A mom’s guide to Disney

It’s happening. You’ve made the declaration and (you think) you’re ready: 

Kids, we’re going to Disney World!

Then it hits you: After the euphoria of the Disney announcement subsides, the daunting task of planning looms ahead. When it comes to Disney, there’s no shortage of information, friendly advice and must-do recommendations. 

But the “info overload” — combined with self-inflicted pressure to create magical moments for your kids — can make a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth feel anything but. 

So how does one go about capturing the magic and maintaining sanity in the process? 

Read on for the best Walt Disney World hacks, gathered from seasoned pros and parents, top travel websites, Facebook groups and travel writers. 

Not only are these top Disney tricks a culmination of the best tips out there, but each one was also vetted by my family on our recent magical adventure to Orlando, Florida. 

Armed with these invaluable tips, you’ll be ready to enjoy the Disney vacation you’ve always imagined.

Pick the right dates.

For some families, travel dates may be limited to specific weeks. However, if at all possible, avoid the busiest times and the largest crowds. According to Carl Trent, creator of DadsGuidetoWDW.com, the worst times to visit Disney World are the weeks of Presidents Day, July Fourth, Christmas, Spring Break and the month of August. 

If your travel dates are flexible, consider planning your visit around the most necessary experiences. For example, our daughters — ages 7 and 5 — most wanted to “eat with the princesses.” 

Before we even bought airline tickets or made reservations for lodging, I called to make dining reservations for our family at Cinderella’s Royal Table. (For more on dining and reservations, see Hack 4). After we secured that coveted reservation — and booked princess makeovers at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique — we selected our travel dates, flights and lodging. 

Work the lodging options.

Will your family stay within Walt Disney World Resort or at a hotel outside? Some of the advantages of staying in the theme park include special access to ride and restaurant reservations; Magical Express transportation to/from the parks and the airport; Extra Magic Hours; and extraordinary themes/decor in resort hotels and swimming areas. For a complete listing of Disney hotels and an analysis of each resort’s strengths and weaknesses, get the book, The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids.

On the other hand, staying outside the resort/theme park offers distinct advantages, too — mainly cost savings and independence. 

Our family chose to purchase a vacation though Bluegreen Getaways — a  two-bedroom condo for $997 for four nights, plus four tickets to Disney World (good for two days in the Magic Kingdom, one of four main theme parks) and a $100 gift card. 

The catch? We had to attend a two-hour sales presentation about Bluegreen’s other vacation and timeshare options. Childcare was provided. And, for us, the cost savings and amenities were worth the time spent in the sales presentation. 

To save even more money, we rented a car and drove to a nearby grocery store to buy food; then we prepared many of our meals and picnic lunches in our condo kitchen. The condo was roomy and spacious for our family of five. And since it had two bathrooms, we were able to set up our infant’s pack-and-play in one bathroom to create a dark, quiet nursery.

Whether you choose a vacation package or other hotel accommodations outside of Disney, eating just one meal per day outside of the park can help you easily recoup the cost of a rental car during your stay. Plus, your family might want some Disney downtime away from the park. We enjoyed evening outings to Medieval Times dinner theater and Old Town Orlando for less expensive Disney souvenirs and a variety of amusement park rides, all with much shorter lines. 

Set expectations. 

To prepare yourself and your family, think about your hopes for the trip and ask for your family’s input. If your kids are old enough to be a part of planning, allow each child to choose an activity for the family to enjoy together. For younger kids who are Disney first-timers, show them YouTube videos of the park and its attractions to set their expectations. 

A preview won’t ruin the actual experience for your kids — it will prepare them to enjoy it. Kids feel more comfortable knowing what to expect and will savor getting excited about certain rides. Our girls loved looking at our Disney guidebook to “shop” the rides and then watched a YouTube video to decide if each ride looked fun or scary. 

If there is anything I’ve learned so far as a parent, it’s that our kids will surprise us. For example, obviously The Haunted Mansion was something our girls wouldn’t want to do. But I didn’t predict that Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid would include an automated Ursula octopus that frightened our 7-year-old. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids includes a super-helpful section rating each ride’s small-child fright potential. 

Adult expectations should be set ahead of time as well. Disney, with all its wonder and fantastic sights, is also crowded and over-stimulating. Even the most mild-mannered, calm child can lose it. Several families recommend taking a midday break from the action and returning to the hotel for lunch and a nap or swim. 

Try not to be crushed if your child’s favorite memory from your Disney vacation is swimming in the hotel pool. (It’s actually pretty common, especially for kids younger than 8, according to travel writer Bob Sehlinger.) 

Choose dining wisely.

Eating at Disney is expensive and the cost can really add up. However, unlike many other theme parks, Disney World allows guests to bring food. Save money and time standing in lines by packing a picnic and bringing your own food, beverages and snacks into the park. 

If you have a stroller, load up a soft-sided cooler (we bought one for a few dollars at the local grocery store) and stash it underneath. There are spaces, such as Tom Sawyer Island, Liberty Square or Rapunzel’s Village in Magic Kingdom, to relax and enjoy your picnic lunch with exceptional people-watching. 

If you’ll be staying in the park and won’t have a rental car, you can ship non-perishable food and supplies to your hotel before leaving for your trip. By saving money on some meals, you’ll be able to splurge a bit on other dining experiences. Our daughters both said breakfast at Cinderella’s Royal Table was their favorite part of the Disney trip. 

The Bergler family of Woodbury had a similar memorable experience: “We did the princess brunch in the castle and that was awesome. Good food and it was the highlight of Mikayla’s trip.”

Reservations for dining experiences can be made up to 180 days in advance (190 days, if you’re staying at a Disney property) at disneyworld.disney.go.com or by phone. If you’re not able to make reservations that far in advance or are hoping for a last-minute reservation, the Brendel family recommends using mousedining.com, which helps families get difficult character reservations by allowing you to set notifications for available reservations or cancellations.

Learn the system. 

The Disney World machine includes Magic Your Way, FastPasses and Extra Magic Hours.

Yes, it can all seem overwhelming. But understanding the system can help you maximize your time. 

As soon as your travel and lodging have been booked, download the free My Disney Experience app. This app will help you view wait times for rides, make reservations, maintain your daily itinerary and make FastPass selections. 

Magic Your Way is Disney’s travel-package program. It includes park tickets and resort lodging options you can customize by adding or excluding features or dining plans. For example, if you don’t intend to visit more than one park per day, you don’t need the Park Hopper feature, which allows you to hop to different Disney parks throughout the day. 

Note: Disney changed its ticket pricing as of October 2018; be sure to verify all prices before you purchase tickets or plans. 

Extra Magic Hours are available only to visitors staying at Disney properties. On a selected day of the week, certain parks within Disney World will open one hour early, or remain open two hours later, for visitors to take advantage of the extended hours for rides, attractions and shows. 

The FastPass program, meanwhile, allows you to make reservations for rides up to 30 days in advance (60 days for visitors staying at a Disney property) to avoid long wait times. All FastPass reservations must be made using a computer, mobile device or an in-park kiosk. You can make up to three FastPass reservations for three different rides/attractions per day. After you’ve used all three FastPasses within a day, you can make more FastPass selections for that same day. When you make a FastPass reservation, you have a one-hour window to arrive and use the pass. If you’re late, it’s possible to lose your reservation, so carefully mapping your itinerary is key. 

Bring babies!

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Disney was very baby-friendly. In addition to our school-age daughters, we brought our 7-month-old baby girl. 

Disney offers impressive Baby Care Centers with a variety of supplies available to purchase, as well as a quiet, dim room with recliners and rocking chairs for nursing. There are also sinks for washing supplies, bottle warmers and a sitting room with a TV for older children. Since I was exclusively pumping milk to feed my daughter, I was able to leave my breast pump at the First Aid station, right next to the Baby Care Center, during the day and pick it up when needed. I could even bring my baby on a variety of rides, safely on my lap, including It’s a Small World, The Magic Carpets of Aladdin, Prince Charming Regal Carrousel, Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and the Jungle Cruise. 

If you don’t want to take your baby on a ride, you can notify a Disney Cast Member and take advantage of a Rider Switch Pass: This allows adults to “switch off,” so both are able to ride without waiting in line twice. If you bring a stroller, Disney has convenient, designated areas near each attraction for stroller parking. I’d recommend bringing a Baby Ergo or a similar carrier, especially if your baby is able to nap in it. 

The most important part of the planning process is to carefully consider what will bring your family the most joy. Seeing and doing everything may not be what matters most. After your vacation is over, what do you want your kids to remember? You dragging them through the park all day long at a breakneck pace or enjoying each moment? It’s really about having time together and discovering Disney in your family’s own unique way.

That’s how magical memories are made. 

Laura Ramsborg is a literacy coach, freelance writer and mother of three daughters. She lives in Bloomington. Follow her on Twitter at @MsRamsborgReads.