The way I see it, there are two types of travelers: the journey people and the destination people. Also known as the non-planners and the planners. However, a trip to Disney tends to bring out a whole new slew of characters. Are you a princess who likes everything perfect and beautiful, Goofy who is just in it for the fun, or Donald who loses his temper the second things don’t go right?
The cost, the “trip of a lifetime,” the “magical experience,” the crowds, the pressure to “make memories,” the idea of traveling with several young children, etc., can easily make a person crazy. The fact that hotels and dining experiences book up a year in advance certainly adds to the pressure.
But I promise that you can take your family on an amazing trip to Disney without spending every waking hour planning for it.
I’m probably about to incense an entire industry of mouse planners, but having lived both sides of the Disney Dollar coin, I have to say that Hakuna Matata is the way to be. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, WHY are you planning a Disney trip?!)
Let me paint a picture of our last trip for you: we took four kids under seven. Yes, you read that correctly. Four kids under seven to Disney. We rode every single ride we wanted (some several times) and never waited in line for more than 20 minutes. We had character dining experiences, were well fed, rested, and shed very few tears. We made the memories, shared the laughter, took the pictures, and had a wonderful time. We did all of this with very minimal planning or stress.
Here are a few tips to ensure a magical experience at Disney without having to sacrifice a year of your life fretting about it:
(Disclaimer: these tips are what worked for my family; each situation is different — pick and choose what suits your crew as you know what is doable.)
1. Keep it a small world.
Don’t do it all in one trip, especially if your children are young. You and your entire family will thank me. When you turn it into a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” the pressure is insurmountable. Nothing is more stressful than watching hot, sweaty, frazzled parents consulting their minute-by-minute itinerary while dragging hot, exhausted, snotty, crying children from must-see attraction to must-see attraction. I have never seen more grown adults snipping at one another than I have at “the most magical place on earth.” Pick one or two parks to visit, leaving a rest day or two in between to lounge at the pool. You will save a ton of money and even more sanity.
2. Let it go.
All the planning in the world isn’t going to save you from the fact that life is unpredictable. You can’t control the weather, the crowds, the other people around you, or a ride malfunction. Surely something is going to happen that doesn’t fit into your idyllic vision of this trip. So when it does, just do your best, take a breath and move yourself along.
3. Cottage or castle?
There are advantages to staying on- and off-site. People who stay on-site get a few perks like early booking of FastPasses+ and dining reservations (see below), the ability to ride back on the monorail for a break, and early entrance hours. We, however, are all-dayers. We paid for admission so we are there from park opening to close. All of our kids have done it, several times. We prefer to stay off-site for a variety of reasons: it is a HUGE cost savings, you can find more spacious accommodations with amazing pools and far fewer crowds, and on your non-Disney days you truly get a break from Disney, if you know what I mean. This last trip we made a day of it by visiting the on-site hotels to see the decorations, shops, etc. We even danced with Cinderella and Prince Charming for free at the Grand Floridian!
4. Be a roadster racer.
By all means, utilize the gift that is the FastPass+. Each person gets three. Those staying on-site can book 60 days in advance; those staying off get 30. I got a bit frustrated when at 30 days out several things were booked, but guess what? A week before the trip everything opened up and we were able to get every single thing we wanted, exactly when we wanted it.
There are several key tips to note in regards to FastPasses+:
- Book your FastPasses+ early in the day, but not too early, because you will be able to hit some rides without waiting before the crowds set in. Around 10am or 11am is ideal.
- Try to use all of them before 2pm-ish, because guess what? After you use three, you can keep going to the kiosk or app, adding one ride at a time. Because we weren’t tied to an itinerary, we were able to go on whatever FastPass+ was available next and rode everything in the park (many several times) without waiting more than 20 minutes!
- You can split up your group. Half of us met Rapunzel, while the other half rode Space Mountain.
- You can ride share. If one of the members of your party doesn’t meet the height requirement, one parent can ride with the older child and then the other parent can go back through and ride with that child as well.
5. Feast like a beast.
Our family has never felt the need for a meal plan. We prefer not to waste time at sit-down restaurants and find we save more money eating at the fast-service places. Even better, you can order your meals ahead of time through the app, simply walk up and pick up your food to avoid wasting time waiting to order. Days before our trip a random opening popped up for Be Our Guest (this is something many stress about reserving a year in advance). It was nice to experience it, but I certainly don’t feel the need to do it again. We also lucked out and got Chef Mickey brunch reservations last minute. It was nice to get a character experience outside of the parks so we didn’t have to take up ride time to do it and could fully enjoy the moment. We loved it, but again, it isn’t something we will lose sleep over if we don’t get so lucky next time. Obviously if you are a foodie and are looking forward to the plethora of Disney dining experiences, this tip is not for you.
6. It’s the (bear) bare necessities.
Anything is exciting to kids. I repeat: ANYTHING is exciting to kids. Younger kids don’t need to know that there are 12 possible character meet and greets, or about every single show and ride. Just walking around and looking at this whole new world (that one wasn’t even intentional!) is a feast to behold. There’s something magical about just stumbling along a character walking by (you will all survive if you don’t get a picture), happening upon a fun show, or moseying up and getting an awesome parade spot. If you stake out a spot an hour in advance, there is a very good chance that someone will squeeze in next to or in front of you at the last minute anyways. Might as well get a ride in! Some of the popular rides are over-hyped, while some of the classics bring the most staying memories. Despite all that we did, It’s A Small World and The Enchanted Tiki Room are the ones that our whole family talks/sings about on a regular basis.
7. Call in the gang.
If I sound like the Mad Hatter and this is not your cup of tea, there is still a way to save your sanity. There are people who DO this for a living. Utilize their expertise and let them worry about the details so you don’t have to. They can plan as much or as little of your trip as you want them to (I hope this plug redeems me just a bit). Contact an agent at Ears of Experience, Mouse Savers, Glass Slipper Concierge, or any number of other options. Or consult valuable websites such as this, this, or this.
8. Be your own fairy godmother.
Don’t forget these essentials: stroller, snacks (you can bring food in!), portable phone charger (they have charging stations if you forget), camera, sunscreen, change of clothes, water bottles, comfortable shoes, and ABSOLUTELY download the app.
That’s it! I truly believe less is more at Disney. While you certainly can do absolutely no planning and just roll into Walt Disney World, taking these few small steps will ensure you a much smoother, more enjoyable visit. If you over-plan, you are going to be constantly stressing about where you need to be next and may miss out on some really cool experiences along the way. Spending a year on this is only going to set your expectations too high and add too much pressure. You are setting yourself up to be disappointed when things don’t work out.