I have a ton of friends heading out to the Disney Parks in the next few months… Disney World in Florida, Disneyland Paris, and even Shanghai Disneyland. While there are certainly differences among the parks, there are a handful of tips that work for all of them. After cutting and pasting emails I’ve sent to friends, I thought I would share with my readers tips that can be used for any Disney theme park vacation.
A Disney trip is not like a relaxing beach holiday. Or even a ski holiday, where you know what you will be doing each day. A trip to Disney is more like a trip to New York City or London… you need to research the sights you want to prioritize (unlikely you will be able to do all of them), figure out the best way to squeeze in those attractions, and make reservations in advance for the popular venues. Likewise, you need to do the same planning for a Disney trip, especially if you are a novice. Visiting any Disney park is not cheap and you want to make the most of your time and budget. Do the research, make at least a rough plan and a list of priorities, and book the popular attractions.
Along the lines of Disney’s not being cheap… buy what you can ahead of time. It will save you money, time, and give you a better selection. Items I recommend buying ahead of time and bringing with you:
Whether you choose a custom-made one from Etsy, or make your own, or buy something off Amazon or the Disney Store, you will have more options and likely save a lot of money by purchasing these books in advance. I like to buy each of my kids a small blank sketchbook and put some Disney stickers on the cover. But you can also purchase ones on Etsy that will be personalized and have places for pictures next to the character autographs. If you want to get more creative collecting character autographs, purchase a large picture frame mat, pillowcase, or even the Encyclopedia of Animated Characters.
You need to provide the characters with pens to sign your autograph book or whatever else you’ve brought. Ball point pens are not going to do the trick, especially for characters wearing thick gloves (like Mickey and almost every non-Princess). I love having them use the Retractable Sharpie Markers in Fine Point. They write great, are big enough for all the characters to hold, and there are no caps to lose. I would get a pack for each person in my group who is collecting autographs.
You can see from the photo below how much of an impact the right marker makes when collecting autographs. The Mickey Mouse autograph was done using a retractable Sharpie. Minnie Mouse signed with an extra fine point Sharpie, which doesn’t make the impression you want.
Go to the dollar store/Poundland/Amazon and pick up a couple of cheap plastic ponchos for each member of your group. You can buy these at Disney, but you will pay five times more. They take up virtually no space and weigh nothing, but when a rain shower comes (or you ride a water ride) you will be so thankful you have them. I have even used them to cover up our stroller while we escaped the rain in an attraction.
While I love wearing mouse ears in the parks, I realize not everyone does. But if you think your family will be into wearing them (or ear hats), buy in advance. You can get them for a fraction of the price on Amazon or find them on sale at the Disney Store. In the parks, you will have less selection and pay more. If you are really into mouse ears, check out one of the many sellers on Etsy that make them in every imaginable theme and color.
-Kids costumes/Princess dresses
Unless it is Halloween, adults aren’t usually allowed to wear costumes in the Disney parks. However, kids do… a lot. And if you have brought your little princess to Disney and she wants to wear a princess dress and you don’t have one… well Disney is happy to provide a generally low quality, outrageously priced princess dress for you. Most of these will be made of delicate tulle guaranteed to fall apart after the first day in the park. If your child doesn’t already own some Disney costumes and you think she will want them, buy in advance. I happen to be the mother of a princess (I think that makes me the queen, right?) who loves her costumes, and we plan out her outfits in advance (many of which are worn daily at home). I highly recommend the dresses made by a company called “Little Adventures”. While not officially Disney, these costumes will make any little princess happy – and her parents. They are super comfortable, beautiful, high-quality and machine washable. You can often find them on Amazon, but one of my favorite sources is Mom Approved Costumes. Don’t forget the boys either… my son surprised me by asking to bring his Spiderman costume to our last trip to Disneyland Paris. If you have an aspiring pirate, Buzz Lightyear, Jedi, or superhero, I would strongly encourage you to bring those costumes too. I usually just pack them compactly in a Ziploc bag and have them ready for the kids to wear when they want.
You have no doubt already considered this detail, but I recommend that you have at least two pairs of extremely comfortable shoes or sneakers for every member of your family. If not, buy them and break them in NOW. Why two pair? There is a strong possibility that your feet get at least a little wet… rain showers, water rides, over-excited 6-year-olds who spill a drink on you. And if they do, you will want to change shoes the next time you are back in your hotel. Also, you will be walking WAAAAAY more than you usually do, and if one pair starts rubbing the wrong way, you will want to change shoes to avoid blisters. If every member of your party does not already own two pairs of sneakers, buy them and break them in NOW. (Yes, I know, I am repeating myself.)
–Glow Sticks/Light up things
I recommend bringing glow sticks if you are traveling with small kids and watching night time shows. Glow-y things seem to make the waiting more bearable for kids as you stake out your spot. Many will have them, and you’ll avoid the end-of-day whining for them if you’re equipped. Again, Disney knows their appeal and is happy to sell overpriced Light Sabers, glow sticks, blinking mouse ears, and Buzz Lightyear things at inflated prices to desperate parents. Save yourself a ton of money and buy a couple at the dollar store to put in your park bag now. You can even buy Disney themed glow items. Below is a selection I purchased at party stores, dollar stores, Target and Amazon.
This suggestion is really only for families with smaller kids who are easily scared of the dark. Bring a teeny-tiny, not super-powered flashlight that they can hold during the dark rides. The best are keychain-styled ones that aren’t very bright. This gives your easily frightened kid who suddenly won’t even go on the Winnie the Pooh ride a way to be less scared. Don’t bring a super-powered one since that will distract other guests and a cast member may ask you not to use it. I have never had a problem with the weak ones (you can even find Disney-themed flashlights at Target or Walmart or on Amazon), and it has made my daughter much more willing to go on dark rides.
-External phone battery chargers
You are likely to use your phone a lot at Disney… taking pictures, looking at the map, checking wait times, having your child play games while waiting in line… and your battery will seem to melt away. While there are occasional stations to charge your phone, I strongly recommend bringing an external battery charger to keep your phone up to speed.
Book Character Meals
Unless you know your family hates characters, I would recommend booking the popular character meals in advance. You can always cancel (in Florida you need to cancel by the night before to avoid a $10/person charge). Character meals are a great way to see multiple characters without waiting in line. They are not only an efficient way to meet characters (you can read more about that here), but they also give my family the opportunity to chill out and rest. If there are other restaurants you think your family may want to try, book those ahead as well. Once again, you can always cancel, but popular restaurants do get booked up, often well in advance.
Bring or Rent a stroller/buggy
My family walks a lot (we don’t even own a car). I think nothing of walking six miles a day and my son can easily keep up with me. But at Disney, I will rent a stroller, even for my active six-year-old son. Disney is A LOT of walking. And when you’re not walking, there is a decent chance you are standing. Adults will want to commandeer that stroller for themselves by the end of the day. While you may get strange looks at home for putting an able bodied seven-year-old in a buggy, I promise you it will seem perfectly normal at Disney. Plus, having a stroller means that you have a place to stash your water, ponchos, snacks, extra sweatshirts, glow sticks, etc. Otherwise you will be carrying a very bulky backpack all day. You can rent strollers/buggies in all of the parks, but in Florida, if you aren’t bringing your own, I would check out an outside rental company. They have better strollers, work out to be cheaper, and will save you valuable time in the parks. The same goes for wheelchairs/mobility scooters. If a member of your party thinks he might possibly need a wheelchair, rent in advance.
Plan breaks in your day
I love Disney and am used to long exhausting days, but there is nothing fun about your 10th straight hour of park touring. Especially if you have little kids. Don’t put yourself in that situation. Plan to take a break of several hours during the day. Return to your hotel and nap or swim at the pool. If you can’t go back to your hotel, at least plan a long lunch at a sit down restaurant or plan time to just sit and people watch so that everyone can relax. Some days, instead of a mid-day break perhaps don’t start until noon or plan on ending at 3pm. If you plan breaks, you will be better able to accomplish all of your priorities (like a parade or show), and if your group has more energy, you can feel satisfied that you accomplished more than you planned.
The goal is to have fun, not do everything
This is the hardest piece of advice for me to take, as I always want to do everything. But Disney makes that goal virtually impossible, even at the smaller resorts. Don’t run your party ragged by trying to squeeze in every last attraction and show. Take the time to enjoy your memories being made. One of my mother-in-law’s favorite memories of our last Disney trip together happened when my daughter decided she was Darth Vader in the middle of the Morocco Pavilion in Epcot. We spent at least twenty minutes just laughing as my four-year-old tried to freeze everyone with her pretend light saber. You will remember those precious, unplanned moments longer than any ride.
You can read my other Disney planning posts here