My family and I moved to Orlando in January. We got our Walt Disney World annual passes before our Florida driver's licenses. We couldn't wait to visit the parks with our one-year-old and three-year-old boys. Over the past seven months, we've been to the parks three-dozen times. We've gone multiple times a week, even to multiple parks per day. In that time, we have learned the best ways to maneuver the Magic Kingdom and make the most of our time there. I want to share with you some tips to making your next trip a resounding success. (Picture the Disney fireworks here.)
1. Set realistic expectations.
It might be called the Magic Kingdom, but there is no magical spell that casts away temper tantrums. Your kids will get tired, they will get hungry, and they will get on your nerves. That being said, I started off dreading the first trip, when actually, all four of us had a blast.
2. Have patience.
On our first trip to the Magic Kingdom, it took us 90 minutes to get through the front gate, to the parking lot, to the parking-lot tram, to the ticket line, to the monorail and, finally, to the castle. You and your kids will be chomping at the bit to get inside, but remember to enjoy the experience. To this day, my boys' favorite rides are the parking-lot tram and the monorail. Go figure.
3. Use the FastPass+ system.
Waiting in line with a squirming toddler for 65 minutes to ride Peter Pan is simply not an option for our family, and I doubt it is for yours either. FastPass+ is a fairly new (and free), program from Disney that allows you to legally skip in line, for up to three rides at one park per day. I am a Type A Planner Mom, so besides not having to wait in line, I enjoy having my agenda for the day. Since you only have three FastPasses, use them wisely. The teacups have a minimal wait, so save them for the popular rides like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin which can have waits of over an hour.
4. Meet the Characters.
When I was a kid, the characters roamed around the parks while dads snapped pictures at leisure. Things are different today. While you can see characters throughout the day performing on the castle stage and in parades, to actually meet them you have to go to designated places, and yes, you have to wait in line. Try Character Dining experiences at the parks and area resorts or you can use your FastPass+ to meet the princesses at Fairytale Hall or Mickey at the Main Street Theatre.
5. Go in the Off Season.
While the Magic Kingdom is busy all year, the busiest times coincide when kids are out of school: summer, spring break, Easter, Christmas. That means the less-crowded times are in the fall and winter. You can enjoy some wiggle room while walking around and also catch a break on the room rates. Plus, it's much, much cooler outside.
6. Child Swap.
Disney is for grown ups, too. Thanks to Child Swap, you can ride the roller coasters your kids can't, like Space Mountain, and then your spouse or friend who's waiting behind with the child can skip to the front of the line when you get back. Just be sure to get your Child Swap voucher which allows up to three members of your party to skip to the front of the line . Yea! Moms and dads have fun, too.
7. Single Parents Can Do It, Too.
I have taken the kids solo to Disney many times. Boarding the parking-lot tram with a stroller and two small children is nearly impossible, but the walk to the main gate isn't too bad, and at Magic Kingdom you can roll the stroller directly onto the monorail. The kids can stay strapped in the entire time, and you get a little extra exercise to earn your Mickey-shaped ice cream bar. Plenty of resources are available for parents including family restrooms, a comfortable area to nurse or pump, first-aid stations and stroller rentals on site. The stroller rental staff even inflated my tires on the stroller I brought from home. That's Disney service.
8. Bring Snacks.
Food at any theme park can be pricey. Sometimes it's worth splurging, like for a special character breakfast with the princesses or for a $4 Mickey-shaped ice cream bar, but other times it's just not worth it. My family brings a picnic into the park each time. Heck, I've even seen families rolling around oversized fishing coolers. Bringing in your own food and drinks saves money and also saves you from waiting in yet another line for food. Tom Sawyer's island in Frontierland is a fun and shady place to sit for a picnic away from the crowds.
9. Protect Your Feet.
You will be walking, walking, walking. Even on days I exercise on purpose, I still don't come close to approaching the steps on my FitBit as on a Disney day. Wear tennis shoes or comfortable flats or flip-flops. You'll also want to rest your feet, but that doesn't mean you have to take a time-out from the fun. Not only is it a Disney classic, It’s A Small World is a longer ride, giving you time to catch your breath. While my kids got a big laugh out of the Monsters, Inc. comedy show, I enjoyed sitting in an air-conditioned theater for 15 minutes. The train is also a fun way to travel around the park, with stops at Main Street, Frontierland and Fantasyland, saving some precious steps.
10. Start Early.
The parks open at 9 am, and if you're staying on property, you can sometimes get in earlier. Aim to be at the gates right when the park opens. While the masses head to Fantasyland, head straight to Adventureland and be the first to hop on Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Aladdin Magic Carpet ride, which is just like Dumbo with a fraction of the wait time.
11. Take a Break.
I've seen so many parents dragging their kids around who were crying from sheer exhaustion. Don't let this be you. After getting to the park early, have your picnic lunch and then head back to your hotel for a little afternoon nap or a dip in the pool. It's a great way to get out of the peaking heat, avoid the afternoon showers and re-energize for the evening. The Magic Kingdom's nightly parade starts at 9 pm followed by the 10 pm Wishes fireworks, and you'll definitely want to see this spectacular event.
12. Cherish Your Time Together.
A man walked up to me our first night at Disney and told me I was wasting money because our children were too young to remember the trip. First of all, kids under 3 are free so I say take advantage. But what I really wanted to tell him is that a vacation with your family is about living in the moment. My small children might not remember the trip, but I will. Raising children is a lot of work. Sometimes we just need a break from reality. A fun day at Disney with my family is just what I need to feel better about my world with small ones after all.
SLIDESHOW: Disney's Magic Kingdom
(Photos ©Laura Anders Lee)