I just got back from a four days at Disney, all expenses paid…by me. Phew. All I can say is, if you’re going to shell out the small fortune to take your children on the vacation of their dreams, you’d best enjoy it ourselves with the help of these simple tips for a Disney vacation with kids.

There are plenty of great resources and websites that offer money-saving tips, Fast Pass tips, trip planning advice and more–including Kristen’s great tips about Disneyland. So I thought I’d put together just a few really simple common sense tips, one parent to another, to help you make sure the Happiest Place on Earth lives up to its name.

1. You don’t have to do it all.
The best advice I got from friends and readers is that when traveling with kids, don’t expect to start with an early breakfast and end with a nighttime parade. Take your time, do the things your kids want to do–even playgrounds–and don’t feel like you have to squeeze everything in to get your money’s worth.

What makes a vacation memorable is being with your kids, and seeing them laughing and smiling all day long; not the fact that you waited til 9PM to use your Fast Pass for the Toy Story ride.


Tips for Disney Vacation with kids - Magic Castle © Liz Gumbinner for Cool Mom Picks

2. Get an early start.
Even on President’s Weekend, one of Disney’s busiest times of the year, we really didn’t feel the crush. We arrived at the parks first thing (be good about waking up early!), did all of our must-do rides by 10, then had a really enjoyable, leisurely “so..what do you want to do now?” kind of a day until we were tired. We even got in that requisite kids in front of the castle shot–without a balloon hawker or throngs of families in sight. I think that alone was worth it.

3. Schedule in downtime
If you’re staying on property, afternoons at the hotel are a great way to recharge, especially if you’ve got good pool weather. Orlando can be chilly in the winter so check the weather forecast–although there’s a lot to be said for Disney when it’s not too hot.

In any case, downtime can mean time in an arcade, sitting on a bench, watching the jumping fountains for an hour, or taking a leisurely lunch at a sit-down restaurant. Or hey, even napping back at your hotel. Then you can always head back to the parks at night for fireworks or an evening parade with renewed energy.

3.  Four years old is a great age to start.
I know some people will disagree with me on this; if you’re a local or the grandparents live nearby and the trip isn’t a big deal, I can understand wanting that photo opp with your 2 year-old and Eeyore, even if she’ll never remember it. I also understand if you have older kids, and the younger ones are part of the package. But the reality is, once your child hits about four, he or she can truly enjoy it. As can you!

It’s delightful doing the park without strollers, without diapers or sippies, and with a child who can actually go on more rides than It’s a Small World. My kids are nearly five and seven, and I’m so glad we waited until now. They’re old enough for all the energy they need to power through the long days, and young enough to still believe in that Disney magic.

4. Download the Undercover Tourist App! Now!
I reviewed this app on Cool Mom Tech and it’s a lifesaver. Also, free. It’s great for knowing wait times in real time, parade times, and helping you find the best, closest restaurants when your kid is having a blood sugar meltdown. You can download the free Disney Mobile Magic app if you’re a Verizon customer–which I’m not. It may have more features (like helping you find the characters) but I prefer the idea of an app that’s got independent reviews and rating on it. (Update: The Mobile Magic app has been discontinued.)

Tips for Disney Vacation with kids - Mulan © Liz Gumbinner for Cool Mom Picks

5. Give in to the Disney princess thing.
There are princesses there. There are cast members who call your daughters Princess. There are princess stickers and princess photo ops and people who want to sell you princess tiaras and gowns (which you are under no obligation to buy). Heck, there is a GIANT PRINCESS CASTLE which is the center of the entire resort, which happens to be in a place with KINGDOM you can just take a picture of Goofy or Jasmine without your kid in it. In fact, let your kid take the picture himself. He’ll be so proud.

6. Don’t wait on line for every single character photo op
Sometimes you can just take a picture of Goofy or Jasmine without your kid in it. In fact, let your kid take the picture himself. He’ll be so proud.

You can also find characters lurking around Epcot, or doing the Electric Slide with guests at the Tomorrowland stage in the Magic Kingdom. And then, there’s always those character meals which I think are worth the extra money.

7. Save the fireworks until your last night
See also: tip #1. Fireworks start in the 9-10PM range which is probably later than your young kids are generally awake. It will break them for the next day. Consider waiting until the very last night of your trip to stay up late. It makes a great finale, and heck, they can catch up on sleep on the airplane or the car ride home. (Better for you anyway!)

Tips for Disney Vacation with kids - Animal Kingdom © Liz Gumbinner for Cool Mom Picks

8. It’s okay to say no.
If you set rules in the beginning with your kids, expectations are clear and hopefully you won’t be That Mom with Those Kids whining for a cotton candy at 9 AM. For example, we told our girls that they couldn’t have something from every gift shop so not to ask. (They were awesome about that.) You can also say no at the park, by the way–we often turned down the desserts that came with our meals, much to the surprise of the wait staff. I am okay with my suitcase coming home 10 pounds heavier, but not my body.

9. It’s okay to say yes.
Ice cream twice a day on a vacation has never killed a child. Enough said.

10. Have fun!
This may sound obvious, but wow, there are a lot of stressed out parents at the parks. Just relax and enjoy yourself, even if you’re on a line. Even if your feet hurt. Even if it’s not the most relaxing vacation in the world. Next time, you’ll do Club Med.

[all photos © liz gumbinner for cool mom picks]

Want more advice? See our posts on:
Money saving tips in Orlando
How to have a cooler Orlando vacation with kids under 5
Tips on doing Disneyland

You can also find a nice post on common sense Disney tips from the Manic Mommies.

Any more Disney vacation tips you’d like to add to help out our readers?