I just finished making a collage of photos from our Disney World vacation. The trip made us all so happy, I wanted to preserve the memories and hang them on our wall. That way, when it's snowy and cold, and we're all feeling tired and grumpy, we'll look at the smiling faces in the photos and feel the magic. That's why family vacations are so important. Even if you're worried about money or think you're too busy at work to take the time off. Even if it takes a week to pack and another week to unwind when you get home. It's still totally worth it! The best memories are made on vacation.
This trip was an extra special one, as we were celebrating our big kid's 4th birthday. Last year, after calculating how much it cost us to throw her a Sleeping Beauty birthday party complete with a visit from the princess herself, I decided we should put that money toward a family vacation instead. Skip the birthday party and go visit the princesses in their natural habitat.
Sunshine and warm weather for mommy and daddy. Disney for our daughters. A win-win for everyone. Truth be told, I loved meeting Cinderella and Sofia the First just as much as my kids did.
Even though our trip was fairly short, this post has the potential to be way too long. So, to save you from having to look through 500+ photos and hear every detail and inside joke from our trip, I've put together a Top 5 list that will hopefully help you plan and navigate your own trip with little kids. Before I begin, just a few logistics. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Club Vacations Resort - Orange Lake. It was the perfect accommodations (we had our own two-bedroom villa with a backyard!) and just a 10 to 15 minute drive from all of the Disney Parks. We rented a car and drove between Disney properties. I did all of the planning myself, using The My Disney Experience website. I booked our tickets and made restaurant reservations through the site and on the phone with the extremely helpful Disney cast members. Except for the cloudy, cold weather we had on our first two days (most of which we spent shopping!), it was the perfect vacation.
And, without further ado . . .
1. Make reservations (ASAP!). When we heard about the new Fantasyland section of Magic Kingdom, we were really excited. It had all been under construction the last time we visited the park. I was really hoping to take my daughter for a birthday dinner to the Be Our Guest Restaurant, but I had no idea that the whole restaurant would be booked up for the entire duration of our trip. (In fact, it had probably been that way for six months prior.) So, even if you haven't booked your flights yet, I'd suggest making dining reservations. You can do so on the phone or online, and for most restaurants you have up until 24 hours before your reservation to cancel. If you're unable to secure a reservation, keep trying. People say if you go online three times a day and try to get a table for the time-slot you're looking for, you're bound to find something, eventually.
2. Character dining is totally worth it! Dinner at one of the character-themed restaurants can be upwards of $150 for three people, but I found it was totally worth it to meet the characters in an up-close-and-personal setting. Especially because at all the theme parks you'll likely have to wait in line for character photo-ops, and once you finally get to the front of the line you're rushed through a series of photos and then sent on your way. At the character dining restaurants you can hang out at your table and the characters will come to you—giving you lots of time to take photos and interact with them. We were able to make advance reservations for three character meals, and we loved them all.
Our trip started with brunch at Chef Mickey's.
We celebrated Princess Willow's birthday with a princess dinner at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot. There, we got to meet Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Cinderella and Ariel—a totally magical experience.
And for lunch, we went to Hollywood & Vine at Hollywood Studios, where the kids got to dance and play with all of their favourite Disney Junior friends. If you've got kids who love Disney Junior, be sure to visit Disney's Hollywood Studios! The park has lots for kids and parents to see and do, and it's the only place you'll find characters like Doc McStuffins, Sofia the First, and Jake and the Never Land Pirates. Eeek! So exciting!
3. Go to Epcot! I hadn't been to Epcot since I was a kid, and I didn't remember how totally cool it was. It's beautifully situated on a lake with pavilions representing countries from around the world. You can expect lots of great food, shopping, performances, and character photo-ops. And, they serve beer and other mixed drinks in all the international pavilions. What could be better on a hot day?!
4. Don't make too many promises, and expect surprises. The only mistake we made on our trip was to promise my 4-year-old that she'd get to meet the Frozen sisters at Epcot. My husband and I were pretty excited about this too, since we'd all recently seen the movie and had become huge fans. We arrived at Epcot mid-day (we had Park Hopper tickets and visited Hollywood Studios in the morning and Epcot in the afternoon/evening), and headed straight for the Norway pavilion to find Elsa and Anna. Instead, what we found was a two-hour lineup. Two hours! There was no way I was spending two hours standing in line for a two second photo with these ladies. But my 4-year-old didn't see things my way. She was really disappointed when we said we weren't going to get to meet the girls after all. Luckily, after dinner we found the princess shop and caught a glimpse of Elsa and Anna hard at work posing with admiring fans. I was able to sneak a couple photos which seemed to ease my daughter's disappointment. Moral of the story: don't make promises unless you're sure you can keep them. It's impossible to predict what a day at Disney will bring, so it's better to have your kids delightfully surprised by something than disappointed when you can't make it a reality.
For us, the best surprise was catching the Disney street parade right as we were leaving Magic Kingdom. I had really wanted to see a parade, but my husband told me we'd missed it for the day. As we headed toward the park exit, around 5 pm, I saw some people sitting on the curb. I asked if they were waiting for a parade and, sure enough, one was just about to begin. Talk about leaving on a high note! Even my 11-month-old loved the parade . . . and she gave her very first wave to Woody from Toy Story. We were all dancing in the street!
5. Ride It's a Small World. Ask my daughter what her favourite ride at Magic Kingdom is, and she'll tell you: "it's a small world." Ask my husband what his favourite ride is, and he'll probably tell you the same thing. There is a brand new Little Mermaid ride, an awesome carousel, the classic Peter Pan ride, and the Magic Carpets of Aladdin, but the best ride of all, for kids of all ages, is the ride I remember most from my childhood trip to Magic Kingdom—It's a Small World. It will make you smile. It will make your heart happy. And you'll be humming the tune all day long.
One final tip: If you're celebrating a birthday, be sure to pick up a free celebration recognition button at the entrance to whatever park you visit first. With her name on a button, my daughter was wished "Happy Birthday" countless times by characters and cast members. She felt like a star!
Ok, just one more thing: bring a stroller! Even if your kid loves walking everywhere, he/she will get tired at Disney World (I guarantee it!). There's just too much ground to cover by foot. If you don't bring a stroller, you can rent one for the day. We brought our umbrella stroller for the big kid and our recently fixed UppaBaby for the little one. It worked out perfectly!
If you want more advice or travel tips, I'd be happy to share. Just leave your questions in the comment section below.
For more tips on How to Plan Your First Disney Vacation, read this! And, for older kids, check out Erica Ehm's post on Disney vs. Universal.