We are headed to Disney World tomorrow. My kids are 4 and 1. We went last year as well when my son was 3 and my baby was still in utero. We stayed in Orlando for a week. The week after we got back, a friend of mine was also going with her 3 year old. And since way back then I didn't have a blog, I wrote her an incredibly long email explaining the tips and advice we'd picked up having just spent a week at Disney World. Since we are going tomorrow, I thought I'd dig it out and remind myself what my Disney World advice for a 3-year-old-centered trip was. We may need to tweak some things since this year we will have a 4 year old and a just turned 1 year old. But what I really learned was... damn... was I a woman waiting for a blog or what? Talk about a long email.
- We decided that our vacation was going to be all about the 3yo. Since I was pregnant and therefore couldn't go on any rollercoasters anyway, we decided we would ride and see what we thought the 3yo would like and not the fun stuff for grown-ups.
- Our original plan was going to be to see one park per day, starting with Epcot, then Animal Kingdom, then Hollywood, and finally Magic Kingdom. The thought was then the parks would get better from the 3yo's perspective every day. We threw that plan out because I was worried that in my pregnant state, I might decide that by day 3, I was done walking around in the heat and we would still not have even made it to Magic Kingdom. So we decided instead to start with Magic Kingdom. (I was very glad we did.)
- We did not do Busch Gardens, SeaWorld, or Universal. We did spend two whole days playing in the pool and wandering around at Downtown Disney.
After a couple days, we had a pretty good system going. Here is what we learned and what worked very well for us.
- We got to the parks every day when they opened. So Magic Kingdom by 9. The others by 8:30-8:45. The parks don't officially open until 9, but all except Magic Kingdom let you in early, so you can begin your walk to the furthest reaches of the park where you're normally headed anyway. This was huge in terms of enjoyment. We could hop on to rides with almost no wait for the first hour or so. We rode Winnie the Pooh twice in a row the first day and Buzz Lightyear twice in a row the next day. The crowds are smaller. The heat isn't overwhelming. Overall, I was so glad that we did it, even though every night I questioned whether I really wanted to get up that early the next morning. It was always worth it.
- We left the parks around mid-day (around 1) everyday. Four hours from opening until 1 was a lot of walking. By 1, it's really hot and really crowded. We'd grab a shuttle back to the hotel and take a nap or go to the pool. We planned to have the 3yo to take a nap during that time every day and then head back to the park in the evening, when it was cooler again and he was rested. But we never made it back and were never sorry about it. We just enjoyed the hotel amenities (pool, playground, etc.). The only day we stayed longer than 1 pm was our first day, and we stayed until 3. By the time we got back to the hotel, we were beyond exhausted. Had we tried to do that every day, we would have probably quit the parks after 3 days. (I was also pregnant, so I was done sooner than maybe I would have been otherwise. But still, better to not exhaust everyone the first couple days.)
- We did not stay on Disney property, nor did we buy a meal plan. Instead, we went grocery shopping the first day. Every day we brought sandwiches, carrot sticks, grapes, string cheese, and 8 bottles of water. When we got hungry or just a little hot or tired in the park, we would find a shady spot and have a snack or a sandwich. Saved so much money over eating in the park every day and even more on the amount we would have spent on water. It was HOT! And water is expensive in the park.
- We brought our stroller instead of getting a Disney stroller. So we threw all of our "stuff" (food, water, etc.) into a large beach bag and put it into the basket under the stroller. Disney strollers have no room for "stuff". The 3yo was not much of a stroller-lover when we're at home, but he almost never walked at the park. This was fabulous as he didn't get tired or cranky very often.
- Bring a change of clothes. I knew to do this, but forgot the first day. There is a little place called "Donald's Boat" in Toontown. It's tiny, but it has a mini splash-pad. The 3yo got soaked and it was so nice to have the opportunity for him to cool off. (Did I mention it was hot.) Afterward, it would have been good if I had some dry clothes to put him in.
- Use FastPasses. We got better at this by day 2. I had read that you shouldn't get a FastPass for anything with a wait under 30 minutes. This probably works great if you're not with a pre-schooler. For us, we got a FastPass for anything that offered them. The first day we waited 20 minutes to get on Peter Pan. That was probably pushing it for the 3yo. The next day, we got a Fast Pass for Peter Pan, rode Small World (which was right across from PP) twice in a row (5 minute wait and a 10 minute air conditioned ride and the 3yo loved it) then took a string cheese break. By that time, our FastPass window was open and we walked right on with no wait. Another time we got a FastPass for Winnie the Pooh and then rode the carousel three times in a row. The carousel was so not crowded that we didn't even get off and get back in line, we just rode it three times. The 3yo probably could have stayed on 5 more times. So don't wait with the kids unless you have to.
- The 3yo's favorite rides were Buzz Lightyear, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan (all three have long waits and FastPasses), the Speedway (long wait, no FastPass), Small World, the carousel, and the Jungle Cruise (FastPass). He did not like: Pirates of the Caribbean (too scary/dark) or any of the 3D movies we saw. Some of the 3Ds were a little scary in parts (It's Tough to Be a Bug gets kinda scary for little ones), but even the not scary ones were not a hit for us. He'd like them until stuff started flying at him and then he wanted the glasses off.
- The 3yo did not like the characters. I thought I was prepared for this. But he said he wanted to go see Pluto and we waited in line and as soon as we got to be 2nd in line, he insisted that he didn't want to see Pluto. So we didn't force it. The rest of the trip we would go and look at the characters, as long as the 3yo "didn't have to say Hi." He finally came around and got his picture taken with Buzz the last day. But I was glad we found this out before we stood in the crazy long line to see Mickey and Minnie in the Judge's Tent in Magic Kingdom. He was a little better with the "face" characters, like the princesses, but the "furs" were a little overwhelming. Even the ones he loved, like Woody and Jessie. He only wanted to see them from a distance.
- We got 5-day hopper passes for the whole family. The price difference between 3-days and 5-days was so small ($5 more per person) that we figured we'd just go ahead and get the 5-day. We learned once we got there that if you buy the 3-day, you have 14 days from the date you first use it to add on more days. So we could have bought 3-days and added on 2 more days for $5 each if we wanted to go more. Had we done that, we probably would have ended up going to the parks 4 days instead of 5.
- Do not worry about the FastPass end times!!!! I had read this somewhere and confirmed it when we were there. When you get a FastPass, you have a "window" when you're supposed to return. They do not look at the end times! They will check to make sure you're not coming in too early, but that's it. So don't worry about trying to dash across the park to make it to a ride you have a FastPass for. In fact, we got a FastPass for the Jungle Cruise on Monday and didn't use it until Wednesday. (We did make sure to go after start time window, since that's what they look at.)
- Get FastPasses as soon as you can. Once you get a FastPass for one ride, it will be an hour before you can get another one. But as soon as that hour is up, you're free to get another one. You do not need to use your current FastPass first. So if your hour is up and you happen to be passing by Winnie the Pooh, grab a FastPass if you think you'll want to go on it again. We would grab a FastPass as soon as we walked into the park, even if there was no wait. So, for example, we'd grab a FP for Buzz Lightyear, then jump on the ride (not using the FP) with no wait. Later that day, we'd come back and ride it again with our FP. The sooner you get a FP, the sooner you'll be able to get another one.
- Personally, I would recommend against Dumbo. I know, it's a classic, that's why we rode it, but it didn't really seem worth it. The 3yo wasn't really clamoring to do it anyway. We went the first day and got in line about 45 minutes after the park opened. It already had a 35 minute wait. This was way too long, especially for a 90 second ride. And when we asked the 3yo about it later, he said he liked it, but not nearly as much as the others. So unless the kid is asking to ride Dumbo, I wouldn't encourage interest. And if you do walk past it and your kid expresses a little interest, there is a stationary Dumbo "car" just like the ones on the ride just outside the ride where you can take pictures of the kids on a Dumbo. That might be enough to satiate the desire without having to stand in line forever.
- The PhotoPass people are really convenient (they are the official photographers who take your pictures with the characters or in front of the castle or tree of life, etc), especially for pics of the whole family, but the photos are pricey. $15 for a 5x7. And they are totally fine with you taking your own photos. We got a couple PhotoPass photos, but I would have taken the pictures of the 3yo and Buzz myself if I knew it was going to be $15.
- The 3yo liked the Safari at Animal Kingdom, but either get there when the park opens or get a FastPass. The day we rode we got there when the park opened and walked right on. By the time we finished the ride, the wait time had grown to over an hour.
- We spent about 90-120 minutes at Epcot total. There is so very little for the little ones to do. We went on Nemo and then did Turtle Talk with Crush. The latter, he didn't really care about. I don't think he really got that the turtle was actually interacting with the people. So to him, it was just a really boring movie with Crush. He liked the Nemo ride, but that's about all there was to do at Epcot that interested him. There was a cool character greeting spot, but that wasn't his thing.
- We did Hollywood our last day. It was a total bust. Most of the shows are outdoors and it was crazy hot the day we went. Sunny. 91 degrees. 86 percent humidity. I was dying to take him to the Playhouse Disney Puppet Show, which featured Mickey, Little Einsteins, and Handy Manny. But when we got there, the stage was outdoors and the viewing area was not shaded. I couldn't imagine standing there for a 20 minute show sweating our butts off. So we ended up going to two attractions, having lunch, and leaving early.
- Before you decide to go to an evening parade/fireworks, do a daytime parade first. The 3yo wasn't that into the shows with the characters nor the parades and they didn't hold his interest for long. So it seemed silly to keep him up until 10 to see the lights parade.
- Be prepared for the heat and humidity. I don't have any advice on this, really. It's crazy humid. It's the biggest reason we were done by 1:00 every day. But just know going in: it's going to be hot.
- We spent three of our five days in Magic Kingdom. There was just so much more for the 3yo to do. Granted, we rode most rides about 3 or 4 times (Buzz Lightyear I think we rode 7 times), but he loved it. And since we weren't trying to cram a bunch of rides into a single day, when we'd get off a ride and he'd say, "Can we do it again?" there was no stress about doing it again. By the second day, we knew which rides he liked and what the wait times were. So for day two we knew which rides to grab a FastPass for and which ones we could jump on with little wait.
- We ate at two restaurants in Downtown Disney: Rainforest Cafe and Fulton's Crab House. Both had mediocre food and were crazy overpriced. We ate at Ruth's Chris one night, too. Price was about $15 more than at Rainforest, but with awesome steaks.
So that concludes my thesis on going to Disney World with a 3-Year-Old (or at least MY 3-Year-Old). Now seriously... is it any wonder that I started a blog?