Disney World with the Kids
This is one of the most exciting ages to visit Disney World, because kids are captivated by their favorite characters and able to appreciate more of the rides. You'll need at least four days to sample the preschool attractions in all four parks and still have enough downtime to keep kids from crashing. Your strategy? Spread out the sights over the course of your vacation, setting aside two days for the Magic Kingdom, one for the Animal Kingdom, and half-days for Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios. Take midday breaks for napping or swimming, and factor in time to revisit favorite rides, too. Kids this age love repetition!
Where to Stay
Disney's on-site resorts are time-savers, offering free and fairly speedy transportation throughout the parks by bus, monorail, or boat. You get the added perk of Extra Magic Hours, which let Disney hotel guests gain early or late access to designated theme parks on certain days, and the complimentary Magical Express airport shuttle service. Check into the Animal Kingdom Lodge, where kids can see zebras, giraffes, and other majestic creatures roaming the expansive savannah. Nightly rates start at $225, making it one of the least expensive of the deluxe Disney resorts. A good off-site choice is Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort Lake Buena Vista, where rooms have kitchenettes and kids dine free for breakfast and dinner; rates start around $110 a night.
Each time you enter a Disney theme park, head for the tote boards in the center to scope out attraction wait times. Don't tackle anything with more than a 20-minute line; move on and try again later. Familiarize yourself with the FASTPASS -- it allows you to return to certain attractions at specified times, when you'll get in with a minimal wait. To streamline steps in the bigger parks, focus on one section at a time. In the Magic Kingdom, spend one day in Fantasyland, Mickey's Toontown Fair, and Tomorrowland; spend another in Adventureland and Frontierland. In Epcot, hightail it to Future World and The Seas with Nemo & Friends. Start your Animal Kingdom adventure in DinoLand U.S.A.
In Disney's Hollywood Studios, first nab a FASTPASS for the brand-new Toy Story Mania, a 3-D arcade game featuring Woody, Buzz, and pals. Kids will also love the Playhouse Disney -- Live on Stage! show, where they can sing and dance with Handy Manny and the Little Einsteins. At Epcot's The Seas with Nemo & Friends, preschoolers can tour a coral reef in a mobile clam and interact with the animated, and totally awesome, surfer dude sea turtle in Turtle Talk with Crush. Also catch Crush and friends at the Animal Kingdom in Finding Nemo -- The Musical. In the Magic Kingdom, hit Fantasyland rides first. Then get a FASTPASS for Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin in Tomorrowland. Return at night for the SpectroMagic parade.
Thrills and Chills
When choosing rides, keep your child's personality in mind; some preschoolers are more daring than others. Start with tamer rides and work up to more adventurous ones. Once kids have mastered the spinning cups in Fantasyland's Mad Tea Party, you might test their roller-coaster readiness on the Barnstormer mini coaster in Mickey's Toontown Fair. From there, daredevils 40 inches and taller can try Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain in Frontierland, and Test Track in Epcot.
You may not think of Disney World as an institute of higher learning, but it offers many interactive opportunities for preschoolers to build skills. Kids master direction-following as they march along with the Toy Story characters at Woody's Cowboy Camp in Frontierland. At Storytime with Belle in Fairytale Garden near Cinderella Castle, kids polish their pretend-play powers while acting out Beauty and the Beast. Kids can dig for fossils in the giant sandbox at the Boneyard in Animal Kingdom's DinoLand U.S.A. And at ImageWorks: "What If" Labs (in Epcot's Imagination! Pavilion), children can stomp out tunes in the Stepping Tones area and transform pictures of themselves into flowers, animals, and cartoon characters.
Disney recently added a healthy twist to its menus. Kids' meals now come with fruit or veggies and milk, juice, or water (though you can still request fries or soda, if you wish). For nutritious noshing, there are many fresh-fruit carts throughout the parks. Maximize your time by eating a fast breakfast in your hotel, then catch an early lunch at one of the theme park's quick-service restaurants. For dinner, check out the boisterous but fun Whispering Canyon Cafe in the Wilderness Lodge resort, where food is served family-style and kids can run hobby-horse races around the room. Another preschool favorite is the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater (at Disney's Hollywood Studios), where you dine in vintage cars and watch campy movies. Call 407/WDW-DINE for reservations up to 180 days in advance.
Hot Spots for Princesses and Pirates
Head to Toontown Hall of Fame in Magic Kingdom first thing in the morning to meet Cinderella, Snow White, and other royals. They also mingle with fans by the castle after the Dream Along with Mickey show. (For more leisurely visits, book a princess character meal; see below). Because Ariel doesn't have her sea legs, she can only be found in her Grotto in Fantasyland. Hunting for pirates? You can spot Captain Hook and Smee at Toontown's Hall of Fame and outside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Adventureland. That's also where Captain Jack Sparrow holds his Pirate Tutorial, challenging young buccaneers to demonstrate swashbuckling skills and pirate snarls.
Best Character Meals
Little girls who can't get enough princess action will adore dining with their role models -- either in the castle at Cinderella's Royal Table for breakfast or lunch; or at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in Epcot's Norway Pavilion, where Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty host breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Playhouse Disney's Play 'n' Dine character meals at Hollywood & Vine in Disney's Hollywood Studios are a big hit with preschoolers, too, featuring Jo Jo and Goliath from Jo Jo's Circus and June and Leo from the Little Einsteins. To meet the head mouse himself, have breakfast or dinner at Chef Mickey's in the Contemporary Resort. For reservations, call 407/WDW-DINE up to 180 days in advance.
Inform restaurant staff about kids' food allergies. Call ahead so chefs can walk you through the menu and provide safe suggestions.
Bring or rent a stroller -- even if you think children don't need it. Little legs tire easily, and kids might need a spot to snooze if you stay for the nighttime fireworks.
Be realistic. If you visit at peak times (summer and holiday seasons) the parks will be packed, and you may only conquer a few attractions a day.
Treat yourself to a night out. Disney World has awesome children's programs for potty-trained kids ages 4 and up -- especially at the Neverland Club in the Polynesian Resort, with its Peter Pan-theme activities.
Savvy Disney travelers have discovered these cheap tricks.
Pass up the Mickey ponchos. Instead, buy a bunch of cheap ponchos for $1 or so from your local bargain store at home and have them on hand in the parks. After a rain, simply throw away the poncho and use a fresh one if another storm strikes.
Buy an official refillable mug. These $13 cups are very cost-effective if you drink a lot of coffee or soda. But keep in mind that they can be refilled only at the resorts, not in the theme parks.
Bring your own stroller. Rentals have soared to $15 a day for a single and $31 a day for a double.
Check these sites for more Disney bargains.
MouseSavers.com. Uncover the hottest deals in the World.
DISboards.com. Fellow Disney travelers share money-saving strategies.
MousePlanet.com. Read latest Disney news and trip reports.
AllEars.Net. This comprehensive site delivers information through articles, blogs, and newsletters.
Entertainment-Savings-Offers.com/orlando/book. The $20 book pays for itself in the coupons you get toward Orlando hotels, restaurants, and rental cars.
Copyright © 2009 Meredith Corporation.