Plan what you can.
Then, go with the flow.
Don’t have high expectations for cramming lots in- it’s exhausting just doing the minimum.
Try to keep kids on their normal nap/bedtime schedules (if they have one). If you need to get jammies on the kids before heading out to the fireworks, then do so. You won’t be alone.
Don’t forget to have fun.
Reserve your fast passes as soon as they will allow you. Resort guests get earlier access than non-resort guests. Make sure you read up on which rides are worth getting fast passes for (i.e. Seven Dwarf’s Mine Train or the new Frozen ride (which is the same ride as it always was but now it’s Frozen themed) are good ones to get fast passes for, but things like Turtle Talk with Crush and PhilharMagic tend to not need a fast pass since they have shows every 15 minutes or so).
Reserve your dining as soon as you are able to. If you are having trouble making a reservation, it is always worth a phone call to see if you can reserve over the phone. Not all reservations are available online. We booked our night at T-Rex (a VERY loud but neat place to dine) by calling even though they had no reservations listed online.
I know it seems like a lot of work ahead of time, but it’s SO worth it. If you’re not a planner, and neither is your spouse, have your Disney Vacation planner do it for you (they’re free!).
Prepare your kid if he’s never flown before. We read him this book and talked him through so he knew what to expect the day of. He did great. He even pointed things out at the airport that he recognized from the book. He packed his backpack with things for the plane, and apart from playing on the iPad, he spent most of his time coloring an Imagine Ink coloring book (something I remember doing on my first flight to Disney many years ago).
Prepare your kid for what the park is like. Disney has lots of videos on youtube, and there are lots of family friendly youtube channels who go to Disney and film while they are there. Watching a few of these gave Lucas a fair idea of what to expect and get excited about going.
There are a ton of packing lists out there on Pinterest. I browsed a few different ones and simply made a list of what I thought we’d need. Feel free to check out my Pinterest board for all kinds of pins regarding packing and planning. My sister-in-law is a Disney guru, and she pointed me in the direction of all those great pins you see. (Thanks, Crystal!)
We were barely in our hotel room except for nap and bedtime. I let the kids sleep in the stroller when we could, and when we were in the room, no one had a ton of energy to occupy with toys or gadgets. I even brought one of those over the door shoe organizer things to try to keep the bathroom less cluttered and didn’t end up using it. Multiple bathing suits? Nope. We used the pool twice. The one had more than enough time to dry in between. Breast pump? Nope. E was nursing so much more often due to the heat and the overwhelming newness and stimulation of everything that I didn’t need to pump at the end of the day. (I did bring it and did use it for the first two days, but not after that. If you’re on a pumping schedule, though, you should still bring your pump. I pump to have backup in the freezer and to donate only, so it wasn’t a necessity for me.)
Basically, bring what you need to keep your kids on a semblance of their routine and leave the kitchen sink at home.
Extras I was glad I had:
collapsible laundry totes for collecting dirty laundry and hauling it to the laundry room (also- fun tip: use your stroller to haul the laundry bag to the washer and dryer)
wet bags– I packed in wet bags and packing cubes to make the most of our suitcase space and then used the wetbags on the trip for wet suits, dirty clothes, dirty diapers, etc. I also packed leak-able items in wetbags, which ended up saving a lot of grief when the Calgon I had stored in what I thought was a tightly sealed bottle leaked allllll over the place inside the baby’s suitcase. Because it was in a wetbag, it contained the mess quite well.
bandana bibs- my kid was drooling like crazy- these kept his outfits cute and dry and were easy to change out throughout the day
tiny container of quarters and pennies for the penny press souvenir machines
wristbands– the emergency bands Amazon sells looked too bulky and sweaty for my kid to leave on, so we decided to go a different route- paper bands that he can’t tear off. If you know a way to order a fewer amount of them, do it, because we only used a few- they stayed on for more than one day at a time. I simply wrote our emergency contact info on them in permanent marker and strapped them onto the toddler, our stroller, and his backpack in case any of it went astray in the airport or at Disney. I used the brightly colored ones on our luggage so it was easy to spot our luggage during pick up when we got home. (On the way there, Disney took care of getting our luggage to the hotel via Magical Express- another nice perk of staying on property.)
our nice camera- you can ask Disney photographers to take a photo using your camera- yes, really.
We ordered an Amazon Pantry box to our hotel room to arrive the day we did. We ordered snacks and some drinks (because even though we were at a Disney resort (meaning we got a refillable drink cup to use for each of us) you can’t refill it in the parks, and there’s a diet lemonade option and pop- that’s it- so not very kid friendly). We ended up overdoing it a bit in this department too and ended up hauling some food home. If you have a little one in diapers, sending them ahead is a brilliant idea because diapers take up A LOT of room in the suitcase- especially if your little one is really tiny and going through 8-10 a day.
We brought a small cooler into the park with water and had some snacks in the diaper bag, but honestly we didn’t go through many. He was so immersed in the rides and the sights and the meals were big, so he didn’t snack very often. You can ask any kiosk to refill your water bottle for you OR ask for a cup of ice water (it’s always free- yes, even if they are selling Dasani bottles for like $6 or whatever).
We did the dining plan-mainly because we really lucked out and our free Disney Vacation Planner was able to score free dining for us. (Feel free to contact Denise- she’s amazing and so easy to work with to plan the vacation you want at the budget you have.) But honestly, if we had to pay for it next time, we totally would. Chef Mickey (a fun character breakfast with an amazingly delicious and diverse breakfast buffet) for three adults and one toddler was over $170 alone. Jaw hitting the floor? Right?!? So if you want to do character meals and have the ease and convenience of grabbing food at the park, I highly recommend the dining plan. You end up saving money; it made life so much easier, and we never went hungry. We actually ended up scrambling to use up all our “snacks” at the end of our trip and left a few unused due to sleepy kids at the end of our last night.
My favorite places we ate:
Harambe Market at Animal Kingdom- chicken skewers and a green papaya salad that was a delicious surprise, plus the environment where you sit outside, there are live musicians walking around playing and singing, it just feels like you’re transported to Africa.
Be Our Guest at Magic Kingdom- we had a reservation for this one, but the decor alone was just absolutely magical. The food was in great portions, and the grey stuff really was delicious! We went at lunch time, so we could use a quick-service meal from our dining plan. Definitely worth a go.
Pinocchio Village Haus- Italian food to fill you up! Huge portions and I was actually impressed with how good it was. (I was expecting mediocre Fazoli’s kind of Italian, but it was delicious!)
Raglan Road Irish Pub in Downtown Disney- Best shepherd’s pie ever. They have live music at night, and they even had Irish dancers the night we were there. Delicious food, dining plan friendly, and fun atmosphere.
Ohana at the Polynesian Resort- put on your eating pants and take the monorail to the Polynesian and enjoy the best buffet you’ll ever have. All you can eat (and brought right to your table) shrimp, steak, chicken all grilled over an open fire, pot-stickers, noodles, chicken wings, salad, and coconut bread. It. Was. Amazing. It’s not a place I’d waste on the kids- get yourself a date night and go just the two of you. Or, go late enough that the kids will sleep in the stroller while you dine if your kids will cooperate (ours were so exhausted they did this on their own at dinner 4 out of 5 nights).
We went into this trip not expecting our three year old to wait in a ton of lines to see characters. We saw characters where there were no lines: at the stage shows at Magic Kingdom in front of the castle, the Disney Dance Party area in Tomorrowland by the stage, and we chanced upon a few short lines- Buzz Lightyear in Tomorrowland, and we booked a FastPass for seeing Mickey and Minnie at the Outpost at Animal Kingdom. That was it. And that was plenty. He was so nervous when we first got to the front of the line that he shouted, “I HAVE TO GO POTTY!” but once Mickey started interacting with him (they are professionals and do an amazing job at trying to make kids at ease when engaging them) he was fine and forgot about the potty.
If your kid isn’t into it, it’s okay. There’s always an opportunity down the line if you go back in a few years or even later in the day if it’s too early, too close to bed, or too close to naptime when you happen upon a character spot and the kid isn’t feeling it. I think the best character interactions we had were at the meals like Chef Mickey or breakfast at Ohana with Lilo and Stitch (and Mickey and Pluto). No lines, good food (although pricey without the dining plan), and the characters come right to your table to have an interaction with you and your family and allow time for autographs and photos. Also, buy an autograph notebook before you arrive. We got this one for $5.
Take advantage of rider swap. When you get in line for a ride, tell them you have a kid back with your spouse. They’ll give you a ticket. Once you’ve ridden the ride, you hand that ticket to your spouse (or keep it yourself if your spouse doesn’t want to do the ride) and you get to hop right into the fast pass line with up to 3 other people. So your big kids get to ride twice, or grandma gets to ride with the kids, however you want to swing it. You don’t have to use it right away either. You can hold onto the rider swap ticket for later in the day or even another day.
Don’t anticipate that you will be going on a ton of rides apart from your reserved FastPass rides. Also, once you’ve used up your three FastPasses for the day, you can schedule another. Once that is used, you can schedule another. Etc. Try your best to go with the flow and pick rides with short wait times. Your kid won’t know what he’s missing if he doesn’t get to go on the teacups, and I assure you he won’t thank you for waiting 45 minutes in line for a two minute ride. It’s just not worth it. There’s plenty else to see and do and eat.
If you have family traveling with you to watch the kids while YOU get to go on a ride, take advantage of the single rider line. You’ll still most likely end up being able to ride the Rockin’ Roller Coaster together, and the wait time is usually a quarter of the estimated time for the regular line.
I used my Snuggybaby wrap in the airport and on the plane for my 3 month old, and I used our Lillébaby carrier when I went solo one evening with the baby to meet up with a few friends for dinner in Downtown Disney. But the crown jewel of our experience was definitely using the Summit X3 double stroller that we rented through Kingdom Strollers.
We picked it up at the resort the day we arrived and used it every day. You need to make sure you get your kids out of the stroller to board the bus, as it has to be folded and carried on and off the bus to allow for the maximum number of people to squeeze onto the bus. But apart from that hassle, it was an amazing rental purchase. I’m glad we didn’t have to haul it through the airport!
Let the kids wear a “It’s my first trip!” button (they give them to you for free- just ask) if they’ll keep them on, and you’ll find that cast members will try to provide some extra magic on their trip (like free fast passes). Lucas had on a t-shirt that said “My First Disney Trip” and he got three free fast passes from a nice cast member at It’s A Small World.
Downtown Disney has a Lego store, and it’s a great place to let kids play and explore. We went there our first day in Florida and hit up the parks the following day.
To prevent the gimmies, I let Lucas pick one souvenir per park. He did great with this, and by letting him pick (although, I did veto a light saber), he usually picked something small (a bouncy ball, an ornament, a Star Wars baseball, etc). And if you stay at a Disney resort, they will ship whatever you buy to your room for free so you don’t have to carry it around all day!
If I could plan our trip again, the only thing I’d change is scheduling one more day in the middle of the trip to just hang out at the hotel. We barely got to take advantage of all our resort had to offer, including a playground and an incredible pool (we stayed at Art of Animation in the Cars suites).