Ask anyone at our house, and they’ll tell you they’d rather be at Walt Disney World eating the ears off a Mickey ice cream bar right about now.
20 trips to our “second home” since 2007 have taught us a few things about making the most of each visit, and for this post, I focused on tips and insider secrets that will make spending a long weekend (Thursday-Sunday) at the parks that much more pixie dusted for your family.
The very best time to visit Walt Disney World is mid-week during the off-season. That’s basically the last two weeks in September through the first two weeks in October. Not only is it still warm and sunny, but the crowds are significantly smaller than in the middle of summer. Bonus: Amazing Halloween decorations.
There are 23 themed hotels on property at Walt Disney World, situated around the four main parks – Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot and Animal Kingdom. Staying at one of these hotels during your visit is a must in my book, since you get a lot more perks.
Obviously, it’s important to consider price and location, but Disney does offer attractive hotel/dining packages throughout the year. Hotels are categorized deluxe, moderate or value, making it easier to figure out what works for your family’s budget. You’ll find wonderful amenities and magical touches no matter which category you choose.
Making firm plans at least 6 months in advance will give you more options when securing popular dining and experience packages. Other perks of staying on property include access to the Magical Express, a bus that that provides pickup to/from the airport and transportation on property to/from the parks; access to the monorail; Extra Magic Hours (extended operating times at the parks); and the convenience of having any purchases delivered right to your hotel if you choose.
As soon as you reserve, get yourselves MagicBands. The all-in-one devices can be customized by color (my daugher hearts the pinkest pink) and even monogrammed. They wirelessly connect you to the reservations you made online via My Disney Experience, an online planning tool that’s free to use with a reservation confirmation.
Use the bands to enter the parks (with valid theme park admission), unlock your hotel room and even make purchases. Lightweight and adjustable, the MagicBand also gives you FastPass+ access (think of it as a ride and attraction “reservation” service you can use up to 60 days in advance when staying on property) to all the experiences you selected online. Download Disney’s MyMagic+ app to make changes as you go.
Does someone in your family have a food allergy? Don’t worry. Disney is well versed in handling them. Our son has a life-threatening peanut- and tree-nut allergy, and Disney head chefs speak to us personally whenever it comes to our needs. This personal touch makes our family feel cared about, so don’t hesitate to ask for assistance.
Have a child with special needs? Again, Disney can help with a Disability Access Service Card (DASC). This free service is offered at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland and allows for certain accommodations for guests requiring special assistance. Handicapped visitors and those with “invisible” disabilities alike can gain access to alternate attraction entrances, use their child- and adult-size strollers as wheelchairs, and if available, sit in a shaded waiting area without losing their place in line.
Convenient Baby Care Centers throughout the parks offer parents an air-conditioned place to rest, feed and change their littles, in addition to offering a few sundries for purchase like formula, sip cups, pacifiers, diapers and the like. First Aid Stations are typically right near Baby Care Centers and can take care of a multitude of unexpected difficulties.
And while Orlando stays pretty sunny, sudden (and usually brief) cloudbursts are common. Rain ponchos can be found at most retail locations at the parks for a reasonable price, and should they tear for whatever reason, Disney will replace them at no cost. (Same goes for souvenirs purchased on property. Lifesaver.)
We’ve always preferred stocking up on Disney-themed beach towels and using them as canopies over our strollers in case of rain. Not only are they a lot less sweaty than being swathed in a plastic poncho, but once they dried, we could reuse them as lap covers when the temperatures dipped at night, and even as impromptu place savers when staking out spots to watch parades.
An important tip I share with anyone who has children, regardless of age, is to photograph them, front and back, before heading out to the parks each day. Should you become separated from your child, you’ll know exactly what they were wearing. Be sure your photo includes their shoes!
Also, we’re big fans of daily itineraries. Nerdy yes, but it helps prioritize what everyone wants to see and do during each visit.
Be sure to do some research to see which rides have FastPass+ reservations available or to find out which parks will have Extra Magic Hours during your stay. Daily events schedules are available at the entrances of each park, and will give you a rundown of special events (think parades and fireworks) that will be offered. Trying to do everything at every park every day is impossible, and is bound to make someone in your group cranky. You’ll be better off prioritizing a few things and then enjoying whatever comes your way.
In the end, despite the planning and the research and the reservations, focus on having fun. After all, family time is what’s most magical of all.
Photography by Pilar Clark