Heading to Orlando and the home of Mickey? There are two ground rules -- magical mantras, if you will -- for taking on the World, no matter how old your kids are:
* Go in the off-season. Parks are least crowded in January, September, October, and the first two weeks of November and December.
* Sample selectively. Take in just enough so that kids are enchanted, not exhausted.
How Long To Stay
Two or three full days in the parks is ideal -- you'll get a taste of the magic without over-stimulating your tot (or breaking the bank).
Bring your own, rather than renting one, so your child has a familiar and comfortable place to nap on the go. A sling or back carrier is helpful, too -- especially in waiting lines, where strollers aren't allowed. The entrances to most attractions have stroller parking, where you can leave yours while you get in line. Just be sure to take valuables with you.
2. First-Day Essentials
Pack a carry-on bag with bathing suits, a change of clothes, extra diapers, formula, and baby food in case your luggage is delayed. It's also helpful to tote pocket-size rain ponchos (find cheap ones at your local discount store); midafternoon thunderstorms are common in summer.
Everything else. Disney resorts provide cribs and high chairs for free; fridge use is free at deluxe and moderate resorts, and $10 at value properties. Lighten your load by shipping supplies such as diapers, baby food, and sunscreen to your hotel, or order from GardenGrocer.com or Diapers.com and have them delivered. Try not to buy anything at the hotel or park; there's a huge mark-up. You can get by without a car, too. If you're staying at one of the Disney resort hotels, take advantage of the free Magical Express airport shuttle and the speedy transportation to and from the parks. Many off-site hotels also provide busses to and from the Disney parks.
If you're willing to spend a little more for convenience, choose one of Disney's three on-site monorail resorts: the tropical Polynesian, the elegant Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, or the recently renovated Contemporary (its luxurious Bay Lake Tower rooms feature a kitchen, washer, and dryer). The monorail is ideal for families with babies in tow -- it guarantees a quick trip back to your hotel for a midday nap, clothing change, bath, pumping session, forgotten item, etc. Staying on-site also entitles you to Extra Magic Hours, which let you enter the parks early (a lifesaver if your baby rises with the sun) or stay late on designated days, and free Magical Express airport shuttle service to and from your hotel. You get those same great services in Disney hotels that aren't on the monorail as well, including "value" properties such as the Pop Century Resort. If you want stay off of Disney property, aim for a suite with a kitchenette so you can fuel up before you head for the parks. The Embassy Suites Orlando -- Lake Buena Vista is a good choice, as is the Orange Lake Resort, now part of the Holiday Inn family.
Crowds are lightest first thing in the morning, so appreciate your early-rising infant and get to the parks when the gates open. Spend the bulk of your time in the Magic Kingdom -- especially Fantasyland, where attractions are most baby-friendly. Prevent tantrums by having plenty of snacks and toys on hand (you know this already) and by building multiple breaks into your day. Keep in mind that a 1-year-old will get a thrill out of just sticking his hand in a fountain or watching a group of ducks -- there's no need to rush from ride to ride with a small fry who really lives in the moment! Head back to your hotel by early afternoon for some downtime before dinner. If you have a child who will sleep well in a stroller or carrier, return to the park for the evening Main Street Electrical Parade and the Wishes Nighttime Spectacular fireworks show. (You'll love them!)
When heading out for the day, make sure you slip these essentials into your diaper bag: formula, diapers, sunscreen, baby food, snacks (individual packages of crackers and cereal are easiest), juice boxes, a recyclable water bottle you can refill at fountains, your baby's bathing suit, and a change of clothes. But if you run out of something, don't panic. Each of the major Disney parks has a Baby Care Center where you can purchase some emergency supplies, and also change and feed a baby in quiet comfort. (More on that later!)
When you first enter the Magic Kingdom gates, grab a brochure that lists the times for that day's parades and shows. Next, Mickey and Minnie greet guests just past the gates on the right, inside the Town Square Theater. It's nice to get that photo opp first before you head down Main Street and through the castle to Fantasyland. You'll want to catch classics like the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Prince Charming Regal Carrousel, It's a Small World, and Mickey's PhilharMagic (a whimsical 3-D movie featuring classic Disney characters and songs). If your girl is all about the princesses, check your brochure for the times of the "Rapunzel Play and Greet" in the Fairytale Garden, in front of the castle.
A note: Fantasyland is under expansion, and will be growing larger in stages through 2013. Plans include new spots for the princesses, a larger Dumbo ride in a new area called Storybook Circus (opening early 2012), and an Ariel attraction similar to the one that opened in Disneyland.
When you venture out of Fantasyland, go where the crowds aren't. Lines tend to move fast for the Enchanted Tiki Room (in Adventureland) and at Country Bear Jamboree (in Frontierland). Kids just love those singing birds and bears!
While tamer, slow-moving rides are best for this age group, that doesn't mean you (or older kids) must miss out on wilder ones, such as Space Mountain or Splash Mountain. Simply ask one of the Disney employees managing the line about the rider swap. Here's how it works: One parent goes first while the other waits with baby; then you switch so the second parent rides without standing in line again. The employees will help you coordinate it.
When you need a calm place for nursing or changing baby, duck into Magic Kingdom's Baby Care Center, tucked right behind the Crystal Palace restaurant. Each of the Disney parks has these centers, which are equipped with rockers, swings, high chairs, toys, videos, and essentials such as baby food, formula, diapers, and wipes available for purchase. Certain rides can also provide a cool and peaceful respite for nursing or napping. For example, in Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland, the Carousel of Progress and Tomorrowland Transit Authority are both dimly lit, with soothing motions that lull kids to sleep. If your child conks out in the stroller, use the downtime to shop in one of the Main Street stores or relax on a bench in the shade.
With tiny kids, it makes sense to make two meals of the day fast ones, and only go for one sit-down restaurant meal. Kids under 3 eat free when sharing from your plate; if they want their own meals, you can order healthful options off the children's menu. All of Disney's quick-service restaurants offer kids' meals with fruit or veggies on the side and your choice of juice, water, or low-fat milk. Fries and sodas are available, but you must request them. The best quick spots for antsy toddlers include Pinocchio Village Haus in Fantasyland, and Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe in Tomorrowland. For wholesome, between-meal snacks, hit the fruit stands throughout the parks.
For a sit-down meal, buffets are bountiful and give you a chance meet characters. Winnie the Pooh and friends work the crowd at the Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom, Mickey and friends are at Chef Mickey's in the Contemporary Resort, and friends from Disney preschool shows like Little Einsteins host breakfast and lunch at Hollywood & Vine, in Disney's Hollywood Studios. For a family-style meal without characters, try the hearty Liberty Tree Tavern in Magic Kingdom. There are also plenty of restaurant options in Epcot; the princesses host meals in the Norway section. Book your sit-down breakfast, lunch, or dinner by calling 407/WDW-DINE.
Some toddlers do freak out when they see Disney characters up close. Just think about how gigantic they must seem to tiny tots! If your baby seems shy, try viewing Mickey and his friends from afar in the afternoon parade. Kids will feel more secure if they can wave or call out to their favorites from a distance. Keep in mind that your child might also be upset by loud noises (fireworks, for example, or the roar of cars at the Tomorrowland Speedway) or dark attractions, like Snow White's Scary Adventures, where the witch pops out several times. Start with the also-dark but witchless Peter Pan ride to gauge your babe's tolerance.
Kids this age often want to be the characters they know and love. Disney is happy to oblige, starting with costumes sold all over the parks. Take it a bit further at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, located in Cinderella's castle, where for a chunk of change ($50 or more) your little girl, age 3 or older, can get a princess hairdo and makeup, or your boy can become a knight (for a much less pricey $15). Call (407) WDW-STYLE for a reservation. Similarly, adults or kids can transform themselves into pirates at The Pirates League, in Adventureland, for about $30. The number for that is (407) WDW-CREW. If you're just looking for a fun first-haircut experience for your baby, check out the Harmony Barber Shop on Main Street, just past City Hall. You'll get a "My 1st Haircut" set of mouse ears, and the whole thing is under $20.
One of the best parts of a Disney trip is taking advantage of exhausted kids for a great date night. Disney recommends Kid's Night Out -- an all encompassing babysitting service in the Orlando area. Sitters come to your hotel room with a bag of tricks, full CPR certification, and thorough background checks and screenings. Make reservations for a fancy dinner at California Grill in the Contemporary Resort or Artist Point in Disney's Wilderness Lodge; take in La Nouba, the amazing Cirque du Soleil show created just for Disney; enjoy the dueling piano players at Jellyrolls on Disney's Boardwalk; or grab your park passes, throw on your sneakers, and ride the roller coasters until midnight.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.