Christmas morning 2015 my husband surprised me with tickets to Disney World. After nearly two years with no vacation time together as a family, we were long overdue for some serious family fun! Never mind that my son was just barely 2 years old and we were total Disney rookies, I was thrilled! And for some added fun, let’s throw in the fact that we were planning on leaving in 2 weeks; talk about a whirlwind! Most people spend at least a year planning their Disney vacation; fast passes and meal plans have a scientific method to them that was way beyond my basic knowledge.
No worries, I had 2 weeks to plan our long awaited trip. So let’s start with the basics… what is important to you when planning a trip???
Staying on Schedule
So this one is a BIG one for almost all of us. How can we make the most of our money without going into debt for the next 3 years??? Let me start with travel:
Drive instead of fly
Hear me out… I know the idea of road tripping with rambunctious toddlers is enough to have you running for the hills, but it CAN be done! Seeing as how we planned our trip last-minute, driving was the only realistic option for us. (never mind that I hate flying) But driving can save you a TON of money! Plane tickets on average (depending on your location) can run at least $300 round trip. Multiply that by however many family members you have and don’t forget the $50/bag fee and you can see how that can quickly add up!
On the other hand, your main expense driving is gas. And while gas is not as cheap as it used to be, it is certainly a savings in comparison to flying. You may also need to factor in hotel stays depending on your distance. If you stay outside of major cities, you can usually find a clean, spacious room for around $100 a night.
All together, driving 1100 miles each way to Disney World, we spent about $500 driving versus nearly $1000 flying. Additionally, we had the added convenience of having our own car to drive around once we arrived.
Pack your own food
Another way to save big bucks on your budget is by packing your own food for travel. Personally, one of my least favorite aspects of vacation is being forced to eat out all day, every day. I come home feeling disgusting and my wallet is a bit lighter. (I know, I’m weird, most people love eating out!)
Pack a cooler with your favorite snacks, beverages and light meals and away you go! Plus, now you saved yourself a few more rest stops on the way down.
Once you arrive in Orlando, find a local grocery store and stock up. I LOVED this aspect of vacation. We stocked up on healthy breakfast options for the hotel, packed some snacks for the park and bought easy dinners to make once we got back to the hotel each day. This left us eating out for lunch, just one meal a day.
DO NOT stay at a Disney resort
Ok, I know some of your are going to disagree with me on this one, but DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT stay at a Disney Resort! I know the idea is appealing… Disney resorts are essentially a one-stop shop. Everything from sleeping to food to park tickets comes together in one tiny (but very expensive) package. I (briefly) looked into this in my initial planning, but almost immediately looked elsewhere.
If you look outside of Disney, the options are nearly endless! So I will make it easy for you: Sheraton Vistana Villages. This place is seriously amazing! Proximity to the parks is only a few miles, there are hundreds of rooms, 7 swimming pools, multiple restaurants on site, and even a small convenience store! Our ‘room’ was basically a condo; it had 2 bedrdooms, 2 bathrooms, a living room, kitchen, balcony and laundry. And the best part; we spent $130 a night! For that price in Disney you are looking at a tiny single bed room at an economy-level property.
Although it may seem as though you are sacrificing part of the essential Disney ‘experience,’ I promise you that we never felt like we were missing out on anything. And let’s be honest; those food packages that ‘come’ with your resort stay are over priced, and way too much food for the average person to eat in a day anyhow!
I don’t know about all of you, but life with a toddler is all about convenience! What’s the ‘easiest’ option? What has the least potential of inducing a meltdown? What requires the least amount of work for mom? Vacations, unfortunately, can be a stressful time for the head of the household. Let’s be real, gone are the days of ‘leisurely’ vacations. For me, vacations equate to work. So I am all about convenience! No shame in that, momma!
The key to any successful vacation is planning. I’m not talking about planning each day down to a science, hour by hour; that will only set you up for failure. I just mean basic planning. Where are you staying??? What will you eat??? Where will you be each day of your trip???
Essential planning for Disney World in particular includes:
- Buying your tickets in advance (typically at least 14 days in advance is recommended)
- Download the free app (great for reservations and Fast Passes!)
- Fast Passes (essential to avoid toddler meltdowns in the most popular ride lines)
- Dining reservations (almost all sit downs require a reservation if you actually want to get a seat)
- Hotel accommodations (you need somewhere to sleep, after all!)
Get a car
If you did not take my earlier advice to just drive yourself, I highly recommend planning to rent a car when you arrive in Orlando. Having your own car gives you the convenience of keeping your own schedule rather than being stuck with whatever public transportation has to offer.
If you have ever had the pleasure of vacationing with a toddler, then you know that ‘plans’ can definitely change in a matter of seconds, depending on which version of your toddler shows up for the day. Nothing is worse than being stuck in the middle of tens of thousands of people when your over-tired child is kicking and screaming on the ground. Being in control of your own travel certainly takes away a world of inconvenience!
This is another thing that you will really want to take to heart while planning. Beyond the budget I already mentioned, where you stay and what it has to offer is another major factor in vacationing that often goes unnoticed. Think about what is important to your family on a day-to-day basis, and then make that part of your decision-making when booking your accommodations.
Personally, I loved the convenience of our location. We were close enough to the parks that we could come and go throughout the day with minimal travel time. I also loved that our villa included a full kitchen to prepare meals, and a living space to enjoy while my son was sleeping. When travelling with a toddler, you want to make things as easy as possible!
Another personal favorite of mine that the Sheraton offered was laundry right in our villa! I know, I know, I’m crazy. Who wants to do laundry on vacation??? Me!!! This girl here!!! The girl who didn’t want to go home with two weeks of laundry to get caught up on! One of my big gripes of vacation is coming home to an empty refrigerator and a full laundry room. How convenient to just throw in a load during nap time in between park visits??? Such a win for this momma!
Staying on Schedule
Toddler life is all about routine and scheduling. From the moment my son was born, I was fairly particular about sticking to a predictable routine for the whole family. Vacation should be no different. I know that it can be tempting to throw caution to the wind and fill each day to the max to make the most of your trip, but most toddlers simply can’t keep up.
You will have plenty of years of family vacations when your children are older to be on the go all hours of the day, but the toddler years, unfortunately, just aren’t the time. Not only will you endure a week of meltdowns and misery, but then you will have your hands full readjusting your toddler to their ‘normal’ routine once you get home. Take my advice and stick to a general routine/schedule that works for you and your family.
You know yourself and you know your family. Does everyone usually sleep until 8??? Does it take you 2 hours to get out the door in the morning??? Skip the 9am Fast Passes. Remove any possibility of undue stress on your vacation. By all means, make an effort to get moving in a timely manner, vacations are few and far between. But do not be unrealistic.
Is a midday nap essential for your toddler??? Plan it. NOTHING is worse than an over tired child in the middle of the happiest place on earth; trust me, I witnessed hundreds of them during our trip. If your child will nap in a stroller, more power to you! Strap them in and go about your day. If your child is like mine, however, and must be a in a dark, quiet room, then plan on taking a midday break to head back to the hotel. You WILL NOT miss out on anything! Giving yourselves time to recharge will make for a much more pleasant remainder of the day.
Dying to see the night-time parades that start 2 hours past your child’s 7:30 bedtime??? Plan on one special night to stay up late and the rest of the days head back to your hotel at a realistic hour. Your child cannot do it all, don’t force it!
Don’t Over-Do It
Don’t push it. I know that it may seem like after all of the time and money that you have invested in planning your trip that you may need to make the most of every single minute. But as a I mentioned before, there will be many more years for all of that.
We took a super leisurely approach to our trip. We woke up when we felt like it, ate when we wanted, and headed back to the hotel at a reasonable hour every day. We made simple dinners in our villa, went for a long night-time walk around the property to wind down and headed in for an early bedtime each day. If you have an extra day to spare, I also highly recommend taking a day off to just relax and unwind by the pool.
We did not see it all. We did not do it all. And we were perfectly ok with that! Our reward: a happy child and zero meltdowns during the entire two weeks we were on vacation. And when we returned home we seamlessly transitioned back to ‘normal’ life.
Finally for my most important piece of advice to achieve the perfect Walt Disney World vacation with a toddler: have fun!!! This may be a once, twice, or three-time in a lifetime trip for you and your family. Don’t stress about planning the ‘perfect’ trip. Nothing ever goes to plan, so just go with the flow and enjoy! Hopefully by following some of my tips, you can ease a bit of stress from your trip and actually enjoy these precious moments.
I am happy to say that by following these tips, I was able to create a fun, enjoyable and memorable trip for myself and my family. Although my son was just barely 2 years old when we went, still today, at the age of 3 1/2, he talks about Disney World ALL of the time! He gives me a play-by-play of who we met, what rides we went on and even what food we ate! Now we just need to shift the conversation onto daddy and convince him to take us on our next Disney trip!
Who all has taken a trip to Disney World with your toddlers??? What worked and what didn’t? Any other tips you would like to share with the crowd??? And for those of you gearing up for your big trips, I would love to hear all about it, and don’t forget: HAVE FUN!!!