My family and I travel while I run my company Purveyor of Geekery
My husband came through the door Friday… about 6 hours earlier than normal. He was white as a ghost, drenched in sweat and hunched over. He made a beeline for the bedroom. It was the first time in the three years that I’ve known him that he came home from work early. There was no way he was making it on the trip to Disney World this weekend.
Usually I would just reschedule, but we were meeting one of my best friends from out of town and her family who I haven’t seen in years. There was no way I could cancel, and even if I could, my husband values a quiet house when he is sick, so laying in bed sick listening to me yell at kids through the walls wasn’t going to be his idea of a good time either.
Planning & Packing
- Bring backup. The closer that you can get the playing field to a 1:1 ratio, the better. Especially if you have younger kids. When I went to Disney World growing up, my mother and father were separated so each took us on different occasions. We lived up north so there was air traveling involved and we stayed for a week or so each time. Each of them brought someone else along to even the adult to chaos ratio down to 1:1. This time I had a 3:1 ratio for the first part of the weekend, then met up with friends for a 5:3 ratio. We were still outnumbered but evened it out a bit by recruiting the oldest child to Team Adult with a few tasks and responsibilities every once in a while, which brings me to…
- May the odds be ever in your favor. My oldest daughter is 8. My youngest daughter is 6. There is a vast difference in maturity between being 8 and being 6, and as such the 8 year old was able to help me keep an eye on her younger siblings, push the push chair and be my general wingman. Also, being over the age of 7, she was able to ride a few rides in the park by herself, so we were able to work with our odd numbers. If you are considering taking the kids to Disney without an equal 1:1 parent/child ratio, you may want to consider waiting until the ratio of people over the age of 7 is a little more promising. We had 2 over, 2 under, so 1:1 odds were good.
- Plan on going during the off peak season. Chip and Co. recommends scheduling your trip during off peak season. Trust me on this, even in your most vivid nightmares you can not comprehend the size of the crowds here and how easily they swallow up and spit back out the members of your party even as you watch them walking in front of you.
- Use a packing list. Stay organized with family packing lists before you even start filling the bags.
- Don’t pack your newest and best. You’ll be more focused on not losing kids than stuff so cut down on your stress and pack things that won’t be the end of the world if it gets misplaced. No one is going to noticed your Tory Burch sunglasses in the sea of millions at the parks anyway.
- Don’t pack brand new. Brand new clothing and shoes can rub wrong and Disney is not the place to find out your new things have a poor fit. Bring broken in clothes and shoes.
- Pack bright colors. Thank God neon is in style. Bright colored shirts, hats and hair things are easier to see through the crowds and Justice has loads of them. No, I’m saying dress your kids like 1990’s candy ravers, just make sure they are easy to see. Ok, maybe I am saying that a little.
- Pack glow in the dark things. Great for keeping an eye on people and things like strollers, glow in the dark or led things like hair clips, or glowing wires for push chairs (all my friends know the lowrider…) not purchased in the park will help separate yours from theirs.
- Pack pre-paid cellphones for the older kids. Preprogram your own numbers and the emergency numbers into prepaid, no contract cellphones and load up with enough minutes to get you through the vacation. Just be sure the company has service in Orlando, some smaller providers run on Sprint network and should be fine while others have their own regional networks and may not.
- Educate them. I talked with my kids when we were on the way (after they realized 2 hours into the trip that we were definitely not going to the zoo, like I had originally told them we were.) about general safety things while traveling and how they needed to listen or we’d have to leave the park. Everyone knew important details like phone numbers, hotel info, etc. Everyone knew the consequences of not listening (we’d all leave…instantly).
- Quiet Pools. When scheduling your Disney Resort look for resorts that offer multiple pools like Port Orleans Riverside. You won’t be able to keep them away from the main pool’s slide and fountain child magnets, but you can negotiate and play in the crowded pool for 30 minutes before moving to a much more manageable quiet pool.
- Bring or use life jackets. Disney supplies life jackets at their pools, but the sizes you need might not always be available. Buckle up the weaker swimmers in a vest while at the pool makes it easier to…
drag them through the water while herding them into a general area of water themed parent hell…keep your eyes and hands on everyone and everyone’s heads above water when you can’t, and by that I mean: come back to the pool when vests are available. It’s not worth the risk and there are loads of other things to do.
- Order groceries in advance. When we were checking in to our hotel there was a Garden Grocer van full of grocery orders sitting in the parking lot. People do this and it saves loads of time. Water. Water. Water. Water. Water. Water. Water. Buy water.
- Plan to pack ultralight the day you visit the theme parks.
- Let Disney do the hard stuff. ABCNews suggests using Disney’s Magic Express if you are flying in and staying at the Disney Resort. to help transport you and the bags to the resort.
- Pick the travel method best for your family. Traveling by plane is faster but you’ll have to navigate through the challenges of the airport, and it may cost more but with gas + car wear + hotel costs + meals, it might not depending where you are flying from. Traveling by car let’s you pack mule stuff but it takes longer and you’ll have to herd children in and out of the car for potty breaks and the like. Having a vehicle on the property may have its perks but after two days in a car are your kids really going to want to get back in it again to drive from the hotel to the resort? There is no one best answer here, sorry.
- Assign jobs to older kids. Asking the older kids to help with different jobs as they happen will make them feel more responsible, in turn making them act more responsible. “You’re in charge of pushing the stroller for the day” is good because it is a job with a constant reminder: the stroller isn’t going to move by itself.
At the parks
- Bring water bottles to the park. Florida heat is brutal under normal conditions. Florida heat on cement surfaces with little shade is even worse. My friends bought filtered water bottles and Mios since their kids weren’t big water drinkers. I brought two bottles of water each into the park and spent 3/4 of the day refilling them over and over and over. But bottles of water are $3 each in the park and requires a wait in a line, so we saved ourselves $60 just there. Yes, you can wait in line and get cups of ice for free but you’ll be spending most of your time there waiting in line for ice.
- Magic Bands. Tap and go in stores, food kiosks and restaurants may get you in trouble if you don’t watch how much tapping you do, but as your herd of kids are going separate directions away from the souvenir check out line with their newly acquired goodies, tapping the band is so much better than fumbling with credit cards and change…not to mention not even needing to bring the credit cards in to the park and worry about their location in addition to your kids. You can purchase Magic Bands at the souvenir shops if you aren’t staying at the resort itself, otherwise they come free with the room.
- Find a spot. Scarymommy suggests arranging a spot and time for older members to meet if you are unable to reach each other via cellphones for some reason. Do this. Don’t just rely on cellphone service, since as the day goes on and more people pile into the park, service gets thinner and thinner.
- Bring cages. Strollers. I was initially going to bring two strollers but only ended up bringing one for the 2 year old. In retrospect, I should have brought two, or a double. Something about children safely harnessed into a stroller is soothing when dealing with large crowds. It’s much easier to keep track of strollers in a crowded park than it is individual children. Taking a break from constantly counting heads (1…2…3..4… . . . .oh, 5) would have been a nice break to my anxiety levels. Additionally, you could initiate a “one kid in, one kid out” rule… rotating who is sitting in the stroller and who is stretching their legs with a walk, so you aren’t keeping track in the crowd of the six year old AND the two year old when he is tired of sitting.
- Strap them in. Baby carriers are nice, but I wouldn’t suggest relying on one for an entire day at the park for your toddler. Your chiropractor will love you…because your body will not. Use one around nap time when standing in line with the toddler…or better yet, schedule a “ride free” time during nap time where you spend some time taking in the sights of the park while the littles sleep in the comfort of the stroller. Definitely use slings for newborns and tiny babies. The ones we saw throughout the day were quite comfortable in their little carriers, plus you didn’t have to shuffle them out of the stroller for rides or restaurants. But remember: in Central Florida it gets hot early and someone thought painting the cement black in some areas of the park was a good idea so opt for lightweight carries like BobaAir or a mesh wrap style sling <-- Observe the word "mesh," remember: it gets to be about 112 in Florida, in the summer and Disney went a head and paved every square inch of their theme park for your sweltering pleasure. Mesh.
- Bring your own food. Bringing your own lunch and snacks means that you won’t need to learn to juggle kids and plates at some of Disney’s self service style restaurants and snack kiosks, It also means that you can pass out snacks to stave off hunger when half of your kids are ready for lunch and the other half are not yet there.
- Find sit down restaurants. If your children are passed the “burn the restaurant down” phase of their toddlerhood and can handle restaurants with dignity even when they are tired, hot, hungry and the restaurants are noisy and chaotic…maybe…maybe just bring your own food after all.
Stay as far away from Downtown Disney as possible. Downtown Disney has always been cramped, but for some reason in addition to the new parking garage they are putting in and the new expansions they are adding for 2014, half of the existing “park” is also walled off while they work on existing restaurants and stores. Everything is construction, everything is bottle necked and the stores are packed. Save your own sanity and bypass Downtown Disney until the expansions are complete in the next year or so.The expansions are complete and the new Disney Springs has LOADS of breathing room. It feels a bit like an outlet mall in the new parts, but it’s a good way to kill a day.
- Research rides before hand. This helps set realistic expectations among everyone at the park as far as what height requirements are and which rides will fit your party. It doesn’t have to be an exact schedule (BARNSTORMER AT 9 PEOPLE LET’S GO, WE’RE LATE!), but just have a general idea of which rides to aim for. About.com has a nice list of which rides will fit 3+ people, since it is hard to find this information on the Disney website itself but it hasn’t been updated with the new rides in a while. For instance, Under the Sea can fit 3 people but isn’t listed. The Tomorrowland Speedway will cause issues, I promise, but a commenter at mousechat.com suggests asking at the line entrance to see if there is anything that can be done to help, like a castmember riding with the spare child.
- Schedule your Fastpasses. MyDisneyExperience let’s you schedule 3 Fastpasses a day. This is per day, not per park, so if you are park hopping schedule accordingly. Take advantage of this and schedule your fastpasses for the top three rides you cannot miss and for later in the day. Ride lines are pretty light first thing in the morning…with the exception of the monorail from the parking lot that is, and sadly there is no Fastpass for this. Don’t waste your Fastpasses on rides where the line is half the fun, like the Dumbo ride which includes a play area with beeper system to wait in.
- Schedule indoor activities during the hot hours. Plan to see indoor shows like the Hall of Presidents and Country Bear Jamboree, rides with inside lines like the Haunted Mansion and Under the Sea and restaurants during the hottest parts of the Florida afternoon, usually from 1pm to 4:30pm to escape the heat. The afternoon grouch time is amplified by the scorching sun, so do what you can to minimalize it’s effect for your own sanity’s sake.
- Get photos. Hand your camera off to a Disney Castmember at character meets or Memory Maker spots to get a few good photos of your family during your vacation, you don’t have to pay anything or be enrolled in the Disney Memory Maker program to ask for a photo on your personal camera. If you’d rather leave the camera at home (one less thing to look after) Disney can handle the photos for you via their Memory Maker product.
- Bring entertainment. Lines can be long, and even a 20 minute line can feel like an hour and a half with bored kids. Disney has started working pit stops into rides, like the awesome play park at the Dumbo ride, but not all rides include them. Bring entertainment for long lines like bubbles, tiny activity books or even cellphones to help distract from the drudgery.
- Leave the competitive spirit at home. Collecting character signatures or pressed pennies is fun, but don’t turn it into a competition by trying to collect ALL of them. I guarantee you that unless you will be at Disney for a few weeks, you won’t get all the signatures…the lines are too long and there isn’t enough hours in the day for it. Just pick your favorite few and aim for them. Try to talk your kids out of Elsa and Anna for the time being, my friend said the line for them was 210 minutes long…and no Fastpasses are available.
- Schedule breakfasts for the characters you really want to meet. The more intimate environment is worth it and a great way to start off the day.
- Weed out distractions. The internet is full of money saving tips like doing pressed pennies and buying pins to trade with castmembers in the park, but honestly, there is so much to do at the parks that you won’t miss these things if you don’t do it. If you have a hyper focused child who is fixated on the next pressed penny, it could lead to tears and battles, or worse…a kid taking off into the throngs of people hyperfocused on the next penny and not staying mindful for safety sake.
- Forget the autograph books. Juggling multiple books and kids can get aggravating. If you have to get character signatures, consider consolidating it down to one small photo mat that you can frame with a trip photo at home later and have the kids take turns getting the characters to sign it. One thing to keep track of, not three plus pages, one.
- Leave before the fireworks. Trying to escape the park after the finale is madness. They’re just fireworks, you see them every summer. (HERETIC! THEY ARE DISNEY FIREWORKS WENCH! THEY’RE LIKE UNICORN TEARS.) Head back to your resorts before then for awesome Disney activities like movies on the lawn and smores by campfire.