I’m not going to pretend to be a Disney expert. There are thousands of blogs from people who are basically professional Disney vacationers. Although I’m not one of them, I AM somewhat of an expert vacation planner. And I’ll be hooking you up with the best resources I found while doing my own research planning our Disney World trip with a toddler.
If you want help planning your first trip to Disney World with a toddler in tow, you’re in the right spot. You might want to pin this post for later because we’re going over all the ins and outs of planning your trip. From when to go, the pros/cons of going with a toddler under three to budgeting and a Fast Pass overview, we’ve got you covered.
>>If you’re interested in general vacation planning, you should also check out Travel Prep 101: How to Plan a Vacation<<
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Should I go to Disney World with a toddler under 3?
This was probably one of our biggest questions. I went to Disney world at ages three and 14, and don’t really remember either trip very well. I know that at 14 apparently all I wanted to do was run around getting character autographs, and I have no recollection of being there at three. Since the hubby has never been, we didn’t have a great frame of reference on whether or not we should take a family vacation there.
So of course, I went to the internet. And found a LOT of opinions. Obviously, we ultimately decided to go – and here’s why.
Kids under three are free to enter the park, but once they’re three, it will cost you. We went about a month before our daughter turned three, saving ourselves $500+ depending on when you want to go. For us, it wasn’t worth delaying the trip a few months to get hit with that huge bill.
She loved it. It was our best family vacation so far and we had an amazing time. However, after being there, I’m not going to sugar coat it for you. It could go one way or another depending on your kid, their mood, and the day.
Things to know going in:
Lines are LONG. We went on green and yellow crowd calendar days and wait times are serious. We only waited 25 min max because we used our Fast Passes and weren’t committed to seeing specific rides without a pass. However, mid-day, some rides had wait times of over two hours. If you’re planning to stick a toddler in a two-hour line, good luck to you.
She also slept in the stroller. We went back for naps two days and she slept in the stroller three days. We got lucky, but if you’re on a nap schedule and your child won’t sleep in the stroller you’re probably setting yourself up for a rough evening.
Our daughter isn’t a “runner.” She knows to stay close by and willingly rides in the stroller. If she only wanted to be carried, refused to walk, or sprinted off every time we unstrapped her, this would have been a very different trip. You know your toddler. Crowds are real at Disney, so know what you’re getting into before you commit to going.
You’ll need to decide on your vacation/Disney criteria before making the choice
Here are the things to think about when deciding if Disney World is right for your family with a toddler under age three:
- Is this the only time you’ll go?
- How “easy” is your toddler in public or crowds?
- Is your kiddo afraid of characters?
- How flexible are you willing to be on your vacation?
How often you’ll go
If this is your one and only chance to go to Disney World and you’re taking a toddler, I’d wait. You’ll want them to remember the trip and chances are, they won’t if they’re in the under three set. Disney is an expensive vacation, so keep that in mind. If you’re going to do one big awesome vacation, hold off for a few more years.
However, don’t take this as my recommendation not to do anything or take the trip because your kiddo won’t remember. YOU will remember the joy on their face when they meet Mickey the first time, so know that this one is just as much for you as it is for them. Just weigh whether or not you’ll be back before booking your tickets.
How “easy” is your toddler in public or crowds?
I know. No toddler is “easy” but some are clearly better behaved than others. I would no sooner take a toddler who jets off the second I put her down to Disney than I’d go outside in freezing temperatures without a coat. Bad analogy, I know.
But seriously. Disney is CROWDED. If your toddler doesn’t do well in public or you can’t trust her not to run away every 25 seconds, you might want to wait.
Vacations are supposed to be fun, and my idea of fun is NOT losing my kid at a theme park.
Is your kiddo afraid of characters?
This may seem like a no-brainer, but if your kid is terrified of all dressed up characters, Disney might not be as magical as you’d expect. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try it – or you won’t get some funny photos, but you’ll miss the googly eyes and happy face of meeting Mickey for the first time.
To be 100% clear, my daughter hates dressed up characters, but she loves Disney characters. We had a big talk where I asked her whether or not she’d be scared or excited to meet a dressed up Mickey. She said she’d be happy – so of course, I took a two-year-old’s word for it and booked our tickets.
Of course, in reality, she was terrified during the “fun” character dinner I booked to cap off our trip. Side note – never eat at the Garden Grove restaurant at the Swan Hotel. We paid over $100 for two buffets (hers was free) and no alcohol. This wasn’t unexpected, except the food was atrocious. Like really awful. Since she was nearly hysterical every time Goofy, Pluto, or Chip and Dale came by, so we also spent the meal with her on our laps. Not awesome.
Luckily, she wasn’t afraid of Mickey and Minnie when we met them at a character spot, and absolutely adored meeting the princesses, so overall it was a win for getting over her fear of people in costume.
How flexible are you willing to be on vacation?
If you’re one of those people who live and die by the schedule, or your kiddo goes haywire if they’re an hour off, this might not be the trip for you right now. From what I read and saw, the people who had the most fun at Disney were going with the flow and allowing flexibility in the day. You will need to show up for your Fast Pass times, but other than that, if you feel like hanging out at a playground – do it!
If you won’t feel satisfied unless you spend 10 hours at the park every day – maybe skip for now.
When to go to Disney World
If you’re planning a trip with a toddler and no older children you’re in luck because you don’t have to worry about the school calendar. The best times to go to Disney World are when kids are in school because it’s less crowded.
Read: NOT Holiday weekends like Christmas/New Years, Thanksgiving week, President’s Day, or over the summer. Yes, you can absolutely go over a holiday break. Know that you and everyone else with kids in school will be there at the same time.
There are a ton of activities at Disney World like marathons, holiday celebrations, and other activities that you’ll want to plan around. The best way to plan the time of year to go to Disney world is to look at a crowd calendar. We found a great one for all Orlando parks from Undercover Tourist, but there are many different sources including Walt Disney World Prep School, etc. Check out a few to ensure they’re matching for your dates.
Ultimate Resource Guide – Undercover Tourist
I felt SO lucky when we looked into buying our tickets on undercover tourist and found all the awesome information on the site. We were buying our tickets online because I wanted to erase the purchase with points on our credit card and I knew we could do it if we bought through the site. Once I got there, I found SO MUCH MORE information.
The crowd calendar mentioned above was amazing. And more importantly, we were able to find sample travel schedules for one day or multiple days in each park. We planned which days to go to Disney and which to head to Orlando, and they automatically applied their $5 off coupon for booking both locations.
I highly recommend checking out the site before booking anywhere. Although we didn’t use Mousesavers.com as much, I did check it out after booking our big ticket items and wish I’d headed there first. It just so happened our hotel was on their list, but there was so much information and more planning guides, so I wish I’d done a little digging there before finalizing our plans!
What is a Fast Pass or FastPass+?
I had never heard the term fast pass until I started researching Disney vacations. A fast pass is a “reservation” linked to your Disney World ticket that allows you to skip the line and cut down on your wait times while in the park. You can reserve three per day per ticket in advance, and have the option to add a fourth at the kiosks in the park.
If you’re staying at a Disney resort, you can reserve up to 60 days in advance. If you’re off property, your Fast Pass window opens 30 days in advance, at 7 a.m. EST. These windows are no joke. We reserved 30 days in advance and weren’t able to get into the Frozen ride at Epcot until 4 p.m. When we went back to check a few days later, there weren’t fast passes available for that ride. If you want more information on our fast pass selections, and how we actually tackled the parks, check out our Disney 3-day itinerary with a toddler.
Can I get extra Fast Passes?
A great tip we found out about by reading other blogs, was that you aren’t truly limited to three fast passes per day you’ll see available with your ticket. You can also continue to get fast pass reservations once you’ve used your first three – once you’re already in the park. They just can’t be made in advance. The trick here is that the reservations still have to be available, so I strongly suggest using your Fast Passes on your “must do” rides, and booking them in advance.
We looked up all the rides that were popular with toddlers and tried to get our Fast Pass reservations for those rides in advance. Even 30 days out, we got some times that weren’t ideal for napping, but we made it work.
How much will this Disney vacation cost me?
This is one of the biggest questions most parents probably have when deciding whether or not to go to Disney World. I’m not going to lie and say this is a cheap trip. You can definitely do it cheaper or more extravagant, but don’t kid yourself into thinking you can easily go to Disney world for a week for $1,000. Isn’t going to happen. However, with a little (or a lot) of planning, you can get to Disney for way less than some of the advertised prices.
There are a few key categories you’ll need to budget for, so the cost of the trip will vary widely depending on a few of these buckets. Let’s dive right in:
- Trip Timing
- Flight Cost
- Park Tickets
First off – go during a lower season. Although there is no “off” season at Disney, the ticket prices change by week/month on undercover tourist, and they’re cheaper there than at the park gate. Going when the crowds are lowest actually coincides with when rates are cheaper, so it’s a win-win.
If you live in FL or somewhere in the South and can easily drive, this can cut way down on your trip cost. Southwest flies into Orlando, so you can likely get decent airfare prices if you’re willing to take some of the less popular flights. This will vary depending on where you live, but an estimate is that our tickets were $300/pp from Baltimore. And we weren’t taking the 10 p.m. flights – these were flights that fit into our schedule and nap time, so you can likely get even cheaper.
The hotels are probably the most variable (and expensive) portion of the trip depending on where you choose to stay. I could write a whole post — or multiple — about Disney hotels, but I’ll try to keep it high level here.
The most budget-friendly options are to stay in the Disney area but off property. You can use hotel points at many of these chains to help defray the costs. There are various chains that range from two-four stars and have typical costs associated with these types of hotels. We stayed at the Embassy Suites since it had the extra room, as well as a free breakfast.
Where you run into the real variability is with the on-property resorts. There are three tiers of Disney resorts: Value, Moderate, Deluxe, and Deluxe Villas. Here’s the full official list.
Prices vary accordingly, but WIDELY. For instance, we couldn’t find a value resort for less than $250/night when we wanted to go, and some of the Deluxe resorts were up to $1,000/night — hello Polynesian. We wanted to do a “test run” of Disney to get a lay of the land before we spent $5k+ on a hotel for the week. Oh wait, we ’ll probably never do that.
Park tickets are another huge expense, and there’s really no way to cheap out here. They’re going to be around $100/pp per day. We decided to do single park tickets instead of “park hoppers,” meaning we can only go to one park per day. We were fine with this since we didn’t know how long we’d be able to hang anyway, so we opted to save the $80 per ticket.
Park tickets actually get cheaper the longer you stay, so if a six-day park ticket won’t be six times as expensive as a one day ticket. We went with a three-day ticket the first time, and went to Universal Studios one day as well, with one day off. However, if we’d done a four or five day Disney only ticket, our prices would have been cheaper.
Transportation & Food
Transportation is another cost to factor in. How are you getting to the airport? Are you renting a car in Orlando or using public transportation? You’ll need to factor in parking at the airport, and airport transportation if you aren’t renting a car.
Finally, food in the parks is not cheap. You can now bring in your own food, but I’m sure you’re going to need snacks or something throughout the day. There are quick serve restaurants that are much more budget friendly than the sit-down restaurants, but you’ll need to plan out a food budget so you don’t overspend in this area.
To help manage all these expenses, I created a vacation budget planning printable. Grab your free copy by entering your email below and then heading to the resource library!
You can travel hack with credit card points to offset the cost
I’m not going to do a deep dive here on how to bring down the cost of Disney with travel hacking, but would encourage you to check out Richmond Saver’s post on how to go to Disney for free!
You can use credit card points at many of the off-property Disney hotels, as well as on your airline tickets. You can also “erase” park tickets with certain credit cards if you buy through undercover tourist. It’s a nuance, but that’s the only way to ensure they’re classified as a travel expense instead of entertainment. Feel free to email me if you want more info on this.
Good luck with planning your trip. Disney is magical. With a little work up front, you can have a great time with your family, without breaking the bank.