It’s the happiest place on earth, but I’m going to let you in on a secret. It’s not. Disney World is the most miserable place on earth, and I say that as a Florida native who has had annual passes for the past 15 years of my life.
Living a little over an hour from the Disney parks seems like a dream come true, but it’s just a nightmare. Don’t get me wrong…it wasn’t always.
When our oldest daughter was a toddler, we’d drive down to Disney on a Friday evening. We’d park, walk into the park (it’s faster to walk rather than wait for the tram), and be on our first ride in under 30 minutes. Our family would do 5-6 rides between 6:30 pm and 9 pm, eat, and we’d head home – and that was without fast passes. We’d leave home at 5 and be home by 10-10:30 at the latest.
By the time the twins were three or four, the park was so busy that it started talking well over an hour to get from the car to the park. We’d have three fast passes, ride two rides and miss the third because there were so many people in the park we couldn’t get around, and we’d leave. And by leave, I mean the park officials would open up the ‘back streets’ behind Main Street to offset the number of people not moving on Main Street.
Disney is not what it once was, and we didn’t renew our passes at the beginning of 2020 when they expired. We have no regrets. If you’re interested in visiting Disney, go for it. But do note that it’s going to take you all day, it’s going to be miserable, and you’re not going to find the kind of magic that existed in the past.
What is the Best Advice for Going into Disney?
As a lifelong Floridian who gave that up a few years ago, I’d tell you to avoid Disney if at all possible. Magic Kingdom is overcrowded, overdone, and tired. Try Hollywood Studios – the rides are better, and you can get a cocktail. I’d suggest Epcot if you haven’t any kids. If you have kids, they’ll be bored at Epcot (and so will you if you’re not there during the Food and Wine Festival). Animal Kingdom is okay. It’s no one’s favorite, but those who love the Avatar movies enjoy that park for the ride.
There are a few tips and parenting hacks that might get you through a fun-filled family vacation at Disney, though. If you’re a Disney lover, here are a few tips that will help you get through the park with your kids in one piece, as sane as possible, and without divorcing your family. Probably. Practice patience. It’s a virtue, but it’s not going to be easy.
Disney Dining Hacks
The single most important thing you need to know about visiting Disney is that dining is not easy if you don’t have reservations. You can make reservations for any in-park dining via the Disney Reservations website. Reservations are open for sixty days prior to your visit, and I recommend you sit and wait on the computer for a reservation sixty days before your visit if you want to dine with Belle in her castle or several of the other character meals.
You’re unlikely to get a reservation if you wait until right before your trip to book, and you will need to call the parks and/or restaurants for reservations of six people or more. If you’re dining at Disney Springs, allow plenty of time to park and walk to get to your restaurant. Now, here’s where we bring you the other parenting hacks you need to know when dining at Disney.
Five Dining Hacks
1. You can – and should – bring your own food into the park. You can bring bottled water, snacks, coolers, food, whatever you want into the park. They do not care as long as it is not alcohol – and even that can be placed in a water bottle and taken in if you’re so inclined.
2. Disney Character Dining reservations are easier to secure if you go outside of the Magic Kingdom. Want to dine with the princesses? Everyone does, but it’s not easy to get a reservation at the Magic Kingdom’s Crystal Palace. There’s a great little restaurant in Norway (I’m almost positive it’s Norway) at Epcot, and it’s much easier to get reservations there. Last time we were there, we secured reservations on the same day for lunch with Cinderella, Belle, Jasmine, and Sleeping Beauty. I believe it’s Akershus Royal Banquet Hall. Breakfast with Minnie and Mickey? Forget dining at the Contemporary Resort – make a reservation at the Tusker House restaurant. It’s less crowded.
3. Buy the popcorn bucket. It’s expensive, but it’s only $2 to refill it the entire time you’re visiting. Did I mention Disney popcorn is actually amazing?
4. Go into any dining establishment for free ice water. Bottled water at Disney is not cheap. If you are visiting on a budget, you can drink ice water from any restaurant free of charge. Just go in, ask for a cup of ice, and go help yourself to water from the fountain. They’re going to give it to you each time, no questions asked.
5. Download the Disney app and take advantage of mobile ordering. This prevents you from waiting in long lines at ‘quick’ service restaurants. Order ahead, pick up your food, and go.
Disney Resort Hacks
Okay, here is my unpopular opinion: Do not bother with a Disney Resort. They’re crowded, they’re not even remotely close to luxurious, and they’re overpriced. If you don’t mind being a few minutes from the park, I’d highly suggest the Omni Orlando Resort at Championsgate. The restaurants are superb, and it has the best pool area in Orlando. The staff is friendly and accommodating, the resort is upscale and lovely, and it’s never too busy. If you insist on staying on Disney property, the Four Seasons is the way to go. It’s just too crowded. The Grand Floridian is the other nicer option, but it’s dated and older. Here are the other Disney hotel hacks you might appreciate.
Five Resort Hacks
1. Eat at the hotels even if you’re not staying in them. Some people are unaware they can do this, but they can, and they should.
2. Watch Disney fireworks from the hotels. The best view of the Disney fireworks is going to come from the top of the Contemporary. You can visit there without being a guest.
3. Book a Disney room surprise for the kids. If you are staying onsite, you might request a super cool plush item, a cake, or even balloons.
4. Don’t say you are bringing more than four guests when you book your room. If your kids are small and willing to share a bed, do not say you have more than four people in a room. Most rooms do not accommodate more than four guests, and you’ll either pay for a much more expensive suite or they’ll force you to book two rooms. Here’s a piece of advice – as long as the square footage of the room is more than 350 square feet, there is plenty of room to bring an air mattress to throw on the floor at night for an extra child or two.
5. Specifically request a room far from the elevators – and maybe even as far from them as possible. If you’re insistent on staying in a Disney hotel, you’re going to have trouble sleeping otherwise. Guests come and go at all hours of the night to make time for all the parks and activities, and that means you’re going to listen to screaming babies, laughing kids, and families up and down the hall at ungodly hours. Ask for a room as far from the elevator as possible. It’s a long walk, but it’s a quiet night.
Disney Helpful Hacks
There are so many things to see and do and buy, but how do you see and do and buy them all and still get around without stress? Do you really need a big stroller? What do you put in the diaper bag? Here’s everything you need to know.
Five Must-Know Hacks
1. Ask and you shall receive. Every single item you purchase at Disney can be held, shipped to your on-site hotel room, or picked up before you leave.
2. Skip the big stroller, but do not rent a Disney stroller. There is no storage in a Disney stroller. Everyone and their mom has one, and you’ll never find it in a sea of parked strollers. Get a cheap umbrella stroller.
3. Skip the parking lot parking. Okay, so this is one of my favorite ways to get into the park without the long walk and the extra travel. Forget the Disney parking lot, and pay the extra money to valet or self-park at the Grand Floridian or the Contemporary. You can skip the extra wait time and the extra lines and hop right on the monorails from the hotels and you’re one stop from the park. It’s going to save you 30-45 minutes – and it’s worth every penny.
4. Do prepare for the weather. It’s Florida, friends. You’ll get wet. Pack your bags accordingly. Make sure your little ones have a change of clothes. Make sure you have some ponchos – you can buy them at the park, but they’re difficult to find once it’s already raining. Wear shoes you can get wet in and not be bothered.
5. Utilize Disney babysitting. This is a service offered by every hotel, and you can even drop your little ones off at the Disney Beach Club Resort on the Disney Boardwalk for an hourly fee. They get to go to Pirate camp, and you get to go to dinner or book a massage or take a nap…whatever. These babysitters are highly trained, highly certified, and they have undergone the most stringent background checks. Now, I wouldn’t use a babysitter in a hotel because I’m uptight, but we have used the Omni Kids Camp before, and our kids loved it. It’s a lot of kids, a lot of fun, and we stay right on property so the kids are playing games, eating dinner, and hanging out while we get to dine on our own.
Florida Hacks for Disney Travelers
Listen…not every parenting hack is Disney Park related, specifically. But you need to know them. As a lifelong Floridian, here is what you need to know about Disney and Orlando – and these are the hacks that will help you more than any other.
Five Need To Know Hacks
1. Get to the airport early. If you are flying out of Orlando International Airport, don’t think you’ll make it through the standard security line in the standard two hours. It’s the worst, busiest, most insane airport security line in the world.
2. Rent the Car. You can do the Disney transport, but it’s not worth it. You might be on your hotel bus for hours waiting to get to your theme park. Rent a car. It’s the only way to get around Orlando. Sure, you can Uber, but those drivers are always so busy that it’s regularly hit or miss.
3. Avoid visiting between June and October. It’s too hot, too humid, the weather is a disaster, and there are too many people. Skip March, too, because of Spring Break. December is packed, but the weather is manageable. If you can, go in January or February. It’s the best time to visit and avoid the biggest crowds. However, do pack – AND USE – your sunscreen no matter when you visit.
4. Don’t spend every single day at the parks. There is so much to do in Orlando that is more fun than Disney.
5. Finally, talk to your kids about what to do if they get lost at Disney. Find a cast member immediately. It’s not difficult to get lost with all of the people, and it does happen.
Disney is the most magical place on earth, even if I am a cynic and no longer as much of a Disney lover as I was in the past. It is absolutely worth a visit, and it will be fun. You will be exhausted, tired, overwhelmed, annoyed, and frustrated while you’re there, but you will look back on the good memories and forget the less than ideal ones.
Additional Parenting Hacks