This post is for the truly clueless; those of us that have heard about but never experienced the wonderful world of Disney. The last time I visited Magic Kingdom, I was four years old and still remember it fairly clearly. This reminiscing is the extent of the research we did prior to visiting four parks with our son, and we had a great time despite our lack of planning. However, here are some things that I wish I had known or had a better understanding of prior to our visit. Here’s our visit in a nutshell- additional feedback is welcome (but please keep it entry-level).
Renting a car
I’m sure super cheap deals on cars can be had, but we were on the fence until the last minute about renting at all. We finally decided to rent, saving the headache of shuttles, and brought our own car seat with us, saving a bunch of money and affording us lots of extra storage in the car seat bag. We also passed on renting the pre-paid Sun Pass for tolls ($10/day) in exchange for paying manually. Little did we know that exact change was required for each toll, leaving us scrambling for quarters on the first day. The lane changes required to get into cash-only lanes are sometimes quite abrupt, taking some getting used to, but we managed to find toll-free routes to most places after a few days.
Having the car allowed us stop at the grocery store on the way to our hotel, loading up on juice, portable snacks and bottled water for our park days (Sorry Orlando, but your tap water tastes gross). Luckily, Disney World allows you to bring in food for the kids without hassle, which saves a lot of time, money, and overtired toddler meltdowns. We usually stopped somewhere one the way home as well for milk or other things we were running low on (aka beer).
We stayed at the JW Marriot Grande Lakes, about a 20 minute drive from the parks. Though there is much debate about staying at an on-site Disney Resort (check out this forum thread from As the Joe Flies for why it’s a great idea!) we had a free seven-night certificate for this property, and free is free. The beautiful property, great restaurants, nature excursions on premises, and an on-site farm added a lot of value to our stay. The daily resort fee included activities on grounds, shuttles to the parks, dry cleaning credit, and wifi. There is also a pretty expansive lazy river, and pool floats are included.
The Ritz is directly connected to the JW via walkway, which allows guests staying at either to use their facilities. This meant that we could use Ritz Kids program, with morning activities in their center for all ages, a daily fish feed on the lake, and paddleboat rental included in the resort fee. Their activities extend throughout the rest of the day, but for kids over 4. The front desk will also provide your child with a wristband that guarantees free ice cream in all of the restaurants!
Highball and Harvest, a restaurant on the Ritz side of the property, was so good we went twice. Whisper Creek Farm was also nice, with an on-site farm providing the produce for both food and craft beverages. Both of these restaurants had lovely outdoor areas, allowing us to watch the sunset over the lake and the cormorants sunning themselves by the water as we ate.
We opted for the “4-Park Magic Ticket” (which unfortunately is no longer available), allowing us to visit Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios (in that order). We broke up the week in Orlando with an acclimation day, two days of park, two days off, and another 2 days of park. This gave us a little time to recuperate from the no-nap days and avoid sensory overload. Parking is an additional $20/day, but is transferable if you intend to park-hop and was worth it to provide us with the security of knowing that we could escape quickly in the event of a meltdown. Luckily the parking fee was waived at our hotel, making the cost of driving a little less painful.
Magic Kingdom: We went here first, and I feel like our learning curve would have been less steep if we had started with a more “entry level” park. This was the most complicated park to actually get to (after parking, you still need to take a shuttle then a train). We arrived at 8:30 on minimize our on a Thursday, and hardly had to wait for our tickets and to go through security. However, our first Magic Pass was to meet Mickey right at Town Hall by the Entrance, about an hour after our actual arrival. Not knowing the importance of Fast Pass yet, we decided to just wait when we should have wandered for a bit and then come back instead. This turned out to be the longest wait of the trip. Regardless, the first glimpse of Mickey made it all worthwhile.
We did all my favorites from when I was a kid- Dumbo, Its a Small World, Country Bear Jamboree, and lots of character meet and greets. He surprisingly enjoyed all the rides, but loved meeting the characters despite not knowing any of them. We managed an 8-hour visit without a nap or a major catastrophe, but beware of the anticipation factor. I was so excited to relive my childhood memories through my own child’s eyes that I sometimes forgot to just be in the moment. Thirty years of build-up weighing on one day is a lot to live up to!
Animal Kingdom: I loved this park, and it was my favorite of the four. Not only did I feel much more relaxed by day two, but the overall design of each area is immaculate. Again, I recommend that you get a lay of the land before booking your Fast Passes, but even when we messed up, it only took about 20 minutes to trek from one end to the other.
Lunch at Tuskers restaurant in Africa surprised us with the quality of food, served buffet style with a variety of Indian/Southeast Asian/African options. Here, four costumed characters roam the dining room as you eat, and we managed to meet Safari Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Daisy once or twice each over the hour-long meal. And the magical moments like an African dance group performing outside the entrance are the bits that make this place special.
Finding Nemo: The Musical is (dare I say) almost Broadway-quality show, but at a perfect length for young children. This is one that I would strategically book a Fast-Pass for, since showtimes are relatively limited throughout the day. This was a highlight, along with the conservation messaging that Animal Kingdom consciously weaves into their programming. Kilimanjaro Safari allows you to venture through Africa admiring the beauty of it’s animals, and the Wilderness Explorers program encourages kids to explore the park with their environmental thinking caps on.
Epcot: I remember being bored at Epcot when I was four, and was hesitant to visit with a 2.5 year old. Either they changed or I did because we really had a great day here. My freakishly tall son was able to ride the flight simulator Soarin’ with us, which won my favorite ride of the day. Also cool are Living with the Land about the future of food, and the classic Spaceship Earth. But the best bits for me were the random moments throughout the World Showcase. The only ride we were completely unable to do for the whole trip was Frozen Ever After. If this is a priority for you, definitely book well in advance. We were lucky to be there during the International Festival of the Arts, featuring some experimental food and participatory activities like a crowd sourced paint by numbers mural. And finding the KidSpots throughout the Showcase were the best part for my son, where he was able to meet someone from the country were were “visiting” to get a stamp and little autograph or picture. This part touched me, and was grateful for these personal interactions.
Food is fun here. After the obligatory fish and chips, we purchased a wine tasting, which allows you to visit France, Spain, and Germany for samples from around the world. Matt may or may not have had a beer float of some sort- which we never actually saw while living in Japan, but who cares when you can drink it while watching a live Taiko performance! We also sampled some small bites from Pop Eats!, but ultimately resigned to a full evening meal at Chef Art Smith’s Homecoming at Disney Springs.
Hollywood Studios: We finally hit our stride! This day seemed really easy, most likely because we finally understood the Rider Switch option for parents who want to feel young again and go on scary rides that their kids can’t go on. We used this for Tower of Terror, which was way more fun than I was expecting. Our favorite family rides were Toy Story Mania, Disney Junior Live and the Frozen Singalong. But the real winners were the street performances throughout the park, and the Star Wars March of the First Order. We visited on Valentines Day, and a duo of fiesty ladies drove around writing poems for passersby. A “policeman” grabbed my son’s hand and whisked him away for a role in a random improv scene. And when those Stormtroopers point their guns at you, it feels kinda real….
Renting a car also let us to visit some off-site restaurants on our off days. Hash House a Go-Go was surprisingly tasty, with its HUGE portions securing it a place on Man vs Food. The kitsch was actually a logistical benefit in this scenario, as the full-sized tractor at the entrance and miniature version holding our condiments kept our toddler busy for an entire meal- miraculous! The chicken and waffles weren’t bad either. We also enjoyed Seito Sushi for their food and drink happy hour, everyday from 5-6:30. The food was very good quality, and the servers accommodating. The Whole Foods nearby is also pretty great, with a wine bar and substantial prepared food section which was great to pick up some snacks for the room.
You can easily spend a few hours at Disney Springs, accessible by ferry from the Disney Resorts and easily drive-able (with free parking) from our hotel. Though we had no intentions of doing any heavy shopping, the ambiance was enough to keep us entertained. Their Lego store has an outdoor track to race your vehicular creations, T-Rex has a “dig site” to search for dinosaur bones, and The Boathouse has a really cool collection of antique boats, not to mention the amphicar tours coming in and out as you eat. We had a quick snack at Morimoto Asia Street Food, but were honestly not super jazzed about it.
General notes: Mark your stroller with something easily distinguishable. If you are one of the thousands that thought a Mickey stroller would be cute for Disney, your time searching for said stroller will consume you. Also note that “helpful” stroller parking attendants will move your cute Mickey stroller without your knowledge to consolidate the spots, so yours will suddenly be in a different place when you return from your ride.
Familiarize yourself with the My Disney Experience App prior to day one. It really is super helpful for navigation and booking/re-booking Fast Passes. We did a lot of this. Once you know where everything is, you can make it around each of the parks relatively quickly. Granted, it was fairly quiet when we visited and we happen to walk at hyper speed, but the parks are not nearly as daunting as we imagined.
And though Disney initially seemed more intimidating than the majority of countries we have visited, just let the magic happen. The random moments will end up becoming the ones you remember.