Planning and Packing for Disney with Small Children

   If you had told me I would survive a week in Disney World with a 4 and 2 year old, I would've tried to smack some sense into you.  It was vacation and financial suicide if you ask me.  But my husband visited Disneyland many times as a kid with his grandparents and wants our children to share the same priceless memories.  And, as he pointed out to me, we have a very small window in which to fully enjoy the "Disney Magic" with our girls.  I didn't know what this magic was he spoke of.  I first went to Disney World when I was 17 and, while it was fun, I didn't remember it being fun enough to risk my sanity and brave it with a double stroller.  It's a good thing he was right about the magic, or I'd still grimace at every mention of anything Disney.

Trip Planning

   Let's get a few terms out of the way before I dig in.
  • Fastpass: free tickets reserved online which send you to an attraction at a particular time, then at the attraction you enter the fastpass line and not the regular one; not all rides or meet and greets offer fastpasses, some attractions are so popular (Toy Story Mania in Disney World, Radiator Springs Racers in Disneyland) that all their fastpasses are given out months ahead of time so plan your trip as soon as possible if you want to skip long lines
  • Rider Swap: free tickets given once you've made it through the line and right before you get on; ideal for two parents who want to ride with one child on the same ride; ask a Castmember for a rider swap ticket, exit, reenter fastpass line, ride it again; can be used anytime same day
  • Castmember:   Disney park employees; they are there to answer any question, fulfill any wish; if you see one standing in the park next to a photographer, get in line because a character is about to show up
  • Extended Magic Hours: if you are a guest of a hotel within the Disney World Resort  then extended magic hours are open for you; we avoided these for all except one night and it was packed
  • update:-Magic Band: a band mailed to you ahead of time or purchased at the resort used as hotel key, park pass, fastpass, photopass, etc.

   My husband shopped around for weeks and eventually booked the flights, the hotel, set up stroller rental, bought park tickets (we didn't get park hopper tickets because we knew it would take us all day to see the parks with little ones), etc.  We wanted to avoid the busy seasons (Christmas, Summer, Spring Break, and basically every other holiday) and we wanted the weather to still be nice, so we chose September.  Perk #1 of taking toddlers to Disney- we could go while everyone else was in school. 

    After he showed me all of his plans, I wondered why all vacations with little ones couldn't sound this good on paper.  Did you know that after you check your bags at the airport the next time you'll see them is in your hotel room?  Thanks Disney!  And how many other cities/destinations have stroller rentals that will deliver an impeccably clean, easy-to-steer stroller to your room?  Thanks Disney!  Well, thank you to the stroller rental companies.  The strollers available to rent from Disney are hard, uncomfortable, not easy to steer, and you have to leave them in the park when you exit.  It is a long walk from the park entrance to the buses, parking lots, or the taxi line.  It was a much better decision to deal with a few extra minutes of folding/unfolding the stroller on the bus rather than to carry sleeping children a mile and a half every day.

   Since my husband did all the research and planning for the big ticket items, there is no telling how many websites and blogs he visited.  He mainly used this one as a reference but is able to share that Special Offers (for example, a free Disney Dining plan for the whole family) are released here in the spring for fall offers and again in the fall for winter offers.  We stayed at the Pop Century Resort while in Disney World.  At the time, it was the nicest of the value resorts.  While we were there, Art of Animation Resort opened to the public.  As a girl who used to travel and stay in pricey hotels, I am spoiled.  But Pop Century was very clean, the staff very hospitable, and the food was great.  The room was tiny but we didn't care.  We only went to the room to sleep.

   When we visited Disneyland, we stayed at the Ramada Plaza Anaheim.  The hotel wasn't much to write home about (the breakfast was no good, with the exception of boxed cereal) but the room had a refrigerator and a microwave.  We were able to pick up some groceries as I like to do when we're out of town to keep some meals and snacks simple.  The best part of the hotel is it is located right next to a strip mall with a great pizza place (that serves by the slice) and a Subway.  Sometimes that's as good as it gets for families traveling with little ones.  Disneyland isn't wired quite like Disney World with the dining plans so we were thrilled to grab some decent food on the way to and from the park.

Disney Countdown Chain
   Right after we booked the trip we told the girls.  I know many like to surprise their children at the airport but we have always enjoyed anticipating trips long before we became parents.  For us, looking forward to the vacation is an important part of the whole experience.  As soon as we told them, they began pummeling us with questions, "When are we going?  Do we leave tomorrow??  How long until Disney World?  And what is Disney World again?"  Within the week, the Disney Vacation Planning DVD came in the mail which gave the girls a glimpse of the rides and the excitement.  And we decided to make a countdown chain (construction paper strips, glue, marker), especially since preschoolers don't have a great concept of time yet.  We witnessed the trip get closer every morning as we tore a link off the chain, and it proved as a reminder they need to be on their best behavior.

Chore Chart instructions here.
   Speaking of behavior, I am the disciplinarian in our household.  My husband caves for his little girls, understandably.  Since he set up the bones of the trip it was my responsibility to plan our days and fill in the cracks.  There couldn't have been a better time to teach my girls how hard work pays off.  I made a chore chart (click here for the DIY instructions) and told the girls they could use the Disney Dollars (free printables) they earned to buy an ice cream or a special toy on the last day of the trip.  It was a huge success for everyone.

   I was hesitant about the Disney Dining plan but am so relieved we chose this option.  Unlike Disneyland, Disney World offers a Dining plan you pay for in advance.  There aren't any grocery stores within the Disney World Resort limits, so instead of keeping stuff in the room to save money like I usually do when we're out of town, I gave into the plan.  We decided on the two quick service meals and one snack option.  It worked great.  With a 2 and 4 year old, we would've lost our minds ordering and waiting at a sit-down restaurant three times a day.  And since we wanted to squeeze in as many Character Dinings as possible, the two meals/one snack option left one meal a day to plan elsewhere.  I was also pleased with the wide variety of restaurants and the food they offered and I'm pretty tough to please when it comes to food.  Don't get me wrong, it's not gourmet.  But we left every table smiling and satisfied.


   I'm an over planner by nature.  I also love a challenge.  With luggage fees and strict requirements nowadays, the random rain showers, warm days and cooler nights in Orlando, and two small children to keep entertained, I spent many, many hours stressing about what to pack. 

   As for clothing, I left fashion behind and opted for comfort.  I didn't wear much jewelry since I knew there would be many bag-slinging, juice-box opening, shuffling and coddling moments with my girls.  I had to buy a couple pair of shorts and even purchased a few adult Disney t-shirts that were on sale.  I packed hooded, zip-up sweaters and leggings for the kids to add layers when needed.  And we each brought two pairs of comfortable running/walking shoes just in case.  Lots of cotton.  No flip-flops.  You'll need more support than that to walk around all day.
   The first major problem to solve was how to entertain the girls as we travelled.  I had a couple nightmares about being stuck on the runway for days without snacks and a change of clothes while my girls hung from the overhead baggage compartments as I plotted how to obtain a case of mini bottles of tequila.  Luckily, the flights went smoothly.  I packed two bags for the plane- one held a couple travel-sized games, portable DVD players (or even better- iPads) and headphones, Magnetic Movie Puzzles I made ahead of time, play-doh, a variety pack of clay, and pipe cleaners.  I wanted activities that would keep their mind busy but not make any noise to further disturb the child-haters on the plane.  Pipe cleaners are cheap, light, and you can make all kinds of silly things out of them.  The second held snacks (crackers, applesauce, fresh fruit from home), a change of clothes in case our luggage got lost, and a Ziploc bag of Dum-Dum lollipops in case of an emergency.

Magnetic Movie Puzzle en route to Disney World

Staying busy and quiet en route to Disneyland!

   My number one concern was, once we paid for the trip and arrived, that we'd be tempted to spend even more money on sugary treats, t-shirts, stuffed animals, princess costumes, etc.  Instead, I whispered a secret into their tiny ears, "I heard that if little kids are good in the park all day and don't ask to buy anything from the gift shops, that Tinker Bell sneaks into their room at night and leaves them a surprise!"  It worked like a charm!  I shopped ahead of time catching sale and clearance items from the Disney store and brought along two gift bags with Tinker Bell on them, tissue paper, and loose glitter.  The glitter because Tinker Bell always leaves a trail of pixie dust behind her, of course.  It was really fun figuring out which window or door Tinker Bell snuck in each night, mornings were always exciting watching them open presents, and we avoided park-cost souvenirs.  Although, much like Elf on the Shelf, you have to remember to do this each night after long, tiring days at the parks.  On the last night, we rewarded them by letting them pick out one special toy and paying with their own Disney Dollars.
Get this great backpack diaper bag here!
   I knew I wouldn't be able to carry much with us into the park each day.  I didn't need some big purse slung over my shoulder killing my back.  And I knew I couldn't leave a monstrosity of a diaper bag in the stroller while we rode each ride out of fear it might walk away with someone else.  So, we relied on our trusty backpack diaper bag.  I registered for the Columbia Trekster Backpack Diaper Bag when I was pregnant with our first after seeing it at a friend's baby shower.  There's something about the insulated side pocket to keep things warm or cold, the great inserts in the opposite side pocket that perfectly accommodate items needed from my purse, not to mention the washable changing table mat you won't want to go without, and its compact size that has elevated it to the most useful baby gift we ever received.  Even though both kids are out of diapers and what seems like light years from bottles, we still grab this backpack every time we go to the zoo, the state fair, on vacations, etc.
   We opted out of the Bibbidi Boppidi Boutique because it's expensive, time consuming, and my little ladies have a hard time sitting still for anything.  Instead, I brought our own makeup, jewelry, and princess outfits from home.  On the bus ride en route to Cinderella's table (breakfast in the castle), I put make up on their porcelain skin and decorated their tiny limbs with plastic gems. 
   Autograph books are a must for Disney trips.  You never know when you'll run into a character in the parks and it's fun to collect autographs at Character Dinings and Meet and Greets.  I heard the ones available for purchase at the resorts and in the parks are expensive.  It's true.  They're bulky, inconvenient, and not cute, in my opinion.  With one trip to Target, I purchased everything I needed to make our own (mini photo albums, card stock, stickers, sharpees, and yarn).  Of course, it's easy to go overboard with the pricey scrapbook stickers I bought to decorate the front.  Click here to see how I made ours!
Cheap and Easy Disney Autograph Books
   I filled our backpack for the next day each night before I passed out.  You probably have your diaper bag favorites, but these items came in handy for a long day at Disney parks:
  • a brightly colored scarf, bandana, or sock to tie to the handle and make your stroller easy to spot
  • wet wipes and hand soap (we washed our hands in the most random of places)
  • tiny Halloween treat-sized play-doh containers for long lines
  • small containers of bubbles (secured in Ziploc bags for leaks) 
  • autograph books and stickers
  • M&M's tube full of a stack of two quarters and a penny ratio
  • snacks, lollipops
  • small Ziploc container or bag for food the littles don't finish
  • lightweight blanket or two for spontaneous sleeping

    I can't even count the number of times the girls squished play-doh or I blew bubbles while we waited in line for rides, buses, boats, and meals.  Other parents were very grateful for the bubbles too.  They entertain everyone's children.  When they grew bored with those options, I'd pull out their autograph books and let them decorate the pages with tiny dollar-store stickers.  Other times, when we needed to waste time before a fastpass time slot, we'd find some penny pressing machines and add to our collection.  It costs 51 cents to press a penny.  If you have a tube of two quarters and a penny alternately stacked, you're ready to go- which is good because someone is always waiting behind you.  If none of the above worked and they started to meltdown or squawk in line, I'd pull out some leftover grapes or chicken nuggets from the meal they wouldn't finish 15 minutes prior.   I know this all seems like a lot, and I assure you that you'll be fine without it, but I won't travel without plan B's and C's and D's. 
   Things we didn't need:  ponchos, moleskin, glow bracelets, and advice from a few bloggers.  It rained while we were there- it poured, in fact.  But we're not ones who don't enjoy a little jog in the rain.  If you don't like to get wet, there are numerous restaurants, awnings, and attractions to duck into and under.  If you have sensitive feet, you are already aware and probably have your own plan of attack.  I, on the other hand went out and bought a new stick of Glide (used by athletes and models to prevent blisters from shoes) and a fresh package of moleskin in case that didn't work.  (Glide is also great for chafing.)  Luckily, we alternated two pairs of comfortable shoes the whole week and didn't need reinforcements. 
   We didn't need the glow bracelets I brought for them to play with during the fireworks because my feeble attempt to save a few bucks was defeated with savvy Castmembers's carts draped in light-up toys.  We caved during the fireworks on the first night and bought them two $15 light-up spinners. Of course I had to tell the girls they were free or they would worry Tinker Bell wouldn't come that night.  --> Sucker. <-- Now I pack those for Disney trips, Disney On Ice, 4th of July, etc.  I'm not going to get hosed for those again!

One on left: Disney On Ice.  Two on right: Disney World.  :]

   Make sure you plan and/or work in some down time while you're in Disney.  It's very easy to get wrapped up in what you need to check off the list and come home in need of another vacation.  All the stimulation is too much for toddlers anyway.  We planned two major blocks of time to stay away from the parks and enjoy free, relaxing attractions.  Our first break was spent at the hotel pool.  We slept in that morning, ate a late breakfast, made our way to the pool at our leisure, and took a big nap before heading to the park for the evening.  It was heaven.

   Our second "break" from the busyness of the park was a crazy maker.  Now, I won't name any names, but it is recommended to take advantage of Chip and Dale's Campfire Singalong.  It's a free event, you get to take a free boat ride, and you can make s'mores while enjoying the tall pines and get back to nature in Fort Wildnerness for a bit.  While all those things are true, what no blog will tell you is that the word is out.  Every one has heard it's free and have clogged the tiny arteries which are the only ways in and out of Fort Wilderness. 

Beautiful boat ride to Fort Wilderness.  We won't ride it again though!

   We took the boat ride from the Magic Kingdom (which had to stop twice along the way to drop off people in scooters- don't get me started) and it was beautiful, but it took forever.  We were rushing to not be late to the Singalong, my husband sprinting through the darkness pushing the stroller close behind me, but not close enough to spot and warn me of the snake directly in my path- the snake I ended up seeing right before I stepped on and instead leaped over in some kind of survivor-style-hurdle-leap.

   Once we arrived and rounded the corner, what I assumed would be a sense of calm and relief rush over me was immediately replaced with panic and stress.  Picture if you will, hundreds of children crowded around several huge firepits , wielding three-foot long skewers topped with flaming marshmallows, flinging them at their parents hiding across the field on bleachers, while the air is filled with smoke and squeaky sing-a-long songs.  Still, I would not accept defeat.  I marched up to the counter and forked out $20+ for a bag of supplies and led my family to the pits.  This is going to be fun.  Well, it wasn't.  By the time I had carved out a space for us at the pits, dressed and perched two skewers over the best part of the flames, the girls were over it and took off with their Daddy to run around.  I figured I'd at least make some s'mores for myself since no one else cared.  I turned around to reach in the bag and saw it was gone.  I couldn't believe one of these heathens would steal from a grown woman.  After ten minutes of staring every kid down in a 50 foot radius, Baby Girl flew by with the bag in her hand.  Oops.  We elbowed our way past Chip and Dale's body guard, himself looking distressed and dripping in sweat, took a picture and left five minutes later.

My face says it all.


   A better option for down time would be a Movie Under the Stars.  We stayed at Pop Century but I know most other resorts offer this wonderfully relaxing activity.  Check your hotel's schedule.

    Speaking of down time, another problem that arises when visiting Disney with toddlers and preschoolers is nap time.  Just so you know, we left the park every day right after lunch, took the bus back to the hotel, and slept until we woke up.  We usually all popped up in late afternoon, headed to dinner and back to the parks.  The major advantages of taking a nap is you miss the peak busy hours at the park- from late morning to early afternoon, everyone is rested and ready to stay up late for the fireworks, and everyone is rested.  It's important enough I needed to write it twice.  Yes, your schedule will be completely ruined, but it's worth it.  In fact, I don't think we'll ever skip nap time in the future- even when they're grown, even if it's just my husband and me.  Don't ruin yourself on vacation.

   Another fun, free thing to do if you're staying at a resort within Disney World is to tour another resort!  Disney wants us to look around while we're there and plan our next vacation.  So feel free to dine at one of the nicer resorts or just walk around the grounds.  I've heard watching the fireworks from the beach at the Polynesian is beautiful but we couldn't make it over there last trip.  That would probably be a great idea to avoid the crowds too!  If your children don't like fireworks, you're in luck!  For those late-nighters that stay until the last firework pops, you're guaranteed to wait in an excruciatingly long line for the buses back to the hotels.  I'm not going to go into detail, but let's just say my youngest was still potty-training on this trip.  You don't want to get sandwiched in the middle of an hour long line with a potty-training toddler, surrounded by masses of tired, grumpy people.  It wasn't good.  Leave early with little ones, if you can.  If you forget, just prepare yourself for a long night.

   If you haven't downloaded an app to help you navigate the maps, avoid lines, and check out restaurant menus, do it now.  Some days certain rides are closed because of weather, repairs, etc.  You'll want to be able to check on your phone before you get all the way over to the other side of the park with your young children.  I used this one for Disney World and this one for Disneyland.

   I do need to give y'all a fair warning about the scooters though.  I don't want to give it too much energy because it makes me angry and I have since heard Disney is starting to crack down on the problem.  However, when we were in Disney World, if you had a doctor's note or visited the doctor at the front of the park, a handicap pass was extremely easy to obtain.  Handicap riders not only wait in a separate line at the rides but also their entire group with them gets to opt out of the regular line.  And they also skip the lines completely for buses and transportation.  Since most aren't legitimately handicapped and this marks the first time they're maneuvering a free scooter, it takes each one of them quite some time to load onto and off of buses.  And some even expect special treatment in the form of re-routing other modes of transportation normally unauthorized to make specific stops.  It was widespread when we were there and very upsetting.  You can read more about it here.  It may sound trivial, but when I witnessed it, it was unnerving.
   And finally, after all the planning, packing, stressing, and worrying, when you arrive that the Happiest Place on Earth, be happy.  Enjoy your time with your family.  Smile.  Laugh.  Be silly.  Blow off some steam and have fun!

Before Splash Mountain...

After Splash Mountain!

Check out more of my Disney posts:

Disney World: Meet the Characters





  1. Sooooo, I was already stressed after reading the first paragraph but I love you so I kept reading. I finished reading and my heart rate is up and I'm sweating!! I had NO idea a trip to "the happiest place on Earth" was so much work. I've come to two conclusions....#1 I'm not ever going unless we travel with y'all and you plan it all! And #2 The "happiest place on Earth" is NOT Disney, its a Caribbean beach with adult beverages and no kids!.......now what do you think about planning that trip??!! ;)

    1. HA!!! I should've warned you about this post. I would've told you to skip to the last paragraph!! So sorry friend. At least now you have ALL of the information. Feel free to completely disregard and wing it!! It'll be happy, promise! But...a beach is better. ;]

  2. i laughed out loud at the previous comment! but wow! i'm with you though that i first visited disneyworld when i was 17 and it was because it was a school trip! i remember most of the trip, but not really. and if you're not in the driver seat, it really is hard to get perspective. i've been thinking about taking my 6yo son to disneyland because i feel like he's going to well surpass that "age" to really enjoy the trip. or maybe that's a load of crock bec we're all a kid at heart right? but my sister has been planning a trip to disneyworld and wants us to join. i feel like the only way it would be a little less stressful for me to go is if i plan a trip to disneyworld with my sister and her family. i don't know how well it would go taking a trip to disneyland just my son and i. but great post, i'll be going back to this again.

    1. If your son is a "Cars" movie fan the you should definitely take him to Disneyland! The Cars world at California Adventure park only exists in Disneyland and it ROCKS. My girls have never sat through those movies but loved that area of the park!! My husband and I were blown away with the way Disney makes you feel like you're in the movie! We originally hoped their grandparents would join us in Disney World, but it didn't work out. I know they would get such joy from watching the girls have fun there, but it's also nice not to have to coordinate meal times, attractions, and opinions. ;] I'll be sharing more about Disney soon! Those posts are always so long and it takes me forever to get all the info together. Thanks for visiting! X

    2. def hard to coordinate such and such and opinions lol ;) my son def loves the cars movie but he also loves the toy story movies which only exists in DW, not DL, right? so i'm def torn. my nephew LOVES the cars movie at the age of 3 a lot more than toy story so that may be a driving factor for my sister to choose DL first. i'll be on the lookout for your DL post!

    3. I think they have more Toy Story attractions in Disney World at Hollywood Studios. But we only care about the Toy Story Mania ride, which is at both World and Land!! It's very popular and super fun! The kids like it too. Haha! I'll let you know when the DL post is done! :]

  3. Oh my goodness your attention to details is amazing, I am glad my sister, who follows you, shared this with me. Thank you for sharing this detailed experience, this will definitely become our go-to reference for our Disneyworld trip!

    1. Yeah, I'm kind of a perfectionist. Ha!! I'm so glad you liked it. I have more coming soon about Disney World and Disneyland! Stay connected! Thank you so much for stopping by. :]

  4. I love your honesty and all of the detail in your post. Last year, we took our 9 year old, 7 year old and 5 year old to Disney for the first time. My hubby and I hadn't been there since we were kids so it was like a brand new thing to us. As much as I thought we planned everything out, boy, did we make a lot of "rookie" mistakes. When we got home, I thought it was one of the most stressful times and said I'd never go back. But after everything from the trip really sunk it, we realized it was one of the best trips ever. We actually planned another trip for this year and hope to make a little more stress-free. Thanks for your post and all the tips.

    1. Thank you for stopping by JoAnne! Disney is such a crazy maker!! The worst part, even if you plan everything, you're still worried if all of your plans will work out. But I know the kids don't remember a second of us being stressed out! I hope y'all have a wonderful next trip and that everything goes much smoother!! But I always feel like sleeping for three days after a Disney trip. Haha! Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I hope something in here helped. :]

  5. We've taken two Disney trips this year! (In March and last week) wish I had read all this before! Great blog, glad to have met you on IG! :)

  6. I'm glad to have met you as well! Thank you for reading!! I'm sorry I couldn't be of help sooner. :]

  7. This post is incredibly helpful. Thank you!