Having spent Christmas in Orlando this year, along with our extended family, we thought we would share our top tips for surviving those long days in the parks with kids! We went as a group of 10 (7 adults and 3 children) so it was very much about trying to ensure everyone got a bit of what they wanted, and balancing our “must dos” with enough rest and variety (and not just queues!)
Whilst it was busy, because, lets face it, Disney is always going to be, we actually didn’t find the Christmas week as overwhelming as we thought it might be. If anything, it got busier as we got closer to New Years, so that is something to bear in mind if you are considering travelling at that time of year. We have a number of other blog posts highlighting our top experiences in each park, but here are our 10 Top Tips for surviving Disney with kids:
I cannot begin to quantify how many snacks our kids got through… I mean they are snack monsters at home to be honest, but this was definitely a key part of surviving the longs days in the theme parks. We tended to head out fairly early and get back late, as we were only there for a week and wanted to make the most of it. As such, snacks to keep us all going, and particularly the children, proved to be essential. The food on offer was pretty good in terms of variety and cost (the fast service food anyway) but we didn’t want to keep queuing or paying for snacks so we took our own in with us. They are absolutely fine with you doing this, so I definitely recommend packing a rucksack full of essentials. We actually brought a fair amount with us from the UK as I knew the children would happily eat these, and we also stocked up in the US supermarkets which was much cheaper than in the parks themselves. We found that snacks really helped with the queuing for rides, and those afternoon lulls in energy!!
One other top tip on the snack front…if you are fans of popcorn we found the refillable popcorn buckets brilliant. Once purchased you can go to any popcorn stand to refill for a couple of dollars, across all parks. This was a huge hit with the kids!
2. Fast service food
We were a large party and only in Orlando for a week, so we avoided sit down restaurants in the parks, partly due to cost, partly due to time. Instead we found the fast service food options worked brilliantly for us. Firstly there are absolutely loads of them! So there is choice and variety, and good options for everyone in the group. Secondly most of them can be pre-ordered via the Disney app. This meant we could all choose what we wanted, pre-order and pay, and then we were given a time to go and collect. It worked brilliantly for our group of 10 as we had time to find tables, get the kids settled and collect the food. It also meant that you could order something different, collect and then all meet to eat together, if the locations worked out. We found the cost of these options pretty good and they have some great children’s meals. The portions are good sizes, and there are lots of drink options too. I would definitely recommend this approach with children and large groups; filling, quick and cost effective.
Basically take a refillable water bottle! There are water fountains everywhere throughout the parks and even in December the weather got really warm and endless walking and queuing made those water bottles essential!
You are not going to visit Disney and avoid queuing, even with rope dropping, Genie+ or Lightning Lanes. At some point, there is going to be some queuing. I was really anxious about this with children; we had a 10 year old, 7 year old and 4 year old so it was a big ask to get them to queue for long periods of time and I had visions of it being a nightmare! In many ways being a big group helped as everyone was on hand to entertain and keep the conversation going (and take it in turns to entertain the children!) Aside from snacks (obviously) we also found a couple of other things really helped the queuing. One was playing games and the kids loved the Heads Up app, which kept the whole group entertained for ages!! So I would definitely recommend downloading one or two of these (and taking a battery pack with you!!) We came up with all sorts of games and challenges in the end to keep us going, from ranking rides and foods, to deigning our own imaginary theme parks!
5. Mornings and evenings
I would definitely say it is worth thinking about how to use the day and what works best for your group. Early mornings and later evenings tended to give better options for getting on key rides away from the longer queues seen in the main hours of any day. It was quite noticeable how much ride queue times dropped in the evenings/at night, so worth exploring that as an option. You could have some slower mornings, and head in to the parks later. Or if you are early birds, try rope dropping to head to the most popular rides first and then leave the parks earlier for an early night.
6. To plan or not to plan
This was our first time in Orlando and we had no idea how much we were going to achieve each day. I know some people love to plan it all in detail; order of the day, their route around the park, timings for rides, locations for dinner. I totally get that. There is so much to do when you are there, and a plan can make it less overwhelming.
We found with our larger group that flexibility was essential. So we didn’t plan to a great level. We decided on a time to get up and go and we planned what our first and second rides would be for each of the days, so that we ticked off our ‘must dos’. From that point we kept things really flexible, darting on to rides if we saw there were short queues, or trying to get smaller less popular ones done in the daytime when crowds were their highest. The app was really useful and we used it a lot to check in on wait times. This felt loads less pressurised to us. We may not have got on every single ride, but we did get on absolutely loads and there was something for everyone. It worked really well and I would definitely try to stay pretty flexible again. I think it is about what works for you and your group.
7. Expectation versus reality
Very much linked to the above, there definitely needs to be a sense of what is realistic. I got a bit overwhelmed before we went with all the online advice groups and trying to make lists and lists of everything we needed to do, see and eat. I think it could actually send you a bit mad to be honest! But everyone has their own views of what is important and what will work better for them so you just have to navigate your own way through and see what suits you and your family. Within that you have to accept that not everything will go perfectly and you might not get to do and see absolutely everything you want to or in the order you want to. I found being open to change and going with the flow worked well for us as we still got on pretty much every one of the big rides, but without the overload of stress and planning. There are some rides we didn’t get on, but we made our peace with that. Frankly as long as I got coffee and one of those awesome giant donuts at Epcot I was happy!!!!
I have to say we didn’t have anywhere near the amount of downtime I thought we might, or we would like when we go again! We had a week there so decided it was a once in a lifetime experience at Christmas and to just go for it! So it was long days in the parks for us to soak up every moment of it we could. Had we been there longer than a week we could not have sustained this! I do think planning in ‘rest’ days and slower mornings or evenings is crucial for longer trips, and would allow you to savour the moment and enjoy some more of Orlando and Florida. What we did do, was have some ‘downtime’ within the parks and this is definitely something I would recommend. Time out in the afternoons, to have a longer lunch for example, or sit and enjoy drinks and ice creams and just watch the world go by was really nice, and allowed everyone to talk about their highlights and what to do next. I also found all of the sit down shows brilliant for this; worth planning in for later in the day when everyone if starting to feel a bit weary. Most of the shows are really funny and entertaining so a great opportunity to rest little legs and enjoy some downtime, without wasting time as such.
We also found that a day at the water park was a massive bonus. It worked really well for us as it came after 4 straight days in the parks. It gave everyone a chance for a lie in as we got there at 10am, and it was a really relaxing day. Lots of fun for all the family and loads of opportunity to just relax (and rest our feet!!!) I would highly recommend booking at least one of these in. When we were there Blizzard Beach was open and everyone loved it. Loads of sun beds, great variety of rides and pools, and good food and drink options.
9. Let them lead
The children loved being part of the planning and organising so we very much let them lead where they wanted to head each morning for their first rides of the day. This worked brilliantly as they felt really involved and were eager to get up and get moving because we were heading where they really wanted to go. It allowed them to tick off their ‘top rides’ and got a big thumbs up all round. Quite often the evenings saw ride times drop, so again giving them a list of 3 possible choices and them choosing their ultimate ride helped keep them all going! They all loved the park maps and collecting them/ticking off the rides they achieved, so that is also a good shout for little ones. They are nestled safely in their memory boxes now!
10. Parade times
A final top tip is to make sure you check out parade and show times at each park when you travel. These can vary depending on time of year, so it is worth doing your research beforehand. The parades are incredible and a huge highlight for us, so you definitely want to see them at least once. The same goes for the evening light and firework shows which are spectacular. What all of this does mean, is that if you are happy having seen them once, you can then use that time in future to hop on to some rides. People flock to the shows and parades, often getting in position way ahead of time, so queue times for rides can drop. It can be worth making the most of that time if you have already enjoyed the show! Win win.