I’m a Disney adult. Here’s how I made my toddler’s first trip special

Taking a toddler to Disney? Here are seven expert tips for making it great.
Family walking through Fantasyland near Cinderella's Castle in Magic Kingdom (Photo: Disney)
Family walking through Fantasyland near Cinderella's Castle in Magic Kingdom (Photo: Disney)

It’s supposed to be the “happiest place on earth,” but if you ask any parent—or look around at the beleaguered faces of adults standing over a meltdown-in-progress minutes before the big parade—then you know Disney World can sometimes feel like the most stressful place on earth. Long wait times, eye-popping food prices, and a tangled web of logistics makes going to Disney feel like work if you’ve got a little one. Is it worth going if they won’t even remember it?

In short: Yes. I’ve been going to Disney World in Orlando for 30 years and recently took my 18-month-old for the first time. I went in expecting overstimulation, picky eating, and daily meltdowns. Instead, I was surprised with one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.

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Bringing this magical world to life for my kid ranks among my top moments as a mother. My toddler probably won’t remember his first Disney ride, but I will. (We rope-dropped The Seas with Nemo and Friends at EPCOT multiple times, singing at the top of our lungs.) There’s nothing better than an awestruck toddler shouting, “Wow!” everywhere you go. Here are my tips for having the best time at Disney with a baby or toddler in tow.

Walt Disney World Resort Celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park (Photo: David Roark)

1. Work around your routine

The number one mistake I see families make at Disney World is trying to do all the things. Disney World is 47 square miles (about the size of San Francisco!), so even if you plan to go for five days or more, you’ll have to pick and choose just like any other major destination. 

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Trust me, you will have so much more fun if you stick to your baby or toddler’s routine. That means if they’re usually up at 6:00 a.m., get up and go before the day gets too hot and come back to your resort for nap time. The Disney parks open early (as early as 7:00 a.m. for Animal Kingdom, depending on the season) and guests staying on property can typically enter the parks an hour early. With the Park Hopper option, you can always come back to the parks later on in the evening if you wish…

…but you may not want to. Sticking with a toddler bedtime may mean that you miss the fireworks shows and other nighttime activities. That’s okay! Our little one, like most young toddlers, doesn’t love loud noises, so we skipped nighttime activities in favor of extra pool time and post-bedtime relaxing on our hotel balcony. And It made made for a great trip.

2. Ride Strategically

Another mistake I see all the time: Parents of young toddlers braving wait times of 60 minutes or more just because a ride is a “must-do.” Instead, I recommend making a list of three rides per park that you think your little one will love. For us, that meant rides like the People Mover in Magic Kingdom or Toy Story Mania! in Hollywood Studios. And remember, just because there’s no height requirement doesn’t mean it’s good for your little one (looking at you, Haunted Mansion). 

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My family also agreed on one adult ride must-do for each park that we’d either Rider Switch or go Single Rider, like Tron Lightcycle/Run in Magic Kingdom (and it delivered—definitely one of Disney’s best coasters right now). This is where Genie+ or a Lightning Lane can be a worthwhile purchase. Your little ones may be at the age where they just can’t stand to wait—so don’t. 

Toy Story Land in Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Photo: Steven Diaz)
Toy Story Land in Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Photo: Steven Diaz)

3.   Get the wiggles out with Disney World’s ‘secret’ play spaces

Everyone talks about going to Disney World for the rides, but your little ones may be more interested in one of the many “secret” play spaces across the Disney parks. I say “secret” because they’re in plain sight, but many visitors are so busy rushing from ride to ride that they don’t notice them.

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Some spots are tucked away as part of ride experiences, like the playground queue for Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Instead of waiting in a traditional line, you can play until it’s your turn to ride—a huge plus for a mom of a wiggly kid like mine. We also loved the new Moana: A Journey of Water experience at EPCOT, which is basically a walk-through splash pad. We built in time each day to hang out at play areas like Casey Jr. Splash n’ Soak station at Magic Kingdom and the play zone across from Test Track in EPCOT.

4.   Use mealtimes to meet characters

You can wait in a long line to meet your toddler’s obsession-of-the-moment, or you can sit down for a nice meal in air conditioning and have characters come to you. I can’t remember the last time my family actually waited for a character meet-and-greet even when I could still fit into a sparkly Belle costume. Instead, we typically book one or two character meals during our trip.

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My all-time favorite is brunch at the Crystal Palace with Winnie the Pooh and all of his friends. The buffet is so expansive that there’s something for everyone. My toddler giggled the entire meal and still talks about meeting “Da Pooh.” (And they say don’t meet your heroes.)

For the princess-obsessed, you’ve got two in-park dining options: Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in EPCOT or Cinderella’s Royal Table in Magic Kingdom. If Mickey and pals are more your jam, you can meet them at Tusker House in Animal Kingdom. These may be some of the priciest dining options at Disney, but they’re well worth creating a magical moment without a meltdown. 

Wilderness Explorers Opens at Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Wilderness Explorers at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Photo: Kent Phillips)

5.   Take a break at the baby care centers

Florida weather alternates between extreme heat and torrential downpours. If the weather feels like too much for your baby or toddler, peel off and take a break at one of Baby Care Centers at the parks, typically located right near the front entrance. There you can find a quiet spot to breastfeed, have a quick snack, or just get out of the heat. 

Disney allows guests to bring any food they’d like from home except for alcohol, so if you don’t want to fight crowds for a spot on a park bench or at a quick-service restaurant, the Baby Care Center can be a good spot to have that moment of quiet while you eat. These locations are also stocked with diapers, formula, bottles, and other baby gear you may have forgotten.

6. Choose your stroller wisely

I got laughed at while testing out strollers on walks with my mom friends, but there really should be a category for “rope-dropping with a stroller” in the Olympics. At Disney, you need to weave through a crowd of strollers all going to the same place while keeping the family together—and the stroller also has to be able to handle the “naptime” walkabout later in the day. 

Even if your toddler is in Pre-K, don’t skip the stroller. On a typical day, you’ll blow through 10,000 steps by mid-morning, even with a slower, kid-friendly pace through the parks. You’ll also have dining and Lightning Lane reservations to get to that may be on the other side of the park at any given time, so you’ll be doing a lot of walking.

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While Disney does offer stroller rentals, I knew I wanted a stroller my toddler would be comfortable sleeping in. I ended up choosing the Babyzen Yoyo2 because I was too nervous to check a stroller and it fits in an overhead compartment (it maneuvered like a dream), but I saw plenty of families rocking the UPPAbaby G-luxe and Nuna TRVL on our trip.

Father and son at Disney's Hollywood Studios (Photo: Steven Diaz)
Father and son at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Photo: Steven Diaz)

7. Above all, embrace the magic

The best way to have fun at Disney is to remember what it’s like to be a little kid. That’s exactly why I love going to Disney so much in the first place. Yes, it’s expensive. And crowded. And hot. But put that aside and embrace what makes Disney so special—jumping inside your favorite story and living in it for a moment.

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This is a place where carpets fly, where you can go on safari, where you can shrink to the size of a toy, and where you can travel around the world in an afternoon. Let your kids lead the way with what they’re excited about. It’s okay if that’s just watching the Miniature Train Village in EPCOT for a ridiculously long time or playing in the Swotu Waya Drum Circle at Animal Kingdom for an hour.

Do as Timon and Pumbaa counsel Simba in my all-time favorite Disney film, The Lion King: “Hakuna matata.” It means no worries! That’s where the magic of a great trip happens. 

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Kayla Voigt
Always in search of adventure, Kayla Voigt hails from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can usually find her at the summit of a mountain or digging into a big bowl of pasta.