8 expert tips for navigating Walt Disney World with preschoolers

Keep these eight tips in mind while planning your next trip to the Most Magical Place on Earth with kids five years old and younger.
Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom as the sun rises.
(Photo: Matt Stroshane)
  • Traveling to Disney World with young kids can seem daunting but it doesn’t have to be. 
  • Each park has designated baby care centers where kids and adults can cool off and get a break from the crowds.
  • Consider where you want to stay and what resort amenities will help your vacation go smoothly.

Imagine you’ve just walked into the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Your whole family is excited about the day. You’ve made the perfect stack of Lightning Lanes with Disney Genie+, secured the best dining reservation in the park for lunch, and already planned where to watch the nighttime spectacular, Happily Ever After. 

But then about halfway through the day, the inevitable happens and your preschooler starts having a meltdown right there on Main Street U.S.A. What do you do now? Do you pack up and head back to the hotel? Do you try to distract them with a balloon or Mickey-shaped treat? Or do you also start to melt down inside because it’s hotter than a fresh turkey leg out of the oven outside and you need a break as much as your kids?

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We’ve all either been in that situation or heard about it from friends who have visited Walt Disney World. But the truth is that navigating Disney World with preschool-aged kids doesn’t have to end with disgruntled parents and worn-out cranky kids. 

FamilyVacationist got the inside scoop from two experts, Jennifer S. and Lauren M., who are part of the PlanDisney Panel, Disney’s official resource for tips and tricks from real guests who are masters at planning all types of Disney vacations. Here are eight tips for navigating Walt Disney World with preschoolers.

1. Use the baby care centers to your advantage

All four Disney World theme parks have baby care centers where families can find everything from cool sitting areas where kids and adults can cool off and get a break from the crowds to a kitchen complete with a sink, microwaves, cups, and bottle warmers. Each baby care center has essentials, including diapers, wipes, formula, and more for purchase. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a baby, toddler or if you just have a kid who is a little overwhelmed or a little hot or just kind of needs a second [the baby care centers are] a perfect place to go,” says Jennifer. 

Another great tip from Jennifer is that the baby care centers are the only place in the parks where you can find medications that are specifically formulated for little kids. 

“While you could get adult Tylenol or Advil at any merchandise location or first aid, you can go into the baby care center and get infants or children’s Tylenol or Advil,” she says. 

2. Find restaurants with menus that appeal to kids and adults

One of the best parts about a Disney World vacation is the food. And while kids may be fine eating chicken tenders and burgers every day of their vacation, adults will get tired of dining at spots that only cater to kids for every meal. One hidden gem that kids and adults will enjoy is Sebastian’s Bistro at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort. 

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Jennifer and her family are big ‘Ohana fans, but that reservation is one of the hardest to get at Walt Disney World. So she tried a similar experience at Sebastian’s Bistro and loved it. “It was a beautiful all-you-care-to-eat experience [with] family-style dining. If you have little ones, the servers are happy to bring a plate of chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, and French fries, but at the same time, they are bringing out bread with guava butter and [cooked-to-order] chimichurri steak,” she explains.

Princess Tiana meeting a family at 1900 Park Fare.
Guests can meet Princess Tiana dressed for adventure when the iconic 1900 Park Fare restaurant at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa reopens on Apr. 10, 2024, at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The buffet-style restaurant reveals a refreshed look, delectable dishes and beloved characters who celebrate the power of wishes.(Photo: Olga Thompson)

She also says Tusker House Restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park is a great option for character dining. The menu features a mix of American favorites and African-inspired fare. During your meal, you’ll see some Disney characters like Donald Duck, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse in their safari outfits. 

If you’re looking for a character dining option away from the theme parks, consider 1900 Park Fare, which features an all-you-care-to-eat buffet, plus character appearances from Tiana, Mirabel, Aladdin, and Cinderella.

3. There are more ways to see characters than just meet-and-greets

A highlight for many families is seeing some of the iconic Disney characters like Mickey Mouse or Cinderella. Before you wait in lines or book a character dining meal, think about how your child might react during these experiences. During traditional meet and greets, it’s easy to simply leave if your child decides they don’t want to see a character any longer, while character meals are a long process that don’t have an escape until the meal is over.

Ariel waves to guests during the “Disney Festival of Fantasy Parade” in Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The parade returned to the park Wednesday, March 9, 2022, after a nearly two-year absence. (Courtney Kiefer, photographer)
Ariel waves to guests during the “Disney Festival of Fantasy Parade” in Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort (Photo: Courtney Kiefer)

If your kids have never met characters before, think about this tip from Lauren. 

“I think what would be a good idea [is] to go to one of the parades or stage shows where [characters] are at a distance and you can view them, but you don’t have to interact with [the characters] one on one. Then if the child expresses an interest, there’s always those character meet and greet opportunities in the theme parks,” Lauren explains.

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Jennifer also says that showing kids pictures of their favorite characters ahead of time can help to manage expectations. It is always a good idea to tell kids they can hug or choose not to hug their favorite characters. Instead of hugging, consider giving kids an autograph book for characters to sign, or think about topics your child may enjoy talking to the character about. For example, if your child loves Frozen and wants to see Elsa, you could suggest that they ask Elsa what her favorite chocolate treats are. It’s a well-known secret that the Frozen sisters love chocolate.

4. Book accommodations that have the right amenities for your family

Reimagined Guest Rooms at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort
Reimagined guest rooms inside Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World Resort (Photo: Kent Phillips)

There are more than two dozen Disney resort hotels across Walt Disney World so picking the right one for your family can be daunting. If you’re traveling with a larger or multi-generational family, the family suites at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort have space for six people. Each suite is themed after a Pixar or Disney movie. 

Lauren says her son gets most excited about the hotels with cool water slides, themed pool areas, and watercraft transportation. “We tend to spend a lot of time at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, because we can take the boat from there to Magic Kingdom, and we can see the electrical water pageant from there. And there’s a water slide so that one checks a lot of our boxes,” she explains. 

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Additionally, multigenerational families may want to book a room at one of the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) villas. These massive rooms can be configured as one-, two-, or three-bedroom suites, with a full kitchen and a washer and dryer. “We love being able to get back to our hotel room, do a little laundry, freshen up, and that way I’m not having to over pack,” says Jennifer, who loves Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas – Kidani Village

If you are considering booking one of the villas you should know that you don’t have to be a Disney Vacation Club member to book. You can find these rooms on the Walt Disney World hotel list and scroll down to villas. You can also save money on villas by booking with a DVC rental company like David’s Vacation Club Rentals or DVC Shop

I personally love Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort since it’s right on the monorail line to Magic Kingdom. I also love the Moana-themed guest rooms and the ability to watch the fireworks from the resort’s beach at the end of the day.

5. Build in downtime during the middle of the day

“What has worked for my family has been to build in downtime during the day so that nobody’s getting overstimulated, overtired, or over-hungry,” says Lauren. Going back to your hotel, whether it’s at Disney or not, is a great way to take a break, reset, relax, and cool off before going back to the parks in the late afternoon or evening. 

This is also one of my favorite tips to share with people who are going to Disney World, whether they are traveling with kids or not. Getting a break not only allows you to get a break from the heat of the day (hello 100-degree days in the summer) but also allows your family to get out of the crowds for a while. My theory is that you can deal with the heat or the crowds, but not both for the entire day. 

“I do not advocate for trying out a new routine. When you stay nearby [at a Disney World hotel] you can just hop on the bus, monorail, boat, or the Skyliner and head back to your resort and take a little break. If your little one is used to taking a nap in the afternoon, I would say that that’s probably not the time to try not taking a nap. You really have to figure out what rhythm works for your family,” Lauren tells FamilyVacationist. 

6. Let your kids help you plan your trip

“The exciting part about a first-time Disney vacation is the lead-up and building the excitement and engagement with your kids,” says Lauren. She brings her son into the planning by showing him a few options of where their family can stay and letting him see photos of the hotels and the themes. This is an easy way to get kids involved without overwhelming them with all the different hotel options at Walt Disney World

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She also says that getting kids involved with making dining reservations and showing them menus and the themes of different restaurants helps build the pre-trip excitement. 

7. Make a list of everyone’s must-dos 

Entrance to TRON Lightcycle/Run at Walt Disney World (Photo: Disney)
Entrance to TRON Lightcycle/Run at Walt Disney World (Photo: Disney)

It’s virtually impossible to do everything at Walt Disney World in one trip. That’s why Jennifer suggests making a two-tiered list that includes everyone’s must-dos and things they would love to do but it’s okay if it’s missed. 

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“We like to interview everyone in our family and say, ‘All right Mary, which princess are you really wanting to meet this time?’ And if she says she wants to meet someone that we could potentially meet at a character dining experience then we can kill two birds with one stone.”

Jennifer also explains that this is a great way for parents not to be caught off guard at the end of the trip when kids say they wanted to do a certain thing that the family never got to do. 

8. Don’t force your kids to go on rides, instead utilize rider switch

One way to test the waters to see if your child may be interested in riding a new-to-them attraction is to watch a preview online before leaving for Walt Disney World or in your hotel room the night before you visit the park with said attraction. If you get to the attraction and your child is still apprehensive, try using rider switch

According to Disney, “If a child does not meet the height requirement or a Guest does not wish to board a particular attraction, no problem! With Rider Switch, one adult can wait with the non-rider (or riders) while the rest of the party enjoys the attraction. When the other adult returns, they can supervise the non-riding Guests, and the waiting adult can board the attraction without having to wait in the regular line again.”

Just note that only some attractions use this service, so you will need to check with a cast member about rider switch at each attraction in question. 

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Megan duBois
Megan duBois is the Senior Theme Park Editor for FamilyVacationist. She's also a freelance journalist who covers theme parks, cruising, family travel, and wine tourism for outlets like Conde Nast Traveler, Business Insider, Forbes, Travel + Leisure, The Points Guy, and National Geographic. You can reach her via email at megand513 [at] gmail [dot] com.