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Park Wise

Visiting a Disney Park with Toddlers.

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.
by , 06-06-2012 at 07:44 PM
So youíve got a toddler, a little bundle of energy and fun, discovering the world at an amazing, and sometimes an alarming, pace. Youíre a huge Disney fan or maybe you just have older kids who youíve been promising a Disney trip for years. And youíve decided to take her to a Disney park.


Iím kidding. Sort of, but itís important to remember this: Taking a toddler to a Disney park is unlike taking an infant or an older child. There will be moments full of wonder and moments where you wonder exactly what you were thinking when you decided to load up the family and subject yourself this expensive and sometimes exhausting experience. There will also be priceless pictures and memories. The trick is to get more good out of it than bad and the way to do that is to plan carefully.

Why is taking a toddler so different? Itís really just a matter of everything that makes up a kid in the eighteen months to three-year range. Theyíve got the abilities of an older child without the wisdom and language abilities of say, a four-year old. Your pre-schooler may know not to wander off from Mom and Dad, but show a toddler a bright, shiny object and theyíre gone. And there are a lot of bright, shiny objects in a Disney park. The flipside of this is that a Disney park is full of magic to a very young child. Theyíre now old enough that Itís a Small World doesnít scare them and yet still young enough to believe that Pooh is real.

Here are a few things to consider:

Pick the Right Time of Year to Visit:

Youíve seen this sight before: A hot, sweaty, miserable baby in a stroller. The heat can be hard on little kids, so ideally youíll visit when itís cooler and less crowded. Of course, not everyone has the option of visiting during the off season. If you must visit during the hotter, busier months, try to pick a time when itís not both hot and crowded. In other words, avoid peak months like July. Spring Break may be crowded, but you canít get much nicer weather than April in Orlando. As far as crowds are concerned, Thanksgiving week isnít nearly as bad as Christmas week and the weather is ideal. And while youíll still have to deal with hot weather, early June and late August are the slowest times to visit during the summer and youíll often get discounts as well.

Simple is Better:

This isnít the time to try out the deluxe dining plan or a split stay (which is where you stay at more than one resort). Youíll want to keep this trip as simple as possible. In fact, instead of buying extras like park hoppers or visiting Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, why not use the savings and upgrade to a slightly larger room or a better location? Finally, lower your expectations before you travel so that you wonít be disappointed if your little one prefers the quiet pool back at the resorts to a day in the parks.

What to Pack:

Unless you're going to order diapers and have them shipped to your resort, bring extra--a lot extra. When my kids were in diapers, I would pack an entire suitcase full of diapers, wipes, and other essentials that I knew we would slowly run out of during the trip and then use the bag for souvenirs on the way home. In addition, you may want to consider packing:

  • Nightlights.
  • A small white noise machine.
  • Bottles and sippy cups, possibly more than you would use at home since you won't have easy access to washing them during the day.
  • Children's pain reliever.
  • Babyproofing items like door and outlet covers.
  • A small container of the laundry soap you use at home if you're doing laundry. This isn't a good time for someone to have an allergic reaction.
  • Toiletries from home.
  • Heavier clothing, including gloves and hats, if you are visiting during the winter months. You may not need it, but Orlando weather during this time of year is very unpredictable. Better safe than sorry.
  • Shoes like Crocs, that can be worn when wet.

Get Park Wise: You can buy diapers and other baby supplies in the parks at the Babycare Centers, but they are very expensive and the selection is limited to sizes in the middle range. Better to bring more than you need. This is where the storage compartment in your stroller comes in handy.
Don't Forget about the Babycare Centers:

Located in each park, Disney provides a quiet respite for families with young children: Babycare Centers. Change your toddler, feed them lunch, or just relax. If you've got a young child, there's no quieter place in the parks. As noted above, you can also purchase supplies, including adult pain relievers and other items you may have forgotten.

Get Park Wise: Parents with older children with physical disabilities may also use the Babycare Centers for things like changing in lieu of the companion bathrooms. Most changing tables are very large and hold a lot of weight. There isn't a lot of privacy, but during slower times you may ask cast member to close the door for a few minutes so that you may attend to your child.


Len Testa, author of the Unofficial Guide and everyoneís favorite Disney guy, once said that his researchers ran a test where they stood in the park and counted how often they heard kids melt down. The most common time of day for a meltdown? Right after lunch. Conventional wisdom says that you should take your child back to the resort for a nap during the early afternoon before those meltdowns occur. This is also a nice time for a swim before you head out for dinner and a late night in the parks.

This is a great idea in theory, but it doesnít actually work for everyone. In fact, it didnít work for us. My kids go to bed very early. If we take a mid-day break from the parks, that gives us around two hours to enjoy them in the evening. What worked best for us was just to keep going and let them take a short nap in the stroller. I learned to find quiet spots to sit (Bonus: People watching) during their naps while my husband took our older child to visit the attractions.

Where to Eat:

Iím not a huge fan of character meals. While the food is good quality, itís often the same at every meal, with a few noted exceptions, and I usually like to try different things. I also think too many buffets on one trip can leave even those with big appetites feeling a little sluggish. Further, while kids are thrilled to see the characters, they often are a little too distracted to eat. For this reason, and because Momma needs a grown up meal once in a while, I donít recommend more than three character meals during a seven-night stay.
A lot of parents with younger children default to character meals because they think their kids wonít behave in a regular restaurant. I donít believe this is true, at least not for most children. First of all, Disney servers are experts at getting diners in and out in a timely manner, so there isnít a lot of sitting around without foodóor somethingóto distract them. Second, your server is an expert in how to deal with the wants and needs of smaller guests. Got a picky eater? Theyíve got it covered. How about something off the menu. Your little one is hungry right now? Ask for some crackers. Most Disney restaurants are perfectly appropriate for little ones.

But what about signature restaurants? Despite what Disney tells folks, I happen to believe that not all signature restaurants are set up for kids. Citricos in the Grand Floridian, comes quickly to mind. The menu is very high-end and the atmosphere is grown-up, almost staid. Itís a lovely restaurant, but perhaps not for a young child. On the other hand, I think California Grill is an ideal ďfirst big grown-upĒ restaurant for little kids. Itís loud, the service is fast, and if all else fails they can stare out the window at Cinderella Castle. Of course, youíll want to base your decision on your own children. Some kids are great in restaurants and love to try different types of food.

Should You Bring a Stroller?

This is one of the most common questions I get, especially since many toddlers have already rejected their strollers back home in favor of walking everywhere. Again, this depends on the child but most younger children will benefit from having a stroller, even if you use it mainly to get in and out of the parks. It can also be a nice place for them to nap as well as a convenient way to keep track of your child during fireworks and parades.

Remember that you canít use strollers while youíre in line (unless you have a medical need) or in restaurants due to safety concerns. Youíll find plenty of stroller parking throughout the parks. Stroller theft is uncommon but if youíre worried, try a stroller lock. Since many strollers look alike, make sure you have something on your stroller identifying that itís yours.

Get Park Wise: Unless itís a emergency, donít rent Disneyís strollers. There are numerous stroller rental companies in Orlando that will deliver to your resort and pick up at the end of your stay. These strollers are more comfortable and they cost less, but perhaps more importantly, you can take them out of the parks at the end of a long, tiring day.
What Attractions are Appropriate for Toddlers?

Just because your two-year old is tall enough for The Great Goofini doesnít mean your child is ready. There are things my kids have to do: Brush their teeth, eat their vegetables, be polite, to name a few. Sometimes these things actually happen. But one of the things they donít have to do is ride an attraction in Disney World if they donít want to. I donít see the point in forcing kids on rides theyríe afraid of. Yes, they may end up loving it, but they also might be afraid to do even the most mild ride for the rest of the trip.

Talk to your child about what to expect on certain rides but donít set your child up to be afraid by worrying too much. We like to watch YouTube videos of certain rides and read guidebooks so the kids know what to expect. Some rides that seem innocuous, like the Haunted Mansion are often too instense for small children. Even something as innocent as the Mad Tea Party can scare a small child.

Get Park Wise: Every kid with autism spectrum or sensory issues is different, so donít automatically assume your child will have difficulties in the parks. Learn about how a Guest Assistance Pass can make visiting the parks easier and consider networking with other parents who can share their experiences and offer tips. There's a whole online community of moms and dads who are willing to help.
Avoiding Meltdowns:

Letís just assume theyíre going to happen. I mean, Iíll be honest, there have been times in the parks when the heat and the crowds have made me want to melt down, so why shouldnít a two-year old occasionally lose it? The biggest triggers Iíve found have all been movement related: Wanting to wander off and explore, not wanting to sit in the strolleróall perfectly reasonable responses to having an entire wonderful world at their fingertips and not being able to freely experience it. Itís not reasonable to let your toddler go entirely free range in the parks, but there are some things you can do to alleviate their frustration:

  • Carve out plenty of walking time. Find a play area and let them run loose for a bit, head over to Tom Sawyer Island where they can stretch their legs, or even teach them to walk next to the stroller at times. If a ďkid leashĒ works for you and makes your kid happy, more power to you.
  • Use fastpasses for attractions with the longest lines so that you minimize waiting.
  • Keep plenty of snacks on hand. Freeze juice boxes and bottles of water, Cheerios and crackers, and small snacks that are high in protein to stave off cranky moods.
  • Stick to your at-home schedule as closely as possible. This may mean missing nighttime shows, but can also mean making early morning rope dropósomething that will be a fond memory when theyíre teenagers and donít want to get out of bed before noon.

Just So You Know:

Kids under three-years of age get into the parks for free. They also eat for free at buffets, making this a great time to take a younger child. If your child turns three during the trip, heís still free! Your childís age on the first day of the trip determines the cost.

Taking smaller children to Disney World is work, I wonít sugarcoat it. But it can also make for incredible memories. I wouldnít have missed taking mine for the world.

What about you? Have you taken young children to the parks? What tips can you share with other parents that might make their experience easier?

Park Wise is written by Chris Wood.

You can find her at Everything Walt Disney World.

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If you have any specific questions you would like me to tackle, please leave me a comment!

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  1. mratigan's Avatar
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    Thanks Chris
  2. StevenW's Avatar
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    Strollers? Yes, you sort of missed the boat when you acknowledged the toddlers will have a meltdown after lunch, which is actually the afternoon nap. You need to bring the stroller regardless if the toddler will actually use it for much of the day. They will eventually use it whenever they don't have the energy to walk or fall asleep. Besides, you need the stroller to hold all the stuff on the list above. My toddler is now 3 years old. It is increasingly less likely she needs all the stuff on the list, but I still bring the stroller for the long walks to the park and in the park. (Tip: I recommend umbrella strollers. Easy to collapse and store. Lightweight to carry.)

    One good thing is toddler can go to the parks for free. Take advantage when you have the chance. Don't bother buying food just for the kid. Let the kid eat off your plate. Chances are the kid will eat little. My kid enjoy eating chips, cookies, crackers, and fruit (strawberries, bananas, grapes). I bring plenty from home since the parks might not have them available so you don't end up buying much from the parks to sustain them.
    Updated 06-07-2012 at 06:48 AM by StevenW
  3. Dustysage's Avatar
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    I don't even have kids and I thought this was a fabulous article! Great job Chris, you have an easy style that makes everything enjoyable to read.