How to do Disney (without losing your mind!)

The ultimate Today’s Parent guide to saving time, money and your sanity at the Happiest Place on Earth.

Disney-Todays-ParentWant to take your family to Disney but feel overwhelmed by the planning process? With so many decisions to make and cool things to see and do, everyone feels that way. To help make your trip smooth sailing, we shook out insider tips from parents who have conquered the parks multiple times—and still want to go back for more! From planning to packing to things you never even knew to ask, here’s a tell-all about how to do Disney like a pro.

Disney world or Disneyland?

The first test that faces you is whether to hit Disneyland (DL) in California (celebrating its 60th anniversary this year) or Walt Disney World (WDW) in Florida. After some back-breaking reconnaissance work, here’s what we’ve uncovered:

Size: WDW is much bigger than DL (four parks, plus two water parks, as opposed to two parks total). WDW’s immensity can be a plus or minus depending on the age and stage of your family. While the property has an extensive monorail and bus system, getting between parks and back and forth to your hotel can still take up a fair amount of time, which is challenging with little ones. If you’re staying on-resort at DL, you step out the back door of your hotel and—ta-da!—the entrances to the parks are right there. If you have a Cars fanatic, Cars Land is only at DL, but if you’re only going to “do” Disney once, a lot of families like to go to WDW because there are more attractions by virtue of its sheer size. It can take about four to six days to really experience WDW, but you can feasibly cover DL in three.

Weather and location: WDW can be hotter and more humid, with more chance of rain, whereas you can go to DL in August and not melt. The crowd at WDW is more touristy, while DL has more laid-back locals with season’s passes. You’ll also want to take flight time into consideration, depending on where you live.

Accommodations: There’s a larger range of accommodations available at WDW, particularly if you want something really affordable. Disney Value Resort Hotels start at $96 per night and campgrounds start at $56 a night.

Plan ahead

The one universal piece of advice you’ll get is to start planning early. You can certainly take a spur-of-the-moment trip to Disney and have an awesome time, but some of the most unforgettable experiences—including dining with your favourite characters, the latest rides and special activities—require pre-booking, sometimes months in advance. If your kids have their hearts set on seeing or doing specific things, be sure to look into them well ahead of time. You can set up an account on the Disney website and create profiles for all members of your group so you can track your reservations and schedule activities.

Things you need to book ahead of time include your accommodations, table-service meals, character dining (these aren’t included in your park admission, though some dining plans may contribute to the cost) and your FastPass+ schedule (called FASTPASS in DL), plus any special activities, like the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where your kids can get done up like princesses, knights or pirates. You can do this on your own through the Disney website, using the My Disney Experience planning page, or, if you’re feeling completely overwhelmed (which is common!), you can call and have a Disney representative walk you through your options and even help book your entire stay. (New French-speaking Disney reservation agents can be reached at 407-939-1898.)

Character dining is very popular, as are appointments at the boutique. However, if you don’t snag a hot ticket, don’t despair: Spots frequently open up, so keep checking for availability before you go, and even during your vacation.

Remember that your kids will have a blast even if you don’t manage to squeeze in every little special thing Disney has to offer—and, really, you can’t. It’s way too much for one visit, so go in with a few must-dos in mind. The rest is gravy.

Disney-Todays-Parent2Where to stay

There are pros and cons to booking your accommodations on and off the resort. Which is right for you?

Staying on-site: The magic never ends! Disney resorts are known for their attention to detail and making everything—from lobbiesto light switches—extra special.

If you stay on-site, you can enjoy an airport shuttle (complimentary at WDW; $30 for each adult at DL, but kids ride free). You also have access to Extra Magic Hours (early entry or extended hours that are closed to the general public), which is a huge bonus. You’d be surprised at the number of rides you can check off your wish list in the hour before the hordes descend. At WDW you’ll also receive MagicBand bracelets, which act as your room keys, FastPass+ and meal-plan cards, and can even be synced to your credit card to pay for purchases with a swipe and have them delivered to your room. (MagicBands are available for $12 each to those with accommodations off-site in Florida.) A great benefit of staying on-site is that all the parks are easily accessible. At DL, the parks are literally out the back door of your hotel, and WDW’s extensive transportation system ensures you’re never far from your room if you want to sneak off for a midday nap with little ones and head back to the park in the evening.

Staying off-site: For some, a day full of Disney is enough. If you’d prefer to spend your evenings or off-days away from the crowds, there are myriad hotels and resorts minutes from WDW, and most provide shuttle services to and from the park. In California, many hotels are within walking distance to DL. (Parking is $17 per day.) Off-site hotels can be more economical, provide more space and amenities (especially for larger groups), and have less busy, quieter accommodations that give you a break from the hustle and bustle. Staying off-site makes it easier to check out other restaurants and attractions in the area, too.

Parents say:

“Rent a house off the resort. It’s so nice to leave the craziness and go to your own private pool where the kids can play freely rather than having to be attached to your hip. They will be exhausted and cranky—the private pool was our lifesaver.” – Karissa Osmond, Grandfalls Windsor, Nfld.

“We stayed at a great condo in Anaheim just a 20-minute walk from the park which was loaded with extras, including strollers. We saved big on food, and we could see the fireworks at Disneyland from our front door.” – Corinne Nairn, Calgary

“We have stayed at the Disney World resort properties all three times. It’s hard to beat the convenience of free airport transportation and then the Disney transportation while on-resort. Also, if you stay there you can take advantage of Magic Hours. They’re posted six months in advance, so you can plan your restaurants and which parks you will be in around the Magic Hours. We met lots of characters in the first hour of the day.” – Cathie Selkirk-Desborough, Fall River, NS

“We’ve never stayed on-site as we love having our own villa where we can chill out on the balcony while the kids sleep. Plus, we save money and restaurant meltdowns by cooking some nights.” – Natasha Ke, Woodstock, NB

Disney-Todays-Parent3Feeding the family

Meal plan: Parents are divided on whether the meal plan is the way to go. There are a variety of options to suit, whether you eat a little or a lot, or whether you want to enjoy quick-service or fine-dining meals. For some, convenience is king: Having all or most meals taken care of removes planning and budgeting stress, and leads to a more relaxing holiday. But others question if the food options and portion sizes (some say they’re too large) make it the best choice for them.

WDW and DL both allow outside food and drinks into the park (soft coolers are allowed, as well as non-glass containers), and many families go this route, bringing meals and snacks with them.

Nursing moms: In both WDW and DL, you’ll find one main Baby Care Center in each park, which features changing and private nursing areas with rocking chairs, as well as a TV and play area for siblings. They also have microwaves, sinks and high chairs, plus a shop to buy baby food, diapers and other supplies. While there are no other designated nursing areas around the parks, moms are welcome to breastfeed wherever they’re comfortable, and there are change tables in most bathrooms.

Allergy alert: Some little birdies told us that while both parks offer options, WDW is more accommodating than DL for kids with allergies.

Parents say:

“Disney World is the best for kids with allergies. If you email them ahead of time they will provide you with food items (brand names, so you can confirm) that are free of your allergen at all the restaurants at each park. These are just items that are labelled free of the allergen (such as egg-free or gluten-free buns), but if you make reservations and note the allergy, a chef will talk to you prior to ordering. At quick-service restaurants you can see a binder with food listings and/or talk to a chef. Our family has nut, egg, gluten, dairy, soy and sesame allergies, and we were able to eat with confidence at WDW and enjoy lots of foods that the kids normally miss out on in restaurants, like chicken fingers, cake, hot dogs and hamburgers with buns, pasta and waffles.” – Tasha Lee Hilderman, Lloydminster, Alta.

“Even if you’re staying on the Disney property, you can order groceries from local companies and have them delivered right to your hotel room. Order fruit, water, light snacks and beer or wine, even if you’re on a meal plan. Don’t pay four dollars (or waste a snack credit) for a bottle of water in a park.” – Sarah Lennox, Georgetown, Ont.

“When you use your meal plan’s ‘quick serve’ option, always get the adult meals. We often used two adult meals to feed two adults and two children at breakfast and lunch. It meant that our meal plan went a little further.” – Jenn Tobin, Whitby, Ont.

“If you have the meal plan, you can use your snack credits at Starbucks in the parks. Those giant frappuccinos are amazing when it’s hot.” – Laural Adams, Toronto

“Bring lots of zip-top baggies. We used them for leftover food at meals and ate them for snacks later on.” – Jenn Tobin, Whitby, Ont.

“All counter-service restaurants are required to provide free ice water upon request.” – Teresa Pitman, guelph, Ont.

“Some of the slower children’s rides are a great place to nurse your baby. Most of them are dark, which offers some privacy, and you can stay with the rest of your family.” – Tasha Lee Hilderman, Lloydminster, Alta.

Rides-DisneyWhat’s a FastPass?

These “jump-the-line” passes are included in your park admission. Here’s how to use them:

At Disney World, these magic tickets are called FastPass+. Each person can book three FastPasses ahead of time per day (kids must be accompanied by an adult with a FastPass for the same ride or event). Those staying at the resort can book 60 days ahead of time; those staying off-resort can book 30 days in advance. These are best used for the most sought-after rides and events—you’ll still have a wait in some cases, just a shorter one. If your child wants to get on the very popular Star Tours or Toy Story attractions, use your FastPasses to make sure he’s not disappointed.If your kids are crazy about princesses, use FastPasses for meet-and-greets. (Note that meeting Frozen’s Elsa and Anna is still the hottest ticket in town, and even FastPass opportunities book up quickly).

While you can only pre-book three things per person, per day, once you’ve used up all of your FastPasses for the day, you can book additional ones for free at park kiosks on a rolling basis (after you’ve used one, you can book another). You can also switch up your FastPasses throughout the day: Say the only opening to book a FastPass for Space Mountain was at 6 p.m. but you happen to walk by the ride at noon and see a 15-minute wait. You can line up for the ride then, and reassign your Space Mountain FastPass for something else. Keep in mind that others in the park are doing this, too, so if something you wanted to do was originally unavailable, check your Disney app (see below) regularly to see if spots open up.

If you aren’t able to get a FastPass for certain rides you want, make a beeline to them immediately when the park opens for your best chance of getting on with little waiting.

At Disneyland in California, the FASTPASS system works differently. When you enter the park, you can go to an attraction and get a FASTPASS “return time,” which will give you access to a shorter line during your one-hour ride window. (Some rides don’t offer FASTPASS, so check at the front gates.) When you get your FASTPASS, it will also give you a time when you’re allowed to book another. Depending on how busy the park is, it might be within the hour, or later in the day.

Crowd control

Trying to outwit the throngs of families flocking to Disney each year? Here are your best dates, according to parents who’ve been there, plus Birnbaum’s official Disney guides:

Charts-DisneyParents say:

“I’ve done Disneyland twice, both times the weekend after Memorial Day Weekend (the end of May). It was quiet, and the weather was beautiful!” – Jessica Callele, Edmonton

“We have been in September (by far the best time), March (not good due to spring breaks) and June (not good because large groups of schools show up for grad trips).” – Cathy Taylor, Campbell River, BC

“The week before Christmas holidays is the best time to go to Walt Disney World—barely any lineups. We got off some rides and jumped right back on!” – Nicole Ozita Melanson, Dieppe, NB

More tips and tricks

These helpful hints will make your park days go more smoothly:

Rider switch service: Have a kid who’s too small (or too scared) for a ride? That doesn’t mean anyone else has to miss out. Here’s what to do: Enter the line with your entire group and let a “cast member” (park staff) know you’d like a Rider Switch Pass. When you get to the front, they’ll hand you a slip of paper. The non-riding child and an adult can wait there while the rest of the party enjoys the ride. When they’re finished, the adult who didn’t get to ride, plus an additional guest who already rode, can hop right on.

Strollers: Strollers are available for rent at all Disney properties. If you think you’ll want to rent for more than one day, let them know and you’ll get a discount on additional days. The strollers are the rigid plastic kind (single or double are available), and if you switch parks, you can leave your stroller at the first and pick up a new one at your next park (hang on to your receipt for proof of rental). There’s a lot of walking on a Disney vacation (DL has more than 500 acres; WDW covers about 25,000!), and many parents find that even a kid who has graduated out of the stroller appreciates a lift throughout the day. Strollers are also handy for carrying bags!

The plastic strollers don’t recline, so if you want that functionality, you should bring one from home—or you can rent one from an outside company that will deliver it to your hotel and pick it up again at the end of your stay at Disney. Keep in mind that strollers must be collapsed while using Disney bus and monorail systems.

Get the picture: Do you find you’re rarely in your family’s vacation pictures? You may want to splurge on Walt Disney World’s Memory Maker photo package. If you order it ahead of time, it’s $169 US and you’ll get high-quality digital photos taken by photographers throughout the park, including snaps with characters and shots of you screaming your head off on rides. Whenever you see a photographer, you give them your card to scan (or a MagicBand if you have one) and then you can download all the images from the Disney website.

Not sure you want to spend that kind of cash on pictures? At both WDW and DL, there’s a PhotoPass Service where you can have your photos taken throughout the park for free, and then you’re given access cards to view and email low-resolution images at no cost, with an option to purchase higher quality versions for about $15 per image.

(Psst! Ask the photographer about Magic Shots, where he can add special effects—like Tinkerbell sitting on your hand—to your photo.)

Parents say:

“Get a Photo Pass. Whenever a cast member asks to take your photo, ask him to do it with your camera as well. They’re required to do so, if asked.” – Jenn Tobin, Whitby, Ont.

“If you stay on-site, you can get a free quick service dining plan at Walt Disney World during certain times of the off-season. Each person in your party gets two quick-service meals and one snack per day, and a refillable mug.” – Cassie Silva, Abbotsford, BC

“If your kids are into Star Wars, go to Star Tours first thing in the morning to sign them up for Jedi training. It is very popular, so within 30 minutes it will be booked for the day. The kids go through a choreographed sequence where they use their Jedi training to fight Storm Troopers. During training they will ask some Star Wars trivia and the child who knows the most will get to battle Darth Vader. My son couldn’t believe that he was able to use the force on Darth Vader and win!” – Jenn Tobin, Whitby, Ont.

“The Magic Kingdom has dinner with Cinderella, which we booked ahead of time. You get to see all the princesses in one go (though not Anna and Elsa) and then stay for the night parade and fireworks. It was very memorable.” – Rebecca Howat, Frankford, Ont.

“Cars Land is the new attraction at Disneyland and the FastPasses for the Radiator Springs Racers (awesome ride!) are gone for the entire day quickly after the park opens, so get in and get ’em quick, otherwise it’s a two-hour wait.” – Christine Roberts Holloway, Langley, BC

“Disney isn’t your typical vacation. It’s magical, but exhausting. You’ll need a day at home to sleep and rest tired feet before returning to school or work.” – Sarah Lennox, Georgetown, Ont.

Smart spending shortcuts

Like any major attraction, things at Disney are pricey. Here are a few ways to save:

  • There are often more affordable souvenirs available at nearby centres like Walmart and Target, which are decked out with huge sections of Disney clothing and mementos.
  • Bring cheap packages of glow bracelets from home for fun at the fireworks.
  • Rain ponchos from the dollar store are a must for wet days and for Splash Mountain. Those at Disney are cute, but expensive.
  • Autographs are big at Disney. You can splurge on an official autograph book, with pages to attach photos beside the autographs, or bring one (many dollar stores have Disney-themed notebooks that work well).

Disney-Todays-Parent4

Good to know…

Insider info to make your vacation more magical:

  • If you tell Guest Relations or the front desk at your resort that it’s your first visit (or your birthday or anniversary), you’ll get a button to wear and cast members will give you an extra-special welcome when they see you.
  • Disney has a Disability Access Service Card that will provide a return time for a ride for those who aren’t able to wait in a conventional line due to a disability. You can visit Guest Relations to discuss your needs and set this up.
  • Before the gates open at the parks, there’s a “rope drop” show to start the day, in which characters appear, singing and dancing, before heading into the park. It’s worth arriving ahead of time to catch this first celebration of the day.
  • A “Times Guide,” which lists parades, shows and character-greeting times for the day is available at the front gates. During parades or fireworks is a great time to go on rides or visit characters that usually have big lineups.
  • Animal Kingdom Lodge is a hotel at the Animal Kingdom park at WDW, but it has viewing areas where you can see giraffes, zebras and antelopes, and enjoy free activities like drumming and crafts.
  • Playpen-like cribs that accommodate one child younger than three are available free of charge at all Disney resorts.
  • Pin trading is a Disney tradition. Buy pins in bulk before your visit, plus a lanyard, to save some cash. If a guest wants to do a trade with a Disney cast member, most are totally game.
  • At Magic Kingdom, there is a free scavenger-hunt-type activity called Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. Kids join Merlin’s elite squadron of apprentice sorcerers and get a map and tools to complete their missions.
  • If you buy a coffee in the park, keep your receipt and refills are free all day long, even if you don’t bring your cup back.

Online helpers

We hand-picked the best resources for you:

disneyparksmomspanel.disney.go.com: The Disney Parks Moms Panel offers parent-to-parent advice and tips on every topic you can imagine.

disneyworld.ca: Check it out for special offers for Canadian travellers.

easywdw.com: Run by a statistician, this site is known for its accurate crowd-predictor calendars and park-specific cheat sheets.

allears.net: This site is an unofficial planning guide for Walt Disney World, Disneyland and Disney Cruise lines.

mousesavers.com: Find discounts and deals for tickets, resorts, vacation packages and many other Disney expenses.

wdwinfo.com: Also known as “The DIS,” this site is popular for its “DISboards,” where people can discuss their questions and share helpful advice.

There’s an app for that. Walt Disney World has free WiFi throughout its parks and an incredibly handy app to help you navigate both the planning process and your time while you’re there. You’ll find wait times for rides, location of the closest restroom and a heads-up on where characters will appear.

At Disneyland, you can access a mobile version of its website at m.disneyland.com to check out things like schedules, attractions and where to eat. The Disneyland app, “Disneyland Explorer,” has interactive games and virtual postcards, but doesn’t have planning and scheduling capabilities.

A version of this article appeared in our March 2015 issue with the headline, “How to do Disney (without losing your mind!)”, p. 74-80.

Parents at doing Disney need a lot of patience. We’ve got you covered with this handy video:

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