- Overview of our Days in the Park
- MAGIC KINGDOM
- HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS
- Art of Animation Resort
- THE ROOMS
- THE GROUNDS
- THE FOOD
- THE FINDING NEMO POOL
- THE SHOPPING
- THE SKYLINER
- Park Tips & Tricks – What We Learned
- MAGIC BANDS
- GENIE+ LIGHTENING LANES
- RIDER SWAP
- RIDE CANCELLATIONS
- DISNEY PHOTO PASS
- WATER STATIONS
- DINING RESERVATIONS
- Prep Work: Getting There and What to Pack
- GETTING THERE – DRIVING VS. FLYING
- THINGS TO PACK
We are back from a week in Disney World and it was the BEST. TIME. EVER! We will never forget experiencing the Disney magic with our kids (ages 5, 4 and 1 ½). As a bonus surprise, we were joined by Ryan’s brother, wife and their kids (ages 7, 5, and 1 ½). We couldn’t have asked for better travel companions and having cousins to ride and play with made the experience all the more incredible.
I’ve heard people say to wait to bring your kids to Disney until they are older and will remember it, but for us our kids were the perfect age to feel the wonder and awe of Disney magic. We loved watching their faces light up when they saw their favorite characters, cheering them on as they conquered their fears on some coasters we never imagined they would step foot on, and seeing them count their precious piggy bank money to bring home some fun Disney goodies. They may not remember exactly what rides they went on, but I do believe they will always remember the happiness and joy they felt during this week together.
I need to start by saying this trip would not have been possible without the help of our incredible travel agent Patricia Tarabocchia at Mickey World Travel. I consider myself to be a savvy traveler, but Disney is a different beast entirely. Trish provided valuable information on how to schedule our days at the parks, recommendations for using Genie+, booked our hotel and rental car, made our dining reservations and answered our millions of questions leading up to the trip. If you are thinking of booking a trip to Disney without a travel agent, I strongly suggest you reconsider. We are so so very thankful for Trish and all the ways she made our trip truly unforgettable.
Overview of our Days in the Park
Below I’m going to walk you through exactly what we did each day. DO NOT TRY TO COPY THIS! Disney requires a high level of flexibility and you should plan your day around wait times, ride closures, character appearances, shows, when you get your Lightening Lanes and whatever is important to you and your family. However, I hope it’s helpful in showing how we shaped our day based on how the park looked in that moment, and give you an understanding of what is possible with little kids in tow (it’s more than you think!). This is meant to educate you on the possibilities, but make your own magic!
Left the room at Art of Animation Resort at 7:30 a.m. to take the Skyliner to the park
Park opens 8:30 a.m. for resort guests; 9 a.m. for general public
- Our plan was to walk immediately to Test Track but upon arrival it was temporarily closed (see more on that below) so we walked to Finding Nemo
- Finding Nemo ride 2x in a row. There is an aquarium at the end of the ride we could have spent hours in. Here you can spot manatees, sea turtles, reef fish, rays, sharks and more. You can also go directly to the aquarium by walking through the exit of the ride though the gift shop.
- Because the Skyliner entrance to the park is in the back, we then walked to the front entrance to take pictures of the Epcot ball with our Disney Photo Pass
- We walked to Norway for our 10:40 a.m. Lightening Lane to Frozen. This ride is phenomenal! One of our favorites from the whole trip. You can also meet Elsa and Ana right next door but the wait was 40 minutes so we passed on that.
- We walked back to the Mexico Pavilion where the Mariachi Cobre was performing traditional Mexican folk music (including songs from Coco). They said they’ve been playing together in EPCOT since it opened in 1982! We also grabbed strong and delicious margaritas for the adults.
- We walked on to Germany where we saw Snow White and France where we saw Sleeping Beauty, while some of the kiddos took stroller and carrier naps.
- Ice cream at L’Artisan des Glaces in France cooled us down in the 90 degree weather. Get the caramel!
- We hopped the Skyliner back to our hotel for some pool time. We Door Dashed Chick-fil-a for dinner and were able to meet the driver right at the Little Mermaid pool.
- We headed back to the park at 6:30 p.m. for our 7:20 p.m. Lightening Lane for Test Track. This was the ride my boys were most excited for at Disney and it did not disappoint. We needed to use a rider swap for this since any kids under the age of 7 needed an adult.
- Because we had to do Test Track in two shifts, we had to RUN to our Soarin’ Lightening Lane that ended at 8:40 p.m. This is one of my personal favorite rides in Disney, but for the kids it was just ok. It also as a notoriously long and boring line, and even with the Lightening Lane it was one of the longest waits we had all trip.
- We caught the end of the Harmonious fireworks show which is fantastic. We started walking towards the Skyliner at the end to try to beat the crowds. We were back to the hotel by 10 p.m.
- We walked 17,000 steps this day.
How we booked our Lightening Lanes:
7 a.m. LL – Frozen for 10:40 a.m.
11 a.m. LL – Test Track for 7:20 p.m.
Early afternoon – Soarin’ LL for 7:40 p.m.
Key Learnings from our day at EPCOT:
- If you want to ride Ratatouille and are taking the Skyliner, go there first! It is literally right inside the entrance and everyone else was run-walking from the main entrance to get there. You really can’t do this ride without a rope drop or Lightening Lane unless you want to spend half your day on line.
- EPCOT is not just for adults! The Frozen, Test Track and Finding Nemo were all big favorites and World Showcase is a great place to see lots of characters. Our travel agent recommended doing EPCOT on Day 1 to get our feet wet and get to know the Lightening Lane process and that was a terrific recommendation.
- Moana Land is coming here in 2024 and will be phenomenal! Also Guardians of the Galaxy is a new coaster that has been a very popular attraction if you meet the height requirement of 42 in.
- We only caught the end of Harmonious since we were fulfilling our Soarin’ Lightening Lane, but we had heard a great place to watch the fireworks is from bridge in France. You have a great view and are right near the Skyliner to make a quick exit. You can also get pastries or ice cream in France nearby while you wait for the fireworks to start.
- The day after EPCOT was a pool day for us, so it was the right night to push the limit with the kids. We were there at park opening and park close, and the kids did great! If you have a pool day scheduled, I would recommend making the evening before your attempt at seeing some park fireworks.
Left room at 7:00 a.m. to take the bus to the park
Park opens 8:30 a.m. for resort guests; 9 a.m. for general public
- We walked immediately to Tomorrowland to ride Buzz Lightyear. The kids loved it so much we did it twice in a row.
- Next: Tomorrowland Speedway (our 1-year-olds were tall enough to go on this too)
- Barnstormer: needed to do a rider swap for this as kids under 7 need to ride with an adult
- Next to the Barnstormer is Pete’s Silly Sideshow where we met Minnie Mouse, Daisy, Donald Duck and Goofy right at 10 a.m. There is a great gift shop at the end.
- Also nearby is the Casey Jr. Splash N’ Soak Station where littles can cool off on a hot day. Beware – they can get absolutely soaked.
- Next we walked to Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid which only had a 20 minute wait and was a very cute ride for one of our favorite Disney movies
- While in line for Mermaid, we mobile ordered hot dogs and tater tots for the kids at The Friar’s Nook which was nearby. It took us a few minutes to wait for an outdoor table but it was the perfect shaded place to rest. The plan was for the men to grab us beers from Gaston’s Tavern, but lo and behold, there’s no alcohol at Magic Kingdom! I will pass on the $10 fancy apple juice, thank you very much.
- After lunch, we did our 12:15 p.m. Peter Pan Lightening Lane. It might have been my 4-year-old’s favorite ride. It was so sweet watching his face on this one.
- From here, we walked to Frontierland and picked up ice pops and iced coffees on the way.
- We walked through the Swiss Family Treehouse, which the kids loved and it offered breathtaking views of the park. We needed to wear the babies in carriers for this.
- My sweet childhood friend has been working at Disney for over a decade, so we waited in a very hot, long line to meet her as Jasmine. It was totally worth the wait, but I recommend getting to the character meet-and-greet locations 10-15 minutes early to cut your wait time and hopefully get a shady spot.
- Our next Lightening Lane was for Pirates of the Caribbean at 1:30 p.m. I remember loving this ride as a kid, but I have to say it was the least favorite ride for our kiddos of the whole trip. Too dark, too creepy – just not their fav.
- After this our kiddos were desperately in need of a rest so we sat in the air-conditioned Country Bear Jamboree. The kids actually loved seeing the singing bears in this country western show. Great place to rest but note that there are no snacks allowed inside.
- At this point we intended to head to our Individual Lightening Lane for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at 3:15 p.m. but it was temporarily closed. In this case, they then gave us a voucher so we could ride at any time for the rest of the day.
- This worked out to our advantage, because as we exited the Country Bear Jamboree, we were right on the parade route for Disney Festival of Fantasy Parade which was about to start. We were able to get a front-row spot right on the street and the parade was incredible. The kids got to see all of their favorite characters and the music, dancing and special effects were breathtaking. This is a must see!
- From there we headed back to Fantasyland for our It’s A Small World Lightening Lane at 3:45 p.m. Cute, slow ride and all the kids enjoyed it.
- For our final stop, we went to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train to ride our Individual Lightening Lane. Originally scheduled for 3:15 p.m., we ended up riding it at 5 p.m. We had to do this as a rider swap so we had to separate in two groups so someone could stay with the babies. It seemed that because the Lightening Lanes were backed up, the wait was much longer than it should have been. But it was absolutely worth it! One of our favorite rides of the trip! Such a smooth, fun coaster. We were happy we spend the extra $ to make this a part of our day.
- The kids enjoyed some ice cream and then we headed back for some pool time.
- We walked 17,000 steps this day.
How we booked our Lightening Lanes:
7 a.m. LL – Peter Pan for 12:15 p.m.
7 a.m. Individual LL – Seven Dwarfs Mine Train for 3:15 p.m.
11 a.m. LL – Pirates of the Caribbean for 1:30 p.m.
Early afternoon – It’s A Small World for 3:45 p.m.
Key Learnings from our day at Magic Kingdom:
- I was most anxious about this day at the park because there is so much to do. However, our travel agent told us that this is the easiest park to use the Lightening Lane system and she was totally right. We rode 11 rides, saw 1 parade and did 5 character meet-and-greets.. with no meltdowns. We weren’t rushed or hurried – it was totally manageable.
- We decided to splurge on the Individual Lightening Lane ($11 / pp) for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and we thought it was totally worth it. We know we wanted to do this newer ride, and it took away the stress of running there during rope drop, while also opening up more time to do other things. We rode Buzz Lightyear x2, Tomorrowland Speedway and Barnstormer in the first hour… time we would have otherwise spent waiting in line for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at rope drop. It was just a much easier, more fun and relaxing way to start the day.
- Getting the double strollers on the bus transport was a pain in the butt. It’s doable but it comes with some frustration. We would prefer the Skyliner any day.
- There are lots of other rides we would have loved to do – Jungle Cruise, Fairytale Hall to meet the Princesses, Dumbo, Mickey’s Philharmonic, Haunted Mansion, and others… but it’s simply impossible to do everything in one day. A friend recommended starting at one side of the park and work your way around. I think this is a great suggestion and you just ride as you go based on availability. We started at Tomorrowland and walked around to Adventureland, then back to Fantasyland for some lightening lanes, and we think it worked out great.
- You can get on to Main Street before the park opens. We were surprised you could get all the way up to the castle! Arrive as early as you can to get all of your park photos out of the way and you can focus on just having fun!
- Splash Mountain is currently closed for renovation and can’t wait to see what it looks like as Tiana’s Bayou Adventure!
- If you are staying at a Disney Resort and get early access to Magic Kingdom, you will enter through Tomorrowland or Fantasyland. Moushacking.com says “Guests without Early Entry are allowed access to the hub—including stores and Starbucks—until park open time, at which point they’re allowed into Fantasyland and Tomorrowland and are walked to rides in Adventureland and Frontierland.”
Left room at 7:00 a.m. to take the Skyliner to the park
Park opened 8 a.m. for resort guests; 8:30 a.m. for general public
- Our plan was to walk immediately to Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway but upon arrival it was temporarily closed (see more on that below) so we walked to Toy Story Land
- Alien Swirling Saucers was surprisingly a huge hit! Even though this is a spinning ride, it doesn’t get you dizzy like a Swirling Teacups ride would. The little toy rockets you sit in are so cute and it truly is a very fun ride. We did this twice in a row.
- Next we went to Toy Story Mania. This was the longest line we had to wait on the whole trip – 25 minutes. It wasn’t bad at all! So much to look at and the kids ate a ton of snacks while we ate. This ride is a fun shooting game where you blast at moving targets while wearing 3D glasses. My husband said it was his favorite of the trip.
- Woody and Jessie were right outside but the wait to meet them was bananas! So we turned the corner and were able to hop on line to meet Buzz Lightyear. While we waited to meet Buzz, my husband grabbed us coffees at Joffrey’s nearby even though the wait was crazy long.
- Our 1-year-old had a low-grade fever and was having an epic meltdown, so the rest of the group walked through Walt Disney Presents while we let her rest and calm down. My 5-year-old actually loved walking through this historical gallery tour that talked about how Walt Disney turned his dreams into reality. This is a good place to escape the heat too.
- A bucket list item for my boys was meeting Darth Vader so we waited 20 minutes at Star Wars Launch Bay to meet him. I think you can only take photos through Disney Photo Pass. Note that they do bring your individual family into a dark chamber to meet him. Boys loved it – 7-year-old niece not a fan!
- My sweet 1 1/2 year old niece stayed back and was able to meet Doc McStuffins in Animation Courtyard. Our kids don’t watch a ton of Disney Jr. but we heard the Disney Junior Dance Party is very cute.
- We ran over to try to make the 10:45 a.m. Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular but it was standing room only. We were actually able to get a decent spot all the way on the left behind the handicapped area and the kids could just barely see the stage. Both of my boys said this was their favorite part of the whole trip! The special effects and fight sequences were right up their alley. I would recommend getting there 15-30 minutes early to get a better seat. Plus side was that we were right by the exit so we were the first ones out after the show ended.
- Next we went to the 11:30 a.m. Frozen Singalong which was surprisingly hilarious. The two characters who narrate the Frozen story are terrific, and the snow falling from the ceiling at the end was magical for the kids.
- There were some picnic tables outside where we stopped to give the kids sandwiches and some snacks. It was HOT today.
- Next we walked down Sunset Boulevard. We grabbed some beers and margaritas for the adults along the way. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster is closed for refurbishment until summer of 2023. The adults would have loved to drive Tower of Terror if we had time.
- We headed to the Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy. Unfortunately we were tight on timing to get back for our Slinky Dog lightening lane window so we didn’t get to go in for the show. The kids liked taking pictures of the cars outside though. Somewhere on the walk back we ran into Edna Mode from the Incredibles which was super fun!
- We needed to do a Rider Swap for Slinky Dog Lightening Lane at 1:15 p.m. and it was amazingggg! Our 4-year-old refused to go on but the other big kids loved it! Lightening Lane was fast on this one! Totally worth it.
- We had also done a Lightening Lane to ride Toy Story Mania again since the kids loved it so much, but by then we were all hot, tired and cranky.
- We walked through the Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge and could have spent all day there. The kids were thrilled to see Stormtroopers and some of the transporters. Our 5-year-old had been saving his money the whole trip to buy something here, and couldn’t have been more thrilled to buy a voice-changing Stormtroopers mask.
- We walked 13,000 steps this day.
How we booked our Lightening Lanes:
7 a.m. LL – Slinky Dog for 1:15 p.m.
11 a.m. LL – Toy Story Mania for 2:45 p.m.
Key Learnings from our day at Hollywood Studios:
- This park is incredible and there is sooo much to do and see. This was the most anticipated park for my kiddos, and meeting Buzz Lightyear and Darth Vader was a highlight.
- We found this park to be the most difficult to leverage the Lightening Lane because the wait for everything is super long. If we had more stamina there is so much more we would have liked to do – Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, Beauty and the Beast Show, Muppet 3D, all of the Star Wars rides & attractions. I think the strategy we had at EPCOT would have worked well here – rope drop, pool, back to park for Lightening Lanes – but on the last day of the trip we just weren’t up for that.
- Woody’s Lunchbox in Toy Story Land looked like an adorable place for lunch!
- This park felt like the busiest / most crowded of the three we visited.
Re-living our days in Disney was such a blast, and we truly loved the experience. It doesn’t need to be rushed, chaotic or stressful if you use the Genie+ right and remember to stay flexible.
Art of Animation Resort
There are so many terrific accommodations in and around Walt Disney World. We knew that we wanted to stay on property to take advantage of the transportation and extended park hours. We also were on a budget and wanted to stay somewhere fun for the kids that didn’t break the bank completely.
We decided on the Art of Animation Resort and could not have been more pleased with our stay there. We chose to stay in the Little Mermaid Room, which was the least expensive offering. Our travel agent did a great job securing rooms near the front of this section, closer to the resorts main entrance. I would estimate it’s about a 8-minute walk to the Finding Nemo pool and main entrance, and about a 10-minute walk to the Skyliner. There was also a medium-sized Little Mermaid pool right outside our hotel room if we didn’t want to hike over to the bigger pool.
Here are some things we loved most about the resort:
The rooms at Art of Animation are so fun! Our room really took you under the sea with pictures of our favorite Little Mermaid characters, bright ocean shower curtain and underwater details. Some might call it tacky – but for kids under the age of 8, it was perfect. We also had a joined room with our cousins, so the kids absolutely loved that.
There were a few downsides to the room:
- It’s small. Add a pack-and-play and a double stroller there is very little room to move around, but we made do.
- The refrigerator is more of an cold box then an actual fridge. We did an Instacart delivery on the first day there and chose to keep any dairy items (milk, half and half, cream cheese, cheese sticks, etc.) in a cooler on ice to be safe.
- No outdoor chairs or seating area by bedrooms. We were exhausted by the end of each day, but would have been nice for the adults to be able to sit outside the room after the kiddies were asleep.
The Art of Animation is split into four different themed areas: The Little Mermaid, Lion King, Finding Nemo and Cars. The attention to detail and large-scale character replicas made the resort a thrill to walk around. Our kids especially liked the Cars area where they could take pictures with Lightening McQueen, Tow Mater, Doc and all of the other characters. The Cars pool even have little cabanas that are shaped like orange traffic cones!
We found the resort to be very clean and the staff members were very kind and helpful. They also had lots of fun activities throughout – like cornhole, large Connect 4, etc. – and every day they had a bonfire with s’mores at 5:30 p.m. They also had additional activities like tie-die and arts and crafts you could pay for.
There’s also an arcade on-site that we visited twice that the kids absolutely loved. There were even one or two games you could do for free.
The check-in process was super easy. You get a text message on your phone when your room is ready and can simply swipe in using your Magic Band. Also sometimes there were surprise character appearances in the lobby so you never know who you might meet! When we arrived we saw Mirabella from Encanto! One of the cast members told me that Disney uses the hotel to train and rehearse their characters, so it is a surprise and delight for the hotel to see who arrives each day.
The hotel is situated on Hourglass Lake. There is a nice walking path around the lake which is situated between Disney’s Art of Animation and Pop Century Resorts. It was the perfect place to walk and get the baby asleep in the stroller. It was fun for me as there were lots of pop history markers along the walk and you get to watch the Skyliner sail along.
You can get Door Dash delivered to the main lobby at Art of Animation, which is right near the Finding Nemo pool. We ordered Chick-fil-A and Chipotle and it was a nice deviation from the hotel food court offerings. They also delivered closer to our room at the Little Mermaid pool one night which was super convenient. Just ask your driver.
Landscape of Flavors is the on-site restaurant at Art of Animation. It has several different quick-grab stations with all of your staples like burgers, pizza, salads, etc. On our pool day, we all sat outside at a table and enjoyed their breakfast offerings – Mickey waffles, egg sandwiches, fruit, bacon, etc.
Two nights we mobile ordered pizza and salad to pick-up. The one downside is that you need to “check in” while you’re there and it seems to be GPS enabled. So coming back from Magic Kingdom we ordered pizza, but couldn’t hit “check in” until we were actually at the restaurant and then we still needed to wait another 15/20 minutes for the food. Not great for 10 hangry people who just spend a whole day in the park so something to keep in mind. Overall, it was convenient and the food was decent.
We also purchased two souvenir reusable cups we could fill with coffee, hot chocolate, soda and Powerade. One of our biggest complaint with the hotel is that there’s no where to get coffee before 7 a.m. when the restaurant opens! You can make some in your room if you want to risk waking your kids up!
THE FINDING NEMO POOL
On our pool day after EPCOT, we were there for 8 hours! The Finding Nemo pool opens at 10 a.m. and it is heaven for parents. There is a splash pad where all 6 of our kids could play safely and the adults could sit and relax. Bring solo cups or buckets – it will keep kids busy at the splash pad for hours!
They had cast members do activities with the kids at the pool throughout the day (bucket brigade, hula hoop contest, ranking Disney movies, etc.)
There is a bar near the pool. We got smoothies there on the day we arrived but mostly brought our own drinks from our rooms that we had delivered from Door Dash.
There is a playground attached that the kids went wild for. Safe and manageable for the 1-year-olds too, though sometimes a little hot.
Ink & Paint Shop is located at the lobby and has much of the same souvenirs that are sold in the parks. We actually did the majority of our shopping here where it was air conditioned and the kids could take their time shopping.
This might be THE most amazing perk of staying at Art of Animation. This gondola system connects you to EPCOT (about 20 minutes) and Hollywood Studios (about 12 minutes). Not only is the ride comfortable, but it is so. much. fun! All 10 of us could fit into one car and the kids loved guessing which color car and character we would get. You get incredible views of the parks as you approach and depart, and seeing the EPCOT Ball lit up at night from the Skyliner was truly magical. It is very well run, and any wait to board it was minimal.
The two biggest downsides are: 1) You have to transfer at Caribbean Beach, so right when you get comfortable you need to get off and hop on another line. 2) It is not easy with double strollers – especially 2-double strollers. They have to be folded and carried along with your children and all of your stuff. It was like a comedy routine getting 6 children and 2-double strollers on and off of this thing, but we all agreed it was much preferred to the cramped bus.
Park Tips & Tricks – What We Learned
I’ve been to Disney World five times, twice as an adult, and let me tell you that things look completely different than they did ten years ago. Magic Bands, Genie+, Lightening Lanes, Rider Swaps… it’s all so complicated and a lot to process! With the help of our travel agent, we were well-educated and organized to make the most out of our days at the parks. Here’s what we learned:
Magic Bands are plastic bracelets that contain RFID radios, used at Walt Disney World Resorts. I stole that copy from the Disney website as that technology is way over my head, but essentially the Magic Bands link you to every part of your trip, including access to the park, room key card, access to the rides, Lightening Lane selections, buying food, drinks and souvenirs, Photo Pass, and probably a dozen other things I don’t even know about. The cost about $35 each so we originally thought we would just use our phones to save the cost, but let me tell you… you NEED these. You will swipe this thing a zillion times and it is so incredibly convenient. We purchased Halloween & Christmas themed ones after the holiday while they were on sale and saved about $40 for our family. If you have the money, there are some super fun designs. They do have an adjustable strap for the kids but you need to keep an eye on them because they will easily fall off.
Also a friend recommended getting these rubber clasps to keep the watches secured and they are a must buy! The watches would never have stayed on without them, even for the adults.
GENIE+ LIGHTENING LANES
Genie+ is a paid skip-the-line service guests use allow entry through a special line called the Lightning Lane instead of the regular standby line. This replaced the FASTPASS Return Entrance which was a free service that used to be offered to manage the waiting time for rides.
Here’s how it works: On the My Disney Experience app, you log on before 7 a.m. and purchase Genie+ Service. The price fluctuates based on peak times at the park. We were there President’s Day weekend and it ranged from $22-29 per person.
At 7 a.m., you go on and book your first ride. And not to scare you, but it is intense! You want to get the earliest time slot possible, because once you go on that ride, you can Lightening Lane another one. It is very competitive so you have to know what ride you want to Lightening Lane first. For example, on our day at Hollywood Studios we knew we wanted to reserve Slinky Dog. We went on right at 7 a.m. but the time slot we got was not until 1:15 p.m.!
The good news is, Genie+ also allows you to book another Lightening Lane 2-hours after the park opens. We were confused on this so let me clarify. We thought you could book your next Lightening Lane 2-hour after you booked the first one. So since you booked the first at 7 a.m., you could book the second one at 9 a.m. But really you can book your second ride AFTER THE PARK OPENS TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC. So if the park opens at 9 a.m. you can book your second Lightening Lane at 11 a.m., unless you go on your first Lightening Lane first.
Confusing, right? The good think is that the app tells you when you can book your next one so I would set an alarm on my Apple Watch to be ready to book right on time.
Also, sometimes we would wait on using a Lightening Lane so it lined up with another reservation and avoided running around the park. For example, in Magic Kingdom we had a lightening lane for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at 3:15 p.m. and wanted to make one for It’s A Small World which was nearby so we watched Genie+ until Small World was available at 3:45 p.m. and booked it. Unfortunately you can’t book ahead… you can only take what’s currently available on the app.
Finally, some rides are not available for Genie+ Lightening Lane and you need to pay even MORE for Genie+ Individual Lightening Lane. We did this for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train which was $11 per person. See above for our reasoning on this but it saved us the stress of running there during rope drop and allowed us to do 4 other rides during park opening instead.
Still confused? Message Trish Tarabocchia. She will set you straight.
Remember – this is totally optional but in my option, you can’t do Disney any other way. It’s a MUST if you want to get your money’s worth out of your regular ticket price and avoid waiting on 60+ minute lines all day. With little kids, it’s not even an option.
Rider Swap allows adults to take turns waiting with youngsters or guests unable to ride. If a child does not meet the height requirement or does not want to do a particular attraction (because it’s too scary, intense, etc.), one adult can wait with the non-rider (or riders) outside the entrance or exit while the rest of the party enjoys the attraction. After the ride, the waiting adult can board the attraction with any kids that want to ride again without having to wait in the regular line . It’s essentially like a free Lightening Lane pass, you just have to ride it in groups.
We thought we would use this a ton since we had two one-year-olds in our group, but in reality we only used it one time for the Barnstormer at Magic Kingdom. Here’s why:
- The babies went on everything with us! We were delighted that they loved the rides as much as we did. They came on everything except Test Track, Soarin’, Barnstormer, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Slink Dog Dash. They even went on Tomorrowland Speedway which surprised me.
- The second reason is that for any rides the babies did NOT go on, the thrill rides and roller coasters all require kids under 7 to sit with an adult. Since our “big kids” are ages 7, 5, 5, and 4, we had to do all of the bigger rides in two shifts (two adults take two kids while others stay with the babies).
Although we didn’t take advantage of the Rider Swap much, the bigger win was having the babies experience all of the Disney magic along with us.
This was one of the biggest surprises for us. Rides seem to regularly close temporarily throughout the day. This was especially frustrating when it happened during rope drop both in EPCOT when we were rushing to Test Track and Hollywood Studios when we were rushing to Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Train only to find them closed. This is why Disney requires so much flexibility and patience!
If you have a ride cancellation during a Lightening Lane time, they will give you a voucher to ride any time during the rest of the day. For example, we had a Lightening Lane for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at 3:15 p.m. and the ride was temporarily down. So when it reopened shortly after, we had a voucher and could ride it whenever. This actually was a big benefit as we didn’t have to rush to get back to that area of the park. But keep in mind that these cancellations do happen and often the cast members can’t give you a reason why or answer when they will re-open. Keep a close eye on the MDE app for cancellation notifications.
DISNEY PHOTO PASS
We were going to pass on this since it costs $160, but are so happy that Trish Tarabocchia encouraged us to get it. There are cast members in green shirts all over the parks available to take your picture at iconic park sites. They are with some character meet-and-greets as well. All you do is swipe your magic band and the pictures are added to your Disney PhotoPass Account you can access on the MDE app or the Disney World website. You also get all of your ride photos! We also could share the account with Ryan’s brother’s family, so we could split the cost and still get all pictures of each of our families. There were a few pictures missing and Disney was able to track them down right away. We definitely found the value in this feature and would encourage it if you have a few extra dollars.
In the MDE app on the map feature there is a category where you can filter to search for Restrooms. Traveling with six little kids, we used this a lot! Also note that there are restrooms outside the park when you are waiting for rope drop, so don’t worry about little ones having to wait until you are inside.
Also a friend told me that her little one needed the potty while waiting in line for a ride and a cast member was able to let them in to an “emergency restroom” while holding their place in line. So just ask….
We were shocked to find these don’t exist! We all brought refillable water bottles thinking there would be water stations everywhere like in schools and the airport, but all we could find was an occasional water fountain or filling station near a restroom. We ended up buying a few cold bottles of water everyday for a premium because it just wasn’t worth the time or effort to hunt down a water fountain.
A cast member did tell me there are plans to get water refilling stations around the park. Get on that Disney!
I’ll start by saying that this largely comes down to your personal vacation style and family dynamic.
To secure a Disney dining reservation, you need to get on the computer or MDE app at 7 a.m. 60 days before your visit to Disney. Once again Trish Tarabocchia saved the day of us on this one and handled booking our dining reservations.
We were hoping for a character meal on our pool day (specifically we had heard that Chef Mickey’s is great) but Trish texted us at 7:07 a.m. that it was already booked up. Beware – like everything at Disney it is so competitive!
Trish was able to secure some other dining reservations for us:
- Boma at Animal Kingdom (on our pool day)
- Rainforest Café at Disney Springs (on our pool day)
- Liberty Tree Tavern at Magic Kingdom
- Hollywood Vine at Hollywood Studios
Ultimately, we ended up cancelling all of the dining reservations (you must do this 24 hours before on the MDE app). The thought of rushing to a restaurant with six children who won’t sit still or likely eat anything offered just didn’t appeal to us. Going to a restaurant with them at home is a nightmare so why would Disney be any different? The pool at Art of Animation was so fantastic that we wouldn’t have wanted to leave for a meal on our pool day anyway.
There were plenty of grab and go options at the park that you can mobile order ahead, but for the most part we just packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, and let the kids snack their little hearts out. Door Dash was a much better option for us at night that we could order based on when we got back to the hotel.
Also the Disney dining reservations cost at minimum around $30 / pp. We were happy to spend that money instead on Lightening Lanes and the PhotoPass, but again this comes down to personal preference.
Prep Work: Getting There and What to Pack
GETTING THERE – DRIVING VS. FLYING
Our family decided to fly as we had flight credit and miles to use, so we were able to travel for free. However, a 2 ½ hour delay, missing car seat and no rental cars available had us rethinking how we might travel next time.
Ryan’s brother’s family drove and they absolutely CRUSHED it! We were so impressed with the time they made with three little kids in tow. Traveling from NJ, they drove 10 hours the first day to Florence, SC which they felt was a good stopping point. They were at the Courtyard by Marriott Florence by 1 p.m. on the first day where the kids could enjoy the pool and they could rest before their 6 hour drive the next day.
They did the same thing in reverse on the drive back. Six hours to Florence… stay overnight… up early to drive 10 hours back to NJ. They were home by like 2 p.m. the second day. Amazing!
THINGS TO PACK
You will find a million lists like this on Pinterest or Instagram, but here are a few “must pack” items for Disney:
- Magic bands
- Autograph books and a sharpie: I didn’t expect our kids to be SO excited to meet all of the characters. The experience really is magical and as an adult its so fun to watch them stay in character as they take time to talk to your kids. I think the only characters that couldn’t sign the books were Buzz Lightyear and Darth Vader. There is a category filter on the MDE app in the map section where you can see where the characters are. Try to get there 15-minutes ahead of time. EPCOT World Showcase is a great place to meet some characters and it’s a great way to kill some time between rides.
- Matching Disney shirts: It’s tacky yes, but so fun! Thanks to my sister-in-law for making ours!
- Disney Gift Cards: Pro tip: if you purchase at Target with a RedCard you’ll get your usual 5% off.
- Belt Bag: my sister-in-law give me this Lululemon Belt Bag as a gift for our trip and it was a lifesaver! Easy access to phone, money, ID and I kept my kids magic bands in there too when they inevitably didn’t want to wear them anymore. Get yourself one of these!
- Ear protection: We were at EPCOT until 10 p.m. to watch the Harmonious fireworks show and the two babies were asleep in the stroller by then. We were able to put ear protection over both of them and they slept without interruption through the park for a few hours in the evening.
- Large carabiner clips: We would clip these to the stroller handle to give us better access to some bags to avoid digging around the bottom of the stroller.
- Bright colored blanket: There are millions of strollers at Disney and they have people hired to move and organize strollers in designated areas. It’s a good idea to mark it some way – either with a bright colored blanket on top or something colorful tied to the handle – to save you time looking when you come back for it.
- Solo cups: Good for sharing snacks and killed hours of time at the splash pad at the hotel
- Portable battery packs: You are on the MDE app all day but luckily we never needed to recharge our phones or Magic Bands while at the park.
- Sunscreen, sunglasses, hats
- Rain ponchos and umbrellas
- Refillable water bottles
- Band-Aids: someone will get a blister with all the walking
- Glow sticks: good for keeping track of your kids if you’re at the park late in the dark
- Misting fan: can buy in the park as well
For all of you planning a trip to Disney, I hope this information is helpful and I wish you the most magical and unforgettable trip!
Please leave your thoughts, questions and comments below!