Disney: whether you’ve dreamed of taking your children or dreaded the moment, you'll succumb to the Magic Kingdom's siren call eventually. And regardless of motivation, you’re bound to face some, um, STRESS when corralling kids, spouses, potentially grandparents plus lines upon lines of sugared-up crowds. But that’s the bad part, and there’s a lot of good news, all of it from our panel of smart moms who shared their insider advice on how to do Disney right. Get their tips on where to stay, the best line-skipping scoop and how to find a decent meal when Mickey's in the house. These are some seriously cool ladies who aren’t exactly flipping out for a set of mouse ears, and even they had a blast and have returned for multiple trips. Follow their tips on where to stay, which guide to get and even how to manage souvenir shopping.
Where to Stay
Four Seasons: “This is perfect for someone who wants an escape from the Disney mayhem, and we spent our mornings in the park but our afternoons at the hotel. There’s a huge children’s pool and a separate adults pool and spa for adults. Happy kids, happy parents, and everyone was rested and sane for the next day on the rides. Also, even though you have to take a shuttle to reach the parks, there’s a Disney desk at the hotel to assist with everything, and they can do character dinners at the Four Seasons restaurants.” - Ella
Grand Floridian: “We loved the Grand Floridian. I thought it would be more dated because I stayed there when I was five years old, but the minute you get out of the taxi from the airport it's bright, clean and smells of fresh flowers. It didn't feel old at all. Rooms had slightly dated furniture, but it didn't matter because the rugs and wallpaper were fine, and service was great. Pools were terrific, and the poolside kids’ food was ideal. The kids ran around with Jedi swords and bubbles on the lawn for hours. In terms of restaurants, the character breakfast there is worth doing, and we liked the restaurant in the main building.” - Martha
The Contemporary: “We stayed at the Contemporary and got a suite. It had easy access into the park, and we could watch fireworks from our balcony (great with little kids!). I'm glad we stayed on property and think we would try the Polynesian next time, which supposedly just upgraded their suites. Easy access to the monorail was so helpful for our crew.” - Samantha
"We stayed at the Contemporary, which has the monorail running through it. I chose this because my son was little. We walked to Magic kingdom in the morning (a 10-15 min stroll) and took the monorail home in afternoon. Our hotel was the first stop, so it was super convenient. Rooms recently redone, and we had a balcony. I paid extra to face the Magic Kingdom and see fireworks, but it wasn’t necessary since we were asleep way before 10 pm every night. I think I would choose the Wilderness or the Polynesian one next time, but for little ones the fact that this is close is great. Plus the pool is great.” - Alatia
Loews Portofino Bay: “We chose this Universal property because we wanted a more chill hotel given our hectic days. We also heard this was the nicest, apart from the new Four Seasons. Also, we wanted to do our first day at Harry Potter, and from the Portofino, there’s a boat so you avoid parking and get early access by an hour. So worth to families who have Harry at top of the list. For Minions fans, there are Despicable Me-themed suites, but they tend to book up so plan early.” - Leslie
“We also booked a private guide that allowed us to skip lines. I was six months pregnant, and we had a four- and two-year-old. It was absolutely worth every penny!” - Samantha
“We used a guide called First Class Tours two out of three days, both at Universal and for Magic Kingdom. At Disneyland, we used Disney’s own VIP guides and it was awesome but a lot more expensive. The difference: Disney can just cut lines, whereas the outside ones gets you a fast-pass line, and you’ll usually have a five-to-ten minute wait.” - Leslie
“Disney is more democratic than Universal in that you can't just buy your way into the express lane for the rides. You have to sign up for "Fast Pass," and you can only register for three rides at a time. We use the Disney app on our iPhone, and we try to do it well before we hit the park. On crowded days, you may not get your top choices, and the times you're given for each ride may be pretty spread out. We just do our best to sign up for three that we like, and we prioritize the most important rides that the kids really want to do. We know we're probably not going to get to everything in a day, so we focus on the favorites and don't dwell on the stuff we didn't get to.” - Cheryl
“We loved Mike's VIP. We got into better shows, had great seats, and were first for JEDI training, etc. My friend used another guide, and ours was much better, more street smart.” - Martha
“You must download the app on your phone before you get to the park. This is how you manage the fast passes. It’s super easy, but learn how before you are there. I didn’t and that was a mistake.” - Alatia
Editor’s Note: The Disney food is famously bad, so much so that a mom once told us she was relieved to get to the airport and find something to eat. Here’s what our panel of moms had to say about their culinary adventures in the parks.
“The only semi-noteworthy meal we had in any of the parks was a veggie curry stand inside Animal Kingdom (they had cold Tusker beer!). Everything else was pretty nasty. We will definitely make better use of a kitchen and packing snacks next time.” - Samantha
“Before we started our three days, we planned one good non-fried, non-quick-service meal at the Palm at Hard Rock. We had a private dining room with a tv for the kids to watch, and it was a perfect, private feast before tons of yucky park food.” - Leslie
“I personally find that the Magic Kingdom has the worst food of all of the parks, and as a vegetarian family, we find it particularly lacking in options. We always eat a filling breakfast, because we know we'll be eating terrible food throughout the day. And we almost always end up at the Tomorrowland Terrace near Space Mountain, because they have a veggie burger. When I was there in December, I saw that they had added a lobster roll to the limited menu. We didn't try it, but it was nice to see a modicum of progress in that department. It's also worth noting that while most of the theme parks serve alcoholic beverages for weary adults, Magic Kingdom does not. Eight hours into those crowds and lines it would so nice to get a glass of wine, but you'll have to trek over to Epcot for that.” - Cheryl
“Definitely have dinner at the Wilderness Lodge. It was so fun, Western themed. They give all the kids those wooden horses we grew up with, and they lead them through the place singing and dancing. It’s a blast. Food here was good.” - Alatia
“Give your kids a set amount of spending money, or just don't worry about it and go crazy. At the end of the day, the Indiana Jones hat and whip isn't what is breaking the bank or ruining your child.” - Michelle
“If you buy things at the gift shops throughout the day, you will eventually wind up with the burden of another heavy bag. A nice feature of the parks is the free service that allows you to purchase your items and have them sent to the front service desk where you can pick everything up at the end of the day. If you want to buy souvenirs and whatnot, I highly recommend using that service.” - Cheryl
“Get over the price, the waste, etc. Just go with it. Yes, every ride ends in a store. The toys are $10—just do it.” - Alatia
“The difference in the wait times is tremendous depending on when you visit. During off-peak times, you can ride the rides to your heart's content, but during the peak days, you may only tackle a handful. If possible, visit them during the week, and not at the highest traffic times likes holiday.” - Cheryl
“You'll be out all day, probably into the night, and you may walk ten miles before the day is done. Don't get cute with your wardrobe. In Orlando, it's typically very hot during the day then a little cool at night. Wear very cool comfortable clothing and a sweatshirt for later. Sneakers are a must. Flip-flops and sandals can become painful after half a day at Disney. Bring a bag that's easy to carry, like a backpack, and think carefully about each item you decide to take with you. That bag will get heavier over the course of the day as you collect souvenirs, water bottles, etc. Wear sunscreen and don't bring anything fancy (leave the Chanel bags at home) because your bag is going to get squished into roller coasters and it may even get wet.” - Cheryl
“Despite the shortcomings of the Magic Kingdom and the bigger badder roller coasters available at other parks, this is the place my 9 year old and 11 year old still love the most. It has a certain old-fashioned innocence that doesn't exist elsewhere. I find it charming that I can return, as an adult, to the classic rides from my own childhood and see that my kids love them the way I did. For us, some of the must-dos include Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, and It's a Small World. Yes, it's a sugary sweet and slow boat ride, but we have to ride it every time we visit.
Over many years of visiting the Magic Kingdom, we've learned to be cautious with rides that involve getting splashed. Some rides will get you a cooling spritz which is refreshing on a hot day, but others will get you completely soaked and wishing for a change of clothes. If the ride sells rain ponchos on the way in, beware. And if you decide to ride it, you probably should bite the bullet and buy the ponchos. I know this because I once wound up having to buy a hideous an ill-fitting sundress from a gift shop because I couldn't bear to spend the rest of my day in cold wet denim shorts. Speaking of… make sure to get those bathroom breaks in between rides! It's painful when you've waited 30 mins in a 45 minute line and someone in the group says they just really need to go NOW. “ - Cheryl
Most of our mom panel discussed Orlando, but one knew the California ins and outs, too. Here’s Michelle’s take on Anaheim’s Disneyland.
Stay: “The Grand Californian Lodge Hotel was pretty great. Spendy but with direct access to the park, a nice pool for breaks in the day, and a bar. One nice steak restaurant and a character breakfast. They modeled it after the Ahwanhee in Yosemite (in a total Disney way). It doesn't feel authentic, but it is big, and in the lobby there are Craftsman rockers for little ones to chill out in front of a disney show while you check in/check out/get ready for the day.”
Birthday Tips: “My son celebrated his birthday while we were here, so he wore a birthday badge with his name on it and everyone said hello and happy birthday.”
Line Skipping: “Use FastPass for the big rides.”
Drink: “There is a bar right next to Goofy's Kitchen, so you can grab a drink while waiting in line. They know how to take care of frazzled parents with super overly excited kids.”
Buy: “It is expensive and super merchandised. Prepare to walk through a gift shop after many rides.”
Tip: “To get picked for Jedi training, just jump up and down and wave your hands and look super excited.”
See: “There really is no bad spot for watching the parades and fireworks. I'm usually the one stressing about the best spot, but it is all fine, no need to stake out a spot early.”
Play the Long Game: “Disneyland isn't going anywhere, so don't stress about seeing and doing it all in one trip. We went for a day when my son was two and just followed his pace. He loved it. We spent half the day at California Adventure Bugland, which is for little kids, then hugged a bunch of characters, took a nap, and went to a parade. Done. When we was six and seven, he obviously could do more and wanted to do everything. Yes, we were lucky enough to be in California, so it was easy to go, and some families may just plan a one time trip. But plan around the age of your kids. Don't push it."
Cover image via fourseasons.com