Sunday, February 16, 2014

Tips for Disney with a (Almost) Toddler

In November we took then Baby O to Disney World. (In my mind the transition to official Toddler didn't happen until his second birthday last month so since he was only 22 months old for our Disney trip, he was still a baby!) A lot of folks thought maybe we were taking him too soon but we went anyway because:

1) It was a fun opportunity to get the whole family together. And by whole family I mean me, Husband, Baby O, Mimi and Poppi (the in-laws), Lolli and Pops (my parents), Great Grandma, Aunt Suzanne and Uncle Brad (my sister and her hubby). The ratio of adults to child for our Disney trip was, at times, 9:1. Pretty awesome!

2) I really like Disney World and wanted to go back. You may recall that the Princess in my blog title is from my running the inaugural Disney Princess Half Marathon back in 2009. I hadn't been since then and thought it would be fun to take Baby O.

Husband was initially in the "he's too young" camp. He wanted to wait until Baby O was old enough to remember the trip, but honestly I'd previously been to Disney World three times and the only time I had actual memories of was the time when I was 27! I have vague memories of being there as a 5 and 9 year old but nothing specific or concrete. So if we were waiting for Baby O to retain actual memories, it was going to be a long time!

Finally, Lolli said that she'd go with us whether Husband came or not. Because he didn't want to be a party pooper, Husband agreed and we started planning.

Disney World with a (almost) toddler is not a trip you can plan on a short time table. The fact is that you need to do research before you go: where to stay, where to eat, and even what rides to go on. Because Baby O has such a defined schedule, it was really important that we not ever be stranded an hour away from the hotel at naptime. Or if he wanted to eat, we needed to have a list of acceptable restaurant options all around the park so food was never more than five minutes away!

Luckily both my mom and I like planning vacations so we each got to work, came together to compare our decisions, and made a final list.

Our first decision was when to go. Summer was out: it is ridiculously hot in Florida during the summer and Disney World is crowded because of school vacations. Same goes for weeks in February, April and October when schools are on break. Holidays are super popular too: Halloween, Thanksgiving and, of course, Christmas and New Years. There are a few formerly slow weeks that Disney now hosts various running events so we avoided those as well.
In the end we settled on the week of November 14-21. In 2013, this was a Thursday-Thursday and our trip ended one week before Thanksgiving. This week turned out to be perfect because the weather was pleasant (we were able to wear shorts and enjoy the pool, but it was never unbearably hot), the lines were short (we joked that the longest line we stood in was when my sister wanted Starbucks one evening!), and, best of all, some of the Christmas decorations were up! By visiting during this particular week, we managed to get the whole Disney Christmas experience with crowds significantly smaller than would be there for the next six weeks! Perfection! 
Our next big decision: where to stay. Our options were a bit limited in this department because we needed a suite for our group. Lolli, Pops and Great Grandma were staying with me, Husband and Baby O so we could tag team nighttime babysitting. Surprisingly, Disney doesn't have a lot of rooms available for groups this large, but the suites that were available were cheaper than asking for adjacent double rooms. Ultimately we zeroed in on the Art of Animation Resort.
Let me back-up a bit and explain why we wanted to stay at a Disney resort. There were a few reasons actually. First, staying at a resort means that you can take advantage of "Extra Magic" hours. Each day one of the four main Disney parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom) opens early or stays open late in the evenings. While the evening options turned out to be nice, we were really interested in the early morning options. Baby O is habitually a painfully early riser in the morning. Rather than hanging out for hours in the hotel waiting for the park to open at 9am, we were able to be up and out for a 8am park arrival. That extra hour was key, especially when naptime can strike anywhere from 11am-noon!
Second, we considered renting cars for transportation, but ultimately utilizing Disney transportation made more sense. My parents drove to Florida and we had a car seat for Baby O, but we knew that there was a possibility that we would not all be arriving/leaving the parks at the same time. By staying on the Disney property, we had constant access to buses that could take us to the parks (or to the other resorts) whenever we wanted. This way, Husband could take Baby O to the hotel in the car and put him to bed then when the rest of the crew was ready to leave the park, we'd hop on the bus and be back in less than 15 minutes.

Photo credit
Third, staying at a resort is part of the Disney experience in my mind. One thing I do remember from
a childhood trip to Disney is the Caribbean Beach Resort and it's awesome pools. There is just something that makes the experience all the more magical when it follows you back to the hotel! That said, our room was a really great theme: Finding Nemo (other options at Art of Animation are The Little Mermaid (no suite option), the Lion King, and Cars). I've actually never seen the Lion King (*gasp*) and wasn't particularly moved by Cars so Finding Nemo was a perfect choice. Even more so because after we made the reservations, a girlfriend let me borrow her son's Nemo costume so Baby O was able to dress as Nemo for Halloween! We also got him the Finding Nemo blu ray so he could watch the movie ahead of time and get familiar with the characters!

Our room was small (one bedroom, a pull out couch and a Murphy bed that folded into the wall and became a table), but there was two bathrooms and honestly the point of the vacation wasn't to hang out in the room so it was perfect for us. Baby O was thrilled with the Nemo theme, which carried over into the awesome pool and splash pad that was right outside our door! The resort dining hall (Landscape of Flavors) and the gift shop were close too (if you stay at the Lion King or Little Mermaid themed rooms, both are a serious hike!)

From Top Left: (1) Signage outside the property, (2) Enormous Finding Nemo themed splash pad next to the main pool at the resort, and (3) Mickey fun on the Murphy bed (which revealed this sweet picture of Nemo and Marlin cuddling! Awwww!
As much as we liked the Art of Animation Resort, it was not without some issues. One of the reasons it's classified as a "value resort" is it's distance from the Disney parks. Granted, it's not that far away, but we did spend a decent chunk of our day traveling (particularly since we were coming back for nap each day). Husband and Brother-in-Law both decided that next time around, they wouldn't mind paying a bit more and potentially staying a few less days in order to cut down on our travel. I'm not sure I'm in 100% agreement because the only way to significantly reduce our travel time is to stay on the monorail line and those resorts are super pricey! They also really only save you time when traveling to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot since those are the only two parks on the monorail line.
We tried traveling both ways to the parks (via car and via Disney buses) and we got burned both ways at least once. Husband and I waited nearly 30 minutes with a super exhausted Baby O before an Art of Animation bus arrived at Animal Kingdom and then once it finally did come, it stopped at Blizzard Beach before heading to our hotel! What would have been a 10 minute drive turned into an hour-plus voyage. Arg!
For the Magic Kingdom, however, buses are the way to go as they bring you right up to the park entrance. The parking lot is on the other side of the water, meaning once you park you still have to either take the ferry or the monorail to the main entrance. The monorails come pretty regularly but weren't running the first morning we were there so we ended up on the ferry. Luckily we were the last group that got on the boat before it left, but poor Aunt Suzanne, who arrived five minutes later, had to wait 30 minutes for the ferry to turn back around! Add to that traveling time the fact that you might have to take a tram to the monorail station from the parking lot and you are looking at a pretty long journey (particularly if you have to fold and unfold a stroller four times!) My parents, who took the bus on the other hand, waltzed up to the front gate within 10-15 minutes of leaving the hotel!
So basically my advice would be take the bus to the Magic Kingdom and, if you have the option, drive to the other four parks.
I think that's enough for today's tips. I have a ton of tips and advice specific to each park that I'll post separately. I hope this is helpful to someone. There are so many choices when it comes to a Disney vacation and I so appreciated reading lots of different reviews and experiences that I wanted to put our vacation experience out there! I also want to make sure to document it somewhere so next time we go back I'm not having to reinvent the wheel!
Stay tuned for my tips on each of the four Disney parks - Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios - with a (almost) toddler!


  1. Thank you for sharing this! we are taking Andrew to Disney in May (we discovered he gets in free, etc) and I need all of the tips & tricks I can get! Glad to see you blogging again!!!! :)

    1. Yes! I was definitely going to mention in my food post (upcoming) but it's worth mentioning here too: kiddos under 3 are free at Disney so no park tickets!