Bringing kids to Disney World? How to make the most of your Orlando trip

Tips for where to eat, what to do and how to manage your time at Disney’s theme parks and beyond.
The Disney Skyliner, which began carrying guests high above Walt Disney World in 2019, glides through the air, transporting guests between Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot and resort hotels.
The Disney Skyliner, which began carrying guests high above Walt Disney World in 2019, glides through the air, transporting guests between Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot and resort hotels. [ KENT PHILLIPS | Kent Phillips, Photographer  ]
Published April 26|Updated April 26

Theme park prices are high, and they show no sign of coming down anytime soon. If you’re spending money on a trip to the largest attraction in the state, Walt Disney World, how do get the most for your buck? As an Orlando native who just recently started bringing her twin toddlers to the parks, I have lots of thoughts on how to execute an efficient, worthwhile Disney trip.

First tip: It’s important to create the trip you will enjoy. You can head over to the Disney area for a staycation, not step one foot in the parks, and have a fun (and pretty affordable) time. You can also buy annual theme park passes, which just recently went on sale again, and take advantage of the many, many things they have to offer. I’ll offer ideas for both.

Bringing a child under 3? There are several things to know, and several ways to save money, before you go. Here are some tips for making the most of a Disney trip with kids.

Brave the crowds

Bringing children to the Disney parks is a magical experience. It can also be a nightmarish one if you’re unprepared. Set yourself up for success by doing some planning ahead of time: Identify priority attractions for your family, make sure you bring plenty of water and sunscreen, and always don your most comfortable shoes/pants/hat/stroller. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

When you go is crucial: The most affordable way to visit a park if you plan on going multiple times per year is to buy an annual pass. Kids under 3 do not require a ticket, so annual passes can be a particularly good deal if your kids are in the sweet spot of being old enough to enjoy Disney but young enough to not need a ticket. If you’re just going for a day and have some flexibility, look at the ticket calendar and figure out when tickets are the most affordable. This usually aligns with when the parks are less in demand, which means less crowds. Prices (and crowd sizes) can vary wildly depending on the time of year you go: We’ve found that between January and May, with the exception of Easter and spring break weeks, crowds are the most manageable.

Plan your food: One of the quickest ways to waste money is to forget the essentials for a long day at Disney. The parks allow outside food and drink, so be sure to load up a backpack with snacks, especially if you have little ones in tow. Everyone will want more food than you think. With the pressure off, you can choose wisely when it comes to where to eat in the park. Ordering from a quick-service restaurant? Check the Disney World app to see if there’s an option to order food ahead of time — it’s an easy way to have the food waiting for you when you arrive. For sit-down restaurants, reservations ahead of time are encouraged, but there are often day-of reservations available on the app at even the busiest spots.

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Explore all your options

Look beyond rides: If you’re really adamant about riding a particular ride, consider paying for the Genie+ service or individual Lighting Lane passes. But if you’re flexible, hit up the ride you most want to ride first, then spend your time elsewhere. (Epcot’s “Finding Nemo” ride is always a hit with our toddlers, and the line is usually a breeze.) Depending on the park, there are things to do for kids that don’t involve waiting in a 90-minute queue. At Epcot, look for the Kidcot Fun Stops offered at countries around World Showcase, where kids can collect activity cards and learn facts about each country. And right now during the park’s Flower and Garden Festival, the Butterfly Landing and the Family-Friendly Garden are two low-key walk-through attractions perfect for little ones. Over at Animal Kingdom, Pandora — The World of Avatar provides a fun playground for smaller kids to marvel at. Our favorite activities are the interactive drums built into rock formations and the Wilderness Explorers stations, where kids can earn badges while learning about the plant life and animals of Pandora.

Skip the parks

One of the best parts of not going to a theme park is that you actually have time to explore the vast networks of restaurants, hotels and outdoor spaces on Walt Disney World property. Depending on the time of year and the availability of Florida resident discounts, a handful of Disney hotels can be found for $200 per night or less. Book a night at one of these and enjoy the amenities: large swimming pools, themed food halls, outdoor walking paths. Some hotels even have playgrounds. And all of them are just a Disney bus ride away from Disney Springs, the large entertainment complex with restaurants, shops and a movie theater. In January, Disney launched the Disney Springs Kids Club, a free kids event happening every Saturday at 10:30 a.m., 11:15 a.m. and noon. Look for an interactive dance party, a Wassalou Drum Circle that lets kids play musical instruments and a DJ leading hula-hoop, limbo and more.

Take the Skyliner: On a recent trip to Disney, my 2-year-old son’s favorite ride by far was the Disney Skyliner, and it was easy to see why. The transportation system that opened in 2019 connects Epcot, Hollywood Studios and four hotels: the Art of Animation, Pop Century, Caribbean Beach and Riviera resorts. It’s a great way to access the parks if you’re staying at one of these hotels, but it’s also a fun time on its own. You don’t need to be going to a park to enjoy the free, scenic, breezy ride. If you get off at the Epcot stop, you can access even more hotels — the BoardWalk Inn, Yacht and Beach Club Resorts, and Swan and Dolphin Resorts — which brings us to the next tip.

Hotel hop: You don’t need to be staying at a particular hotel to enjoy its lobby or restaurants. Back behind Epcot, stroll along the BoardWalk and you’ll find shops and bars in addition to several hotel restaurants. Never splurged on one of the hotels surrounding Magic Kingdom? Make a reservation at one of their restaurants instead, and spend half a day walking around the properties, all of which have great views. (Soak in Hawaiian vibes at the Polynesian Resort’s casual breakfast spot Kona Cafe, or splurge on dinner at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa’s Grand Floridian Cafe.) You can even take a free boat ride across the Seven Seas Lagoon to get from one hotel to the other. Time a dinner reservation just right, and you can walk out of the hotel in time for the nightly Magic Kingdom fireworks display or the Electrical Water Pageant, both visible across the lagoon.

Character dining: Our toddlers were looking forward to seeing Mickey Mouse on a holiday trip to Disney this past December, but with no park tickets, we did the next best thing: character meals at various hotels. Breakfast at Ohana at the Polynesian Resort offers a prix fixe menu of breakfast items served family-style ($45 per adult and yes, it’s all-you-can-eat, just ask for more!) and characters who visit the tables: Lilo, Stitch, Pluto and, most importantly, Mickey. Over at the woodsy Wilderness Lodge, Story Book Dining at Artist Point offers a prix fixe dinner ($65 per adult) in a forest-themed restaurant that brings out the characters from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Both meals are a flat rate per person, but kids under 3 eat free, so for families with toddlers, it can be a more affordable way to experience Disney, load up on food and still see characters.