Disney was such a fun experience for our family! We did some things right on our trip, but there are a few things I wish I would have known beforehand too (like these 6 first timers mistakes we made). Because of that, I’ve compiled them all into one gigantic list below so you can know everything you need to before your first family trip to Disney World! And if you are a Disney expert, I would LOVE for you to chime in with your best Disney tip for first timers! And in case you missed it, here are the other posts all about our Disney experience:
First Timer Disney World Mistakes We Made (That You Can Avoid)!
Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort (How We Chose It & Saved 40%)
Our Favorite Walt Disney World Moments
Disney Cruise with Toddlers: What You Need to Know
OK, let’s do this!
Decide whether to stay on or off property. Here is a good breakdown of perks and challenges of both sides. We stayed at The Polynesian (here is my review).
Get to the park early. 30 minutes before opening so you can get through security (bag check and metal detectors) and be ready to go before the park fills up.
Consider booking with DVC. Especially if you are planning well in advance or going in the off season, to save some cash.
Have water/snacks/groceries delivered to your room. Here are 8 different ways to get groceries delivered to your room (some give a decent discount if you order a week or more ahead of time). Of course you can always shop at home and pack it, but I think it’s easier to just have it delivered and save the car space.
Pack more snacks than you anticipate needing (and water). My non-picky girls ended up being pretty particular about the taste of Florida water, so we packed our own water for the parks. And as for snacks, I thought we went overboard but ended up eating every single one. Think of Disney like the beach, constant hydration and fuel may be necessary!
Keep expectations low. You are going to have some amazing, magical moments (we did!) but if expect everything in a busy week vacation with young kids at a crowded spot to go flawlessly, you are going to end up frustrated. My advice: plan as well as you can, then decide that once you get there, you are going to go with the flow!
Bring an extra pair of clothes for each kid in a large ziplock. In fact, bring a couple extra ziplocks to for accidents, wet clothing, to protect cell phones, etc.
They don’t sell gum. We aren’t gum chewers, so this wasn’t a big deal to us, but I did think it was interesting and certainly helps contribute to the immaculate level of cleanliness they keep the parks in. But if you or your kids like gum, make sure to pack it!
Pack sunscreen and wear it. No matter when you go. I was surprised at the sun exposure we got in February. I can’t even imagine mid-summer!
Make dining reservations 180 days is advance. Yes, I think it’s crazy too, but do it. If you don’t get what you want, keep checking. People make changes all the time!
Research Fast Passes and plan them as soon as you are allowed. More details here. I thought fast passes were just a nice ‘perk’ when in fact it really is the only way to guarantee you can ride the things you want to the most.
Disney’s Magical Express offers free transportation from the airport. Just call to set up ahead of time. It worked super smoothly for my mom! Once on property, you won’t need a car, though some people say they prefer having one and driving themselves to the park.
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Consider the single rider lines. You may have to ask where it is, but if you are willing to ride solo it could save you some serious wait time. While we were there, Expedition Everest had about a 1 hour wait in the general line, but only 10-15 minutes in the single rider.
Pick what YOUR kids will love. This this this this this. Every Disney fan you talk to will have a different recommendation of what you JUST CAN’T MISS. I loved gathering these responses from friends, but in the end, you need to research (it’s fun research!) and plan what works best for you. For example, I was told we just had to visit the Bibbidi Bobbibdi Boutique. Hailey can barely handle her hair pulled back for her hour long dance class and certainly wouldn’t enjoy a super tight bun. It’s expensive and my kids don’t even know it exists. We ended up skipping it and aren’t sorry we did.
Get FREE Pixie Dust! If you are skipping the boutique but still want some of the fairy glitter, stop by the Barber Shop on Main Street at the Magic Kingdom. I hear they will give you a free dusting! We got a free dusting (which the girls loved) at the salon at the Grand Floridian.
Go meet a nearby character during a ride swap. If you have small children, definitely read up on how Rider Swaps work! Then while the older child (or you) goes on the ride, have the other parent get ina character line or get a special treat. Kaitlyn was bummed she couldn’t go on some of the roller coasters, but we always had something fun waiting to distract her.
Don’t rush. I’ve heard you should take your plan and cut it in half. I see why, everything takes longer than expected. And not because of long lines, but walking from here to there, factoring in bathroom breaks, stopping for cute random street shows– the day will fill up and fly by. Feeling rushed will suck the magic out fast, and remember, it’s ALL magical to the kids, including just the walking around.
Consider Memory Maker. Learn about it here. In short, photographers are set up all over the park and take your pictures, then transfer them to you through your magic band. It’s a great way to guarantee some good pictures that have the entire family in them. It is expensive ($199.95) but if you buy at least 14 days in advance it costs $149. If you do opt for this, make sure you ask about magic photos, which places Disney characters in the picture.
Wear athletic shoes only. Yes, even for the “nice dinners.” We walked 8-12 miles a day. Disney World is 40 Square miles after all!
Long wait time does not equal an awesome ride. I may get stoned here, but Peter Pan and Frozen (two of the rides that almost always have a minimum of an hour wait) left both David and I saying really? that’s it? Cute? Absolutely! I loved flying over Neverland! And I was thrilled to fast pass them and have less than 5 minutes to wait. Because of that, I enjoyed them, but if I would have waited to posted 75 minutes to ride it? Yipes, no thank you.
Leave some flex time to enjoy the gems you stumble upon. We randomly ran across a random drum and dance show in streets of Africa at The Animal Kingdom. We found Merida hiding behind a turn at The Magic Kingdom. It was nice to join in the celebrations without rushing off to stay on schedule. Disney does a fabulous job of having random entertainment all over.
Consider a character meal for your kids’ favorites. The lines to meet characters are long! You can fast pass them, so if that’s important to you, definitely look into that. Otherwise, consider a character meal. Our favorite character meals were for dinner, so it didn’t mess up the rhythm of our day. If your kids are into princesses, I’ve heard Akershus at Epcot come highly recommended over Cinderella’s castle. For the classic characters (Mickey, Minnie, etc) I’d recommend Chef Mickey at the Contemporary Resort or Hollywood and Vine’s Fantasmic dinner package. We did the latter and it was one of the highlights of our trip. The girls LOVED the classic characters.
Visit the library ahead of time. We drove 10 hours down to Orlando. Before our trip I went to the library and borrowed 10 (TEN) different Disney movies, especially the ones they hadn’t seen yet. I was excited to give them some context of who Dumbo was before we rode the flying elephants, among others.
At Ecpot with kids, find the Kidcot Fun Stop. When you enter World Showcase, be sure to find a Kidcot Fun Stop where kids can pick up a free cardboard Duffy bear on a paddle to decorate. Since Epcot is more adult-focused, it’s a great way to keep kids engaged in exploring by stopping at every country’s station in the World Showcase to receive a stamp on the paddle!
Buy cheaper costumes so you don’t freak if they ruin them. I didn’t think I would, but I fell into the costume trap. My girls are little, next time we went they probably wouldn’t want to wear princess dresses, so I packed some and they loved wearing them! I ended up going the discount route and I’m so glad I did! They fit the bill fine and I wasn’t worried about them messing up an expensive costume with dripping ice cream.
Moms of babies and young toddlers, all parks have baby care centers. There is a Baby Care Center at the end of Main Street,on the left hand side (if you are facing the castle). Inside there is a changing room with four cushioned changing tables, they are extremely clean, there is a sink, two tiny toilets for potty trainers, a feeding area with high chairs, and a nursing area that is quiet (no dads or older kids allowed). Diapers, ointment, baby powder, Pull Ups, wipes, pacifiers, formula, baby food, and Children’s Tylenol are all available for purchase inside.
Don’t forget the shows! The shows are the parks are awesome! At least the ones we saw. We planned (fast passed) Finding Nemo midday at The Animal Kingdom and it was a welcomed break to sit in the air conditioning and watch the girls be mesmerized, especially when bubbles rained down on us at the end. I can only imagine how welcomes that break would be in summer. I’ve heard excellent things about the Frozen show at Hollywood Studios and the Lion King at Animal Kingdom too.
We also really loved the Pixar 3d show at Epcot! We were the only ones in the theater and it’s still one of Hailey’s favorite memories.
Don’t feel like you have to get the meal plan. Some people swear by it, but given the way our family eats, we opted to not sign up for it. We knew we’d eat breakfast in the room and pack our own snacks, plus we didn’t want a scheduled dinner each night. If your kids can share meals you may want to consider not getting it either. Not having it worked for us, but read about the pros and cons here, as if you eat in line with how the plans are laid out, it could save you some money!
Dinner Buffet at Hollywood & Vine
If you have young kids, considering going straight to Fantasy Land before things fill up. For some reason, people head to Tomorrow Land first. Fantasy Land has the most stuff for young kids, so head straight there when it opens and see what you can get in.
Tickets are not transferable. You have to scan your fingerprint to enter the park so don’t buy sketchy second hand tickets. For the best prices on legit tickets, check here first.
Get a stroller or rent one (not the park one) and a mommy hook. – Our double stroller saved our life! Personally, I think any kid under 8 would benefit from having a stroller. David put everything we needed in a backpack and we hooked it to the stroller with a mommy hook. It made it easy to keep all our stuff together for transportation. At the bus, we’d grab the backpack and fold up the stroller, then at the park we could unload whatever we wanted into the stroller.
If you are flying or don’t have a double, check out stroller options here. Many companies will deliver and pick up the stroller and offer nice options like City Select and Bob. The park strollers are harder to push and rigid, so I would definitely choose one of these companies over them.
What did I miss?
What is your BEST tip for Disney World first timers?
And if you have questions, shout ’em out!
I’m answering every single one I’ve received in tomorrow’s post 🙂
Oh, I completely agree with your girls about the Florida water! I live in charlotte too and drink filtered tap water like it’s my job. My husband is from the Orlando area and I can’t stomach their tap water! I feel like such a diva when we visit but I always need to buy an enormous pack of bottled water to make it through the visit! 😂🙈
Did you prefer Disney cruise or Disney world? Why? We’re trying to decide between the two for our next vacation, we have four girls so Disney is a no brainer! We’ve done Disney world twice (although my third doesn’t remembers so it would really be like her first time).
My kids are similar in age to your kids and we are staying at the Polynesian. For the pool, should I bring a puddle jumper for my 3 yr old who can’t swim?
Someone told me that the lines are long to check your bag/purse at the parks and suggested trying to not bring a bag at all. I don’t know how I’d do this with two young kids (I think they may need a change of clothes — one of my kids is a puker). Did you find the lines very long?
Meredith Marinelli says
I’ve been the past five years in a row. It’s not that bad. It would be worse to need it and not have it.
Also, you can now get in to Magic Kingdom an hour before it actually opens. So take advantage of that and wander Main St until the official opening for the attractions.
All Disney resorts and Disney Waterparks have life jackets you can borrow for free 🙂
Thanks Kelly! I had no idea about the life jackets — that will save me some room in my suitcase!
Meredith Marinelli says
Those are some good tips!! We’ve been to Disney World for the past 5 years and are about to make it 6 in a row this weekend!! (Reason number one that I became a Disney travel agent.) I do find that the meal plan is cheaper if you are going to do the character meals. And with quick service meals on that plan, you can share or order from the same menu. Actually you can share anywhere you order from a menu, just not at a buffet or family style all you can eat. Like ‘Ohana. Also, you get 2 snack credits per person per night stayed which work out really well also.
The Lion King show is amazing. You should have hit that one. And I so agree about Peter Pan. I don’t understand the long wait there. But we do fast pass it because Lilly loves it. One other note, for Memory Maker, you have to buy 3 days before to get the $149 rate. And I think it’s totally worth it. They catch some really neat shots sometimes that you otherwise wouldn’t have.
I’ve started researching our future trip and a couple of questions I have specifically around how your girls did at the park. Probably more Hailey as my girl will be almost 5 when we go.
* I noticed you brought a stroller, how much walking around did they do and if quite a bit how did they handle it?
* How were they during the waiting in lines for rides? Did you bring some sort of entertainment for them or play some games to keep them distracted?
* Did you take breaks during the day such as go back to hotel for naps or rest periods?
* Did they have any serious melt-downs I’ve been hearing about, what caused them and any suggestions on how best to circumvent them?
Allison D. says
Despite not planning to go to Disney, I am enjoying all these posts! I loved Disney as a kid, but my kids could not care less about Disney characters, and when we went to Disney World they just did not enjoy it that much (Animal Kingdom was better than the other parks for them). We went to Legoland in CA, and it my kids liked it so much better (and it was so, so much cheaper and more mellow as a parent).
Do you have boys? I have 2 boys and while I too loved Disney as a kid, I don’t know that we will take them. I feel like everyone I know who loves Disney and raves about it has girls. I don’t at all mean that in a negative way as I know that if I had a daughter I would be on the first plane to the castle to soak up everything princess. It’s just that I can pretty much bet that my kids would not at all be into the “fantasy” of it all and that they couldn’t care less about characters. They would just want the trill rides. Now, that said, I have one friend who took her son and said they did the “boys” version of Disney; completely skipping the magic kingdom and instead focusing on Epcot, animal kingdom and things like the Star wars stuff at universal. Which she said he loved. So ya, i am conflicted.
Now another part of my reluctance go is that reading posts like this give me a panic attack. I feel like there is so much you need to know and plan before going and I feel totally clueless.
We went when my son was almost 5, he still liked the characters but we were way more focused on rides for him, where as my daughter was 3 and she loved the characters. But there were several characters, Jake the pirate, mickey, donald duck that he still actually wanted to wait in line and see.
I don’t feel my boys would be much into the character part either. I was not into the princess stuff as a little girl though either (probably a good thing I have sons!), so I think it is just different for everyone. I feel like while I could find things to interest my boys at Disney, there are so many other theme type parks that are less crowded and way less expensive. I know one of the big points about Disney is to “keep expectations low” but honestly I don’t ever want to go into a vacation with that mindset, and certainly not if I am paying Disney prices.
This is SO helpful! I’ve been to Disney World several times, but never as a parent. I did not think about having groceries delivered, but I love this idea! I don’t really like going out to eat more than once a day and would love to buy groceries for breakfast and lunch. I also had no clue you could rent a stroller, this sounds so much easier than bringing ours. Also, I did not know about the “mommy hook,” but am buying one now! I’ve been grocery shopping with a reusable bag over each shoulder, since the car seat / carrier takes up the whole cart at Trader Joe’s, this looks like a life saver! Thank you!!
We are disneylander’s and I have to say-the Bippity Boppity Boutique is well worth it! We just visited for our daughters 5th birthday and took her to the boutique. Upon entering, you are met by a fairy godmother who takes you around the shop to pick out a dress. She picked out Elana of Avalor and let me just say, the quality of that dress is 100x better than any we have bought from the disney store (in the words of my LO, not itchy!). I was very impressed! She also wanted all the accessories to go with it of course but I was wincing at how much that would be…little did I know because when she was taken to her dressing room, everything was there! She got a tiara, necklace and light up wand with the dress. Then she got her hair done which I was super nervous about because she HATES having her hair touched. but she was mesmerized as one lady did her nails and makeup and the other her hair(you get to keep the bottle of nailpolish and makeup too…every penny counts 😛 ). But the very very best part was afterward. You are individually walked through disney by an escort and taken to the princesses for a one on one meet and greet with 4 of them! It was seriously one of the most memorable moments we’ve had with her and I would definitely reconsider on your next visit! The major downside to it is that start to finish took about 2 hours so you lose valuable disney time. We go often enough that it was the sole reason for our visit but I wouldn’t recommend spending that time on a first visit-too much other stuff to see and do for free!
I love how timely these posts are! We are JUST BEGINNING to look into Disney, and I’m so excited! Thank you for all your help!
For Adults if you are not wanting a super big lunch, order a kids meal, surprising they can be filling! We never wanted to be full for lunch and then ride rides so I always ordered a kids salad or chicken sandwich and got grapes/carrots and it filled me up along with snacks we had during the day. Anyone can order a kids meal even though it says 9 and under 🙂
Get a poncho from the dollar store before you leave or bring an umbrella, it rains alot and way cheaper than the $10-$15 they charge for a poncho at the parks 🙂
Same with a fan or hand held mister, much cheaper buying before you leave, they are crazy expensive at the parks.
Brittany Dixon says
Great advice Kelly, thank you!! I did actually order a kids meals for lunch one day and you’re right, it worked out rather well!!
If you have a child that you wear in a carrier- under two maybe? Bring it. Esp at magic kingdom a lot of the stroller parking areas are in central locations and then you have to wait in line with a squirmy baby/one year old. It is so much easier to wear then for 30/40 however many minutes that try to chase them around in line (if babywearing is your thing). Also you can get more fast passes as soon as you have used your three so as soon as we usually scan into the ride I get out my phone and pick another fastpass from the my Disney experience app while we’re waiting in line. It usually helps us cut down on some line waiting time. These are such great tips! It sounds like you had a great trip!
Michelle G. says
Wow! This blog got really Disney heavy all of a sudden… I think Disney is a little overhyped and I find their maniacal attention to detail a little off-putting, but I respect that some people are really into it.
Kate S says
I’m totally with you on keeping your expectations in check! I’m always happy if we get through a trip with minimal meltdowns because I know there will be a few. Thanks for these great tips! I can’t wait to visit Disney for the first time this year.
Great post! The biggest mistake that we made as a family on our first trip was rushing through a lot of things on the first day and just pushing to try to fit everything in. The one thing we always tell people is to not worry about missing anything and focus on enjoying the time you are spending with family.