Cheryl Leung has been to Walt Disney World 15 times. Becoming the mother of a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm either; the family has visited Disney World with kids five times in the last five years. The owner of travel blog Kids on a Plane gives suitcases&strollers her travel tips for how to plan a fun-filled family vacation at Disney World, perhaps Florida’s most famous kid-friendly holiday destination.
Due to the age of my children, theme parks like Disney appeal to them more because they see the characters on TV and know some of the storylines from the movies. Disney does a great job appealing to families with young children.
There are baby care centres at each of the Disney World theme parks with several change tables, a quiet play area (usually with TV and a few toys), microwave and sink, highchairs for feeding and rocking chairs for nursing mums. They also stock baby food and diapers should you need to purchase any while in the park. It makes it really easy and stress free to travel with babies and toddlers.
I'm sure we will be visiting Universal Studios in a few years but for now Disney is what appeals the most to our family.
The character meets, the wide variety of dining options and resort amenities (complimentary transportation to the theme parks and the airport, Fast Pass option for rides and free dining promotions certain times of the year) is what draws us back every year.
[To read more about why kids love Disney, see the interview with another suitcases&strollers mum Why Disney?]
What are your top 3 favourite parts of Disney World?
My favourite parts about Disney World have nothing to do with the parks believe it or not. It's all about the food, accommodations and the weather for me.
Contrary to what many people believe, they serve much more than hamburgers and fries at Disney World. There's several places you can get a good steak, great seafood and to-die-for desserts.
Dole Whip is one of my first things on my to-eat list when we visit Disney World. Found only at Magic Kingdom and Polynesian Resort, it's my must-have several times each trip. (If you want to put a number on it, then it's like 5 in a week. Bad, I know!)
Accommodations – the theming of each Disney resort is incredible. Some are geared more towards kids (Pop Century Resort, Art of Animation) some are a little less in your face Disney (Grand Floridian, Port Orleans Resort – Riverside, Polynesian).
We love the perks that come with being Disney resort guests and we rarely rent a vehicle or do things outside of the hotel or parks. It's sort of like an all-inclusive vacation for us with a tonne of activities for the kids besides just the beach.
Food courts at each resort offer options that every family member loves and resorts that have full service restaurants serve up some great dishes too.
Weather – I'm from Canada so 6 months of the year we live in around freezing or below freezing temperatures. Orlando is great for a sun seeker like me.
What are your kids’ top 3 favourite parts of Disney World?
The kids love the character meets, the food and the hotels at Disney World.
Meeting the Princesses and classic Disney characters (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy) are one of their favourite parts of our trips. There are several meet-and-greets throughout the parks as well as several offsite opportunities to meet them during meal times.
Our daughter thinks she's Snow White (it's the dark hair) so go figure when we're at Disney World she has to see and talk to Snow White as many times as possible. On a previous trip, I think she spoke to and took photos with 5 different Snow Whites one day at Magic Kingdom! Each time she saw one she'd ask, "Do you remember me? I saw you a few hours ago!" and they'd reply, "Of course I remember you, Princess! Mommy took a great photo of the two of us together. Do you remember that?"
Again, the variety of food is what makes Disney World a great place for parents with young children. There's buffets, sit down restaurants, food courts – you name it, they have it. Depending on how adventurous they are, kids can have sushi, schnitzel or curry for dinner or stick to classics like macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and hamburgers.
Our 5-year-old has quite an adventurous palate and loves buffets for their variety. Our 2-year-old is more of a picky eater so he often will choose chicken nuggets or pizza. Whatever they're eating they think it's "the best thing ever" because most of the time it's in the shape of Mickey's head, on a plate shaped like Mickey's head or has some kind of sprinkle or condiment in the shape of Mickey's head (usually ketchup!).
Both kids loved every hotel we've stayed at so far. They love the in-your-face theming of the value resorts (larger-than-life characters everywhere you turn) but also the relaxed feeling of moderate and deluxe resorts. It's probably just the change from everyday life at home that makes them like travelling. And it helps too when every cast member calls them "Princess" and "Prince" multiple times a day.
Walt Disney World, unlike many of the other Disneylands elsewhere in the world, is made up of four distinct and separate parks and 2 water parks. Which parks do your kids like best?
My kids love EPCOT and Animal Kingdom the most out of the 4 theme parks in Disney World. Both are relatively quieter than [the archetypal Disney] Magic Kingdom (the must do on everyone's list!) and Hollywood Studios (rollercoasters, rides, attractions are geared towards older kids and pop culture enthusiasts).
Coming from a mixed background (we are Canadian/Caribbean/Chinese) We love exploring the World Showcase at EPCOT and learning about different cultures.
We are a family of foodies so we spend almost an entire day just trying dishes from each of the countries – Napoleons from Boulangerie Patisserie in France are one of our favourites!
They also love collecting stamps from each of the Kidcot Fun Stops (free activity and craft stations), seeing their names printed in different languages and learning how people say “hello” in other parts of the world.
The kids love Animal Kingdom because it's a bigger and better version of the zoo we have at home in Toronto. They can't wait to go on the Kilimanjaro Safari ride to get a close up look at animals and love the petting zoo (goat, sheep, pigs, cows, donkeys) at Rafiki's Planet Watch.
They aren't big on rides (there are only a handful they really love) right now so this is probably why our kids prefer these two parks over the others and we do expect their preferences to change as they get older.
What keeps bringing you back to Walt Disney World?
There many reasons we keep returning to Walt Disney World. It's the closest Disney park to us so for budget reasons this is why we end up here often. It is the biggest of the Disney parks too, so we can spend an entire week just park hopping or visiting other resorts.
The other Disney parks [in the US and around the world] are smaller compared to Walt Disney World and would only take us about a day or two to complete according to friends and family members that have been there.
What kids' age range is Disney World best suited for?
This is a tough question! I'm trying to answer from a non-Disney fanatic viewpoint so I'd say 13 years old and under because of the variety of rides and attractions each of the parks offer. There's pretty much something to do for everyone at one of the four theme parks and the two water parks.
I think once kids become teenagers it's just a matter of whether or not they like to do the theme park kind of travel with their parents (some kids like it, some don't). There was a time when I thought I was too cool to be seen with my parents too!
I fell back in love with Disney World during my first pregnancy. Maybe it was the hormones or maybe the “too cool to go to Disney World with my family” was all a lie. Who knows!
When is the best time to visit Disney World with kids?
The best time to visit is during value season (when the crowds are lower) – September to February is when we plan most of our trips. Since we have young children who don't really get the concept of time (a 30-minute wait for a ride seems like an eternity for them), going during value season means we minimise wait times for character meets, attractions and rides. It's also easier to secure reservations for the popular dining establishments too.
As for time of day, if you can make it for rope drop (as soon as the gates open to each of the parks) I'd highly recommend visiting first thing in the morning. It's typically more mild weather (it gets really hot in the afternoons depending on the time of year you visit) and there are virtually no crowds early in the morning. And there's something magical about walking down Main Street at Magic Kingdom with a handful of other park goers.
Around or after dinner is a good time to go to the parks too. Most park goers are either headed back to their hotels for dinner or calling it a day because being out in the sun for several hours is quite tiring.
Are there any downsides to Disney World with kids that families should consider?
While Disney World is incredibly kid friendly, it is crowded. If your goal is to go to every [part] you need at least a full week to see and do everything. This is expensive and sometimes a bit exhausting.
There is so much to see and do at Disney World, it's often very overwhelming to plan a first visit. This is probably the biggest challenge for parents – sorting through all the information and making a list of the must haves and the nice to haves when it comes to trip planning. [You can find out everything on offer at Walt Disney World on their official website.]
If you're not one that likes to spend hours researching, I would recommend working with a travel agent that specialises in Disney World travel or an agency that has Disney specialists.
Any insider tips for how to beat the queues or coordinate your family's itinerary to see as much of the park as possible?
I'd recommend going to the parks as soon as the gates open (if you have a family of early risers) to beat the crowds. Also, if you're staying on site (at a Disney-owned resort) you can book what they call Fast Passes for certain attractions and rides at each of the parks. You do this by making a reservation online for a particular time slot and then linking it to your Magic Band (bracelets that act as park tickets) which guarantees you a spot regardless of how long the queue is.
Study the maps [you can find printable maps here] and make a list of what you must see and what would be nice to see.
Then plan out the days and times you'd like to visit each park. If you happen to get to the park at rope drop then go to the furthest must-do ride/attraction so you're at the front of the line. Then work your way back to the entrance as crowds start trickling in.
Where is the best place to eat?
Oh my gosh, this is an incredibly hard question to answer. My answer depends on budget, type of dining (food court versus full service restaurant) and food preferences.
If I had to pick just one place – Le Cellier at the Canada pavilion in EPCOT. Their cheese soup is amazing. Steaks are pretty awesome there too.
Crystal Palace inside Magic Kingdom is a good place to go if you're looking for a place to eat with a view of Cinderella's Castle. Winnie the Pooh and Friends are there as well during breakfast and lunch.
Where is the best place to stay?
If it's your first visit, I'd highly recommend any of the deluxe resorts [on site] for their location. You can get to three of the four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios) fairly quickly by monorail, boat or walking.
If deluxe resorts are out of your budget, the lower category resorts are great too because of the complimentary transportation and Extra Magic Hours (extra hours at parks just for Disney resort guests). You don't have to rent a car, navigate through traffic or pay for parking.
Any tips for saving money in Disney World with kids?
Outside drinks and snacks are allowed in the parks so I would definitely recommend packing some in a smaller cooler or bag.
Try to book during a promotion period, whether it be free dining or room discounts. They are offered several times a year if you want to stay on site.
If you really want to save money then stay offsite (you'll get more space and sometimes a laundry machine and dryer in your room/suite). Some offsite hotels also offer free shuttles to the parks.
Be aware that every ride and attraction exits into a gift shop (coincidence?!) so either set a limit or amount of souvenirs family members are allowed to purchase each day (or for the entire vacation). One of the cheapest souvenirs at Disney World are pressed pennies. For US 51 cents, kids can start their own pressed penny collection. The quest to find new machines each trip is one that keeps our kids busy and our wallets somewhat full.
There are also several grocery stores that will deliver an assortment of fruit, vegetables, snack items and drinks to Disney World area resorts. We usually place our order online several days before our arrival and have a week's worth of breakfasts to eat in our hotel room and snacks and drinks for our diaper bag.
To read the suitcases&strollers interview with the theme park expert, Theme Park Guy, click here.
Images: Scott Miller, Ali Nasser, Matt Stroshane, The Walt Disney Company