I recently went on a big family vacation to celebrate my son’s, my niece’s, and my youngest sister’s November birthdays. (The little ones both turned 4! Where do the years go??) There were 9 of us so you can imagine there was a lot of planning.
Disney (both Land and World) is amazing. The Most Magical Place on Earth. The Happiest Place on Earth. Yes and yes.
But you know what else Disney is? Disney is a beast. An exhausting, expensive beast. There are so many activities to do, places to go, things to see, shows to watch, food to eat, rides to ride… don’t get in the trap thinking you have to do it all! Go at your own (and your kid’s pace) and do as much as you can. Better to enjoy everything you DO do, then be frustrated trying to get to everything.
We were in Disneyland for my son’s third last year and Disney World for his fourth birthday this year and I probably got to do half of the things I wanted to both times. But I enjoyed it both times, and more importantly— he had a blast!
Read over my guide to get you started. And if you don’t even want to deal with the planning, work with a Disney Planner. They’re free and are a great asset to have.
Disney Park Tickets and Reservations
First things first, you must make a reservation for the day that you want to visit. Because of this, I would ensure your dates are available before buying tickets. To make a reservation and to buy tickets, you’ll need to create a Disney account.
To give you a summary for each park:
Magic Kingdom: The classic Disney experience. Character sightings (Mickey and the gang, Princesses, pretty much any of the characters of Disney movies), musical parades, dance shows, the castle, the most any-height (slow, small child) rides, fireworks. The best area for the smallest ones.
Animal Kingdom: For kids who love animals, dinosaurs, safaris, the jungle, floating on a river, and Avatar. Smaller and more manageable than the other parks. Many any-height rides, some on water, and a little Dino land for the dinosaur lovers. It’s like the zoo on steroids.
Hollywood Studios: For the “behind the scenes” Hollywood experience, the park is film/showbiz theme. Lots to see for little ones like Toy Story Land, the Disney Jr. lot, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, and a Frozen sing-along. Star Wars Galaxy is also here for the Star Wars lovers.
EPCOT: Celebrates human achievement and culture from all over the world! It’s geared for older kids (8+) who are curious about science and other cultures, but still has plenty of any-height rides for the little ones (like Frozen and Nemo themed rides!).
- Check park reservation availability here. You can check if all parks, some parks, or no parks are available on the days you are going.
- You can buy a ticket for each day OR you can buy Park Hopper tickets, which let you visit more than one park a day. Read more about Park Hopper here.
- Buy tickets here.
- Lastly, make your reservations.
Genie+ and Lightning Lane
Disney recently introduced their new Genie+ service. It’s basically a planning service that creates a specialized itinerary and maps out your day. It also sends reminders when you are able to make dining and attraction reservations.
To learn about Genie+ read more here.
SOME Lightning Lane (going through a quicker line for rides) are offered with this service. Others can be purchased individually.
To learn more about the Lightning Lane read more here.
Restaurant reservations aren’t required, but they are recommended. The best restaurants fill up early. You can make reservations for dining around 8 weeks before your reservation. Do it then so you can make sure to get in to the popular ones, especially if you want a character meal. Some of the restaurants have “walk-up waitlists” that you can join from the app if you want to be more spontaneous, but those also fill up fast. Check out all of the dining options here.
Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) is an outdoor center packed with shopping, dining, and entertainment for everyone. It’s amazing (and huge)! To see everything you can do there, read about it here.
It’s free to enter and it’s great to spend at least a half day there. You can even take a boat ride or get on a hot air balloon.
For all of your dino lovers, the TREX restaurant is awesome! There is even a play area where kids can dig for dinosaur bones.
Tips for Disney World with Toddlers
Disney World App
The Disney app is incredible. It’s a MUST to download when you’re going to the park. Set up an account on the My Disney Experience website and use that same info to log into the app.
You can make your park reservations in there, dining reservations, look at maps of the parks, wait times, etc. Literally anything you would want to know about the parks is on the app.
You can order food from most counter service restaurants on the app too. Place the order ahead, let them know you’ve arrived, and they’ll make it. On busy days, order times can fill up fast, so place your mobile order a couple of hours before you want to eat to make sure you get the time slot you want.
To learn more about the Lightning Lane (going through a quicker line for rides) read more here.
Each park has a Baby Center near the entrance of the park. It’s usually a part of or next to the Guest Services/First Aid area.
They offer changing tables, nursing rooms, quiet areas, and even a Disney movie playing on TV. They also sell diapers, wipes, and other various baby needs.
Disney offers strollers to rent. The service is near the park entrances and they cost about $15/day for a single and $31 for a double. They’re easy to get around the park, but not very comfortable. They’re a hard plastic. I would recommend this more for older kids that will probably get tired after hours of walking and not to replace a baby or toddler’s regular stroller. Read more about the service here.
Water and Snacks
Bring a water bottle and snacks for everyone with you. Disney food is expensive and the lines are long!
Closest Airports to Disney
There are two airports in the Orlando area, a major one and a mini one.
MCO—Orlando International Airport, 16 miles away from Disney. It serves 135 destinations with over 20 different carriers, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find a direct flight there. It is the busiest airport in the state of Florida, and the 7th busiest in the US—so expect crowds and long wait times. Mears Connect offers a shuttle to and from Disney hotels. Contact for a reservation.
SFB—Orlando Sanford Airport, 42 miles away from Disney. It serves over 75 smaller city destinations through budget airlines Allegiant, Swoop, and Flair. If you live in a city that they serve, it would be worth comparing prices between the two airports.
Getting Around Disney World with Toddlers
Shuttle—If you’re staying at a Disney Resort hotel (which I recommend), there are free shuttles that transport visitors to the parks. They come roughly every 20 minutes for each park.
Monorail or Skyliner—Certain Disney Resort hotels (on park grounds) have access to the monorail or skyliner to get to the parks! It is super cool and such an added benefit. You don’t even have to break the stroller down, you just wheel it right in!
Drive—If you would rather drive yourself, you will have to pay for parking at the parks. The parking passes are good all day at all 4 theme parks.
Preferred parking: $45-$50/day with lots near the park entrances.
Standard parking: $25/day OR free for all staying at a Disney Resort hotel. If you’re staying a Disney Resort, you can pay the difference between the included standard parking and preferred parking (~$20-25/day).
The kids loved the skyliner:
Staying at Disney World with Toddlers
As you know if you’ve read my other blog posts, I always stay in a suite or villa when I travel so I can have a spot to unwind after the kids go to sleep and so I can have a full kitchen. Worth every penny in my mind. Check out the full list here of Disney Resort Hotels or read below for my recommendations.
My list below includes Disney hotels with at least 1-bedroom suites, known as “Deluxe Villas” or “Deluxe Resort Hotels” in Disney terms. They’re the highest quality resorts in Disney and offer the most amenities and perks.
I also included “Value” options that got great reviews. Value resorts are at the lowest price point of Disney Resort Hotels, and are incredibly themed, appealing more to younger kids. They aren’t in prime locations and have food courts rather than restaurants and have a few of the same Disney perks, but not all (like Extended Evening hours).
Disney Contemporary Resort—The Main Tower offers 1- and 2-bedroom suites with a fridge and coffee/tea station, and access to the Atrium Club. The Bay Lake Tower offers 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom options with a full kitchen and washer and dryer. Visitors can take the free monorail straight to Magic Kingdom and –with one transfer—to EPCOT and have access to the free shuttle to the other parks. Multiple pools and restaurants (like Chef Mickeys!) on site, plus Movies Under the Stars, campfires, and more recreational activities.
Wilderness Lodge – Offers 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom villas with full kitchens and washer and dryer. Visitors can take a water taxi to Magic Kingdom and have access to the free shuttle to the other parks. Multiple pools and restaurants (like Story Book Dining with Snow White!) on site, along with Movies Under the Stars.
Animal Kingdom Lodge – The Lodge offers 1- and 2-bedroom suites with a small fridge and coffee/tea station. The Kidani Village and Jambo House offers 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom villas with a full kitchen and washer and dryer. Free shuttle to all of the parks (even Animal Kingdom requires a shuttle unfortunately.) There are multiple pools and restaurants, Movies Under the Stars, a playground, and even a Painting area.
Beach Club – 1- and 2-bedroom villas available with a full kitchen and washer and dryer. Visitors can take the free skyliner (so cool!) to get to EPCOT and Hollywood Studios, and the free shuttle to the other parks. Multiple pools and restaurants are on site along with Movies Under the Stars, campfire activities, boat rentals, and mini golf.
Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa—1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom villas. Villas come with a full kitchen and a washer and dryer. Walkable to Disney Springs and visitors can also use the free water taxi over. Free shuttle to each of the parks. Multiple pools and restaurants on site, along with a grocery shop. Spa and golf on grounds. (This is where we stayed, and we really enjoyed it.)
All-Star Music Resort – Music themed family suites available that can sleep up to 6 people with 1 queen bed and 2 queen-size pull-out sofas. Multiple pools are on-site (a guitar shaped one!), a full food court, campfire activities, Movies Under the Stars, and a playground. Visitors can take the free shuttle to all of the parks.
Wide World of Sports Resort Area
Art of Animation – Movie themed family suites available that can sleep up to 6 people with 1 queen bed, 1 double bed sleeper sofa, and 1 double size table bed. Visitors can also take the skyliner (again, so cool!) to EPCOT and Hollywood Studios, and use the free shuttle to the other parks. Multiple pools are onsite (including the biggest pool in all of Disney World!) a food court, campfire activities, Movies Under the Stars, and a playground.
Activities at Disney World with Toddlers by Park
SO much to do here! This park is best for the littlest ones. It has the classic Disney experience, character sightings and meet-and-greets, musical parades, dance shows, stage shows, and the most any-height rides of all the parks.
Can’t miss activities—they’re daily and run a few times a day, check the app for times:
- Mickey’s Celebration Cavalcade (characters ride by in cars)
- Disney Festival of Fantasy Parade (characters ride by in huge floats)
- Mickey’s Magical Friendship Faire (stage show at the castle)
For the first Cavalcade show of the day, viewers start lining up about 30 minutes before. They will be turned toward the roundabout and away from the castle, so this is the perfect time to get some good shots in front of the castle.
The Friendship Faire show starts shortly after the Cavalcade ends. Line up by the castle for the Cavalcade so that you already have your spot for the Friendship Faire.
Line up near the park entrance for the Fantasy Parade—there’s a lot less people so you can get a great spot. We had lunch at Tony’s and then sat down right on the curb for the parade.
There’s a playground on the grounds called Swiss Family Treehouse. Good spot to get the wiggles out.
MK has the most rides for the littlest ones. You can check out the full list of attractions here.
Some of the most popular rides are:
- Astro Oribter
- Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin
- Casey Jr. Splash n Soak Station (water ride)
- Dumbo the Flying Elephant
- “it’s a small world”
- Jungle Cruise
- Mad Tea Party
- Magic Carpets of Aladdin
- Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
- Peter Pan’s Flight
- A Pirate’s Adventure
- Prince Charming Regal Carrousel
- Under the Sea
Character meal: The Crystal Palace (buffet) has lunch and dinner with Winnie the Pooh and Friends.
Sit-down restaurant: Tony’s Town Square, The Plaza
Counter service: Columbia Harbour House, Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn
Disney Enhancement is MK’s nightly firework show at the Cinderella’s castle. It’s about 30 minutes and crowds start forming around an hour and a half before the show. Check the app for start time.
Perfect for animal lovers! You’ll venture through Africa, Asia, Pandora, and Dino-land. Tons of animal interactions, Nemo and Lion King stage shows, amazing street performer shows, a jaw-dropping Avatar Land, and even a dinosaur themed playground called The Boneyard.
The rides here center around safaris, river rides, animal adventures, etc. They are so fun!
Check out all of the attractions here or look over the good ones here:
- It’s Tough to be a Bug!
- Kilimajaro Safari
- Na’vi River Journey
- Triceratops Spin
- Maharajah Jungle Trek
- Wildlife Express Train
Character meal: Tusker House (family style) for breakfast or lunch with Mickey and friends dressed in safari gear. Check the lunch menu before reserving because it’s a bit adventurous.
Sit-down restaurant: Flame Tree Barbecue
Counter service: Satul’li Canteen (bowls), Nomad Lounge (small plates)
EPCOT is a trip through the whole world! You’ll walk through many different countries and you can meet characters in their regions—Princess Jasmine in Morocco, Snow White in Germany, Mulan in Italy, Belle in France, and more! There are animal encounters with sharks, sea turtles, and rays and you can even have a conversation with Crush from Nemo. (This park is the favorite of most adults, including the adults in our group.)
EPCOT doesn’t have many any-height rides, but the ones they have are good!
Take a look at all of the park’s attractions here, and here are a few good ones:
- Frozen Ever After
- Gran Fiesta Tour
- Living with the Land
- Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure
- The Seas with Nemo
Character meals: Garden Grill (family style) is a slowly rotating restaurant with Mickey, Pluto, Chip, and Dale.
Sit-down restaurants: La Hacienda de San Angel (Mexico), Via Napoli (Italy), Space 220 (for space lovers)
Check out if they are hosting their annual Food and Wine Festival.
Harmonious is my favorite night show at Disney. It’s a show full of lights, water, and fireworks to different Disney songs. It was amazing and one of my favorite parts of the whole trip!
You’ll be transported to Hollywood and go backstage on a movie set at Hollywood Studios. In addition to the studio lot, there’s also Toy Story Land and Star Wars Galaxy here.
There’s only one any-height ride, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railroad. It’s a good one!
But Hollywood Studios is more about the cool experiences. Check out all of the park attractions here.
Some of the best ones not to miss are:
- Character meet ups (Olaf, Sulley, Disney Jr. characters, the Toys in Toy Story)
- Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage
- Disney Junior Play and Dance
- Lightening McQueen Racing Academy
- Toy Story Land (most rides are 38” and up)
- Frozen Sing-Along (picture below)
Character meals: Hollywood and Vine (buffet) hosts breakfast with Disney Jr. Stars and lunch with Minnie and Friends in a seasonal setting.
Sit-down restaurants: 50’s Prime Time Café, Oga’s Cantina (more for adults in Star Wars Galaxy)
Counter service: Backlot Express, Docking Bay 7
Fantasmic! is a fun action show with Mickey escaping villians. Many other characters make appearances as well. Very fun but note that it does get a little dark and scary at times.
Beaches Near Disney
You might want to incorporate a beach day during your trip. I know a lot of people that set a day or two after the Disney craziness to relax before heading home. Or you can add a beach day in between your park days.
The closest beaches are a little over an hour away:
Cocoa Beach ~60 minute drive
If you just want a simple beach day to relax, go to Cocoa Beach. It’s the closest beach and it has great family-friendly beach options. For a more bustling scene, hit the beach at Cocoa Beach Pier but if you want a quieter vibe, head over to Lori Wilson beach park.
New Smyrna Beach ~75 minute drive
If you want to REALLY relax, head to New Smyrna. It’s a calm, quiet beach town with 17 miles of white-sand beaches, a 2-mile boardwalk, and a cute downtown village. Try Flagler Avenue for the beach, shopping, and dining options.
Daytona Beach ~90 minute drive
If you want to get to a beach that still has some action, plan for Daytona. It’s known for its wide beach with hard packed sand, plus many attractions and a lively nightlife.
And that’s it! Have you been to Disney lately? How was it? Tell me in the comments!