When it comes to family vacations, few places check off as many boxes as the Disney Resorts. Located on either side of the country, Disney Resorts are the premier destination for millions of vacationing families every year. It’s hard to find a place that has it all: gorgeous lodgings, amazing food, world-class entertainment, and unbeatable hospitality. But the Disney Resorts cover all those bases and more. Since it’s the beginning of the year, plenty of families are planning out their annual vacations, and Disney is at the top of a lot of lists. But if you’ve never been to a Disney Resort, planning a Disney vacation can be very overwhelming! There’s just so much to do and see, and seemingly endless options for hotels and restaurants. We know you want your Disney vacation to be magical, so we’re here to help.
We had the opportunity to speak with four members of the Disney Parks Moms Panel about planning the perfect Disney vacation. These ladies know Disneyland and Walt Disney World like the backs of their hands, and their expertise is invaluable. Maybe you’re looking for tips on how to do Disney on a budget. Or maybe you’ve got younger kiddos and need to know the ins and outs of covering the parks with them in mind. No matter what you’re after, Anne Marie, Kristin, Jessica B., and Ashley P. have you covered. The information they provided can help you plan and execute the magical Disney vacation of your dreams!
A Disney vacation starts with deciding on which Disney Resort is right for your family. Both Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts have so much to offer!
On either side of the country there sits an amazing Disney Resort. But aside from sharing the Disney name and vision (and plenty of magic), they couldn’t be more different! The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California consists of two parks, Disneyland and California Adventure. It also has three resort hotels: the Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Grand Californian Resort & Spa, and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. Walt Disney World is located in Orlando, Florida and boasts a whopping four amusement parks, two water parks, and more than 25 Disney Resort hotel locations! Lodgings range from luxury to budget-conscious. You really can’t go wrong at either resort (it is Disney, after all), but depending on how long you’re planning to stay and what you’re looking for in terms of entertainment, each location has different things to offer.
Disney at any time of the year is great, but there are definitely better times to visit.
First, the bad news: there really is no perfect time to visit either park to avoid crowds. It’s Disney, there are crowds year-round. But, there are definitely times to avoid, if possible. Research school breaks in the area for both parks, and try to avoid spring breaks or long holiday weekends. Summer is incredibly busy at both parks, but if that’s your only time to go and you’re out of school early enough or go back late enough, aim for mid-May and late August. We know that everyone loves to visit during the holiday season to see the amazing decorations, but beware: that’s the busiest time of the year, hands down.
However, according to Kristin C., one of the Disney Parks Moms panelists, you don’t have to miss out on the holiday magic. If you plan your visit for early January, you can avoid the big holiday crowds and still take in the lights and holiday beauty before the decorations come down the first week of January!
OK, so you’ve picked your dates. Now, where to stay?
When visiting one of the Disney Resorts, you certainly don’t HAVE to stay at one of the resort hotels. There are more hotels surrounding both parks than you could possibly choose from. But if you’re looking for that full Disney experience, the Disney Parks Moms Panel experts highly suggest choosing from one of the Disney-branded properties. Kristin C. says that the Disneyland Hotel is great for families, and if you’re looking for convenience, there’s a direct-to-park entrance at the Grand Californian.
Jessica B. frequents Walt Disney World with her husband, and for a opulent trip, she says the place to be is the Disney Grand Floridian Hotel and Spa, which is the flagship hotel at the resort. It’s on the monorail loop, so access to the parks is easy. And you can actually see the fireworks from the hotel, if you don’t want to stay at the park too late! It’s considered a deluxe property, so it is on the pricier side. But a stay there would make for a once-in-a-lifetime Disney vacation.
Anne Marie has been traveling to Disney World with her family for years. She suggests looking into a vacation rental for larger families planning on a longer stay, rather than spending more on a villa or suite to fit your group. There are tons of rentals in close proximity to the parks on both coasts. These can be a really cost-effective option for large families!
To bundle or not to bundle? That is the question.
There’s no denying that a Disney vacation can get really expensive, very quickly! Especially when you factor in airfare if you’re flying in from a different area. Disney offers lots of great vacation packages that will combine your hotel stay, park tickets, and even dining options at a discounted rate. But if you’re on a budget, you want to make sure that you’re getting your money’s worth. Anne Marie suggests pricing out everything separately (hotel, park tickets, food, souvenir budget, etc) to see if there’s a significant enough savings to make booking through Disney the better deal.
The plus side of booking your entire stay through Disney is that they offer some perks you can’t get if you go a la carte. For example, when you book your Disney vacation at a Disney hotel, you get early access to FastPass experiences, extra Magic Hours (when you get to enter the parks early), complimentary airport and park transportation, complimentary MagicBands (sort of your ticket to all the magic), and you have the option to add dining packages to your stay. When you start crunching the numbers, that can add up to some big savings!
Save money booking your Disney Vacation!
We get it – even when you factor in the savings of booking direct through Disney, it’s … a lot of money. But there are other ways to save before you book! Disney runs several special offers throughout the year for vacation packages at both resorts, sometimes as much as 20-30% off. So before you lock in your dates, Anne Marie suggests researching current deals. If airfare is going to be a big chunk of your budget, look for deals there first. Anne Marie and her family take advantage of low fares on airlines throughout the year, and plan their vacations around those dates.
If you’re local to one of the resorts, meaning a resident of California or Florida living in certain zip codes, consider buying an annual pass instead of single-day tickets. Passholders get discounts on tons of stuff, like hotels, food, merchandise, and more. And if you’re planning on spending more than 1-2 days at the parks, then an annual pass could be a cost-effective option that will save you money in the long run!
HOORAY! You’ve officially booked your Disney vacation. What next?
All of the panelists we spoke to from the Disney Parks Moms Panel said the same thing – start making your reservations early. You can make dining reservations up to 60 days before your arrival at Disneyland Resort, but you can make reservations further out when traveling to Disney World Resort. It sounds crazy to plan your meals that far in advance, but some of the more popular restaurants book up FAST. So if you’re hoping to dine at Blue Bayou at Disneyland or Be Our Guest at the Magic Kingdom, make those reservations as soon as you can. Your plans may change, but you’ll be glad you at least have that option available.
In addition to making dining reservations, it’s a good idea to book your FastPass experiences at Disney World in advance, too. If you booked your vacation through Disney and are staying at one of the Disney hotels, you can reserve up to three Fast Pass experiences per ticket, up to 60 days in advance. So use those to secure a spot on some of the more popular rides, like Pandora’s Avatar Flight of Passage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Note, FastPasses can’t be booked in advance at the Disneyland Resort!
Download the Disney park app for whichever resort you’re visiting.
Disney is really embracing technology and using it to make your time in the parks a lot easier. If you’re visiting Disneyland or California Adventure, download the Disneyland app. At Walt Disney World resort, you’ll want to download the My Disney Experience app. Both are available in the App Store and Google Play, and both are absolutely indispensable during your time in the parks. The apps allow you to make dining reservations, get Fast Passes, buy tickets or add Fast Passes to existing tickets, locate characters around the parks, view Disney PhotoPass photos, and even check wait times on rides and attractions. You can even use the apps for mobile ordering for food and drinks! Seriously, do not do Disney without the park apps.
Make a game plan!
The thing about visiting one of the Disney resorts is that there is SO MUCH to do. So plan your attack ahead of time to make it easier. Disneyland Resort regular Kristin C. suggests securing your FastPass experiences for popular rides, and hitting those during the Extra Magic Hour at Disneyland (if you’re staying at a Disney hotel), the Magic Morning early-access for 3+ day tickets, or right when the park opens. Then, use your app to snatch up more FastPass experiences as you go. It can be really helpful to have a plan in place when you’re visiting with smaller kids and want to eliminate as much waiting in line as possible. Plus, if you get the big stuff out of the way early on, you can relax a bit for the rest of the day.
When it comes to planning your visit to Walt Disney World, a little more planning is needed. There are four different parks, after all! Both Jessica B. and Ashley P. recommend at least one day per park. If you get the 5-day ticket, you get an extra day to return to your favorite park!. Getting an early start is key here as well: some of the really popular rides can have wait times as long as 2-3 hours during peak traffic times, so it’s important to plan ahead and use those MaxPass experience reservations wisely.
Sure, rides are great. But we all know it’s alllllll about the food.
Your Disney vacation will be full of magic. And part of that magic will come in the form of Mickey-shaped snacks and treats. The food at both resorts is out of this world! But if you want to get in on the real Disney dining experiences, make sure you make those reservations. At the Disneyland Resort, you’ll want to do at least one character experience, like Minnie & Friends Breakfast at the Park at the Plaza Inn at Disneyland or Mickey’s Tales of Adventure Breakfast Buffet at Storyteller’s Cafe in the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. For dinner, you can’t beat dining with the pirates at Blue Bayou. It’s the only restaurant at either park that is part of an actual attraction, and the food is outstanding.
At Walt Disney World, you can have a full-on princess experience at Cinderella’s Royal Table. Or dine inside of the Beast’s castle at Be Our Guest. Both of these restaurants are incredibly popular, so again, reserve ASAP! WDW has four parks, so lots of dining options! Head over to Epcot for some German eats from Biergarten Restaurant or Japanese teppanyaki from Teppan Edo. Or hit up Animal Kingdom for African cuisine at Boma.
But aside from sit-down dining, the snacks and treats are plentiful. How could you possibly fit it all in?! Do what Jessica B. and her husband do: split one large meal per day so you have plenty of room to try it all. With all that walking you’re going to get hungry, but who has time to waste sitting in a restaurant three times a day when they’re are rides to go on and churros to chow down! Make sure to grab a Dole whip at the Animal Kingdom – they serve them with rum for a cool adult treat!
But let’s talk about those rides, shall we?
Whether you’re at the Disneyland Resort or Walt Disney World, there are plenty of rides to keep people of all ages entertained for the whole day! Every park is different, and there will be favorites rides at each park. But there are definitely some classics that you can find at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. It’s A Small World, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, the teacups, and several Fantasyland rides like Dumbo and Peter Pan are classic Disney and can be found at both resorts. California Adventure just added Pixar Pier with Pixar-themed rides, and Radiator Springs Racers is located in Cars Land in the same park. Radiator Springs Racers is a MUST!
At Disney World, Expedition Everest in the Animal Kingdom is a real crowd-pleasing thrill ride. Frozen Ever After at Epcot banks on the never-ending popularity of everyone’s favorite ice princess. And the Avatar Flight of Passage in Pandora – The World of Avatar in the Animal Kingdom is one of the most popular rides in all the parks.
If you’re traveling with kids of different ages, make sure to make use of the Rider Switch pass on some of the thrill rides or rides with height requirements. Ashley P. uses it all the time, and it can be a real game changer for families. The Rider Switch allows parents to take turns riding a ride when they have younger or smaller kiddos in their party. So no one misses a turn!
Disney can be A LOT. Here’s how to make the best of it.
Even when things go 100% right, having kids at Disney can be an overwhelming experience. And they’re kids, so nothing ever goes 100% right. The most important thing to keep in mind is that it’s going to be fun, but it’s not going to be perfect! Luckily, the moms from the Disney Parks Moms Panel shared some of their expertise on how to minimize the meltdowns. We’ve covered things like Fast Passes and Rider Switch, which are lifesavers when you have small kiddos. But there are other ways to lessen the stress throughout the day, too!
Both resorts have Baby Care Centers throughout all the parks. These are great little quiet spots where you can nurse the baby, change your toddler, or just sit and relax without a lot of stimulation. Kristin C. takes advantage of them when she’s at Disneyland with her 3 kids, ages 2-7. Sometimes the kids just need a break from all the excitement! Some hotels at the Walt Disney World Resort also offer in-room childcare for kids ages 6 months all the way up to 12 years old. This is a great option if you have an older kid who wants to do some thrill rides with their parent or parents. Get a Disney sitter for the little one, and away you go!
Also, take advantage of the leisurely attractions at both parks. A ride on the Monorail or the trolley gives everyone a chance to take a load off and just people watch. At Disneyland Resort you can get off in Downtown Disney if you need a break from the parks. And at WDW, depending on where you’re staying, you can even ride it all the way back to your hotel.
Hitting Disney without the kids? WE ARE SO JEALOUS. But we also have a few tips for you, too.
Disney without kids is so fun, we can’t even tell you. You can do pretty much whatever you want! You don’t have to worry about strollers or diapers or keeping little ones from melting down. If you get a chance to sneak away for a day at the parks with your love or some friends, follow Jessica B.’s advice. First of all, travel light and keep your group small. Smaller parties have a better shot at scoring last minute dinner reservations and Fast Passes. Get an early start, schedule your first three Fast Passes, but then stay flexible! Without kids, it’s so much easier to move between parks and do a lot more. Head over to Disney Springs at WDW for some amazing food and cocktail choices. And make sure to do alllllllll the thrill rides.
Hidden gems to add to the magic of your Disney vacation!
If you think that rides, attractions, and food is all Disney has to offer, you couldn’t be more wrong! Disney thinks of EVERYTHING when you’re at the parks, and there are so many hidden gems. Kristin C. shared some of her favorite Easter eggs with us, and we can’t wait to do them all. First off, you’re going to want to know where to find the characters. You could use your app, or you can post up at the entrance of Main Street USA. Off to the side, near the theater that plays Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, there are two big white barn doors. That’s where all the characters come out at various points throughout the day. You can hang there for a while and say hi to all your favorites!
There are also daily or seasonal activities you can do while at the park. Check out the What’s New section of the Disneyland website. That’s where you’ll find out about all the special events happening in the park. For example, during the month of February, kids can take part in Minnie’s Valentine’s Day Scavenger Hunt and find special love notes around the park!
The live shows and parades are a must.
Don’t pass on the shows and parades at the parks on your Disney vacation. Not only are they incredibly entertaining, but they give you a chance to sit down and rest your tired feet! At California Adventure, make sure to check out the Disney Junior Dance Party – this show is a hit with the younger crowd. Mickey’s Soundsational Parade at Disneyland has all the Disney characters we know and love singing and dancing down Main Street. At WDW, don’t miss the Disney Festival of Fantasy Parade. And sing along to everyone;s favorite movie at At the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration.
And of course, you can’t go to Disney and miss the fireworks! Both resorts put on an out-of-this-world fireworks show every night, weather permitting. It’s not a Disney vacation without fireworks.
You won’t blow your entire Disney vacation budget on food with these insider tips.
Going out to eat anywhere as a family is pricey. But there’s a common misconception about the food at Disney resorts. The price of food at the parks is comparable to what you’d find at most other amusement parks or sporting events. You just have to be smart about it! Anne Marie had some great tips for saving on food at the parks. Pick one meal that you do at a restaurant, and snack the rest of the day. You can have a light breakfast at the hotel, eat lunch at the parks, and then have a light dinner (or fill up on churros, we don’t judge). Consider going to a buffet where you can get more bang for your buck, especially if you have a large family. Breakfast and lunch are typically less expensive than dinner, so make one of those your big meal of the day.
Pack plenty of snacks and waters to bring into the parks with you, for when your kiddos need a quick fill-up. And consider sharing entrees at your sit-down meal, so you can save money and room to try all the yummy treats and snacks you’ll see.
You can even save money on Disney vacation souvenirs, which are usually a budget buster.
So, you’re just going to have to face facts: your kids are going to want a souvenir (or two or three). You know what? You’re going to want one, too! And the merchandise at the parks isn’t cheap. But, if you plan ahead, you can save some money here. Check out your local Disney stores for discounts on items that you can bring with you and give your kiddos once you’re at your hotel.
Tell your kids they each get to pick one souvenir from your trip, and encourage them to pick something useful (like a sweatshirt or backpack). And consider stocking up on gift cards in the months leading up to your trip. Pro-tip: if you shop at Target and have a Red Card, you save 5% on Disney gift card purchases! Then, when you’re at Disney, give each of your kids a certain amount in gift cards to spend as they wish.
You can also score some pretty sweet souvenirs for free! If it’s your first visit or a special occasion like a birthday or anniversary, head to customer service and ask for your complimentary button. Prior to your trip, start buying Disney trading pins online or from the Disney store. Then your kids can spend some time trading within the parks, and score some cool new pins.