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Firstly, please don’t think your kiddos won’t remember the magic.
While I don’t remember my first several trips to Disney World, those times of fun laid the foundation for my excitement in the years to come. When I went for my fifth birthday, those toddler memories were deep in my little brain, amping up the excitement and anticipation.
Second, even if they don’t remember, these trips aren’t necessarily about them – it’s about you watching them experience everything for the first time.
If you have a Disney family like I do, seeing a little one wide-eyed in wonder over things that I now take for granted is its own kind of magic. Finally, don’t talk yourself out of going to Disney World just because you have toddlers. It might be a different experience, but it’s still worth every minute!
Now, I’m not going to deny that having toddlers is its own breed of challenge.
With that in mind, here’s my top tips for doing Disney with toddlers…and you can take my word for it, because I’m living it with you.
1. If You Can, Travel in a Group
We were fortunate to go on our most recent trip with my parents and sister, making it five adults to one toddler. With that ratio, the odds were definitely in our favor. Now, I respect that isn’t practical for everyone, but even as a kid I remember my grandmother coming with us on our Disney trips, making it three adults to two kids. At that point, it’s more manageable.
More adults means that you can split the work of caretaking, and also get some adult Disney magic for yourself. One night, my parents stayed with my son at the resort so my husband, sister, and I could do the evening fun at the Magic Kingdom. Another night, I went to bed early and the rest of my family went out for drinks and mini-golf. It’s all about sharing the load and getting the balance, which is easier to do in a group.
Again, I know that’s not going to happen with everyone. Since that’s the case, make a plan ahead of time with your spouse or partner so you know exactly when you can have some time just you at the pool, spa, or another spot to relax.
2. Pick Your Resort with Care
If you’re choosing to stay on Disney property, it’s a good idea to choose your resort wisely when you have littles. Grand Floridian, for instance, doesn’t really match the toddler vibe, you know? Something like Disney’s Art of Animation, Port Orleans Riverside, or another value or moderate level is more their speed. These types of resorts have a family-friendly feel, and Art of Animation has lots especially for kiddos.
We did Caribbean Beach this past trip, which I would highly recommend. It has a great laid back atmosphere, centralized amenities, and fun play areas for kids. You’re also right on the Skyliner, which is a stroller-friendly travel option (most of the time).
3. Plan Down Days
I always recommend this anyway, but it’s especially crucial with toddlers. You can’t push your littles to go to a park a day – it will end in meltdowns and frustration. Even with a day’s break in between, my son was wiped out by the end of the vacation. I would recommend on a week trip doing two park days, three at the absolute most. There is so much you can do in Disney World aside from visiting the parks, and it also means you can go more at your own pace.
A break day lets everyone sleep a little, spend time at the pool, recoup, and be ready to hit the ground running the next morning.
4. Pack Your Toddler a Suitcase
Fliers, I’m sorry, I know this is an extra pain. However, having a separate suitcase for my son was a godsend on this trip.
Not having to rifle through our large suitcase for his things made it easier to get what he needed, when he needed it, rather than thinking I forgot an item or not being able to find it. I was also able to keep his clothes, stuffed animals, baby monitor, and other items organized separate from ours.
It also made coming home easier, since I could put all of his things into his suitcase, and my husband’s and mine into ours. As he gets older, I want him to pack for himself anyway, and this is a good way to get used to it.
5. Expect the Unexpected
Particularly if it is your toddler’s first trip, there may be some things that you just can’t account for during the vacation. For instance, my son, who has never been carsick in his life, threw up watching a movie on the drive to Florida. While he was fine after that, we figured out he couldn’t watch a movie whilst sitting backwards in his carseat, altering our plan for getting him through the day-long drive.
If you fly, you might find something similar happening to your toddler. You just need to be ok with things happening outside of your plan. Going in with that attitude will help you to brace the challenges when they come and get back to the fun as soon as possible.
6. Be Flexible
Along similar lines, just be ready to be flexible. I know there are a lot of aspects of a Disney trip that you have to plan in advance, but many of them you can cancel without penalty mere hours before they are to happen. With that in mind, be ready to make changes to your plans at the drop of a hat.
This gets harder if you have older kids too, especially if they’re looking forward to a particular experience. In that instance, you have to have in the back of your mind that you might have to split the parenting duties. One parent goes with the bigger kids, while the other parent takes the toddler back to the room or to an alternate experience. Just make sure you’re trading which parent takes the littles, so that it doesn’t always fall on the same person.
7. Still, Plan Ahead
Even though you’re being more flexible, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan ahead. Knowing what you’re going to do on what day is still important, particularly in the era of park passes and reservations. Guests two and under don’t need tickets or park passes, but you will need them for your kiddos three and up. You have to get in the mindset of including your toddlers in your plans to prevent your reservations from getting messed up.
Also, with your older toddlers, you might find that going through the plans with them will help them know what to expect. On this day, we’ll see the castle and Mickey or on this day, we’ll get to go see Woody and Buzz. Putting the plans into words they understand helps them to feel like they’re part of what’s happening, and not just along for the ride.
8. Lower Your Expectations
By the time you’re doing Disney as adults, you have a certain view of what your trip looks like. However, with a toddler, you’re going to have to slow down and accommodate for their needs. This is not a bad thing, it just means that the ride or die mentality has to take a backseat for a while. You might choose to do different or fewer experiences in a day than you normally would.
Toddlers also don’t always behave as well as you might like. There may be meltdowns, tantrums, or funny faces in the pictures. You just have to handle those as they come, and accept that you might not get the cover of the magazine perfect family photo. Hey, it just means that when she’s in high school, you can submit that finger in the nose picture for the yearbook, right?
9. Slow Your Pace
Similarly, you have to slow down. Toddlers cannot physically match the pace of adults or older kids. This applies to literally walking around the park, as well as the level of energy. Remember, Disney can be a massively over stimulating place. If you’re rushing your toddler here, there, and everywhere, they are going to get overwhelmed. Not to mention they are going to get tired of sitting in the stroller. Slow down, take a minute, let them walk, let them take in the sights and process everything going on around them. Again, this might mean a we’ll catch up to you type situation if you have older kids – and that’s ok.
10. Account for Your Kid’s Schedule
Most toddlers have an established routine which, let’s face it, gets blown to bits on vacation. However, if you can stick to it as much as you can, it will make everyone’s lives easier. My little dude naps about 12:30 everyday, something we actually managed most days while we were in Disney. This did mean leaving the park during the day, someone staying in the room with him, and sacrificing other experiences. However, it gave my son the perk-up he needed to go back for another round, and it forced us to take a break from the heat as well. We also took turns with who did the naptime watch, which helped to give everyone some fun as well.
Moral of the story – think about how you can build your child’s routine into the vacation day, and not the other way around.
11. You Know Your Kids
What this boils down to is you know your own children. For instance, I stopped taking a midday nap when I was under two, while my sister needed one until she was four. However, she would take this nap pretty much anywhere, including the stroller in the theme park. That meant we didn’t necessarily need to leave the park if she fell asleep on her own in the stroller.
On the other hand, my son the extrovert won’t nap if he’s distracted by anything, i.e. anything in the theme parks. That meant it was a must to completely leave the parks and get to his quiet, cool bed so he could take his nap.
If you have a kiddo who can make it through the day without their nap and won’t melt down, just sleep later in the morning, then go for it! If you have a child who absolutely must take a break away from noise and crowds, nap or no, do it. I can’t tell you how many absolutely miserable parents I’ve seen pushing their double strollers around the Magic Kingdom while both children cry. If a break could have stopped that, wouldn’t you do it?
Please. Do yourself a favor. It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent all that money if everyone is miserable.
12. Bedtime Routine = The Most Important Routine
While we’re on the subject of sleep, it is a must that you have everything you need to make your toddler’s bedtime feel as close to normal as possible. That means bringing all the necessary animals, blankets, pillows, fans, nightlights, and whatever accoutrements are needed to make that child sleep. If your toddler ain’t sleeping, ain’t nobody sleeping.
As experienced Disney travelers will tell you, sleep is so crucial. You do a lot more walking than you’re probably used to, in temperatures that are most likely much higher than home, for longer periods of the day than you ever would normally. All of that means you must get good rest at night to not be miserable the rest of the trip. However, if your toddler won’t go to bed, everyone is going to be cranky. You’ll be glad you packed all the stuff when they are sleeping soundly.
13. Don’t Force It
We’ve all seen the promotional footage of the kids (including toddlers) running up to Mickey to give him a big hug while the parents look on in an adoring fashion. While that can happen (pre-pandemic anyway) not every kid is going to be comfortable with that, or some other experiences. In those instances, don’t force your kid to do something they’re not ready to do, whether it’s a character greet, ride, or other experience.
For example, we did a couple of character dinners, which my son enjoyed…except for Goofy.
For whatever reason, Goofy absolutely terrified him. Since that was the case, we kindly mimed to Goofy not to come close to our table, which he completely understood. There are some families that would still want to bring the character in for the picture – that is not the best plan. After all, your little is legitimately scared in this situation; handle that above getting the Goofy selfie. Forcing things causes tears, tantrums, and misery, all of which we don’t want synonymous with your Disney vacation.
14. Choose Your Stroller Wisely
First of all, make sure your stroller fits with the Disney stroller requirements. It has to be within a certain size, and cannot be a wagon (i.e. pulled behind you in any way). The last thing you want is to roll up to the park with your stroller and not be allowed to bring it in.
Second, remember you’re going to be pushing this thing around for the better part of the day. Balance the storage space with the weight, and consider having your older kiddos walk rather than going the double stroller route. I’m talking six and older, mind you, not younger preschool kids. Also, there are plenty of queues and areas where you can’t have strollers anyway, so bringing the double might not be practical.
Finally, think about where you’re headed. I usually opt for the smaller, umbrella-style stroller when we’re visiting the resorts or Disney Springs and the larger stroller for the parks. Yes, this does mean packing multiple strollers, which may not be an option if you fly. Just something to consider to make life a bit easier in crowded areas.
15. Rope Drop!
If you’re not familiar with the term, rope drop refers to getting to the parks before they are officially open and then waiting at the points in the park where Cast Members often have a literal rope to keep guests from moving further. When the park opens, the rope drops and guests can head to the attractions. Some people don’t like doing this because it requires getting up fairly early, which some see as the opposite of what they want on vacation.
However, if you have toddlers, odds are you’re up between 6:00-7:00am anyway, making rope drop a great choice. Get to the parks early, hit some attractions until it’s busy in the early afternoon, and then take your break. This fits right along with your toddler’s schedule anyway, so why not lean into it?
16. Don’t Fear the Rain!
You wake up, look out your window, and it’s raining. You look at your phone, and the rain is forecasted for most of the day.
What do you do?
Grab your poncho, get your umbrella, and you get on that bus to the Magic Kingdom!
Firstly, most of the toddlers I know love the rain, my son included. It poured the first park day of our trip, and he thought it was great. His own person splash pools in the cup holders of his stroller? Score! Second, crowds tend to be less when it’s raining, so it’s a good chance to get shorter lines and do more rides. Finally, the temperatures usually are lower during the rain, which is a benefit to everyone.
Odds are, the rain will go away eventually, as it’s Florida. The best thing to do is not to let weather ruin your fun!
17. Wrist to Wrist Safety
If your toddler is like mine, he or she has an independent streak. That means, at some point, he will want to get out of the stroller and walk. With that in mind, I highly recommend getting some sort of safety link between you and your toddler. I went for this wrist to wrist version, which gave him the chance to walk and explore on his own but still be close to me.
I know, I know. I can already hear some of you saying you don’t want to put your kid on a leash, and that’s fine. This is definitely a personal choice, but my son is quick and inquisitive. I want to be sure that he can’t run off, but still have that feeling of independence he craves at his age.
18. Use Rider Swap
If you’re not familiar with rider swap, or the Rider Switch Service, this is a system Disney has in place to help the people in a party who wait with nonriders to not have to wait again in the full line. When you go to get in the line, speak to one of the Cast Members outside the queue and tell them you want to do a rider switch. The Cast Member will scan the MagicBand or tickets of those who are waiting with the nonrider, while the people who are waiting in the queue will proceed into the line. They will then get to switch when the queue group is finished with the ride. Up to two people can go back through the ride again with the person who waited with the nonrider, which is a bonus for older kiddos.
For us, it worked like this:
- All six of us would approach the Cast Member.
- The CM would ask who was staying with my son, and who would then scan their bands.
- If my husband and I were waiting the first round, we would get our bands scanned, as would my sister because she got to come a second time as one of the other people.
- My parents and sister would then enter the regular queue to wait the posted time, while my husband and I would wait with my son, or do another attraction with him that he could do.
- When my parents and sister came out of the ride, my husband and I would then walk back up to the Cast Members at the front of the attraction, who would then scan our bands and send us up the Alternative Entry lane (formerly the Fast Pass).
While this does extend the amount of time it takes to do bigger attractions, it does allow you to still do them. Again, if you have older kiddos, they can do some of these rides twice, once with you and once with your spouse or partner.
19. Pack Enough Water & Drinks
Especially if you’re headed to Disney in the summer months, you need to make sure you have enough water and hydrating beverages at all times. It’s even better if you can keep everything relatively cold, whether it’s with cold packs or by freezing a few bottles ahead of time. That’s one of our favorite hacks, by the way – freeze half a bottle of water and then fill it when you’re headed into the parks. Stays cold for a major portion of the day!
Let’s face it, the heat melts everyone, but particularly toddlers. Having cold water and drinks will go a long way to help keep them happy in line, waiting for your party, or just walking around the parks.
20. Bring Plenty of Snacks
Yes, there is food to be had in the parks, but if your kiddo is like mine, he is suspicious of new foods. That means that the only food your toddler might eat is the food you bring, so make sure you bring plenty. It’s better to bring too much food than to run out of your little’s favorite snack – something unfortunately I learned the hard way. What you think is enough probably isn’t, because they’re going harder and farther than usual.
Play it safe, bring the whole bag of Goldfish rather than a handful.
21. Find the Cool Places
This has become harder between the pandemic procedures and Mobile Order, as many indoor air-conditioned eateries will only allow you in for a Mobile Order pickup. With that in mind, you’ve got to get creative in your search for cool places to rest.
Sometimes shade is enough, especially in the spring or fall months when you’ve got a nice breeze. If that’s the case, there are some secluded shady places hidden around the different areas in Disney. A new one we discovered was in the Magic Kingdom behind their Christmas shop. There’s a small grove of trees with lots of shade, which is nice for a quick snack and for a stroller break.
In the summer, shade isn’t always enough, so finding AC is a must. The Carousel of Progress is a great option, as it’s calm and cool with the fun show. It also goes about twenty minutes, which is a nice indoor break. The same goes for shows like the Enchanted Tiki Room or Country Bears, but the Carousel of Progress tends to have shorter lines and less content that could be “scary.” Ducking into a shop can also help, even if you can’t sit down. Sometimes all your toddler needs is a break from the heat to perk back up!
Both Epcot and Magic Kingdom also have fun splash areas for kids, so if you plan ahead of time, this is a great way for them to cool off and have fun at the same time.
22. Plan In-Line Fun
This can apply to kids of all ages, but having something for your toddlers to do in line is crucial. If they’re going on an attraction with you, odds are there will be some wait time, and you won’t have your stroller in the queue with you. That means wrangling a toddler while entertaining them, and the technology can only get you so far. Plus, you want to be aware of the other guests around you in line.
This is where knowing your kiddo is important – for some, a favorite toy or animal will be enough, while others need games and songs to be entertained. My son played with his stroller fan (we detached it) quite happily in the 35 minute Peter Pan wait, which also kept him cool. Prep based on what you think your kid will enjoy, and change it up from queue to queue.
23. Do What They Love
If you know your toddler loves a certain ride, or you discover something they like during the trip, it’s ok to do that ride multiple times. In fact, you should, because they can’t ride much!
For instance, my son fell in love with the People Mover, so we rode it a few times. I’d say it was one of his favorite parts of the day! This worked out well, because we rode it during a rider swap situation, giving him something to do rather than just sit in the stroller and wait.
Also, look for the experiences geared towards younger kids, like Lightening McQueen’s Racing Academy or the Frozen Sing-a-Long. The shows are short, and wait times can be low if you hit the queue at the right time. They are also perfect for any age, and include characters your kids will recognize. While they might not be your first choice in attraction, it’s part of the magic for them! (I also loved the Racing Academy, so don’t knock anything until you try it!)
24. Saying No is OK!
Even the toughest parents can sometimes fold on vacation, let alone at Disney. However, it’s perfectly ok to stick to your guns and tell your child no. No, you cannot have that massive ice-cream (that you won’t eat). No, you don’t need that huge toy (that you won’t want to carry). No, you can’t go on that ride, it will scare you. No, you can’t get out of the stroller right now.
You aren’t being a party pooper – you’re being a parent. There are things that you have to stay firm on when you’re on vacation to make life easier when you come home, and there’s also just common sense.
What helps is to offer choices, alternatives, and set expectations ahead of time. No, you can’t have that huge sundae, but you can have this ice pop instead. No, you can’t have that massive Goofy plush, but you can choose between these two smaller ones. No, we talked about this before we came – you won’t like that ride because it’s in the dark. Why don’t you pick something else?
While some of those ideas do work better for older toddlers and preschoolers, I found simplified versions worked with my two-year-old. Letting him hold a toy he noticed on the shelf, but warning him we were going to say bye-bye, helped to prevent fits. You don’t want your kiddos to become “vacation spoiled,” so learn the tricks that work for you!
25. Take Tons of Photos and Video!
This tip may seem like a duh to many of you, but sometimes we forget to stop and snap a shot! Even if it’s a quick candid, you’ll be glad for the photo. Sometimes we’re rushing around and we forget to snag the memory – even if it’s just a 30-second video, you’ll be glad you have it.
Be sure to balance this with being in the moment. I know there were a few times when I had to say to myself Ok, you’ve taken enough pictures, now put the phone away. It’s about getting the memories…without missing them happen.
Here’s to your trip with your toddlers – good luck, and have a great time!
Grace Hoyos, Staff Writer
Grace is a life-long lover of all things Disney, particularly the parks at Walt Disney World. She is also an avid Disney Cruise Line enthusiast who regularly dreams of the white sands of Castaway Cay. Grace loves the fact that her Disney trips give her time to spend with her family, enjoy incredible food, and try new experiences.