We’ve been to Disney just once in Hong Kong and consider ourselves novices at this type of family vacation. However, we found an opportunity to take the family and my in-laws to Walt Disney World and did it completely wrong, and right… somehow both at the same time. Here is how to ruin and absolutely perfect your day at the Happiest Place on Earth.
Get There Early… they said
Perusing the various blogs about how to execute Disney World well, they almost all had secrets to get in the park early on the day of your visit. We didn’t do that. Our daughter is a night owl in a way that no other child I have ever known. The night before we were going to the park, we surprised our daughter with the news that she would be going to Disney World in the morning. She was excited and we assumed an 8AM wake up on Disney day would be practical for an excited four-year old. We planned to have a quick breakfast, grab the hotel shuttle and be at the park gates around 9AM.
That didn’t happen at all.
Instead the early morning wake up call was met with tears begging to sleep in a little bit longer. There was little interest in the idea of breakfast or getting ready to go to Disney World. After a few morning battles, we were headed to the complimentary hotel shuttle which served the Hilton and the Waldorf Astoria property every 30 minutes. The shuttle provides transportation to and from the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. We decided to make our way to the Magic Kingdom first as Lucy had her heart set on riding “Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin” first. One of my husband’s famous lines is “We don’t let the inmates run the prison” but as this was her special trip, we decided to let Lucy steer the way. Perhaps not the best idea and it wasn’t long until we took control back over.
The shuttle dropped us at the docks of the Walt Disney World transportation center which was quite busy and requires taking the monorail or ferry to the main gates. The line for the monorail looked absurdly long so we chose to wait for the ferry. This was our first of many lines for the day and Lucy was still not having any of the fun and festivities. It was more than a half hour before we made it onto the ferry and into the park entrance. Finally just after 10:30am we navigated our way through the park and were waiting in line for our first ride by 11am.
Expert tip: Ignore your free shuttle, get an Uber because time is literally your most precious asset.
She’ll Be Tired… they said
All the experts said our little toddler will pass out by 4PM, if you’re lucky she might make it to the fireworks at 8:15PM. However, since our night owl didn’t really fully wake up until 5PM, that wasn’t our experience. It was right around dinner time at Epcot, following a successful meet & greet with Anna and Elsa that our day quickly turned from disappointment to success.
Inexplicably, following dinner and a full day prior to this point, Little Lucy caught her second wind. She was begging to ride more rides and had energy bursting at the seams. A morning full of lines at the Magic Kingdom led to dipping our toes at Epcot, so we tried for Hollywood Studios just two hours before closing.
As we made our way through the next few transitions and activities, she seemed more and more alert at every turn. Experts indicated that most kids would fall asleep either before the fireworks or shortly thereafter. Thus, we aimed our sights back on the Magic Kingdom, open the latest and most likely to have shorter wait times on more junior rides. We headed back to Magic Kingdom from Hollywood Studios following an unplanned Star Wars themed fireworks show – an instant hit for our little Rey-in-training.
Expert Tip: If your child is not an early riser, sleep in and relax until the afternoon heat is gone and the early birds start to leave the park.
Some Advice Was Right
We purchased a park hopper ticket which came with three fast passes. We had no idea how to use these passes, but we thought we did. After we decided that we would use our passes at Epcot for the Frozen Ever After ride, we spared them the rest of the day. Little did we know, (amateurs) the Frozen Ever After Fast Pass was booked weeks in advance and the wait time without a pass was a solid 90-120 minutes the entire day. Getting to know and use the fast pass would have been a great addition to our visit. Our fast passes were never used.
Florida Residents get a break, and it’s pretty easy to prove. My in-laws have a home in Florida and my husband enquired with Disney directly in regards to what they would need to prove their residence rate. We were told they needed to bring a bill in their name with address, or a Florida ID. The rate discounts park admission significantly and is worth it if you can prove it.
Prior to arriving, we downloaded a few apps to use around the park. The one that proved most beneficial for us was the official Disney app (My Disney Experience). This app shows live wait times, maps, restaurants and more for all of the parks. It even gives the option for online ordering at certain food stands which allows skipping the queue. The app has the ability to link up your admission ticket so that you can secure fast passes without visiting a fast pass kiosk, but this function was unavailable during our visit.
Some Advice Didn’t Work For Our Family
We did not pack drinks or food for our day in the park, in fact we brought very little. My bag included a couple of portable iPhone chargers, sunscreen, and my wallet. While packing a cooler and a bagged lunch is a great way to save money and makes sense for some, it was more to carry and we had a large breakfast at the start of the day. I would normally bristle at paying $3 for a bottle of water, but doing so outweighed the hassle of toting around a cooler of less expensive cold drinks all day for us.
Speaking of meals, by having breakfast at the hotel first (and mid-morning) lunch wasn’t really a concern for us – we picked up some treats during the day. It was a special trip so we budgeted for a big meal in the park but could have gotten away with an awful lot less. The biggest perk to having the park hopper pass was getting to eat at Epcot, which blows away selection at the other parks. For those on a budget, we were very hungry after running through the Magic Kingdom at 11PM and it had been six hours since our last meal. Tired, hungry and still wide awake, we grabbed a hot dog at the park exit. We ordered a foot long chili dog and shared it among the adults, while our daughter ate a massive (non-footlong) to herself. With two drinks and two fries we ate way too much for $30 – that’s really not that bad.
The question of whether you should bring your stroller or rent one is one that often came up as well. Renting a stroller at the park costs $15 per day for a single and while there are many places to park your stroller around the park, bringing your own means anyone could come along and steal it. We brought our GB Pockit Stroller, an item we hardly ever travel without, simply folded it up in line and brought it onto the rides with us. This little trick worked great and eliminated any fears of possible theft.
By 7PM we had experienced just four rides, two character interactions and two of those rides our daughter claimed were scary (it was more her mood and not a real fear). We were feeling pretty defeated early on and trying to grasp what all the magical fuss was about. I kept thinking about the money spent on admission and whether or not it was worth it.
As previously mentioned, the Fast Pass seemed to work for everybody except us. We were not able to ride some of the longer wait rides and that’s really a shame. It is completely the fault of myself and my husband, neither of whom investigated the Fast Pass thoroughly. Had we paid closer attention we might have been able to get our daughter on the one ride that would make her year. As a result, she still doesn’t know this ride exists and that’s probably for the best.
We learned the hard way that we visited the parks in the incorrect order, though I’m not so certain a morning visit to Epcot or Hollywood Studios would have been much different in terms of wait times for rides. However, with both of those parks closing earlier than the Magic Kingdom it probably would have made more sense to skip our initial visit to the Magic Kingdom and spend more time in the other parks.
Using the free hotel transportation and the free buses that ran from park to park cost us a lot of time. If we had the chance to go back and do this part over, we would Uber everywhere. Sure the cost to take the buses is nothing, but for us, our time is worth more and we would have gladly paid for this luxury – especially since we had just one day in the parks.
I have been walking around with a Chase Disney debit card in my wallet for a couple of years because it is offered for free to Chase checking account holders. The card offers benefits in the form of a 10% discount when spending on food, and souvenirs at Disney parks. Among other Disney perks, we found this finally provided some real benefit with no added cost after all these years and it reinforced our appreciation of Chase.
We had run of the park after the fireworks display and we couldn’t have had a better time. We walked back into the Magic Kingdom just after 9PM with most of the crowd headed for the doors. After a quick glance at the Disney app, we headed towards the back of the park for a Little Mermaid themed ride, the wait time was listed at just ten minutes.
We headed next to the Barnstormer, a small roller coaster that was more than we would have expected Lucy to enjoy, but certainly short of a thriller for Mom and Dad. At just a “five-minute” wait time, we rode this ride multiple times in a row, each time Lucy squealed louder and louder with joy. We were running from the exit of ride back to the start of the line and right back on to the coaster again. Lucy nearly skipped a necessary bathroom trip for fear she would pass up another turn and they would close the park.
Following 3-4 rides in a row, we wanted to take her to a childhood favorite of our (my husband’s) own, the Haunted Mansion. We crossed the entire park to get there, but there was no wait. We knew this was likely the last ride of our day. We got right on, and while it wasn’t scary as an adult, it was probably a little mature for our four-year old. We promised a ride on the carousel to redeem ourselves.
The time was ten minutes prior to close and like the Barnstormer, we ran to the ride and jumped on board. Along the way, we spotted Peter Pan’s Flight, with nearly no line and a listed wait time of 35 minutes (it had run 90-120 minutes all day) – another Disney World classic.
After making Lucy’s dreams come true on the carousel, we looked at our watches. It was five minutes to park closing time when the ride stopped and we ran to the exits and sprinted to Peter Pan. With two minutes to spare, we were permitted (others were after us as well) and we made our way through the very long queue (without any people in it). This ride was an absolute favorite for myself and for Lucy. It felt like the biggest win, ending the day on such a high note.
Can’t Wait to Return
We will go back, certainly, probably on a single park pass. We are going to start at 2pm, maybe 4pm. Some might argue that we are wasting half of our day with a very expensive ticket by not going until later in the day, but I would argue the opposite. The park wore out my in-laws (and ourselves) waiting in long lines in the heat all morning for short 2-4 minute rides once an hour. It makes more sense for our family to visit in the extreme off-season (a rainy day would be ideal), and go in the afternoon riding late into the night.
I completely understand that most kids wake up early in the morning and are passed out early in the evening. For those willing to pull an all-nighter, I highly recommend doing the twilight tour of the park.
Do you have any pro tips for conquering Disney with a toddler in a single day? Any other counter-intuitive concepts that may surprise others?