Planning Your Family’s First Trip to Disney: Part One
In the spring of 2012, my husband and I took our then almost 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to Disney for the first time. In reflecting back on our trip, it was almost as involved as planning our wedding, except it lasted a whole week! I picked up some tips on planning Disney vacations along the way, many from a friend who I’ve asked to guest blog with me. Our Guest Blogger, Disney Addict, has gone to Disney World nearly 20 times (and has actually performed there twice!).
Over the next few weeks, we will cover many things about planning your first trip. It will be a 3 part series: planning 6+ months out, 1 month out and once in Disney.
Question & Answers for Planning Disney Family Vacations: 6 Months Out
What’s the magical age for children to go on a Disney trip?
Organized Mom: 3+
My children were the perfect age for their first trip. We were able to skip naps most days, which gave us flexibility. Since my son was just shy of 3, his park entrance and meals were all free. Princesses were still cool to my daughter and she was tall enough to ride almost all the rides.
Disney Addict: any age
In my opinion, any age is the perfect age to visit Disney, as long as you keep your expectations realistic. When children are younger than 5, this trip is for you. You are making memories that you will remember. Our first trip to Disney with children was when my daughter was 15 months old and I have such vivid memories of her walking down Main Street with her Mickey head balloon. She remembers nothing of that trip but does enjoy looking at photos of herself at that age. Disney makes it easy to travel with little ones through their Rider Swap Program and their amazing baby centers.
Where to stay in Disney: Inside or outside the park?
Organized Mom: Inside the park
For the first visit, I recommend staying inside the park especially with younger children. The customer service at Disney resorts is unlike anything else you’ll experience which is very important when traveling with young children. Having the resort conveniently located will also give you the flexibility to go to the park in the morning, leave during peak hours for lunch/naps/swim time and then return for more fun and dinner.
Disney Addict: Inside the park
I agree with Organized Mom and prefer to stay on Disney property. There is something magical when you enter the Disney property. It is like for a few days you are in a magical world that exists apart from any “real life” issues. When you stay off property it is like each night you have to say goodbye to the magical world. There are also other perks of staying on property like Extra Magic Hours, free parking and free transportation.
Okay, I’m convinced on staying in the park but WHERE? There are so many choices!
Organized Mom: Disney Villas
You can choose to stay on a campground, in a standard hotel or in a Disney villa. Sleep was the key to success for us so we choose to stay in the villas. Our kids slept in the bedroom (separate room) and we slept on the couch (which was much more comfortable than expected) so we had access to the balcony, kitchen and door at night. The proximity of the villas to key parks (Magic Kingdom and Epcot) led us to choose The Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. Animal Kingdom resorts are farther away from the main parks but closer to Downtown Disney and Hollywood Studios. My recommendation is to try to pick the style of resort first followed by location. And despite what you may remember as a child, staying on the monorail is not as important as it once was.
Disney Addict: Disney Value Resorts
We have stayed in almost every type of Disney accommodations and found the best way to choose your style of resort is to ask yourself, “How much will we be in the room” and “How much will we use the resort accommodations?” My family doesn’t like to miss a minute of park time so we are usually there from opening to closing. That doesn’t leave us much time to use the resort amenities. While I would love to relax at the pool every afternoon, my children have plans to ride the Yeti 15 times in a row. For us, the value resorts were great when the kids were little. All we needed was a place to rest our heads and get a quick midnight snack. A few years ago we became Disney Vacation Club members and now we are spoiled. Our last trip we stayed at the newly renovated Old Key West. Even though we still did not spend much time three, it was a wonderful place to put our feet up after a long day at the park.
Do you recommend bringing/renting a car or relying on Disney Transportation?
Organized Mom: Disney Transportation
We had several friends scare us about Disney Transportation saying the waits were long to get the bus or monorail and it was a pain. We ultimately took a risk because renting a car on top of staying in Disney was cost prohibitive. What a GREAT decision. From the moment Disney picked us up at the airport we didn’t have to worry about transportation at all. Yes, there were times that we had to wait for a bus and that could be frustrating but we said on countless occasions how happy we were to not have to fuss with waiting in long lines and finding parking, buckling kids in and out of car seats, navigating the roads, etc. I have heard that visiting during Disney during school vacation weeks can really impact wait times so keep this in mind and do some research before making a final decision.
Disney Addict: Drive to the park
Because we love the flexibility having a car in Disney gives us, we tend to drive to Florida in our own car. I know that 19 hours in a car with two children does not sound wonderful to everyone, but we do enjoy it. We have even surprised the kids twice by not telling them where we were going but to just get in the car with a pillow, blanket and stuffed toy. We like having our car there so we can bring everything and anything we want including a suitcase entirely dedicated to princess costumes, shoes and wigs, cases of water and our own stroller. This also allows us to do some food shopping so we can eat breakfast before we start our days adventures.
I’ve heard Disney World food prices can be expensive, would you recommend the dining plan?
Organized Mom: Yes
We did the dining plan and I’m glad we did. Our son, who was under 3 at the time couldn’t participate in the dining plan, but he often had either a complimentary meal or a reduced-priced children’s meal. The plan we did included one table service, one quick serve and one snack that was credited each night we stayed at the resort. Garden salads, yogurts, cereal, fruit salads, etc. counted as snacks so I often bought a salad for a “snack credit” and let my son have my meal for lunch (and I might have had a few of his chicken nuggets, too). We ended up having PLENTY of food. We did also pay for a couple character breakfasts. We were given the tip by a Disney Cast Member to save your table service for dinner and instead pay for breakfast which is traditionally cheaper so we took that advice. (Character dining is sometimes two dining credits hence why it is more cost effective to see the characters at breakfast and pay out of pocket). The only time we ate breakfast outside our hotel room was for character meals.
Disney Addict: Yes
We too prefer the Disney Dining Plan that allows for one table service, one quick serve and one snack. There are several times a year when Disney offers the dining for free and that is a deal that cannot be beat. We like to save up our snacks and at the end of the trip trade in our snack credits for snacks to bring home. Snacks like the Mickey Mouse shaped Rice Krispie treats dipped in chocolate can also be good gifts for friends and family.
Are dinner reservations necessary when planning our Disney vacation?
Organized Mom: Yes
Disney Addict correctly warned me that I needed to book my reservations starting 180 days out. Based on when we booked our trip however, it was more like 165 days out. I was SHOCKED at how difficult it was to find restaurant reservations. It initially took five hours over the course of two nights to have all our dinners/breakfasts (when applicable) booked for our family vacation. However, we did get a reservation at the most coveted Royal Table at the perfect time (6:00 – which meant we were done by 7:30 just in time for Wishes Nighttime Spectacular). We did change a couple of our reservations as we got closer and planned what parks we would go to on what days, but for the most part stuck to the original plan. Remember, lots of families change their plans so if you didn’t get your first time preference, keep checking back as it’s always changing.
All the pre-planning we did made it so dinner was one less thing we had to think about and mutually decide upon. And when we showed up at restaurants and found families with melting children waiting 90-minutes for a table, we were exceptionally thrilled at this pre-planning step.
Disney Addict: YES!
We start planning our trip by deciding where we want to eat. We have a few favorite restaurants and we try to add at least one new one each trip. Once we have the reservations, that helps to decide which parks we will spend the day in. Another thing that works well for us is to do some off-hours dining. We love Ohana at the Polynesian and usually ask for an 8:30 pm seating. The reason is that you then have an amazing view of the fireworks over the castle from the restaurant. If the kids fall asleep, just push two chairs together and enjoy your meal while they rest.
Is the Disney Park Hopper Pass worth it?
Organized Mom: Yes
Upgrading to the Disney park hopper pass was a minimal fee since we bought a park pass for seven days. I had many people tell me we wouldn’t be able to use the park hopper (due to transportation taking so long) but we park hopped almost every day. On the last day we hit three parks! After we woke up we went to whatever park we had “scheduled for the day.” For lunch or just after lunch, we went back to our hotel to swim and sometimes nap. We would then head back out around 4:00 and go to another park for more rides and dinner. This plan allowed us to miss the mid-day rush at the parks.
Disney Addict: Sometimes
We like to stay put in one park for the day until we get to the end of our trip. Then we will park hop to give everyone a chance to do their favorite, must-do Disney ride or attraction.
Editor’s Note: There is a lot to consider when planning your first trip to Disney with kids. See the additional parts of this series about planning a Disney vacation to learn more great tips!