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  • Writer's picturePenny Nowak

5 things I wish I knew before going to Disney World

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

Hello! My name is Penny, and until this past February, I was a Disney virgin! Last Summer my husband and I decided we should bring our kids to #DisneyWorld because our oldest is at the perfect age where she would believe she was meeting the real Elsa – it would be magical. Our youngest is 2, and bringing a toddler would present some challenges, but we knew how her face would light up when she saw Jessie from Toy Story, and being under 3 puts her as a guest of Mickey, meaning we basically only had to pay for her flight, so we said let's do it!!! I was excited and overwhelmed trying to plan the perfect vacation: When to go, where to stay, dining reservations and fast passes – it’s A LOT to figure out!!!

I should also point out that I am not a #Disney Fanatic, yes as with everyone in the world, Disney was a part of my life, from the cartoons I grew up with, to my obsession with the Avengers. Don’t get me wrong I always kind of wanted to go to Disney World – who doesn’t have a part of them that wants to go - but spending $7500 or more to visit a theme park just seemed crazy to me, if not totally out of reach. Add to that the fact my husband hates crowds and he’s not a fan of rides, Disney just really wasn’t on our radar.

Then we had kids, and those kids are #Disney Princess obsessed and the magic of a Disney World vacation suddenly seemed like it might be worth the cost. I bring this up because if you are crazy about Disney and would spare no expense and you are perfectly ok spending 12 hours in the park and your room is just for sleep… then my lessons learned may not apply to you, that’s cool – you do you. But if like me, this trip is for the kids, and your kids are young (mine were 2 and 5 at the time of the trip) and you don’t want to come home with mostly memories of tantrums and just being completely exhausted… then, my friend, I think my lessons learned might be helpful to you too!

Once we decided to go, all of my planning decisions, as should yours, revolved around my family dynamic and of course our budget. There are many ways you can save a little money on your vacation, but some could come at a cost greater than money. There are also, as we discovered, a few ways to save time and sanity – and I want to share those with you because even tho I read endless blogs (this one was amazing and endlessly pestered my Disney “expert” friends, there are some questions I just didn’t think to ask! You can never be too prepared when you go anywhere with your tiny humans - so, let’s dive in – here are the top 5 things I wish I knew (or in the case of #1 was glad I stumbled on)

#1 – Don’t skimp on accommodations.

Seriously, the benefits of staying at a Disney World Resort are worth the extra cost – you get to book your fast passes earlier, transportation to and from the airport is free, as well as transportation to and from the parks.

If you do choose to stay at #Disney there are so many options – but for us, the big question was – how much is a good night’s sleep worth? The answer for us… whatever it costs. There is no way our kids would sleep at night or during the day for a nap if we're sitting in the same room – they need their own space. It’s going to be an exciting week of sensory overload, so getting the best sleep possible is priority number 1! Plus, we adults wanted to be able to decompress at the end of the day after the kids were off to Neverland – play cards, have a glass of wine, or actually talk about more than what character we should line up for next! So a suite with a separate bedroom was a must!

There are a few different options for places to stay that included a bedroom, but we decided to book a cabin at #FortWilderness. This resort is a vacation on its own with horseback riding, archery, nature trails, a campfire sing-a-long – it was really our kind of place so it wasn’t a hard choice. It also helped that it was one of the cheaper options that comes with a kitchenette – and that brings me to my next point

While the cabins are considered a moderate resort, it saved us almost $750 on food costs!!

We did not go on the dining plan – we ate almost all of our meals in the cabin. We could have saved even more by renting a car and doing our own groceries – but we chose to use a shopping service, it was convenient because the groceries were waiting for us when we arrived… but we ended up spending around $350 for a week's worth of groceries (there was a $30+ delivery fee and the service tipped themselves 20%) so lesson learned, we could have rented a car and gone to Walmart and saved a few more dollars (they charged us $8 for 4 hamburgers). However, even adding in a character dine that was around $150 and a few stops for popcorn and ice cream – it was still waaayyy cheaper than the dining plan which is around $75 USD a night per adult and $28 USD per night for kids over 3… and if the money savings isn’t enough for you – it’s also one less line you have to stand in.

Our day of food looked like this:

Breakfast - in the cabin before we headed for the park – nothing fancy bagels, cereal, maybe scramble a couple of eggs.

Snacks – packed in the kids' lunchboxes to eat in the park. Goldfish crackers, apple slices, granola bars etc.

Lunch - We would leave the park around 12 for lunch and let the little one nap. We had Pizza, or Hot Dogs, or sandwiches

Snacks – We’d head back to the parks around 3ish with more packed snacks.

Dinner – was usually late but it was at the Cabin and we still typically had the kids in bed by 8, except for the night we stayed for the fireworks. Same kinds of foods as lunch – simple yet satisfying

We tried to keep it simple, as much as we were saving money by eating at the cabin, we were still on vacation and didn’t want to be doing a lot of cooking. Oh, and you don’t even have to do the dishes, we did because well it just seemed weird to us to have someone else wash our dishes… but if you leave them, housekeeping will wash them for you.

The only thing we didn’t think about, were condiments… it would have been nice to have some ketchup for the burgers or dip for the veggies – so next time we will add that to the grocery list.

#2 – Plan to leave the parks midday

I have to admit – this one I was told before we left and I ignored it. I said to myself, my kids will just nap in the stroller, no big deal!. WOW was I wrong! First, the kids are not in the stroller for long periods that would allow them to fall asleep. In most areas of the park, you leave the stroller at stroller parking and walk to the nearby attractions. But even if you do decide to just wander, or do have a bit of a walk between stops, there is soooo much going on that if your kids are anything like mine they will fight sleep so they don’t miss anything. The only time either kid slept in the stroller was the 5-year-old at Epcot as we walked from Mission Space over to Norway to see Anna and Elsa at 4 pm – so at a really inconvenient time. My plan was a flop and on day one we switched tactics and left around 1:30 (during a full-on 5-year-old meltdown).

This change in plans also saved us in food costs as we didn’t have to buy lunch in the parks.

It also gave us a chance to wind down, I actually read my book, and gave our vacation a few moments of peace midday which I think saved us all from going a bit crazy.

#3 – Book your #fastpass in the morning

If I was told this, I missed it – but it could have saved us a lot of waiting in line. Fast Passes, in my opinion, are the best thing about Disney World! Everyone who visits gets them so it's fair, and it makes sure you get to ride or experience a few things without having to wait in line… and fewer lines you have to stand in with little ones the better!

A basic rundown of the fast pass is 60 days before you arrive you can book 3 per day for your party – then the day of you can add more, but there is a catch. You can’t book more until you have used the first 3, or the time for your last one has passed. When I booked ours – I would put one in the morning, maybe one midday, then one in the late afternoon – in my mind it would break up the line waiting, but unbeknownst to me at the time… it meant I had to wait to try to book more. So next time, whenever possible I’ll book all my fast passes in the morning before we plan to take our midday break. Then while we are chilling at the cabin, I can use the reliable wi-fi to see what other fast passes we can grab for the afternoon.

I caught onto this very quickly so day 1 I was able to move our 3 pm “Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” fast pass to 1 pm. So, this was our jam-packed day at the Magic Kingdom!!

We started with a 9:20 fast pass for the Flight of Peter Pan (standby was already at 50mins). Then we basically walked on to” It’s a Small World”, followed by Enchanted Tales with Bell which also had no line. Our first real wait was 30 minutes to meet Ariel in her Grotto, and then we popped over to our fast pass for “Under the Sea – the Journey of the Little Mermaid” – all this before 11 am. After a short snack break, we waited 40 minutes for “The Mad Tea Party”, then off to Main street for the “Move It! Shake It! MousekeDance It! Street Party” at 12:30. Then off to “Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”. It was after Winnie the Pooh that the 5-year-old had a complete meltdown and we decided we had to leave. We caught the boat back to Fort Wilderness and everyone just chilled, the 2-year-old slept, we ate and regrouped. I booked us an evening fast pass to meet Mickey Mouse at Town Hall, so we headed back for that, then waited to see Tinkerbell and got out just in time to watch the fireworks. I was also able to get us a fast pass for “Dumbo the Flying Elephant”, but the wait for Tinkerbell was too long so we canceled it. But the long-winded point of this story is… if I had kept Winnie the Pooh at 3 pm – we probably would have missed it due to the need to leave, and then might not have picked up the Mickey Mouse – and the line for that even in the evening was 40 minutes

This plan typically doesn’t work for the big/tier 1 attractions – by the afternoon you can’t get a fast pass for those, so if all you can get is an afternoon when you first book – then well, I guess that’s just the way the cookie crumbles as Forky likes to say.

#3b - Another quick lesson on fast passes

Don’t bother wasting them on shows – this may be different during peak season – but when we went in early February every show we used a fast pass on, we could have easily got in with no wait in the standby, including Festival of the Line King and First time in Forever the Frozen Sing-a-long

#4 – Park order matters

First I’ll show you what our week looked like, and then I’ll tell you how we did it all wrong.

Day 1 – arrive (we had an afternoon flight and arrived at Fort Wilderness around 8 pm)

Day 2 – get settled and Bon Voyage Breakfast

Day 3 – #MagicKingdom

Day 4 – #Epcot

Day 5 – Day off

Day 7 – #AnimalKingdom

Day 8 – Depart (10:30 flight meant we were picked up at 5:45 am)

So our first mistake was the afternoon flight in and the morning flight out – if we could have had a morning flight in and then been able to check-in right at 3, we could have got settled the same day and hit a park on day 2 – this would have us in the park on a weekend which would mean bigger crowds, but I think it would have worked out better

Also, the morning flight out meant that we only spent half a day at the Animal Kingdom as we had to get back and pack and get the kids to sleep so we could be up at 4:30 in the morning

So as for the order, I can not stress this enough – do not make the Magic Kingdom your first stop!!!! The Magic Kingdom is wonderful it has something for everyone, but it is overwhelming!!! There is so much going on and the crowds are huge, and while the kids loved it… it was complete sensory overload. It’s something that you need to work up to and if you can afford the cost and the time, take 2 days to experience it and take a day off to just chill after.

We made this mistake and after our very full day at the Magic Kingdom, we made the decision that we would not get up and for rope drop for the next day which was at Epcot as everyone was exhausted – which was a huge mistake because…

#Epcot is totally underrated!!!

My husband told me when he was a kid and went to Disney World that he was completely bored at Epcot, after my research, I found that hard to believe as it seemed like there was a lot that would keep the kids entertained – but I had never been so what did I know? Well, either his memory is all wrong or Epcot has changed, as there were sooo many fun things and we all loved it!! With only a half-day to fit things in, we missed so much. The kids spent 30 minutes playing in the jumping water fountain, and then another 30 playing on the musical floor in the “What if labs”- they loved the Pixar Short Film Festival, and my 5-year-old not only enjoyed Mission Space – she rode it twice as we did rider switch and the staff let her go both times. Then both her and the 2-year-old spent 20 or so minutes playing in the tubes/play area after the rides and would have stayed longer but we had a fast pass for the Frozen ride. We didn’t even make it to the Water World or Beauty and the Beast Sing a Long which I’m sure they would have loved.

The best part about Epcot was how laid back it was. At MK there was a sense of urgency – people were speed walking to their next spot and you’re just trying to find a break in the crowd to make your turn. At Epcot people were content to saunter and there were lots of places where the crowed thinned right out – it’s probably why it’s the only place one of my kids gave in to sleep in the stroller, that and all the running and dancing I mentioned earlier! There was a sense of calm within the fun which was good for our sanity. If there was any park that we might have been able to do a full day without a break it would have been Epcot – not that I’m recommending it, but I don’t think it would have ended in as many tantrums.

Anyway, what we should have done was something like this:

Day 1 – arrive (if possible on a flight that would get us to the resort before dinner)

Day 2 – Animal Kingdom

Day 3 – Epcot

Day 4 – Day off

Day 5 – Magic Kingdom

Day 6 – Day off

Day 7 – Hollywood Studios

Sat – Depart on an afternoon flight

On the days off you don’t have to just sit in your room, the resorts all have water park areas, and as I mentioned in tip 1 Fort Wilderness has so much to do. But – it’s nice to have a day to sleep in and just chill – maybe hit up #DisneySprings or if you have a car, go into town.

But no matter how you slice it I wouldn’t recommend any more than 2 days in a row in the parks with small kids – we even spoke to other parents who had been many times before and they all agreed kids have a hard time if they have more than 2 days in a row at the parks. Heck, I was happy to have a day off too!

#5 – Just buy #memorymaker

I hummed and hawed on this one… but ultimately as a cost-saving measure I declined – that was a mistake that was quickly pointed out by my husband – unfortunately not until after I had lugged my camera bag all the way to Disney World. Thanks for the Monday morning quarterbacking on that one dear!!!

As he pointed out, did I really want to drag my camera through the parks? What if it was damaged? Plus, then I wouldn’t be in any of the photos! So, my camera stayed in its bag all week. I did still take photos with my phone, but we used the Disney Photographers for all the character meets – I didn’t snap one shot… mostly because I had to hold my 2-year-old, she wanted to meet the characters, but from the safety of my arms. Even after all that I was still on the fence and thought I’ll check the individual photo price on #photopass once we are home before I made the call – well at $16.95 per photo I wouldn’t even get one from every character we met before I reached the $199 for the full memory maker package.

So, if you are going with kids and plan to do character meets just buy it!! You save $30 if you buy 3 days before you go! The photographers are all over the parks not just at character meets and the price includes any photos from rides that snap pictures.

I’m not going to lie – I do begrudge the price a bit, but if you actually take the time to get photos in multiple locations (there can be line ups) it’s hard to beat the logic that it’s worth it.

One other quick tip – do your family at the park photo at the beginning of the day – I waited and thought we’d grab one at the end of the day… well, when it’s getting close to nap time and everyone is hungry and tired – it’s not the best time to try to get the “we’re having the time of our lives photo”. I should have known better, but there is a lot going on, so I didn’t get the iconic family photo in front of Cinderella’s Castle. Learn from my mistake and make it the first thing you do when you get to the park.

Well, there you have it, those are the 5 things I wish I would have known before our trip to Disney World.

Don’t get me wrong even with our “rookie mistakes” we still had an amazing time and we are already planning our next trip.

I would like to leave you with one other small point to remember. You are not going to be able to do it all, especially with kids.

For us, that meant we didn’t wander into Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge because we knew the kids wouldn’t care, and this trip was for them, so we just crammed in as much stuff for them as possible. We saw a lot of parents dragging their kids from place to place and they looked stressed and no one looked like they were having a good time, it became forced fun. I am in no way saying that if you have small kids you can’t do the adult stuff – but you can’t do it all – so set your expectations reasonably, decide what you MUST see and do, and just be ok to go with the flow and if you don’t get to do the rest that’s ok! Either way, you will have a magical vacation!!

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