This is a guest post from Mary T of Travel with Teens and Tweens, a review and resource website for families traveling with kids 12 and up. All photos by George Turner. Fantastic tips, thanks Mary!
Walt Disney World is a massive theme park and entertainment complex covering 47 miles (roughly the size of San Francisco). For first time visitors, it isn’t surprising that it’s hard to figure out where to start when it comes to planning a vacation.
We felt the same way the first time we ventured to Disney with a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old. Since then, we have become old hands, going almost annually, most recently when the youngest was 12 and the oldest was almost 16. Despite the changing ages and interests of the kids, we’ve found the Disney magic every time.
We are such Disney fans that Ciao Bambino asked us to pull together some tips for families planning their first visit to Disney. So here we go:
Where to Stay
Regardless of the ages of the kids involved, for us, nothing beats the magic of staying on the Disney property. Several resorts such as the Wilderness Lodge have rooms that include a queen bed and two bunks – perfect for families whose kids do not do well sharing beds. Need a little more room? The value priced All-Star Music Resort contains over 200 family suites that include 2 beds, a pull out sofa and a mini-kitchen.
If your budget allows, splurge on a villa at one of the higher-end resorts like The Beach Club, the Animal Kingdom Lodge, The Boardwalk, or Saratoga Springs. Villas range from studios with kitchenettes to 1 and 2 bedroom condo-style units with full kitchens, washer/dryers and a living room. You can pre-order online and have food delivered the day you arrive. Guest services will even hold it for you in a refrigerated area if the food gets there before you do.
All the Disney hotels have great pools, but depending on the age of your kids, some may be better than others for your family. The Stormalong Bay water complex shared by the Beach Club and the Yacht Club is too overwhelming for kids younger than 7 or 8. Mom and dad need to be confident junior can swim well and be comfortable not having him always in sight. The Boardwalk pool features a three story, clown-themed water slide that our kids started using when they were 3 or 4, but we put them in life jackets (available at the resort) since the pool depth was over their heads. Many resorts also have smaller quiet pools and small baby pool options.
Once you get to Disney and get settled in it is obviously time to hit the parks.
Toddlers and Pre-schoolers: Start with the Magic Kingdom where the focus is Fantasyland and such favorites such as the cheerful Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and It’s a Small World rides. Young kids love to ride the Disneyland Railroad around the park or take the rafts over to Tom Sawyer’s Island and run around in a more rustic setting. As for Dumbo, if you can possibly talk your kids into skipping it definitely do so. The line is long and the ride is very short. Ditto for formal character greetings. Many young kids are scared of larger than life mice, so don’t waste time waiting in line for a signature. Book a character meal for more access and no wait in a less hectic setting!
Beyond the Magic Kingdom, young kids love the Animal Kingdom. The Safari Ride is a favorite. The Boneyard in Dinoland is a huge sandbox that lets mom and dad take a break as the kids dig for fossils. Need a place to cool off? The Nemo show is spectacular. Take the train to Rafiki’s Planet Watch andConservation Station for a number of gentle activities
Epcot is more of a big kid’s paradise although the Living Sea aquarium and the boat ride and meal with Chip ‘n Dale at the The Land pavilion are good for this age. The Disney Hollywood Studios are also geared to older visitors although Playhouse Disney shows with well loved characters are fun for this age. If you are short on time this is the park I would skip if you have little ones. No matter where you go with kids this age, bring or rent a stroller, or carry them in a backpack.
Elementary School Age Kids: At this age, most rides in the Magic Kingdom are fair game, although do check on height requirements ahead of time so they won’t be disappointed. Space Mountain, Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Railroad are must dos! For the daredevils, Expedition Everest and Dinosaur thrill rides at the Animal Kingdom are great fun. If you want something a little gentler the Kali Rapids River Ride and carnival rides in Dinoland may be a better choice. Definitely take the time to walk the trails and see tigers, gorillas, and many other animals in their natural habitats. At Epcot, the race car experience at Test Track, the virtual hang glider experience at Soarin’ and rocket ship lift off at Mission Space are top of the list. Finally, at the Hollywood Studios, kids this age love the Indiana Jones stunt show, Muppet Vision 3D, and Toy Store Mania.
Mt. Everest by Disney
Teens and Tweens: Kids ages 12 and up love all the rides listed above and most are ready for even the scariest experiences like the Hollywood Studio’s Rockin Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror. The great thing at this age is that mom and dad don’t have to go on all the rides anymore. If the kids have a buddy or a sibling, let them go while you shop or eat a nice lunch. This is a great age to bring a friend or coordinate visits with other families. Older teens, with a friend, can easily navigate the Parks on their own for a day, checking in via cell phone as needed. Water parks like Typhoon Lagoon are also great for kids this age since they don’t need to be supervised every second so they can enjoy the killer water slides while mom gets some sun.
For those 14 and up, the Hollywood Studios offers the chance to participate in American Idol experience auditions and shows. Daily winners ages 16-28 get a chance to go to the head of the line at one of next season’s auditions for the well known TV show. In the evening, this group likes DisneyQuest, along with dinner at Planet Hollywood, at Downtown Disney. Register in advance if possible. And, of course, teens and tweens are more than able to stay up for late night rides and fireworks, although they may need a morning to sleep in to make up for it.
We have visited Disney for as little as one day and as long as a week. We greatly prefer visits in the 5-7 day range. With that much time we can relax and feel like it is really a vacation.
TIP: The daily price per ticket decreases rapidly after the 3rd day of your visit. If you buy 5 or 6 day passes with the Park Hopper option (that allows you to visit multiple parks a day) you’ll find that days 4, 5 and 6 only cost a few dollars extra. Small discounts on tickets are available from AAA, but the only real discounts come when Disney runs a promotion. If you have kids young enough to take out of school, definitely go off season as the cost of almost everything is lower and there are fewer crowds.
Speaking of Food
Book dinner reservations far ahead as prime slots fill quickly. This is particularly important if you are visiting during times when Disney offers their free dining plan promotion. Our favorites are in Epcot, the Teppan Edo in the Japan pavilion captures the attention of elementary age and up as they cook dinner before your eyes. And for steak eaters, the Le Cellier Steakhouse in the Canadian pavilion is terrific.
Take Your Time
For us, years of Disney memories have been built on taking our time and enjoying the little things. We still smile when we remember our kids going fishing on the Disney waterways as well as our 7-year-old holding a conversation with a talking trash can (be on the lookout for it in Tomorrowland) and our 12-year-old talking to a parrot for 15 minutes on a side trail at the Animal Kingdom. Sometimes, it’s the unplanned moments and times away from the main attractions that make the most lasting memories. Disney is big, but there plenty of pixie dust to go around!
Our family’s best trips are the result of lots of research to identify options that everyone will enjoy and letting our teen and tween have a big say in what we do on the trip. The goal of the blog is to provide inspiration, reviews and resources for families traveling with teens and tweens. Check out our signature Best Trips series for such fabulous destinations as Yellowstone, the Big Island of Hawaii and the Jersey Shore or read our “Teen ‘n Tween Approved” reviews for tours, camps, and hotels.
Whether it is a major family vacation, a weekend away, a summer camp experience, or a trip to check out a colleges, we hope our research and reviews will help you get the most out of travels with your teens and tweens.