Disney with a Toddler: Tips and Tricks to Navigating the World by Mandy Gainey

June 18, 2014

Written by Mandy Gainey

” In America there are two classes of travel – first class, and with children.”
-Robert Benchley

The first time we took Lily to Disney World she was 10.5 months old. People called us crazy and we heard numerous times, “you’re wasting your money”, and “she’s not going to remember it!” Guess what? We did it anyways and we had an amazing trip. Since then, we have now taken 4 Disney trips in the past 1.5 years and every one of them has been just as fun as the other. You would think things would become redundant and boring but as your child becomes more aware and more observant they notice new things and have a different and more engaging experience each time. And really, the trip should be about them in the first place, right? With all of our learned Disney experience I have have had several people ask for tips on navigating “the world” with a toddler in tow. I thought I would share some tips and tricks with any fellow parents thinking about taking a trip of their own:

1. The Preparation: If your child is old enough to understand where they are going, then tell them! It may be fun to hold out and keep it a secret from an older child but toddlers are so funny when they get excited. You can start letting them watch the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse in the days prior to add to the excitement. Plus, don’t you want the bargaining leverage that is, “If you want to go see Mickey you better stop (insert random toddler offense here.)” (Come on, we ALL do it!) Also, if they know where they are going it will help on the ride. When they start getting whiny and tired of riding you can remind them where they are going and they can get excited all over again.

2. The Packing List: My most valuable piece of information prior to leaving is my packing list. I write EVERYTHING on it! I make individual lists for each person as to not get everything jumbled together. I write the exact amount of each item I need for each person and as it goes in the bag it gets crossed off. This will help ease your mind about forgetting little things because you will be adding new things to the list as you think of them. A few things I always take to Disneyworld are:

  • sunblock
  • comfy shoes for everyone
  • reliable backpack
  • sunglasses
  • hats
  • water bottle
  • band aids, childrens’ tylenol,  (first aid kit)
  • dishwashing liquid and bottle brush to wash bottles and/or sippy cups
  • plastic cutlery
  • roll of paper towels
  • ziploc sandwich bags
  • soft sided cooler that fits under stroller
  • styrofoam bowls
  • camera!!!

3. The Car Ride: The best thing you can do for yourself and for your toddler is to be prepared for the ride. We have a car mounted DVD system and a pretty extensive toddler DVD library. We like to hit up the $5 movie bin at WalMart before the trip and let Lily pick out a new movie so she has something brand new to keep her attention. (Make sure you check the running time on the back of the movie so you’re getting a movie over an hour rather than 30 minutes.) If it’s a long trip we stop by a redbox before we leave and rent a couple of movies for $1 and return them as soon as we get to our destination.
We also have a handheld toddler gaming system. Lily’s is a MobiGo which has learning games for different age groups for her to play when she gets bored with the movie.
Snacks are also important. I always have a cold cup of juice to start out the trip as well as an additional empty cup in my bag for a midway stop and new drink. I have found that 100 calorie packs are the perfect size for a snacking toddler. They pack easy and require little cleanup.
Know in advance that you will inevitably have to stop more with a little one than you did when it was just you. They need to get out and stretch their legs and move around a bit. I like to look up interesting stopping points along the route ahead of time that I think Lily may enjoy seeing. This breaks up the trip and makes the riding seem less dull.

4. The Hotel: There is an insane amount of hotel choices around the Disney area. Your choice of hotel is all up to preference. My personal preference is hotels in the Downtown Disney area. I like to pick one with a free shuttle to all of the Disney parks as parking is $14 a day at the parks. That’s enough daily savings to enjoy lunch at the park! Also, I always find a room that has a mini fridge and microwave. These are invaluable when traveling with little ones!

5. The Food: Eating at Disneyworld can be very expensive, if you let it be! We always head straight to the WalMart that’s a few miles away from Downtown Disney after checking into our hotel to stock up on staples such as milk, cereal, canned sodas, bread and peanut butter. But we also get snacks such as 100 calorie packs, individual bags of chips, apples, bananas, string cheese and yogurts. If you have a microwave in your room individual bowls of Chef Boyardee are great for late night meals before bed.
Breakfast is usually in the room and consists of a bowl of cereal and milk and in room coffee. (I buy my own small bottle of creamer to keep in the refrigerator as I don’t like the powdered kind.) We then pack the cooler with bottled waters, canned sodas and yogurts. The other snacks as well as a couple of PB&J’s go into our backpack.
We normally eat one full meal at the park at a counter service restaurant. You could have a sit down meal at a table service restaurant if you want but we prefer to eat at our own pace and enjoy the people watching associated with the outdoor seating. Also, most table service restaurants have a counter service partner close by that provides a few of their meals at a less expensive price. A few of our favorites include:
Pecos Bill’s (Magic Kingdom-Frontierland): We love their taco salad. For around $8.99 they provide you with the taco shell and meat, you then get access to their toppings bar which has shredded lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cheese, nacho cheese sauce, salsa, peppers, sauteed onions and mushrooms, etc… This is where you get the most for your money. They have condiment cups provided so you can fill these up with extra tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, etc. to eat on the side. This one salad easily fills up my husband, myself and Lily when accompanied by our own drinks, yogurt and fruit from our cooler. That is a full meal for under $9!

Yorkshire County Fish Shop (Epcot-England): Fish and Chips, need I say more? This partner to the next door Rose and Crown Pub serves a basket of traditional Fish and Chips for around $8. This comes with 2 good sized pieces of battered white fish on a bed of french fries with malt vinegar and ketchup. This isn’t a huge portion but if you aren’t in the mood for a big meal this can fill up 2 people. One tip: enjoy the outdoor seating available behind the restaurant. The view is of the World Showcase Lagoon and various countries in the distance.
Sommerfest (Epcot-Germany): Looking for a meal to fill you up? Go to the very back of the German pavilion in Epcot and you will find this counter service establishment. For under $12 we enjoyed a traditional bratwurst on a fresh hoagie roll piled high with sauerkraut as well a hand rolled (gigantic) pretzel! Between the 3 of us, this was plenty. Be sure to get the spicy brown mustard for your bratwurst, it adds just the right kick!
Earl Of Sandwich (Downtown Disney Marketplace): If you’re at Downtown Disney shopping you should try this counter service sandwich shop. They have huge sandwiches that will easily feed 2 adults when accompanied with chips for around $7!
We always splurge a few times on snack items for Lily like a soft serve ice cream or funnel cake because it is part of the Disney experience!

6. The Stroller When deciding which stroller to take to the parks most people automatically think umbrella stroller to save space. I disagree. When you’re already packing most of  your house as it is, why skimp here? I always bring a full size stroller for several reasons:
Child Comfort- Have you ever seen a kid in an umbrella stroller look comfortable? I haven’t. When you plan on keeping your child corralled in a stroller for hours a day don’t you want them to have a comfortable seat that they will actually want to sit in?
Cupholders: Umbrella strollers don’t have cup holders. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, does it? It does when it’s 98 degrees outside and your child wants you to hold their cup because it keeps falling out of their stroller. Or when you have to stop every few minutes to get a drink because you have nowhere to keep yours handy. Cupholders are essential to both you and your child, believe me!
Convenience: With most full size strollers you have a basket underneath. This is necessary if you take a cooler with you unless you want to carry it around with you while you walk 7 miles a day across the parks. Also, you can hang any other belongings, purchases, etc… on a mommy hook (if you don’t have one, I highly recommend getting one!) clipped to the back of a full size stroller.

7. The Backpack: This one bag, if packed correctly, can change the course of your trip. Here’s a few things I always keep in mine:extra change of clothes for each girl (something simple and lightweight)

  • extra diapers
  • hats for both girls
  • extra sunblock
  • band-aids (blisters can pop up on your feet out of nowhere)
  • snacks (bananas, apples, 100 calorie packs)
  • extra drinks for the cooler to replace the ones we drink
  • empty spare sippy cup
  • ID’s, tickets, money (in one zip top pouch for easy access)
  • lip balm
  • camera and extra battery
  • car keys

8. The Bathroom Bag:   This is one of my favorite tricks and one that I always pass along to other parents taking potty training toddlers or babies in diapers to the parks. Have a bathroom only bag. I use a small reusable shopping bag that I clip to my mommy hook and fill with 2 pull ups, 3 diapers, a pack of wipes, diaper cream and Lily’s travel potty seat. When we need a potty break, I simply grab this one bag and go. No digging through bags to find what I need. The essentials are all together in one convenient place.
If you’re curious about me saying Lily’s travel potty seat, let me explain. We bought Lily’s potty seat at WalMart but they also have them at Target. It is a plastic seat made for toddlers that folds up into quarters that opens and you place on the toilet so that the toddler has their own seat. Genius! It comes in its own plastic bag that you can keep in your diaper bag. We take it everywhere. Hers is Disney Princesses (of course!) They sell for around $12.

9. The Souvenirs: No trip to the world is complete without a souvenir. One trick we always use: when we go to WalMart by Disney before we even hit the parks we let Lily pick out a couple of souvenirs. They have a huge section of licensed Disney merchandise at cheap prices. She usually picks out a small plush character for $6.00 (that sells for about $15 in the park.) T-shirts are around $8 where you would pay over $20 for one in the park. She takes her Disney plush and wears her shirt to the park and usually doesn’t ask for anything because she is already holding a doll and wearing a shirt that look just like what they are selling.

10. The Baby Care Centers: One of the most important tips I can share is the Baby Care Centers. Many people don’t even know these exist but they are incredibly useful if you have a toddler or baby in diapers. Each park has its own Baby Care Center which is located next to First Aid. Inside each Center is a changing room complete with multiple changing tables each topped with a fresh liner (by the Center attendant), a toddler play room with Disney movie playing and toys to play with, restroom facilities, baby merchandise room with onesies, diapers, formula, bottles, etc… (anything you could possibly need for your baby), as well as a microwave for heating bottles. The center at Animal Kingdom even has separate nursing rooms for breastfeeding mamas. These are rarely busy as many people aren’t aware they are there. I make use of them every time I go. They offer toddlers the ability to use the potty in a calm environment and run around in air conditioning. Babies can be changed and eat without loud noises and distraction. Find out where these are immediately and use them often!!

11. The Attractions: It’s the whole reason you go, right? Here’s a few must sees when braving the lines with a toddler:
One tip: Don’t stress the rides so much! They’re toddlers, they aren’t as into the rides as they are the experience as a whole and long lines aren’t much of an experience. Skip the rides with long lines (even if they are the ones you want to do).
Magic Kingdom:
* Make sure you take them on “It’s a Small World.” The line moves quickly and I have never met a child who didn’t love it!
* The Dumbo ride in Fantasyland is always fun. If the line is long there, the Aladdin Magic Carpets in Adventureland are very similar and usually not as crowded.

*Be sure to check out “The Seas” with Nemo and Friends. The Finding Nemo ride is here but there is so much more like huge aquariums that house dolphins, sharks, manatees, and, of course, a Nemo or two. Also, be sure to catch “Turtle Talk with Crush.” This is a live interactive show with Crush from Finding Nemo and fun for parents and kids.
*Another must do is the Donald Duck boat ride inside the Mexico Pavilion at Epcot. The line moves fast and kids love riding in boats!

Animal Kingdom:
*Fast Pass the Safari Ride at Animal Kingdom if the line is too long. It is worth the wait! You take an open air safari jeep through the Savannah and see lions, elephants, hippos, rhinos, giraffes, etc… in seemingly natural environments.
*Also at Animal Kingdom is the Wildlife Express Railway to Rafiki’s Planetwatch. This is a train ride that takes you to the petting zoo where kids can pet goats and other small animals. Sometimes you can meet Rafiki and Pocahontas here.
* “The Festival of the Lion King” is a must see show at Animal Kingdom. Great music, bright colors and cirque du soleil style acrobatics are combined for a show that everyone will love!

Hollywood Studios:
* If it’s open, be sure to take little ones to the “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” play area at Hollwood Studios. What kid wouldn’t want to slide down a film strip?
* Also at Hollywood Studios is Disney Junior Live! on stage. If you have preschoolers, chances are they will know every character in this show which uses puppets to bring to life their favorite shows such as Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Jake and the Neverland Pirates and the Little Einsteins.
* The “Beauty and The Beast” show is a Broadway style production that tells the story in condensed form. They have big musical numbers and dramatic set changes that will keep little ones attention. It is shown in a large outdoor amphitheater so there is usually no problem getting a seat and it is a nice place to sit and enjoy the shade for bit!

12. The Mouse:  M-i-c-k-e-y- M-o-u-s-e! Mickey Mouse! Everybody, young or old, wants to meet the mouse. He is the reason for the parks after all. Where can you find him? Well, at every park, of course! Here’s where to find the big guy, um, mouse….
Magic Kingdom: If you haven’t been to MK in a couple of years there have been some drastic changes taking place. Toontown is no longer there! They are in the middle of giving Fantasyland a complete overhaul and have wiped out Toontown in the process. Micky Mouse can now be met in the Town Hall Theater which is located to the right of the square as you enter the park. Also there: Minnie Mouse, Belle, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.
Epcot: Epcot’s Character Greetings take place in a specified location in the park just to the right of the huge water fountain as you enter the park. All the main characters are there including Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, Pluto and Daisy. The wait time here is worth it as once inside you go directly from one character to the next with no waiting. So essentially there is only a one time line rather lines for each character which works out to be faster!
Hollywood Studios: Mickey is found here at the end of the Magic of Disney Animation building. He is sometimes joined by Minnie and is wearing his sorcerer hat from Fantasia.
Animal Kingdom: This is my personal favorite place to meet the Mouse. Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and sometimes Daisy and Pluto are located in Camp Minnie Mickey by the Festival of the Lion King Theater which is to the left when entering Discovery Island in front of the Tree of Life. Each character has their own Greeting Trail under a shaded pavilion and are wearing their safari outfits. The best time to hit this spot is during the “Festival of the Lion King” when most visitors to this area are inside the show. The show lasts about 30 minutes so get there shortly after one begins and you can beat the crowd that assembles when the show ends!

And finally, the single most important tip of all. The one that if you follow and take to heart will change the entire trip:

12. Parents, please remember, a trip to Disney is not about you!
Hard to hear, I know, but true!
If you allow yourself to see “the world” through your children’s eyes you will open yourself up to more joy than you could have ever imagined to find at Disneyworld.
The wonder of Disney is in the magic it brings to a child.
Let yourself experience their magic and you will find yours.

“A Dream is a wish your heart makes, when you’re fast asleep.”



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