At the beginning of May my family took our first vacation to Disney. We decided to do a Disney land and sea vacation, which just really means we did a few days at the parks and then a 3 night Disney cruise. I knew that planning a Disney vacation would require a lot of research and planning and so I thought I would share with all of you what I learned from the experience. Now, I am NOT a Disney travel agent or any type of expert so please keep in mind I am sure you can experience Disney a million different ways and they would all be great.
When to visit Disney?
The first question I needed to answer was when did I want to book our trip. When I researched Disney it said that the least crowded times (now keep in mind crowded is a relative term as Disney always has people) were May and September. This makes sense because it is right before school is out or school is back in session. Since we were also doing a cruise, September was out due to hurricane season. I also was comfortable with taking my Kindergarten out of school for a week so May it was!! Plus, I was hoping it wouldn’t be 100 degrees.
Where to stay?
I am a believer of the mindset “if you are going to Disney, do the full Disney experience”. That being said, we knew we wanted to stay at a Disney resort. When considering the place to stay I wanted to take into account location and cost as the two big factors. I thought my kids would love riding the monorail so I definitely wanted a resort on the monorail. I asked friends who had been to Disney for recommendations and almost everyone said “Bay Tower at the Contemporary Resort”!! You can walk 5 minutes to the Magic Kingdom and and its on the monorail that you can take to Epcot as well. Plus, it has great views of the Magic Kingdom fireworks at night. Now, the Bay Tower is considered a higher end Disney resort and I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay higher end costs. My friend suggested using David’s Vacation Club Rental for this part of our trip. You essentially work with David’s Vacation Club to secure your room. Basically David’s works with Disney vacation club owners and books your trip through these vacation club owners. I was a little skeptical at first but my friend used it and she said it worked great and the best part– it was HALF the cost of getting a room through Disney directly. You get all of the same access and benefits as all other guests (housekeeping service is only once every 3 days though). I had the greatest experience using them and did save 50%. I highly recommend looking into this. It is because I used David’s Vacation Club that I did not use a Disney travel agent for the “land” part of our trip.
Here is a view from our room’s balcony
Another reason to stay on a Disney property is for the added benefits. You get access to the Magic Shuttle that takes you to and from the airport for FREE! You also get access to Magic hours at the parks (where either one park is open earlier or closes later for those that are staying on property). This is great for getting on those rides that have typically long lines right away (or with a smaller wait time). Plus, you get earlier access to make dining and FastPass+ reservations.
Ok, so this topic was one that I was most nervous about. I haven’t been to Disney since I was in junior high, so I was unsure how to navigate this piece. For those that are unfamiliar, FastPass+ is a system in which you make a “reservation” to ride on a ride. It allows you to walk up during your designated time and walk right up to the ride. The longest we waited with a FastPass+ was 15 minutes and that was for a ride that the standby line was almost two hours. In researching what to use our FastPass+ on (each person gets 3 per day at one park then you can get one more at a time after that) I downloaded the Disney app. Within the app there is a feature that lets you see the current wait times for all of the rides, shows, etc so I used that to figure out which rides I wanted to go on that had the highest wait times. Here is what we used our FastPass+ on at each park.
Magic Kingdom: Seven Dwarfs Mine, Splash Mountain and Buzz Lightyear
Animal Kingdom: Dinosaur, Safari, Na’vi River Journey
Now, I will say I was able to get these popular FastPass+ because I stayed on property and got to get my FastPass+ 60 days out. I also decided to not use FastPass+ on meeting characters because we planned that for our cruise.
I also made sure to use our FastPass+ in the morning/lunch timeframe so that we were able to get more (using the app) after we used our 3. Another cool feature I learned about was child swap. For instance, my daughter did not want to ride on Splash Mountain. So we got her a FastPass+ and this is how we handled it. My husband and son would go on Splash Mountain with their FastPass+ while I waited with my daughter. Then my son and I would go back on the ride when they were done. We swapped my daughter’s FastPass+ to my son. All you do is tell the employee at the ride you are doing a child swap. This was a win/win for us because it allowed my husband and I to go on the rides and my son got to go twice.
Second to FastPass+ was dining in terms of me being worried about what to do here. I didn’t want to go to super fancy/expensive restaurants and wanted to make sure we had some flexibility. Again, we decided to not do any character meals because were going on the cruise and my daughter hates princesses so we didn’t need to worry about that. We also decided against a meal plan. For our family we just knew that we wouldn’t get the value out of it. We tend to share a few meals for each meal so for us it was cheaper to just order as we went. The first day we were arriving we didn’t have park tickets (you need a park ticket to dine at any of the restaurants inside) so we made a reservation at Disney Springs (a free area with shops and restaurants) for T-REX. The kids LOVED this restaurant. I highly recommend, it is similar to Rainforest Cafe but the kids enjoyed it way more. We made reservations at Coral Reef while we were at Epcot. The kids really enjoyed watching the fish swim and while we were there divers were in the tank and it was nice to have entertainment for them during dinner. Our last night there we had originally had reservations at Epcot but I knew we wanted to experience more of the Magic Kingdom so we just grabbed some stuff at one of the little stations with no formal meal. We did use the app to make reservations for breakfast one morning at the Grand Floridan. Staying on property though did give us earlier access to booking places and times that worked for us.
Picture of the TREX restaurant
Getting around Disney
I have a 6.5 year old and a 4 year old. Neither of my kids have ever been “stroller” kids. I use a stroller maybe once or twice a year for my 4 year old. However, I knew that Disney was going to be big and it would be hot there and the days long. My 4 year old definitely still needs naps and my 6.5 year old loves naps too. I wanted a stroller that the kids could sit in and stay shaded and even take a little nap while we were walking around. It is worth mentioning that my kids are champs at falling asleep in cars and being pushed in a stroller is the same type of sensation for them so I knew they would nap in the stroller. We don’t have a great double stroller and we didn’t want to bring our own and then figure out how do deal with it on the cruise so we decided to rent a stroller. We rented ours through Magic Strollers and we LOVED it. The stroller was waiting for us at the hotel lobby when we checked in and came with a rain cover for free (which luckily we didn’t need). It was clean and in excellent condition. The best part, when we were done we just left it back at the hotel lobby. EASY! The cost was WAY worth it. It was $80 for a city mini double for 4 days. In comparison we rented a crappy double “stroller” at Disney Springs for the afternoon before we went home and it was $50 for the day and it had to stay at Disney Springs. It offered no shade or protection from the rain. If you rent a stroller from a Disney park it must be returned to that park that day. I cannot even imagine how we would have survived without a stroller. Life changing even for my 6.5 year old.
Picture on the left is the city mini we rented and the right is the Disney stroller
For the cruise portion of our trip I did use a Disney certified travel agent. We used Mix and Match Travel (run by Shay and Erika). It was a great decision. Erika was able to coordinate our transportation from our Disney Hotel right to the port (there is a fee for this service unlike the Magic Express). I simply told her what type of room I wanted and she made all the reservations. She took care of also securing our excursions as well. She knew that Elsa and Anna meet and greet tickets sell out and to get those and got my son his snorkel gear reserved for the private island. Plus, she signed the kids up for the kids club. It was so easy. She was also great about answering all my random questions, like, do I need to bring towels for the island? (answer: no, Disney provides them). If we ever do another Disney cruise (which we might!) I am definitely going to go through them again.
Our family really enjoyed the combination of the days at the parks and the cruise. On the cruise you get to experience the Disney characters on a regular basis. They are always around for photo ops.
Photo evidence of all the character sightings
The cruise also allowed us to have a “beach” type vacation as well because we went to Disney’s private island and Nassau Bahamas. It really did feel like two vacations in one so we didn’t need to feel sad leaving the parks because we knew we got a whole new adventure in the cruise. Another big perk is the entertainment on board. We got to see two Disney shows in their theater that rival any Broadway shows I have seen (and might even be better than a lot of shows). And it was included in the cost of the cruise. The kids LOVED the shows. I was not expecting them to love the shows as much as they did, they still talk about the shows over a month later.
Another perk that only Mom’s can really appreciate is how CLEAN the Disney boats are. I mean, the “public” bathrooms on the ship were cleaner than my own at my house. Outside of every restaurant staff handed out handi-wipes to all of us to clean our hands before eating. The ship was spotless!! I can understand why adults choose Disney cruise lines over others for this factor alone.
Overall, our trip was a lot of fun and as the family’s vacation planner I was actually able to enjoy myself while on vacation because I did so much research in advance and had a game plan. I also knew that it was OK to change the plans slightly and go with the flow. There is no way you will get to experience everything on either the cruise or at the parks so just enjoy what you do experience and remember to have fun!
We would love to hear any other tips and tricks you have for Disney vacation fun.
Please note: this post is not sponsored in any way, these were my real experiences without any compensation for my review or opinion.