For Christmas this past year, my parents gifted the family with a trip to Disney World. Although we were excited for this experience and greatly appreciated the generosity, my husband and I had mixed feelings about whether or not our toddler was ready for such an experience. We were concerned she was too young to appreciate the signifcance, too small for the rides and would be terrified of the characters. We tried to be positive but our doubts crept in and we were nervous the trip would be a complete disaster.
However, we were pleasantly surprised with how well the trip went as a whole! Don’t get us wrong, there were a few rough patches like when our toddler refused to use any of the bathrooms and peed her pants in the stroller. Thankfully, it was pouring down rain and we were soaked anways! But overall, we were able to have an enjoyable and memorable first trip to Disney World.
Being accustomed to planning most of our travel adventures, I felt completely overwhelmed helping put together an agenda for our few days at Disney World that we ended up consulting a professional Disney planner. So much has changed at the parks since we were young! You no longer just show up and scan your entry pass. There are magic bands, fast passes and park hopper passes to understand and utilize. Not to mention a laundry list of character brunches, lunches, dinners as well as princess meet and greets to choose from during your visit.
These are our top tips for surviving your first trip to Disney World.
Park Rides and Attractions:
Disney’s main parks are the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. We researched each ride and attraction to determine what would be the most enjoyable for our 3 year old and how to allocate our fast passes (discussed in the next section). These are the rides by park we think a toddler would enjoy on their first trip to Disney World.
Under the Sea- The Journey of Ariel, Ariel Meet and Greet, Dumbo Ride, Enchanted Tells with Belle, Peter Pan’s Flight, Prince Charming Carousel, It’s a Small World, Tomorrowland Speedway, The Magic Carpets of Aladdin
*There is a parade each day at the Magic Kingdom at noon. Our child was thrilled to see her favorite characters walking down Main Street. In our opinion, the parade is a must do activity at the Magic Kingdom!
Frozen Ever After, Soarin’, Turtle Talk with Crush, Elsa and Anna Meet and Greet
Toy Story Mania, Alien Swirling Saucers, For the First Time in Forever: Frozen Sing-Along, Voyage of the Little Mermaid
Kilimanjaro Safaris, Na’vi Rivery Journey, Finding Nemo Musical, Festival of the Lion King Show, TriceraTop Spin
*You don’t want to miss the incredible firework shows! With a toddler, we were not in the parks late enough for the big displays at 9pm, but the Magic Kingdom had a great show at 6pm to light up Cinderella’s castle. Great for any small child!
*Disney also has two water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. However, it was too cold for these parks in December.
Disney allows guests to sign up for three fast passes per person per park each day. A fast pass will allow you to “skip” the regular line for any ride, show and/or character meet and greet. You will select a specific hour time window for your particular fast pass selection. Your fast pass selections will be loaded onto your magic band or Disney card which you will scan for entry at each selected activity.
We recommend selecting morning time slots. Once you have used your three allotted passes for the day, you can check the Disney app for more fast pass openings later in the day or evening to book more.
*Be mindful of your selections and times based on park location. You don’t want to schedule back to back times for rides at opposite ends of the park and have to hustle between the two.
*If you are staying at a Disney resort, you can sign up for your fast passes 60 days out of your schedule park visit. If you are staying at a non-Disney resort, you can only book fast passes 30 days out.
Park Hopper Pass:
In order to jump from one park to the next on the same day, you must purchase a park hopper pass. Our original plan was to stay at one park for the entire day given we were only there for three days. Our agenda was Magic Kingdom on the first day, followed by Animal Kingdom on the second day and Hollywood Studios on the third. Thinking there wasn’t much to entertain the toddler at Epcot, we planned on skipping that park.
However, it didn’t take long to realize the toddler was not that into the Animal Kingdom. After the excitement of the Magic Kingdom, a slow going walking trail to see the monkeys was not matching up. We decided to buy a park hopper pass and head to Epcot which ended up being a big hit with the small human. We had tacos for lunch in Mexico, met Elsa and Anna in Norway, munched on giant pretzels in Germany, shared gelato in Italy, listened to Christmas carols in the US, (the adults) sampled frose in France and checked out the Finding Nemo ride at the aquarium before calling it a day.
Meals and Reservations:
One of the more stressful aspects of planning our trip to Disney World was trying to find dinner reservations. Knowing we were a large party and visiting during a very busy time (between Christmas and New Years), we wanted to have reservations for our meals to avoid the scramble of finding a place to eat and limiting our time waiting on a table. However, we quickly realized we waited too long to make reservations and most places were already booked. We did manage a reservation for lunch at the Magic Kingdom and dinner that evening at the Grand Floridian. It was helpful for the overall flow of the day to know when and where we needed to be for meals, but not necessary.
By most evenings, everyone was tired from the day and wanted something quick and easy for dinner. Epcot is a great option for either a quick meal or a more formal sit down meal. Almost every country has a counter or cafeteria style option for what the park calls “quick service” which we enjoyed our last two evenings. Epcot’s dinner options were also another reason we were glad to have the park hopper pass.
Character Meet and Greets:
There are a number of opportunites to meet characters during your visit. One great option is a character meal with Mickey and Friends or Disney Princesses. We were lucky enough to snag reservations for lunch on New Years Eve at Hollywood and Vine Restaurant at Hollywood Studios with all the traditional Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Characters: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy and Goofy.
Chef Mickey at the Contemporary is another great option to meet these characters. Want a princess meet and greet, try a meal at Cinderella’s Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom or Akershus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot in Norway.
*Reservations fill up fast! And can be made up to six months in advance. If you know your travel dates that far in advance, go ahead and make a reservation to increase your chance of getting the day, time and characters of choice.
As previously mentioned, there are also opportunities and stops throughout the parks that offer character meet and greets. Fast passes can be used for these character interactions. At Epcot, you can meet Elsa and Anna in Norway and Belle in France. In the Magic Kingdom, Ariel is a meet and greet option as well as Winnie the Pooh.
However, we did not find many characters walking freely throughout the parks as we remembered from our childhoods. If you were to spot a character in the park, they would be accompanied by a Disney staff member and quickly ushered away from any forming crowd.
Total Trip Time:
We would recommend at least five full days to explore. We had a fun but exhausting three full days in the parks. Five days would allow you to spend two days at the Magic Kingdom and one day at each of the remaining parks: Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. We would recommend spending the mornings at the parks followed by the afternoons resting or enjoying the pools at your hotel before venturing back to the parks for the evening.