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Tips for Navigating Disney World With a Toddler in Tow

Straight from a mom-of-three who can't stay away.

If you’re currently weighing the pros and the cons of bringing a baby or toddler to Disney, we sympathize with the struggle. On the one hand, there’s guaranteed smiles and the promise of quality time together at the most magical place on earth. On the other hand, there’s the reality that your kids probably won’t even remember the trip—including the tantrums they threw along the way. It turns out Disney actually understands the challenges parents face in planning a park visit. So they’ve created a Disney Parks Moms Panel full of parents who have been there, done that, and are eager to help your family pull off the perfect trip.

We spoke with one of those moms, Ashley P., who’s a bona fide Walt Disney World specialist. From logistics (can you rent a stroller?) to insider insights (FastPass+ is a must), this mom of three shares the Disney tips that keep her family coming back.

What's the ideal age for kids to visit Disney World? How young might be considered too young?

The magic of the Walt Disney World Resort is for all ages! I’ll never forget a trip my husband and I made together before we had kids. We were sitting behind a family with a 6-month-old baby on “it’s a small world,” and she was just beaming throughout the entire ride. We loved watching her expressions. Of course she’d never remember that trip, but her parents will always remember the joy they shared together as a family on that vacation. We’ve taken our own children to the Walt Disney World Resort as infants, toddlers, preschoolers and now as elementary students. Each phase has been special in its own way! If someone is looking to visit for a “one-and-done” vacation, ages 4 to 6 are perfect because kiddos in that age range typically meet or exceed most height restrictions, but there’s certainly no age that’s considered “too young.”

What's the best time of year to visit Disney World?

My family typically travels to Walt Disney World Resort during the summer months so that no one is missing school. It’s a great time of year to enjoy the “you-may-get-wet” attractions and the incredible Resort hotel pools. If your little ones are young enough that you don’t need to consider school schedules, fall is an ideal time to visit. The weather is still warm, but not unbearably hot, and the crowds are typically light. Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party is a special event offered in the fall months, with trick-or-treating and exclusive entertainment.

Which park is best suited for toddlers and preschoolers? What are some of the best activities to do there, especially for little ones who need to run around and burn off energy?

All four of Walt Disney World Resort’s theme parks appeal to toddlers and preschoolers, but Magic Kingdom Park is an absolute must-visit for little ones. There are tons of family-friendly attractions at Magic Kingdom Park and many, like Peter Pan’s Flight, are classic Disney favorites that everyone will enjoy. Attractions like Dumbo the Flying Elephant and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh are especially fun with interactive queue areas to keep kids entertained and active while they wait to ride. My kids love to visit Casey Jr. Splash ‘N’ Soak Station for a chance to burn off energy and cool down. Did I mention the awesome entertainment at Magic Kingdom Park? Little ones are completely mesmerized by the fabulous daytime parades and the incredible nighttime fireworks spectacular.

Where are the best places to stay with young kids?

Walt Disney World Resort hotels are second to none. With unique themes and exclusive benefits, staying at any Walt Disney World Resort hotel allows a family to be completely immersed in the magic during their vacation. Value Resorts like Disney’s Art of Animation and Disney’s Pop Century Resort are super-kid friendly with character-themed rooms and pools. My family typically stays at a Moderate Resort (Disney’s distinction for a middle-of-the-road price range), like Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort or Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – Riverside, where our family of five can comfortably (and affordably!) fit into one room. Deluxe Resorts that are located on the monorail loop, like Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, are extra convenient for families, with monorail access to Magic Kingdom Park and Epcot. One of our absolute favorite Disney Resort hotels is Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Little ones just squeal with joy when they see giraffes and other African animals roam the savannah, right outside their balcony—it’s an unbelievable experience!

What should families definitely make reservations for in advance?

Families should definitely make dining reservations in advance for popular restaurants like Chef Mickey’s and Be Our Guest Restaurant. Guests of Walt Disney World Resort hotels can begin making dining reservations for the length of their stay 180 days prior to arrival. Some restaurants, like Cinderella’s Royal Table, book very quickly! There are plenty of restaurants throughout Walt Disney World Resort that have walk-in availability, but if there are dining locations your family can’t miss, especially Character Dining Experiences, be sure to make those reservations as early as you possibly can.

How can families avoid long lines at rides, shows and special locations?

My best tip to avoid crowds and long lines is to arrive at the parks early: 30 to 45 minutes prior to park opening. The crowds are lightest first thing in the morning, and families can ride attractions with low wait times in the first hour of the day. Families should also use Disney’s FastPass+ service to reserve access for select attractions that post high wait times. With FastPass+, families can bypass the standby line and enter the FastPass+ line with little to no wait before riding. We like to make our three FastPass+ selections for mid-morning through early afternoon, so we can book an additional FastPass+ experience for later that evening. Our kiddos are less than patient, so arriving to the theme parks early and using Disney’s FastPass+ service are must-dos for us.

What sort of extra-special activities are available for families celebrating birthdays and other big milestones?

When booking a vacation, Cast Members will ask if there are any celebrations you’d like to add to your reservation. Don’t hesitate to share that you’re celebrating your first Disney vacation or a special birthday; you never know when you’ll have a little extra pixie-dust sprinkled on your vacation! Guests can pick up complimentary celebration buttons at their Resort hotel Front Desk or Guest Relations at any of the four theme parks. With a personalized celebration button, you’ll find that you get some extra attention throughout the day from Cast Members and guests alike.

Making a reservation for a Character Dining Experience is the perfect way to celebrate with little ones. We celebrated our son’s third birthday at Magic Kingdom Park with a special lunch at The Crystal Palace. After our meal, Winnie the Pooh presented our little guy with a cupcake and a birthday card signed from all his pals—it made a great keepsake! Reservations for magical transformations at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique or The Pirate’s League are also super fun activities for kids celebrating a big day. Additionally, Disney Floral & Gifts is happy to help your family celebrate with gift packages to commemorate almost any occasion you can think of.

What are some top safety tips to help parents keep track of their kids?

Our family’s top safety tip to help parents keep track of their kids is to keep them in the stroller! Knowing my little ones are safely seated in the stroller while we’re walking through crowds gives me peace of mind. My oldest has lost his seat in our double stroller now that we’ve added a third child to our family. The new expectation is that he’ll hold a hand to walk through crowds or keep a hand on the handle bar of the stroller while an adult is pushing it. To help Cast Members reunite families and children, some parents stick temporary tattoos on their kids listing a phone number, and others take cell phone pictures of their kids each morning. I think the best thing parents can do to help keep track of their children at the Walt Disney World Resort is to make a plan prior to their arrival, and to make sure the kids—if they’re old enough—understand that plan too.

What essential gear should parents bring with them? If they'd prefer, what gear is available to rent?

Parents should absolutely pack a bag for a day in the theme parks. We pack essentials like wipes, changes of clothes for the kids, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, disposable rain ponchos and Ziploc bags. The Ziploc bags and extra set of clothing are must-haves—whether your child gets soaked playing at a splash station or has an accident, you’ll be glad you have a sealable bag and a change of clothes on hand.

We choose to take our own double stroller because we like to have it with us through the airports, but strollers are available to rent from the four theme parks and Disney Springs. Guests can also rent strollers from Disney Featured Providers like Orlando Stroller Rentals or Kingdom Strollers. Make your stroller stand out from a sea of others with ribbon, a balloon or a nameplate!

Complimentary cribs are available for Guests of all Walt Disney World Resort hotels and can be requested when making your hotel reservation or upon check-in. If you find yourself without something you need for your child, you can visit one of the Baby Care Centers found in each theme park. The Baby Care Centers have private nursing rooms, a changing room, kitchen, feeding area and an on-site shop with essentials. We once ran out of diapers while we were at Magic Kingdom Park, and boy were we glad we could buy more at The Baby Care Center!

Is it possible to avoid toddler burnout and the resulting meltdowns?

Make it a point to take an afternoon break. We leave the theme parks shortly after lunch and head back to our Resort hotel for a swim and a nap. After everyone has had a chance to rest (including mom and dad), our family is ready for evening magic in the theme parks. I also highly recommend using a stroller. Walt Disney World Resort requires a lot of walking, and little legs will tire easily between adventures. Even though our bigger kids have long outgrown using a stroller, they appreciate having one to ride in for a break here and there throughout the day.

Published March 2018

PHOTO: Blaine Harrington / Getty Images