I took my 3-year-old niece to see her favorite Disney princesses. We did it in one weekend!
Sara as Elsa
Credit: Jessica Hartshorn

Preschool is my favorite age for Disney because the magic is real to little kids. So when my niece, Sara, turned 3, I became eager to visit Disney World with her. Of course, there were the complications of time and money (dang them!). But what if we did a really quick trip? Here's how we succeeded:

Travel during the off-season.

I dismissed the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend and went for a regular weekend in January, so flights were as cheap as they were going to be, and crowds were low. I used google.com/flights to comparison-shop flights. I checked the Crowd Calendar on the Disney World Lines app from TouringPlans.com ($15 for a one-year subscription) to estimate in advance how full the parks would be.

Short visit? Pack light!

Sara and I each had one carry-on and that was it. No stroller! (You can rent them in the park if necessary.) This let us jump right off the plane and head for the Magical Express bus to our hotel.

Check into your room ahead of time.

I pay a little more and stay at a Disney hotel. Many of them let you check into your room before you arrive. We stayed at the Grand Floridian, and while I was on the Magical Express I got a text with my room number and the news that it was ready. I had received my MagicBand in the mail, and knew it doubled as my room key, so we didn't even go to the front desk. It was off the bus, straight to the room to put Sara in her Elsa dress, then on the monorail to EPCOT only an hour and a half after our plane landed!

Plan on using MyDisneyExperience.com.

I am an overplanner, so this site and app are heaven for me. But even if you usually wing things, I agree with all the experts who say that Disney is not great for that. It's too big, and the stakes are too high when a one-day park hopper is $164/person for adults. Use this tool to make a general plan for each day, and you won't waste a minute while you're there.

Do bucket-list items first.

Let's be honest: We were there to see Elsa. I knew from MyDisneyExperience that she hangs out in the Norway section of EPCOT, and no Fastpass can get you to her, so we had to wait in line. We did it first-thing, while Sara had all her enthusiasm. Sara was dead-set on bringing cheese sticks for gifts, one for Anna and one for Elsa. I was mildly panicked that the offerings would be rejected, but the ladies cooed over the cheese sticks and put them away in a treasure chest. (OMG, Disney perfectly handles the quirks of a 3-year-old fan!) Elsa took five minutes to talk sisterhood and more with Sara, who has a baby sister back home, and we left with Sara on cloud nine.

Don't be thrown by little things getting off track.

I meant to follow the meeting with a ride on Frozen Ever After, also in Norway. But the ride was down. I opened the MyDisneyExperience app on my phone and clicked on a button to see if other ladies were near. Low and behold, Snow White was in Germany. So we met her, and she and Sara bonded over having a shared "S" name. Yeah, we got Snow's autograph.

Book meals in advance.

Especially character meals. I knew we could meet a ton of princesses at once if we ate at the Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in EPCOT, so I had that reservation booked via MyDisneyExperience. Walk-ups are possible in theory, but stressful...these meals are popular. Who wants to spend time waiting to get in? Sara ate cheese and chocolate for dinner, but I didn't care, because she met Belle, Jasmine, Aurora, Ariel, and Cinderella, then joined a "parade" and marched around with Cindy, her favorite. (Can I call her "Cindy"?!)

Work those FastPasses.

Not to sound like a broken record, but you can reserve these, too, via MyDisneyExperience. Frozen Ever After got up and running and we rode that first (FastPass isn't available for it, it's too new). Then we headed to the Magic Kingdom and used our first FastPasses to meet Tinker Bell. Tink, like all the ladies, kneeled down to give Sara some quality time. Then we rode Under the Sea, Ariel's ride, with FastPasses, so we got on within 15 minutes.

Go with your kid's quirks.

Sara, for some reason, refused to meet Ariel-as-mermaid, who poses for pictures near Under the Sea. I didn't push it. My own kids, 11 and 14, have taught me that if your reason for being in Disney is your children, you follow their lead, even if it means staring and laughing at the Gaston fountain rather than meeting a real, live (well, you know what I mean) mermaid.

Enjoy a show or two.

We watched the spectacular Once Upon a Time Castle Projection show, which is earlier than the fireworks. It was a perfect roundup of the princesses we had met! I love Disney parades for the same reason, though we didn't catch one on this visit.

Sleep, then repeat.

That night I checked my step counter; I had walked my niece seven miles! Suffice it to say she fell asleep with no trouble. But she popped up in the morning with all her energy. We had breakfast with Mary Poppins, then saw her in the Magic Kingdom (whoops! She flew right over!), and rode It's a Small World before meeting Rapunzel and Tiana. Hey! We did it! We met every single princess in 24 hours!

Enjoy the memories.

Sara and I are still talking about our trip. I have not a single regret. I wish a Disney trip, however short, for every family!

Entertainment Editor Jessica Hartshorn is one of a handful of Disney fanatics on the Parents staff. All together, we've visited Disney parks more than 100 times.