was so easy. You literally walk them right up the door of the plane, and hand it off. When you disembark, they will have it waiting for you. There is no extra charge from the airline. If you are getting a rental car or don’t want to bring your own stroller, I would recommend using Kingdom Strollers. You pay online and the stroller will be waiting in the lobby of your hotel. They make it so easy and best of all- you can even order a case of water bottles to be delivered with it, which will save you a lot of money. Whichever you choose- be sure you have a rain cover. I primed an inexpensive one on Amazon. If you have your own, tie a bandana or something to identify your stroller out of the sea of identical strollers at Disney. They are very organized about their stroller parking and if you leave your stroller out of place, they will move them around to neaten up the area. We would usually park our stroller in the general area we were in and leave it there until we moved on to a further area. We didn’t bring it from ride to ride.
They really are magic. Seriously. Your Magic Bands will ship to you a few weeks before you leave for you trip. The box is an unlabeled cardboard box so it doesn’t give away any surprises. You can go online and choose a color for each person. We were so excited to put them on in the car on the way to the airport. Your magic band literally does everything for you. It is your room key, your park entry ticket, how you will pay for meals or merchandise, and how you will utilize fast passes. They made life so much easier and the kids loved that they could buy a snack when they wanted. You do have to enter a pin so they can’t go on a shopping spree without you noticing and if it gets lost, you don’t have to worry about someone else using them.
If you have a smaller child, note that the grey strip peels off to make it a smaller size. We didn’t realize that until someone showed us half way through the trip! It was much more comfortable for them once it was off. When you head out the door, just be sure everyone has them on. When we ran out for the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom one night, my youngest didn’t have it on and we didn’t notice until we were at the gate. If that happens, just let them know and they will look up your ticket and give you a card to scan instead. No need to run back for the band.
If your kids decide to buy something in a store that you don’t want to lug around all day, just ask for it to be sent to your room. We were there on my son’s birthday and told him he could pick out his gift. I was so afraid I would be carrying around a giant death star toy but once again, Disney has thought of everything.
Be sure to let a cast member know about your special occasion! If you are on property, you can get celebration buttons at the front desk. You can also pick them up at guest relations at the front of each park. There are buttons for your first time visit, Birthday, and even a blank one that you can fill in. My son felt so special everywhere he went, because the cast members were shouting Happy Birthday to him. And since he wore it every day, it became his birthday week. He was picked up by Tigger for the parade at Crystal Palace and was brought up for extra pictures after Jedi Training. When you make dining reservations, you should also mention it. My son even got a cupcake with a candle in it at breakfast. Basically no birthday will ever live up to this one, so I will just throw in the towel now.
Other tips and advice
Keep your expectations in check. You can’t see everything at Disney, so understand that going in. If you push your kids too hard, it won’t be fun for anyone. As hard as it is for us to believe, Disney can be stressful for kids. Add on too many sugary foods, lack of sleep, the heat and the crowds, and it’s a recipe for tantrums. Don’t mistake the tantrums for ungratefulness, because they can be just as overwhelmed.
Our first day at Magic Kingdom, we made it to lunch and the kids wanted to go back to the pool to swim. Ummm, I had like 5 more hours of rides planned that involved fast passes that I had fought for 3 months prior. I was bummed, but I saw that they had reached their limit and it would not have gone well if I pushed them. They had a blast at the pool and after some rest, we came back for the fireworks that night. I would never try to do more than one park a day with little ones. You could spend a week in every park and not see it all. So save your money and skip the park hopper. You would spend half your time in transit. Littles don’t have the stamina for it.
There is so much planning that goes into a trip to Walt Disney World, but as soon as you get there you can relax and have fun. When you see your child running open armed to Minnie Mouse for a hug, your heart will melt and you will instantly know it was worth all of the effort.