How We Do Disney with Kiddos

Tips for traveling to Walt Disney World with toddlers

So, here’s the second post in my new Disney post series, and today I’ll be sharing how my family does WDW.

A few things to keep in mind:
1.) Yes, we do Disney on the higher budget way. Our family vacations are important to us, and we work them in to our budget. We like to have a great time and be a bit pampered. Don’t worry, we’re socking away money for retirement and college for both of our girls already. Don’t feel like you need to do Disney my way, just check out some of my tips and remember that at lower demand times, all of these things are less expensive. And I’ll also have a post about saving a bit of money. Also, I’m a doctor…

2.) I have little kids. My girls are currently 2 and 6, but we’ve been done this trip three times already and will be leaving for our fourth very soon. But, it means we do things like work in nap time back at our hotel, and we don’t go, go, go from open until close. That would lead to hangry, cranky little people.

When to go?

We go when it works best for our family. In the past that was over break for my husband’s job, for now on it will be during Spring Break for my daughter, so unfortunately during a busy time. If you have the luxury of going whenever you want (in other words, you’re not tied to a school calendar), then I recommend checking out one of the crowd calendars from Touring Plans or Kenny the Pirate.

In general, traditional school “off” times are busy, summer is busy (despite the heat) and over winter break it is so busy that they’ve been known to shut the park to new people! Times that have been “quieter” are usually January/February (though this isn’t as true given all of the special events and runs that Disney plans to increase visitors during that time), May, November and early December. Thanksgiving weekend is busy, but the week leading up to it is pretty good. Quiet times will often have a “sale” on vacations and certain room types will go on sale or you’ll even get a free dining plan.

Where to stay?

This is always a big debate. Is it worth it to pay Disney’s prices? It really depends. I’ll list some of the pros and cons, then share what we do.

Off Site vs. On Site
There are definitely some pros to staying at a Disney resort.

First, the Disney magic doesn’t leave. They’ve themed all of the resorts, and that often extends even into your room. There are events and activities at the resorts that can be amazing. From a special Cinderella meet and greet in the Lobby of the Grand Floridian, to watching the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks from your resort or a Disney classic outside. You’ll find similar things at some off site resorts, for example the Four Seasons has its own character meals, but not all.

Second, because Disney has a vested interest in keeping you onsite, they will make it as easy as possible to keep you there. This starts with the Magical Express to and from the airport (more on that later), and then they have easily accessed transportation (usually buses) that go everywhere. They pick up and let off at convenient locations, often parking lots are further away, paid, and you’ll need to do something like ride the monorail or a boat to get from the parking lot to the park (like at the Magic Kingdom).

Third, there are scheduling benefits if you’re at a Disney resort. You can schedule your dining reservations more easily (everyone can reserve at 180 days out, if you have a reservation you can do your entire trip at 180 days out from the first day, which means you can easily get that Cinderella’s Royal Table breakfast on your last day), Fast Passes are scheduled at 60 days instead of 30, and you’ll get extra magic hours. Some of those benefits extend to a few select off site locations (primarily the Swan and Dolphin and the Four Seasons I believe).

Finally, since you’ll be building a vacation package with Disney, you’ll often get some price breaks on other parts of your trip. Your park tickets are cheaper, upgrading to Park Hopper is more affordable, you can purchase the dining plan, etc.

If you’re staying off site, there are still some benefits. Your actual space may be quite a bit larger and less expensive. There are many hotels available in the immediate area, many with very family friendly pools, shuttles to the parks, large family suites are easy to find, etc.

The bad of staying off site:
First, the worst is getting yourself to the park. Off site shuttles often have different drop off points than the Disney resort ones. I’m not sure where many of them are actually, and I think this is resort dependent. Often these shuttles run only a few times a day or once an hour, it depends upon the resort. If you chose to drive, you’ll need to pay for parking and then get yourself to the park from the parking lot, which involves a boat or monorail for the MK, other parks have their parking lots within walking distance.

Second, at the majority of the off site hotels you’ll lose the Disney on site reservation perks. You can’t reserve all of your dining reservations 180 days out (you’ll need to do one day at a time at 180 days out), and you’ll reserve your fast passes at 30 days out instead of 60. Note, if you’re planning a last minute trip and can’t take advantage of those timelines, then this doesn’t matter.

Off site, you’ll also be ineligible for the dining plan (more on that later, but if you do a lot of character meals this could be a big money saver), extra Magic Hours (which my family doesn’t use but those with older children might), and during super peak times when they actually close the park, those staying off site are the first to not be allowed in the park (more about park closing phases here, note this typically only happens over winter break).

If you want to stay off site, I recommend checking out some of these locations first.
Swan and Dolphin: Technically off site, but these are in the Boardwalk area near Epcot and Hollywood Studios. You can easily walk to both parks, and you’ll still get some of the Disney benefits like Disney shuttles, etc.
Sheraton Vistana: Huge suites with full kitchens
Sheraton Lake Buena Vista: Amazing pool area

Room Type?
This is pretty personal. Do you want some extra space, or to have as small of a room as they’ll let you (because you’re only sleeping there anyways)? In general, the fancier/more expensive resorts have larger rooms. Disney tells you how many people are allowed to stay in your room, and they really do hold you to that (no, you can’t squeeze in that baby), but their numbers are pretty right on target anyways.

Really, I just wanted to mention that while you might think having 2 adjoining rooms in the answer, keep in mind that if your resort is full there is a chance you won’t be able to have 2 rooms next to each other for your full stay. Consider looking into a suite instead, where you’ll utilize the sofa bed instead of a regular bed. Depending on the resort and time of year, the suites are cheaper than 2 rooms anyways. Another option is to look at the DVC resorts, which also have suites available, and typically those suites are less expensive than the suites in the “regular” part of the hotel. You do not need to be a DVC member in order to rent them.

Personally, I’ve stayed twice at the Wilderness Lodge, once at the Grand Floridian. For all of these visits we stayed in one bedroom suites in the DVC buildings, which meant we also got a kitchen and a washer/dryer. So helpful for having little ones on vacation!

Dining Plan?

To dining plan or not to dining plan? This is always a big topic of discussion.

First, you can only purchase the dining plan if you’re staying onsite. There are different levels, but the “basic” plan gives you 2 snacks, a table service (TS) and quick service (QS) meal each day. It isn’t 3 meals a day, but since a lot of people keep some basic breakfast items in their room, or you can use your snack credits…. it’s actually quite a bit of food. You can upgrade the plan to give you more table service meals or just quick service as well.

Think about how your family eats when you go out, and check out one of the dining plan calculators (here or here). Keep in mind that character dining is often a buffet (one price, they don’t care how much you actually ate), and at Disney meals are usually more expensive as the day goes on. So, breakfast is cheaper than lunch, dinner is the most expensive. So, if you’re planning to go to a bunch of character buffet dinners, chances are you’ll save money with the meal plan. But, if you’ll only have table service at non-character, regular restaurants…. you get the idea.

Another thing to take into account are the “Signature Dining” experiences, which require 2 TS credits per person instead of one. These are meals like Cinderella’s Royal Table, which is in the Magic Kingdom’s castle. The meal is great, and it is expensive. However, you should count up your table service meals and only use credits for this meal if you have the extra credits. 2 credit meals aren’t as expensive out of pocket as paying for 2 other meals that take 1 credit each. Pay out of pocket for this meal and use the credits elsewhere if you have reservations.

Personally, we do the dining plan. We like having everything prepaid for, and not fretting about the cost of dinner while we’re on vacation. It’s all paid for already, now we just enjoy it. And yes, we eat at CRT, usually we end up paying for part of the meal out of pocket as it is the last full day of our trip and we’re out of credits.

Easy Extras

There are some things that just make travel to Disney easier, and these are must haves for us!

I don’t like taking my own stroller with me when I travel. Either you have to gate check it (and then wait forever for it to be brought out, which isn’t fun with a tight connection), or check it with your luggage. And I just worry. So, we like to use one of the stroller rental companies when we’re in Orlando. You pick up and drop off usually at the bell hop in your hotel.

The parks do have strollers that you can rent, but they’re usually big and clunky plastic things that can’t leave the parks. So, you can’t leave your sleeping toddler in it while you’re on the monorail!

We like both Kingdom Strollers and Orlando Stroller Rental. We prefer a City Mini of some sort, they fold quickly and easily for getting on and off of the buses. We don’t do a double stroller, even at home. Instead we have singles, we feel it makes it easier to navigate the crowds and we like the option of splitting up if our kids need to do so. We get the rain cover (usually it is free and there is almost daily rain in the Orlando area), and we always pay for the insurance. In 3 trips we haven’t had anything happen to a stroller, but since you leave your stroller in stroller parking all the time… in theory anything could happen. I’d rather spend $25 or so for the insurance and then not have to replace a stroller for the rental agency if someone takes mine on accident.

Grocery Delivery
Since we get a room with a kitchen, I like to have some food around. Typically we have some snack items, bottled water (Florida’s tap water tastes gross to me), soda, and I like to have a few easy back up meal options for days we’re too tired to leave the room for dinner. I know some people have had good luck with Amazon Fresh, but we use Garden Grocer to deliver this food to us. The earlier you order the better, they do run out of delivery times and you can get a pretty significant discount off of your order as well. They’ll deliver it during your specified window to the bell hop, and Disney actually even puts it in the freezer or fridge if needed!

Magical Express
One of my favorite things about Disney is how easy they make it to get to the resort. Magical Express is their airport transfer service, and it runs out of the main Orlando airport only, MCO. When you land, you’ll see signs directing you to the Magical Express area, which is basically a large bus station. Hop on a bus bound for your resort (they often stop at a few, so you might need to wait through a few stops), and don’t even stop at the luggage claim. Yes, Disney will pick up your luggage and deliver it a few hours later in your room. When you’re ready to check out you even check your bags at the hotel and they’ll get them to your plane for you, no struggling with luggage on either end.

Let me know if you have any tips for any of these topics! I’ll be working on upcoming posts about how we structure our days and the vacation overall, my favorite places to eat, our favorite attractions at each park, how to save money on your trip, and finally what I pack and usually wear in the parks.

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