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Our family went to Disney in late February 2019 — so, yes, a full year ago! I spent the car ride home taking notes and jotting down my thoughts, so even though it’s been a year … I still thought it would be worth sharing.

So , here you go – my thoughts, tips and personal opinions … just in case they might help someone else with their Disney planning! First of all, I should start by saying that this was our first trip to Disney as a family and my 3rd trip to Disney ever (I was ages 12, 26 and 38). So, I’m writing this from the perspective of a complete novice. I had no clue. About any of it. Which leads me to …

How to plan: Start early and get a Disney planner! They are soooo worth it! I couldn’t even imagine trying to do this without her help. She did ALL of the planning for me. She booked our whole trip – tickets, resort, fast passes, restaurant reservations, etc. She kept track of when we needed to schedule reservations for restaurants and other events/attractions (like Bippity Boppity Boutique). She scheduled our fast passes and selected all the appropriate times for them so that our days flowed easily and made sense. It was a fantastic service! And, before you start to worry about the cost of such a service – Disney pays them – so you don’t have to. I would definitely recommend this … especially if you are as lost about it all as I was.

What to Pack: Comfy shoes. An absolute must. Comfy, fun clothes.  Ponchos (order or buy at home for sure – don’t buy them there). Healthy snacks. A portable phone charger. Small backpacks (possibly one for each member of your family to carry their own water bottle, change of clothes for the kids, their own poncho, and snacks). Band aids. Pop up hamper (for dirty clothes)(keeps your room tidy). Hand sanitizer. Wet wipes. Zip lock bags (for leftover snacks, small pieces from souvenir toys, etc.) Large ribbon or bandana in a bright color to tie around your stroller (this was lifesaver to help you spot your stroller in a sea of identical rental strollers). Sunscreen. Reusable water bottle (we all carried a Hydro Flasks with a secure lid). Small purse (or wristlet) to keep your money and phone in – you’ll be able to wear this on all the rides and leave your backpack in the stroller.

My Disney Experience App: Get the My Disney Experience app once you start planning your trip. You’ll use it all day once you are in the park. You can view all of your reservations, Fast Passes, wait times, etc. I used it as a map as well. 

Magic Bands: You’ll each get a Magic Band to wear and you’ll use them for EVERYTHING .. literally. They are your tickets to get in the parks, how you pay for your meals and snacks, your room key, your Fast Passes, etc. Everything. Also, tip – you can make them smaller – the outer gray band punches out to fit smaller wrists better. 

What to wear: Choose comfort. Think about it. You’ll be out and on your feet ALL day. Pack your most comfy pair of shoes. I’d take two pairs at least, so you can rotate. Choose cheesy. This was an unexpected surprise to me. But, Disney Style is a thing! Who knew?! I packed one day of matching shirts for us and a few others for the kids, but if I were going to do it again, I’d plan a theme for us for each day. It sounds crazy, I know. But, you’ll love it while you are there! Think about which park you’ll be going to and theme your attire for that day – shirts, hats, socks, ears, whatever. Again, this isn’t my “thing”, so the fact that I was into it was completely unexpected. Ha! Another option – head to Disney Springs when you arrive and purchase your gear for the week. This would obviously be way more expensive than purchasing and packing ahead of time, but if you budget for it, it could be fun for your family. 

Strollers: If you have a child 7 or under, I’d recommend a stroller. I don’t think we would have survived without one! Our 5 year old sat in it often. She’s a slower walker , so this helped us move quickly when we needed and gave her breaks she needed. There is stroller parking everywhere, so it’s not a hassle. Plus, we used it to carry our bags and hold our drinks. We rented our stroller from Kingdom Strollers. The price was very reasonable. They dropped it off at our resort prior to check in and picked it up once we checked out. The stroller seemed brand new and was in excellent conditions. I would absolutely recommend them. The strollers that you can rent per day at the parks were more expensive and in lousy condition (hard plastic and looked super hard to maneuver). 

How to eat/What to eat: So, Disney offers something called the Disney Dining Plan. Whether or not you opt to use this service is a completely personal choice. I’ve heard differing opinions (for and against) regarding the dining plan and honestly, they both make sense. For us, we choose to include the Disney Dining Plan in our package. Our main reason was because we wanted to have our trip paid off before we went and we wanted that to include our meals. It felt freeing to us. I haven’t done the math, so I’m not sure if it saved us any money or not, but we liked it. I had trouble grasping it all before we got there and started actually using it, but you get the hang of it once you start using it. Disney offers 3 options: Quick Service Dining Plan (2 quick service meals and 2 snacks per day, per guest), Disney Dining Plan (1 quick service meal, 1 table service meal and 2 snacks per day, per guest) and Disney Deluxe Dining Plan (3 meals and 2 snacks per day, per guest – including more options). We selected the middle option – the Disney Dining Plan and it worked great for us. Read up on the plan before you go, so that you know exactly what it includes. We made a few mistakes. For example, it took us a couple of days to realize that drinks (including bottles of water) counted as snack credits and we used cash for beverages. Whoops. Once we realized that, it made so much more sense. Also, we had a light breakfast in our room before we headed out for the day. We brought breakfast items from home (granola bars, yogurt, etc) and used snack credits to grab fruit. Then, most days, we used our quick service credit for lunch and our table service credit for dinner. Most/all of the table service restaurants require a reservation. These can (and probably should) be made 6 months in advance. Our Disney Planner took care of this for us and we were able to go to the restaurants that we wanted to go to. We enjoyed the table service meals so much, especially the themed character meals. The environment was more relaxing, slower paced and we had one-on-one time with characters. The food was better and we felt like we got a true break from the rush at these restaurants. For our table service meals, we went to San Angel Inn Restaurant in Mexico at Epcot, Tusker House (in Africa at Animal Kingdom) Character Breakfast, ‘Ohana at the Polynesian Resort and Cinderella’s Royal Table. The Quick Service Restaurants drove me crazy. I honestly didn’t enjoy them at all. They were just too crazy. The lines were very long and it was hard, if not near impossible to find an open table. For us, quick service wasn’t quick … and it wasn’t restful … and the food was only average. The dining plans now offer something called Mobile Ordering for some of the Quick Service Restaurants. Take advantage of this when/if you can and you’ll be able to skip the long lines and pick up your food. Still – good luck finding a table! At the end of our stay, we still had 10 snack credits left, even though it felt like we used them freely. So, we just stocked up on waters and snacks for our drive home. 

What to ride/Fast Passes: This is another one that’s completely personal and dependent on your family and the ages of your children, so it’s hard for me to give recommendations on this. We lucked out and my kiddos (ages 8 and 5 at the time) liked the “thrill rides”, so we were able to ride all of the ones that we wanted. Our favorites (as a family) were Pandora Flight of Passage, Soarin, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. We liked Slinky Dog Dash and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, but felt that they were too short. My husband and 8 year old and I loved Expedition Everest, but our littlest was scared. Same with Tower of Terror. Get Fast Passes! This was one thing that we found super discouraging. We had great Fast Passes. So, we felt lucky. But, we weren’t able to ride any of our favorites a 2nd time because the lines were ridiculously long. There are plenty that we would have loved to ride again. Also, there were days that we didn’t ride anything other than the rides that we had Fast Passes for (because of wait times) and that was a huge bummer. We didn’t get on a few that we didn’t have Fast Passes for (like Rock N Rollercoaster) because we weren’t willing to wait for them. I felt like this system was a bit broken. You shouldn’t HAVE to have a Fast Pass. The crowds shouldn’t be SO extreme. But, I guess it is what it is. But, ugh. Remember thought, you can add more fast passes after you’ve used your 3 for the day. Once you get in line for your 3rd Fast Pass ride, check up see what else is available and add another one. 

My Park Tips: I’d try to get to the parks EARLY if possible. Aim to be there BEFORE the parks open. I’d recommend 30 minutes, if possible. There are lines for bag checks BEFORE the lines to actually get in the park. Once you are IN, head to a ride that DON’T have a Fast Pass for. This will get you in line, hopefully, before the wait gets too long. Also, if you have a question, ask the Cast Members. They are so friendly! And, they are helpful, knowledgeable and wonderful to kiddos. 

Photos: We opted to purchase the Memory Maker package. I’d recommend this! It allowed us to get photos taken in front of all of the Disney landmarks (castle, Epcot ball, tree of life, etc) AND all of us could be in the photos together. Plus, this package includes ride photos and character photos. All of the photos pop up on your My Disney Experience app and you can download them from there. 

Extra Spending Money: You will want to bring additional money/cash even if you are using a Dining Plan. You’ll need extra money for tips at table service meals and souvenirs. A good tip – buy Disney World gift cards at Target prior to your trip. Use your Red Card for 5% off. Then, use these gift cards for purchasing your souvenirs. You’ll know exactly how much you have to spend and once it’s gone, it’s gone. We did one for each child. They were able to make better, more selective decisions about the souvenirs they wanted because they knew the set amount that they had for the whole trip. 

Bippity Boppity Boutique: If you have a little girl that loves princesses and BEING a princess, this is a special, once-in-a-lifetime experience. But, if your daughter isn’t a princess girl, I wouldn’t push it. Also, I wouldn’t do it if your daughter is too young. She might not appreciate it or enjoy it as much. 4-8 would probably be the ideal ages for this. At 5, our little lady adored this! The packages start at around $100 and include a hairstyle, age appropriate makeup, nail polish, a crown, barrettes and loads of “pixie dust”. They also receive a backpack that says Bippity Boppity Boutique and holds additional special gift items for them. You can select a package that includes a princess dress or you can bring your own from home. A photographer was available afterwards for a photo shoot! Our Disney Planner booked BBB for us at 9am on the same day that we had reservations for a quick service lunch at Be Our Guest Restaurant, a Fast Pass for Enchanted Tales with Belle and dinner at Cinderella’s Royal Table. This worked perfectly as our little girl was able to stay in princess mode all day!

Jedi Training: If you have a kiddo that’s a Star Wars fan, this was really fun thing to do at Hollywood Studios – such a cool experience for our son. You do need to arrive to HS early and head straight to the Indiana Jones Outpost to sign up for a spot/time to participate in this. Then, you arrive back 30 minutes prior to your time and the kids get to march through the park the training area. The kids “train in the ways of the Force and put their  skills to the test against the Dark Side.” Very cool for our boy and we were proud watching him fight Darth Vader! {Side Note: The Star Wars Park was not open when we were there so I can’t speak for it at all.}

Magic Hours: If your kids are age appropriate and can handle this, try to take advantage of Disney Magic Hours. We weren’t able to do this on this trip, but hope to in the future. Magic Hours are extended theme park hours available to Disney resort guests. On certain days of the week, guests can enter a park one hour earlier or stay in a park up to two hours later than normal park operating hours. This would be a great way to get on rides that you don’t have Fast Passes for or ride favorites again.

Happily Ever After Fireworks: I’m going to go all Disney cliche here and say it … the fireworks at the castle are magical. Truly. We were able to watch and experience this twice, in two completely different settings. One night, after our ‘Ohana dinner at the Polynesian, we sat on the beach and watched the fireworks from afar. This was really fun. We loved it. But, the next night, we were at Magic Kingdom and were able to watch and experience the whole show from the front of the castle and that was an amazing, amazing experience. This show is a “dazzling journey of color, light and song that captures the heart, humor and heroism of many favorite Disney animated films.” Disney really gets this right with transforming Cinderella’s Castle through amazing state-of-the art projection technology. It’s stunning. But, the best part. Watching my kiddos faces and hearing them sing along and squeal with happiness. We experienced this on our last night and it was our grand finale. What a way to leave Disney on a high note! 

Final word of advice: My last piece of advice might be my most important. Don’t forget to breathe. Don’t forget who you are, who your kids are and who your family IS. Disney is intense. Don’t be THOSE PARENTS. Don’t make your kids miserable just because you have some unrealistic vision in your head. I saw a momma stuffing her sweet child in a hot Olaf costume to get her photo taken with Elsa and Anna. Why?! This does NOT make the moment any more special for your child. Don’t be crazy. If your kids aren’t in to something that seems popular – it’s OKAY. Mine didn’t seem to care about the autograph books or getting autographs from characters, so we skipped that part. No big deal! They ended up collecting free pins and stickers from merchandise locations. I didn’t even know that was a thing. Try to relax! Lower your expectations. Go with the flow. And, have fun with your family!

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