How to Plan the Best Disney Experience for your Family

The wonderful world of Disney and I go way back. All the way back to 1973, when I first visited Disneyland in California at the age of five. At that time, visiting Disneyland from far away eastern Canada was a really big deal. The Park hadn’t even been open for twenty years at that point, not that I noticed. I was too interested in It’s a Small World, the sweet treats, and my shiny new Minnie Mouse coin purse, which I still have. Fast forward to the 21st century and preparing a Disney trip planner and guide for a vacation with my own kids, it was still a really big deal.

Rocking the fashions of 1973. As you can see, red was in. Credit Claudia Laroye

I’ll be honest, as an adult visitor, I was ready to kind of hate Disneyland. The crowds, the merch, the insanity of it all – would I survive a Disney Parks experience with two youngsters in tow? The answer was yes. Because I had entered the Land of Yes. As in, yes, we can ride Dumbo the Flying Elephant again. Yes, we can stay on Tom Sawyer Island as long as you like. Yes, you can eat another churro, dear husband. My children’s joy at being at Disneyland was so absolute and infectious that my heart grew three sizes during that first day at Disneyland. The key to enjoying a visit to any Disney Park is to accept the magic and go with the flow. Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo!

Disney Trip Planner and Guide for your Family

Sure okay, accept the magic and go with the flow. Is that enough? No.

Here’s the real deal – it pays to be organized in planning your Disney Parks or Cruise experience. You’re spending good money on an amazing and memorable family holiday at the happiest place on earth, but it can go downhill fast if you’re spending hours in lines, didn’t book excursions, or have missed the chance to dine with Goofy or Elsa. An ounce or two of planning can prevent a pound of woe and tantrums. Don’t worry, we’ve corralled some of the mightiest Disney minds out there to provide their best Disney travel tips to help you plan your best Disney Parks visit, on land or sea.

Ready to take on the day at Disneyland. Credit: Claudia Laroye

Tips for Visiting Disneyland

How to Visit Disneyland in One Day

Is it possible to visit both California Adventure and Disneyland and see everything? Not everything perhaps, but you can get pretty close. This is one reason why this is my favorite of all the Disney Parks. The key to making the most out of Disneyland with a day is to plan ahead. Know which rides are most important to you and rank them by importance. Take some time to loosely map out a plan especially if you plan to hit both parks in one day. If you are hoping to make some shows you need to get the times when you enter and make note of them right away.

Pure joy times two at Disneyland. Credit Claudia Laroye

The only real way to be able to do Disneyland in a day is if you utilize Fast Passes correctly. You will also want to make sure you are not visiting on a peak day by checking the crowd control map. By creating a plan, being on the same page as everyone in your party you will minimize the “Disney wander” which can eat up a lot of time.
But of course you should also be flexible and willing to go with the flow because that is half the magic and fun of Disney. There are always surprises around each corner. You can check out my whole list of tips for visiting Disneyland in a day for even more ways to maximize your experience with very little time. Hillarye Fuller, Dotting the Map

Take a ride in a teacup. Credit Hillarye Fuller

Low Cost Healthy Snacks at Disneyland

Disneyland has really stepped up their game in terms of offering healthy snack options. They are some of the most affordable snack options in the park now. Here are some tips on where to find healthy snack options at the best prices.Order off the Disney Check Menu for kids. This is a meal that Disney has designated as balanced and healthy for kids. Get a Disney Check Power Pack for kids for around $5 at most quick serve counters. Grab fruit, pickles and hummus and veggie packs and more at the snack carts. Most items are under $5. My kids favorites where the giant pickles for $3.99.

Grab a side of whole wheat chips and guacamole or salsa (or both) at Rancho Del Zocalo in Disneyland. Chips and Salsa will cost you under $5.Grab a frozen banana from one of the carts that sells frozen treats instead of ice cream. Get free cups water – or refill your own bottles – at any place that serves fountain drinks in the parks. You can also pack in your own water and snacks, to save the most. Amazon Fresh or Safeway delivery will deliver to your room, then pack them into the park in a small soft sided cooler. Sia Hills, Thrifty Northwest Mom

Yes, you can find and eat healthy food at Disneyland. Credit: Sia Hills

Disney California Adventure Food and Wine Festival

Adult Disney fans will love the Disney California Adventure Food and Wine Festival. It is a tribute to California’s agricultural bounty with 54 days of fabulous food, wine, beer, and celebration. Don’t miss the special weekend tasting seminars and winemakers receptions held throughout the event. Sharlene Earnshaw, Trekaroo

Deep-fried artichoke, yum! Credit: Sharlene Earnshaw

General Travel Tips for Disney Parks

Best Shoes for Disney Parks

While you can wear flip-flops and heels at Disneyland or Disney World, why would you? You’ll be walking miles and miles on hard pavement. I LOVE my Birkenstock sandals but even they would wilt on twelve hour days and 25,000+ steps for days on end.  Your feet need as much support as you can get them, so that means good sneakers, supportive sandals or proper walking shoes. Claudia Laroye, The Travelling Mom

We’re in stuffy heaven. Credit: Shutterstock

How to Save Money on Disney Merchandise

One of the best places to find unique and affordable official Disney merchandise near Walt Disney World is the Disney Character Warehouse. DCW is an outlet store for all things Disney that anyone can visit. It offers a variety of merchandise at a fraction of the cost. From Shanghai Disney pins to Dooney & Burke Flower Festival purses to Sofia dresses and mugs from the Disney Cruise Line, there is little bit of everything. On my last visit, the DCW even had current Pandora charms at 35% less than the price in the Disney Springs store. They are located in the Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets and Orlando International Premium Outlets. Kendra Pierson, Love Learn Travel

Save money and get your merch offsite. Credit: Kendra Pierson

How to Save Money on Disney Character Costumes

Buy a costume on sale at home and bring it with you. The gift shops are expensive but can be tempting. This way you can save money while still surprising your kids with a new costume. Corinne McDermott, Have Baby, Will Travel
Get your Disney costume before you leave home. Credit: Jen Lord

What to Pack for a Day at Disney

When packing your bag for a day of fun at Disney Parks, remember to only take the essentials. Your wallet and cellphone are tops on the list. Remember to bring a charging cable or portable charger for recharging your phone. Your phone may be your camera, but some like to have a dedicated camera for capturing those magical memories. Water can be expensive. I like to bring a refillable, filtered water bottle, which can be filled for free at water stations throughout the parks. Travel-sized hand sanitizer or wipes are good to have with you for germs and messes. Definitely pack sunscreen to re-apply throughout the day.

Take along pain reliever or any medication you may need. Pack handy snacks like mints or gum, goldfish, pretzels, or fruits to help stave off the cravings.  It will save you money too, allowing you to splurge on that ‘gotta have it’ snack! Believe it or not, food storage bags are also a must. These will help protect electronics in your bag, be useful for leftovers or serve as a place to store wet clothing. Other popular items to consider are ponchos, hats, extra clothes, jacket or sweater, sunglasses, moleskin (for blisters), and a portable fan/mister. Lisa Cameron, Adventures in Familyhood

Things you can pack into your Disney day bag. Credit: Lisa Cameron

Tips for Disney Snacks and Restaurants

On any vacation, the food is one of my top priorities. In doing my research, I quickly learned that it’s nearly impossible to have a good meal in the Magic Kingdom. So we got a Mickey pretzel at a cart when the kids initially got hungry and followed-up with hot dogs we could eat as we walked the park. I saved my calories for an evening at Disney Springs.

I highly recommend you visit this area if you are seeking a great meal and/or want to do some shopping. The largest Disney Store is here. We ate at The Bar at The Boathouse on our second evening at the park. The USA Today rated The Boathouse as the #1 Restaurant at Disney. As a seafood lover, my other favorite meal was at Flying Fish at Disney’s Boardwalk. Make sure to save room for ice cream at Ample Hills Creamery down the boardwalk afterwards.

While Dole Whip isn’t my personal favorite, but adults can get it spiked at Animal Kingdom. If only guests could Fast Pass Starbucks. That seriously might have been the longest line we stood on at any of the four parks. Lainie Gutterman, Lainie of Leisure

Disney Springs is Detour Worthy

Walt Disney World Orlando’s 47 square miles is a lot for any family to explore. However, a detour to Disney Springs (former Downtown Disney) is worth the time. Why? Because it offers nearly 150 venues including shopping, entertainment, dining, erupting volcanoes, helium balloon rides, and amphicar floats. First of all, Disney Springs serves up a family-friendly waterfront dining experience in the heart of Disney Springs at The Boathouse. Besides its awesome menu, this is also the only place in the world where you can experience a Captain’s Guided Tour in a vintage amphicar. These rare cars (less than 400 in existence) enter the lake with a splash for a 20-minute tour of Disney Springs.
Another Disney Springs attraction that our family loved was the hot air balloon. Custom-built for Disney, this all-ages adventure called Characters In Flight holds up to 29 people plus one certified pilot per flight. This balloon rises 350-400 feet in the air with a bird’s eye 360-degree view of Disney Springs, white peaked tents of Cirque du Soleil Theater, Disney theme parks, and Resort hotels. Diana Rowe, Traveling in Heels

A boat and a car?! It’s the amphicar. Credit: Diana Rowe

Tips for Visiting Walt Disney World

Character Dining at Disney World

One of the most memorable experiences for families with young children at Disney World is a meal with beloved Disney characters. The key to getting in with your kiddos favorite folks is to book early. Reservations open 180 days in advance and the most popular spots sell out within minutes. Miss your opportunity? Check back with the reservations department close to the date of your stay to see if there are any last minute cancellations. Sharlene Earnshaw, Trekaroo

Plan and reserve your character dining in advance. Credit: Sharlene Earnshaw

How to Maximize your Time for a One Day Visit

Believe it or not, you can actually see and do a lot with just one day at Disney World, but you need a good strategy to fit it all in. First of all, it helps to stay on property. Not only does that give you access to Disney’s Extra Magic Hours, you can also book your Fast Passes 60 days before your arrival. Also, if you want to visit multiple parks, you will need to purchase a Park Hopper ticket. 
Plan on starting your day early, it helps to arrive before rope drop at the first park, and take some time to plan your day in advance using the My Disney Experience app. Booking restaurant reservations in advance and using the app to grab new Fast Passes once you have used your third pass will minimize your wait times. Of course, if you really want to maximize your time, you can book a Disney VIP tour to get unlimited Fast Passes and VIP concierge services in planning, routing, and facilitating your day. Tamara Gruber, We3Travel 

How to Survive Disney World

A Disney World trip can feel overwhelming to plan, especially for families that have never been or haven’t been since they were children. Planning a stress-free trip to Disney World requires some discipline. Don’t focus on seeing everything, focus on seeing the best of everything. A theme park isn’t something to conquer; it’s something to enjoy in the moment.
Determine a plan that will keep things fresh and fun for your family. Don’t try and squeeze in all four Disney parks or try and see more than one park in a day. Pick two or three parks and leave room for a down day or two in between days you visit parks. Keep an endurance mindset and ensure you and your children have healthy, filling breakfasts, and keep the kids away from treats until after lunch to prevent the late morning meltdowns.
Families coming from the West Coast should consider arriving in the parks in the late afternoon and staying until park closing when crowds dwindle a little. This will help keep the family on the same sleep schedule and better rested. Parents who try and squeeze too much in will find they board the plane home in need of a vacation. See your investment in terms of the quality of the experiences, not the quantity and you can truly have a relaxing and fun vacation at Disney World. Robin Hutson, LuxeRecess

Credit: Robin Hutson

Reasons to Visit Disney World at Christmas

Disney World during the Christmas holidays is an extra-special magical place to be. The Park gets fully decked out and decorated to the festive nines, and that includes Main Street as well as all the Disney Hotel properties. There are massive Christmas trees, themed gingerbread houses, and holiday-specific merchandise everywhere you look. Cinderella’s iconic castle is transformed into a sparkling ice palace as part of the show, A Frozen Holiday Wish, featuring characters Anna, Elsa, Kristof and Olaf.
EPCOT hosts its annual International Festival of the Holidays, which is a great way to experience the holiday traditions of elevan countries, including seasonal food and drink and musical performances. Looking for something extra special? Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is an after-hours event (additional tickets required) held on select evenings in November and December at the Magic Kingdom. Lisa Goodmurphy, Gone with the Family

Disney Castle decked out for the Christmas holidays. Credit: Lisa Goodmurphy

Best Rides at Disney World for Thrill Seekers

Disney World has something for everyone and the thrill-seekers in your family can definitely find rides to get their hearts racing. Here are some of our family’s favorite Disney thrill rides. Rock ‘n Roller Coaster (Hollywood Studios) takes you from 0 to 57 MPH in under 3 seconds. It’s fast, dark, and twisty, and the Aerosmith music is awesome. The Avatar Flight of Passage (Animal Kingdom) is astonishingly immersive. This 3D motion simulator ride lets you fly through the colorful planet Pandora on a wild Banshee. Hands-down our favorite ride in all of Disney.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Magic Kingdom) races along the rickety railroad and you’ll experience sharp turns, fast hills, and dark tunnels. Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom) is one of the fastest rides at Disney. Note: This ride has a pretty substantial backward drop and a lot of it is in the dark. Space Mountain (Magic Kingdom) is a dark, high-speed race through the galaxy with unexpected twists and jarring turns. But there are no significant drops, loops, or corkscrews. Mission Space (Epcot) is a simulated space mission ride that gave me motion sickness, but my kids love it. Shannon Entin, The TV Traveler

There are lots of thrilling rides at Disney World. Credit: Shannon Entin

Tips for Disney Cruises

Visiting Castaway Cay

Disney’s Castaway Cay may be a tiny island in the Caribbean, but it is packed with tons of kid friendly activities like waterslides, bike trails, parasailing, fishing, and wildlife encounters. Make the most of your visit by taking the complimentary tram to the right beach. Family Beach is closest to the ship and a great choice for wee ones. Families with teens may want to head to Sports Beach for beach volleyball and tetherball.

Your stateroom key is the most important accessory you’ll need on the island (in addition to sunscreen), as you can pay for souvenirs and any food or alcohol items with it. Plus you’ll need it to reboard the ship when the day is done. Colleen Lanin, TravelMamas

Family Beach on Castaway Cay (Credit: Matt Stroshane, Disney)

Disney Cruise Autograph Keepsake Tip

A secret tip that not many people know about is that on a Disney Cruise, you can get character autographs without waiting in line and create a unique keepsake. Here’s what you do: buy a frame that has a large white/blank space and bring colorful permanent markers. On the first or second day of your cruise, drop off the blank frame and markers at the Concierge Desk and ask them to please have the characters sign it. They will ask you for your stateroom, but there is no cost. They will tell you when to pick it up or call you when it’s ready. Once it is done, make sure you have nice photo of your cruise to place in the frame, and you have created a very cheap unique photo memory of your Disney Cruise with little effort. Margie DQ, DQ Family Travel

Get a memorable keepsake and save money too. Credit: Margie de Quesada

Disney Cruise Booking Tips

A Disney cruise is one of our family’s favorite holidays. We’ve had great success using a number of tried-and-true tips for planning amazing Disney Cruise vacations. Book your cruise and itinerary early, as soon as they’re announced. This is particularly true if you’re keen sailing on a special themed cruise, such as Star Wars or Marvel Days at Sea. Check in on-line prior to departure, as soon as your tickets and membership allows. Book your dining, cabanas on Castaway or shore excursions at this time to avoid disappointment.

Download the Disney Navigator App. This App will tell you everything that’s happening onboard your ship when you’re on it. And it has a FREE chat service so you can chat with your family and fellow cruisers onboard.  Amber Myers Mamiam, Global Munchkins

Thumbs up for an awesome Disney cruise. Credit: Amber Mamiam

Cruising with Teenagers

Family and adjoining suites book up quickly on cruise ships. If you have responsible older teens, book a separate stateroom for them that’s next to or across from your own stateroom. That way the teens can come and go at their leisure on travel days, while you can enjoy undisturbed sleep and adult time on your own. You’ll still see each other every day, but you won’t be living on top of each other every night. Claudia Laroye, The Travelling Mom 

Cruising into Castaway Cay. Credit: Shutterstock

Tips for Visiting Disney with Disabilities

Disney DAS Pass for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

A visit to Disney Parks can involve a great deal of waiting, something that a child with autism will find difficult. Disney’s Disability Access Service (DAS) Pass is available at any Disney Park. It can be picked up at guest relations on the first day of your visit, and is good for 60 days. You do not have to tell them your child’s diagnosis or provide a doctor’s letter, you only need to tell them why you feel your child will need this.

The Disney DAS Pass should work anywhere there is a Fastpass+ entry point. If there is a wait time for a ride, approach a cast member to scan the DAS pass, as well as your party’s pass/Magic Bands and return to enter at the appointed time, with no wait required. Keryn Means, Walkingon Travels

Credit: Keryn Means

Packing Guide for Dyslexic Kids

While planning for a Disney vacation can be almost overwhelmingly exciting, the packing process may be daunting for kids with dyslexia. Work with your child and have them draw up their own packing list that includes their clothing items, special stuffies and toiletries. It will help empower your child to be organized, and give them a boost of self-confidence in preparing for an exciting journey. Claudia Laroye, The Travelling Mom

Beware the armed and dangerous Laroye pirates. Credit: Claudia Laroye

Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock

Have you been to to Disney Parks or on a Disney Cruise? Share your tips in the comments below!
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15 Comments

  • Carol Colborn says:

    What a comprehensive guide. I learned about more affordable Disney items at Disney Character Warehouse, that Boathouse is the best place for Disney food, and that there is such a thing as Castaway Island in the Carribean.

  • Jenn and Ed Coleman says:

    We live close enough to hear the Disney World Fireworks at night so we’ve been a time or two. Although, it’s about 5x farther to Disney World for us than Universal, so that’s like an extra 6 miles. I have to say Disney Springs is surprisingly fun. So many food options and the nights really get hopping.

  • Fairuz says:

    Disneyland is one of those places that everybody needs to visit at least once in their life. It’s where everybody, children or otherwise, can really enjoy themselves. It totally makes sense that you’re keeping the family tradition of visiting Disneyland alive, since you went there at the age of five back in 1973. I like the sound of the rides at Disney World, in particular the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Magic Kingdom). From the rickety railroad to sharp turns, fast hills, and dark tunnels – these will make my heart race for sure!

  • Astrid Vinje says:

    This is quite an extensive Disney guide! We usually just visit a Disney park for a day. I feel like it’s so expensive! But at the same time, there really is something fun and magical about a Disney park.

  • Margie DQ says:

    Very detailed Disney trip planner. Some of these tips are new to me!

  • Colleen Lanin says:

    What an epic list of Disney tips! Thank you for including a tip from moi!

  • Linda (LD Holland) says:

    It has been many years since my last Disney visit. I understand your concerns about visiting as an adult. But was great to read that your heart grew three sizes during the visit. I know that planning seems anti-Disney, but agree that is the way to get the most out of a visit. And it sounds like I need to plan a visit around the Adventure Food and Wine Festival. If I were going for just one day I would definitely want a VIP pass.

  • Christina says:

    Disneyland is one of those places that has stood the test of time. It’s great how Disney has continued to capture the imaginations of the young-at-heart throughout the generations. You’ve posted some really useful tips!

  • Nisha says:

    Yes, we have been to Disneyland … in Paris and Hong Kong. Both the times the experience was different since it was a gap of almost 15 years! But I like the whole concept of it… The rides for every age and every taste… The slow ones, the thrill ones. It’s great that they care for differently abled children too. And your guide tells us everything that one should know about visiting Disneyland.

  • Christina says:

    What a thorough post! So glad I came across this article as I am currently planning our first family trip to Disney World. And I completely agree with you when you say you have to be organized!

  • Vaisakhi Mishra says:

    It is so weird that I have been in USA for three years now and never even felt like visiting a Disneyland before reading this post of yours. Would love to take a cruise to castaway cay. You covered literally every aspect of Disneyland visit! Such a thorough post!!!

  • Medha Verma says:

    Oh I can imagine how gorgeous Disney would be at Christmas. I have a love-hate relationship with Disney Parks (I do not have children but I feel like a child when I am at Disney!). I had a fantastic experience when I visited the Disney Parks in California probably because I went in the month of November, which was NOT one of the busy months to go. You’re right about knowing how to use your Fast Passes correctly and properly, that can really save you some time and get you to your favourite rides, covering as much as possible in a day. I was so glad that the crowds were low, I managed to do both parks in 1 day! My experience in Florida, however, was not half as good. Maybe because I went during July – August which is also summer holiday time for children!!

  • Jitaditya says:

    That’s a really comprehensive guide!
    I agree with your first line… Even I will be wary of visiting it as an adult, but I think there is always something to enjoy, if you know how to find them.

  • Diana says:

    Love the tips that touch on all combinations of families. PS especially loved the vintage photo!

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