Navigating the Happiest Place on Earth (with 3 kids, 8 bags, 4 plane rides, and a smile!)

This past week we, along with my sister, her husband, their 3 kids, and my parents; took a vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  I’m happy to say the crying was minimal, the smiles were plentiful, and my husband and I even enjoyed ourselves! (That is until we got to the Moline airport on Saturday night and my 2 year-old woke up from her deep sleep screaming—loud enough to make people look and just when she had the perfect-sized crowd she peed all over herself, and me).

I’m writing this post to tell you about our trip.  Some of the tips are for traveling with toddler through early elementary-aged kids, and some of the tips are specific to Disney World.  I also want to emphasize that the experience we had at Disney was great for our age kids (2 – 7).  Please don’t use this as a blueprint for your trip if you’re taking a pre-teenaged child; you’ll probably hate me!

Quick Info about Our Trip:

Length: 4 nights, 3 ½ days

Accommodations: Port Orleans Riverside (a Disney Resort)

Mode of Transportation: Airplane

Parks Visited: Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios

Best Kept Secret for Mom: Starbuck’s in Magic Kingdom and Epcot (coming soon to Downtown Disney)—the lines look long, but max wait for us was 15 min.

Travel Guide Used: Birnbaum Guides 2014: Walt Disney World

Kate - Disney

OK, now on to the specifics . . .


1 outfit per day per kid; 2 extra outfits for the youngest (2), 1 extra outfit for the 2 older kids (6 & 7)

Don’t forget: swimsuit, pool shoes, RAIN GEAR (I forgot this).  We ended up buying ponchos for $8 a piece the first day.  I also packed rain boots and took them out of the suitcases before we left; bad decision.  Pack the rain boots.  They’re bulky, but if you don’t have them you’ll be walking around with wet feet all day.  It rains frequently in Florida, don’t take your chances with this.  Trust me, just pack them.  I’d leave the umbrella at home; there are just too many people around to use one.

  • Ziploc bags.  I didn’t use them the way Katie did in her post, but they came in handy to store wet things (see pee and rain comments) and to keep things dry while walking around the parks in the rain (ie cell phone, autograph books, cash, etc).
  • Autograph books.  Anytime you see a character your kids can ask for an autograph.  I went to Hobby Lobby and bought books before we left.  It’s important to know that before you ask a character for an autograph you must have the paper you want them to sign ready to go and have a working pen.  They really don’t like to wait for your camera to wake up either.  Don’t get in line or ask for an autograph until you’re ready to go!
  • Snack bags. My saving grace!  I packed each kid a large snack bag for travel days and a small one for park days.  Somewhere in the pages of my travel book the authors made an off-handed comment that it’s hard to find healthy snacks at the parks—they weren’t kidding.  Here’s what was in each snack bag on travel days:
    • 2 clementines
    • 2 boxes of raisins
    • 1 string cheese
    • 1 bag of snack mix
    • 2 suckers
    • 1 apple
    • 1 banana
    • 1 package of cheese filled sandwich crackers

The rule with the snack bags was that each kid had their own, they didn’t have to ask before getting a snack.  On the park days I packed 2 snacks from the travel day list in separate Ziploc Bags.

  • Activities. Even though the parks open early (more on that later), you will certainly have down time and you’ll want to have something for your kids to do.  For us the rainbow loom, Lego guys, and plenty of coloring books with stickers and crayons worked the best.


Each day some parks have “Extra Magic Hours” which just means they open early.  Take advantage of the fact that your small children probably wake up earlier than most other humans.  Plan your first stop for the day at one of the parks with extra magic hours.  We were out of our hotel room by 8am most days.

Transportation to Parks.  If you’re staying at a Disney resort there’s a complementary shuttle from your resort to any park, as well as shuttles between parks.  From the time you leave your room until the time you get to your destination you should plan on the trip taking anywhere from 30 – 60 min.  We were able to get to most parks by 9am.  To shake it up a bit you can take a ferry from Hollywood Studios to Epcot or the Monorail from Epcot to the Magic Kingdom.  Otherwise, you’ll be on the bus.

Timing.  The parks really started to fill up with people about 10:30am.  So get to the rides with the longest line potential first.  Also, start looking for a place to eat lunch about 45 – 60 minutes before you actually want to eat.   We left the parks every day from about 1pm – 3pm to get out of the crowds.  The baby slept and the older kids had downtime.  It was wonderful!  We left each park by 8pm.

  • Animal Kingdom.  Become a Wilderness Explorer!  It’s a free program you join shortly after you enter the park.  The kids get a sticker book to keep track of their “badges” they earn during the day and the back two pages can be used for autographs.  My kids loved this.  The Kilimanjaro Safari will form a long line quickly so we headed there first.  You and your kiddos will see all of the “typical” zoo animals.  We also rode the Wildlife Express to Rafiki’s Planet Watch (you get 6 badges there and Rafiki is there to sign autographs), the Festival of the Lion King, and Finding Nemo—The Musical.  The kids got their faces painted here too.  We ran out of time to catch It’s a Bug’s Life.
  • Magic Kingdom.  We visited the Haunted Mansion (twice!)—the scariest part is the story they tell before you even get on the ride, the story brought the 6 year-old to tears (and one of us waited outside with the 2 year-old).  We also saw the Hall of Presidents, Cinderella’s Castle, It’s a Small World, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (beware the noisy games they encourage your kids to play while waiting in line), and Pirates of the Caribbean.  Our youngest also got her first haircut at Mickey’s barbershop on Main Street (call 24 hours in advance for a reservation).  We didn’t do a parade here.  People started lining the streets about 60 min before the parades were scheduled to start.  We did, however catch a street party and for younger kids it’s a great substitute for the real thing.
  • Epcot. The only thing we did at Epcot (other than eat a meal there) was go to Turtle Talk with Crush, The Seas with Nemo and Friends, and the Caribbean Coral Reef—all were great stops (and all housed in the same building).
  • Hollywood Studios.  We only saw shows here, so after a morning of waiting in lines and having to be quiet in theaters our kids were happy to move on.  We saw Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage, Disney Junior Live on Stage (our kids’ fave), Voyage of The Little Mermaid, the Studio Backlot Tour, and Muppet 3-D Vision (not my fave).
  • Downtown Disney.  We went because my son wanted to visit LegoLand.  We also rode the carousel there, instead of at the Magic Kingdom . . . the line was much, much shorter and the ride lasted much, much longer.  Win-Win.  (Bonus: they have Ghirardelli and Wetzel’s Pretzels . . . I got both!)


There are two types of food service at Disney; Quick Service and Table Service. The Quick Service is the least expensive of the two and is pretty much the same at any park.  Your choices are an Italian sandwich, a burger, salad, or pasta.  This is served with fries, chips, or carrots.  The kid’s meals are usually chicken nuggets, burgers, or macaroni and cheese.  All served with white milk, carrots, and grapes or apple slices.  The exception to this rule is Epcot, eat there as frequently as possible!

Table service usually requires a reservation and includes all character meals.  We had 3 table service meals while at Disney.  We ate at Chef Mickey’s (a buffet), Cinderella’s Royal Table (known for their beef tenderloin) and the Biergarten (think an Amana Colonies Buffet).  Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy, and Pluto visit your table at Chef Mickey’s.  This dinner had our 2 year-old squealing with excitement!  We ate inside Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kindgom and our table was visited by 5 Disney Princesses (reservations can be made 180 days in advance).  This meal included a picture with Cinderella, as well as a wand for the girls and a sword for the boys.  The Biergarten had a live band and a large dance floor.  In the middle of our meal we went down to the dance floor to do the “Chicken Dance,” among other things this was by far my favorite meal!

Final Note: I know a lot of people use Fast Passes at Disney.  When I’ve gone before I’ve used them.  Because our kids weren’t really tall enough to go on any of the big time rides we never used a Fast Pass, so I can’t give you my experience with them with small kids.  The longest line we waited in was 30 minutes for the Haunted Mansion.

Well, there you have it!  Our 4-day excursion to Disney in a nutshell.  Have you been to Disney before?  What other tips do you have?  If not, do you think you’ll take the kids sometime soon?

Kate lives in Iowa City with her husband (Matt) and three kids, ages 7, 5, and 2. She works at the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Iowa. She earned her PhD in Curriculum and Supervision in 2012. Prior to working at the University, she taught high school mathematics at many public schools in Iowa. Kate has also coached junior high and high school cheerleading squads for 10 years. Kate has a personal blog . . . stop by and relive your junior high and high school mathematics classes! (without the anxiety or the homework :) )


  1. I agree with # of outfits and DEFINITELY buy ponchos before you go! If you forget, you can get DISNEY ponchos in the Downtown Disney stores for super cheap! I can’t remember the actual name of the store, but there were grab bags for $5-$10 that ended up having TONS of toys in them. Stuffed animals, themed silverware, keychains, stickers, pens, pins…all in one bag which is an amazing deal at Disney! 🙂 You can also buy the autograph books there for $5.

    We didn’t do rain boots because we go in July and it would be insanely hot to wear those around. Depending on the time of year you go, we just wear KEENS or sandals that work well wet or dry. Not only because of the rain, but because of the water rides….OUR FAV.

    We stayed for 8 days and did 6 different character meals including the ones you mentioned. When we go next time, we will do less of these. They are fun, but a Disney buffet gets old after a couple days. haha

    That being said, for us, it was worth it to buy the meal plans. We ended up having more than enough food but could enjoy wonderful meals every night! The BEST food at Disney is the Coral Reef at Epcot! You are surrounded by an aquarium, sharks, fish, and scuba divers. (Remember in Full House where Danny proposes….this is the place!—I’m such a dork. lol)

    Also, it is TOTALLY worth it to stay in the Disney resorts. We always stay at the Pop Century which is like an adventure in itself. The Magic hours are only open to those who stay at the resorts. One night Magic Kingdom closed at 10 but was open until 3 in the morning for resort guests! We stayed til 3! Sounds crazy, but there were NO lines for any ride! It was AWESOME! We just slept in the next day and avoided the heat! 😉

    I would make sure you see the fireworks at Magic Kingdom and all the other parks, if possible AND see Fantasmic! Very cool! The lighted parade at Magic Kingdom is worth the wait! 🙂

    Animal Kingdom is HOT…there is barely any shade. Don’t go during the hottest times of the day or prepare to buy one of the spray fans…which, by the way, is a GREAT investment! LOL We bought the little ones from Walmart before we left.

    We made a deal with our 7 year old that, if we went to Disney, she would ride every single ride with us! …SHE DID! lol Fast passes were GREAT for us.

    Best tip for rides–decide what rides or attractions you MUST do and then get fast passes for those and do those things FIRST. The Toy Story Ride fast passes were gone by 10 am!!!

    If you have a little girl, bring a princess dress (or any dress) with you! …and glitter spray! They charge a fortune for the princess makeovers and the cheapest dress is $50.

    Also, buy the photopass before you go and get your picture taken by every photographer you see!

    Okay, I’m so annoying…lol I could go on and on! Great article! WE LOVE DISNEY! 🙂

  2. Number one thing I always recommend is the meal plan!! Saves sooo much money in the long run. We always do two meals and a snack meal plan. We eat a big breakfast, grab a snack/small lunch int eh middle of the day a seat a nice dinner about 4:30/5 (before the rush, but still gives us plenty of time to go do the night life activities.

  3. Nice post, Kate! From our multiple trips, the snack advice is great.

    Here are a few things I would add.

    #1 – The fast pass system, especially the new one (Fast Pass +), is something everyone should plan for. The Fast Pass+ system allows you to reserve three rides at a park per day (one park only/day). This is nice because rides like Soarin at Epcot and Toy Story at Hollywood Studios always have incredibly long wait lines. My oldest son now uses the phrase “Do we have a fast pass for this ride?” when we approach every ride at WDW.

    #2 – Epcot has a lot of great things for kids hidden in the park. Obviously the thrill rides (Test Track & Soarin) are big hits. Most three year olds will meet the minimum height requirement. My boys enjoy the innoventions area on both the east and west side. Maelstrom in Norway is a great ride for kids and the Gran Fiesta Tour in Mexico is also a neat ride.

    #3 – We have fun looking for “hidden Mickeys” around the park. We bought a cheap book a few years ago and it’s always in the backpack for those downtimes or the times you are exploring areas of the parks and/or hotels. They have scavenger hunt type games built into the book that can be a lot of fun for your older kids. My kids are a bit too young right now.

    #4 – Go to all of the firework shows but especially hit Fantasmic at Hollywood Studios. It’s a great show!

    #5 – If you seriously love Disney, like my family, look into the Disney Vacation Club. We purchased a membership a few years ago and have stayed at Animal Kingdom Lodge, Bay Lake Towers, and Saratoga Springs. We also have made a quick trip to Vero Beach for some beach time at their Disney resort. It’s not cheap but it’s not expensive if you buy from a resale and not directly through Disney. It’s a timeshare based system and you pay annual dues but my wife and I feel it’s the best thing we have ever bought for our family. While you can get lost in some of the Disney fluff, every trip we take means we spend 100% family time together.


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