5 Secrets for Surviving Disney with Preschoolers


This summer we spent one magical day at the happiest, sweaty-est, most crowded place on earth.  When my 4-year-old asked if we could go home before we even made it out of the parking lot, I felt the first wave of dread.  In the end it really was a special day, but with all my newfound Disney knowledge, I feel compelled to share the top 5 things that can make or break your next visit with Mickey.

#1: Arrive at the Park One Hour Before it Opens
Did you know it takes nearly thirty minutes to get from the parking lot to the entrance of the Magic Kingdom?  Yeah, me neither.  Those thirty minutes include one shuttle ride followed by either a monorail or ferry ride.  If you’re in the parking lot one hour before the park opens, you’ll probably be through in twenty minutes.  If you arrive when the park opens you’ll find yourself waiting in the parking lot with hundreds of people who are more than willing to shove a 2-year-old out of the way to beat you onto the shuttle.  If (like us) you are also trying to cram a jogging stroller onto said shuttle, you may as well just set up camp.  Now I know what you’re thinking: if we make it to the entrance so early, what are we going to do until the park opens?  Before the ropes drop, the very front of the park is actually open.  Characters often greet guests, and if you go into the visitor’s station, people celebrating a special event—even if it’s just their first time at Disney—get a free button, guaranteeing a little more attention from staff.  And just imagine how many rides you can get in when the ropes do drop and everybody else is elbowing their way onto the shuttle in the parking lot.

#2: Reserve Your FASTPASS Experiences Ahead of Time
Every guest is allowed 3 free FastPasses.  This means, you may choose 3 attractions in which you bypass the regular line.  A-mazing.  The FastPass line usually takes 5 minutes or less.  But if you wait until you’re at the park to sign up, you’ll find yourself standing in line at a FastPass kiosk for hours.  Moreover, the only times available for the popular rides will probably be after 8pm.  Instead, you should reserve your FastPasses online or through the My Disney Experience App.  Guests staying at a Disney hotel can book their FastPasses up to 60 days in advance; all other guests can book them 30 days in advance.  When you enter your selections, you’ll be given different time options.  If you’re vacationing in the off-season, choose early time slots because as soon as you use up your 3 FastPass experiences, you can reserve more.  If, however, you’re vacationing during a hot, busy season (like summer), choose afternoon time slots when you’ll be the most exhausted.  If the park is crowded, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to reserve additional FastPasses.  My last piece of FastPass advice—don’t waste them on older rides like “It’s a Small World” or “Dumbo.”  Those lines are always relatively short.

#3: Book a Character Lunch
If you’re vacationing in the busy season, make a lunch reservation!  There’s nothing like bypassing a monstrous crowd and stepping into a gloriously air-conditioned restaurant.   We opted for a character lunch, and it surprised me how much our preschool (and even school-aged) gang loved it.  Back when I was a kid, characters roamed the streets of Walt Disney World, but not anymore.  Now, you have to stand in line to meet virtually anyone.  Greeting characters while you eat is the best of both worlds.  It entertains the kids and makes you feel less bad about skipping the 2 hour line to meet Rapunzel.  As far as options for character dining in the Magic Kingdom, there are only two: The Crystal Palace with Winnie the Pooh’s gang, or Cinderella’s Royal Table with several princesses.  Both have pros and cons.  The Crystal Palace is cheaper and easier to book.  (Cinderella’s Table usually fills six months in advance!)  A lot of reviewers think the food is better at Cinderella’s palace (for $60 a plate, it ought to be!), although the Crystal Palace is buffet style, which is nice for starving, impatient preschoolers.

#4: Visit Dumbo’s Secret (Indoor!) Playground
This is the best kept secret at Disney.  If you need an afternoon pick me up that doesn’t involve money or sugar, go to the Dumbo ride.  The line begins outside, but quickly takes you through a tunnel into a blessedly frigid play place.  It was designed to entertain kids while they wait for the ride.  On busy days a hostess offers you a buzzer (just like at a restaurant) and your kids can play while you wait for the buzzer to go off.  But even though we went at the peak of summer, the line wasn’t long enough to necessitate the buzzer.  So the hostess simply gave us the option of playing or riding Dumbo.  I literally watched kids sobbing as their parents hauled them away from the playground to ride Dumbo!  That’s how appealing a cold playground can be on a scorching summer afternoon!

#5: Go Lightweight with the Gear
I packed a backpack you’d need American Ninja Warrior biceps to budge.  I wanted to be ready for anything, but we quickly learned less is more when you’re hiking through a hot theme park on foot.  Skip the Gatorade bottles and disposable water bottles.  All you need is one refillable bottle because every restaurant is required to fill your water bottle for free.  Hot, melting snacks aren’t as appealing as you’d think, so only pack a few.  If it’s summer time, it’s worth investing in a pair of real UV sunglasses for the kids and packing sunscreen.  Finally, (unless you plan to rent one) bring a stroller.  We opted for a jogging stroller thinking it’d be more comfortable, but the truth is, exhausted kids aren’t picky.  Take the skimpy umbrella stroller and it’ll be much easier to maneuver, especially on and off the shuttle!

Any tips to add??  Leave them in the comment section below!

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One thought on “5 Secrets for Surviving Disney with Preschoolers

  1. Thanks!! We are planning a trip with our two toddlers and thought we had read about everything we could on Disney. We didn’t know about the water bottles or playground. Much appreciated tips!

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