I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that I love Disney. I always have and now that I have kids, I love it in a completely different way. I think my obsession stems from my parents taking me to Disney at least once a month when I was little. It’s a nostalgic place that yeah, when I’m there I’m constantly regretting my decision to have gone, but ultimately makes me happy.
There are essentially two ways to do Disney:
- With kids
- Without kids
Obviously, I don’t care what people without kids do in Disney so I’m here to give you some tips about how to do Disney like a pro, while simultaneously lugging around your toddlers.
What you need:
You need to create an account on the Disney website under the tab “My Disney Experience.” You need to create an account for you and your partner (kids can be added to either account). Once you have that, you can manage hotel reservations, fastpasses for parks, dining reservations and much more.
If you’re staying at a Disney Resort you will be given a magic band which will act as your park ticket, fastpass, room key and credit card. If you’re not staying in one, you can purchase one at an additional cost but it will only work as your park ticket and fastpass.
The final thing you absolutely need is a suitcase (like mine) with your spouses face on it. Trust me.
When to leave:
An ideal trip for me is Thursday- Sunday. Thursday I don’t necessarily hit the parks or do anything worth while, but I wake up refreshed and ready the following day. Friday and Saturday are my park days, and Sunday is a nice breakfast before we go home. Pretty simple, right?
Leaving in the AM
This approach depends on Santiago and his “work schedule.” I put it in quotes because that’s what he says to get out of doing things I like and he doesn’t. Really, the day we go to Disney he isn’t working but pretends he is. Isn’t that cute?
The latest I’ll leave in this scenario is around 10:30 or 11:00 AM. The children have had breakfast, I’ll have had time to make sure our car has gas and that the kids are ready for a delicious morning nap. Santi is potty trained so I don’t have to worry about him anymore, but Joaquin isn’t, so I like to plan my trip around his morning dump. Sorry, but it’s true. I’m not going to change a diaper on the turnpike.
We typically stop in Port St. Lucie’s service plaza where Santiago force feeds the children Chicken Kitchen for lunch and I panic as Santi says he wants to do caca. Once we are done wrecking havoc, it’s back in the car and a straight shot to Disney. This scenario takes about 4 1/2 hours now that we have kids. Sucks, but not stopping isn’t an option when you lug around the parasites.
We arrive around 4:00 PM, check into our hotel and have an early dinner with the kids. Sometimes we have plans to go to a party (Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party–you can find this information on the Disney website under the tab Parks and Tickets, Admissions, Special Events Tickets) and even though the ticket says you can go at 7:00 PM, you can enter the park around 4:00 PM.
Leaving in the PM
This is what we did last time and it was amazing! Santi came home from school, I fed both of them dinner, bathed them, put them in PJ’s and they were in the car ready to rumble by 6:30 PM. By 6:45 Joaquin was passed out and by 7:30, Santi was out like a light. They slept the entire way there and we sat in silence, talked, listened to what we wanted on the radio. It was magical–almost as magical as Disney itself. Almost…
Now, the problem with this was when we arrived to the hotel. They both woke up from what they believed to be the best nap of their life, and were ready to party upon their arrival to the room. We checked in around 10:30 PM and the kids were back to sleep a little before midnight. Ideal? No, but we survived. My cousin actually gave me a great idea, which was to save Joaquin’s “before bed” bottle for when we arrived, so once we were in the room I shoved it in his mouth and he was passed out within 30 minutes.
Another drawback was that Santiago and I were starving and couldn’t go out to get food because (unfortunately) we can’t leave the kids alone in the room (you know, because it would be considered negligence.) We ordered food and ate it in the dark.
Where to stay:
Now this is a personal preference (obviously) based on budget, location and most importantly, taste. You can stay on property (which has its advantages), semi on property (which has advantages and drawbacks) and in a hotel in the Orlando area but not in Disney. I’ve done all three and my favorite are on property or semi on property.
These are hotels that are owned by Disney. They have busses, boats, monorails or gondolas that can take you from your resort to the parks and your stay includes a magic band. There are 4 categories of hotels where you can stay. They are Deluxe Villas, Deluxe Resorts, Moderate Resorts and Value Resorts. The Deluxe resorts are going to be closest to the parks and the Value resorts will be farthest. All of these, however, will provide transportation to and from the parks.
The Deluxe Villas and Deluxe Resorts are the same thing, except the villas are larger and have a kitchen and living room. For a family of 4 it’s actually great because you can sleep in the master bedroom, have the kids in the living room and travel with essentials such as milk and yogurt for your kids. For me, not having to scramble to find those two things in the morning are God sent. Anyway, I haven’t stayed at all the hotels because I have a few old faithfuls but I’ll outline a few.
Animal Kingdom Lodge (Deluxe Villa and/or Deluxe Resort)
I hated it. It’s far, it’s dated and it’s expensive as hell. My “savannah view” villa had birds as the view. I hate birds and Santi was basically like “what the hell is this?”
Boardwalk, Yacht Club, Beach Club Resorts (Deluxe Villa and/or Deluxe Resort)
These are all in the same area, walking distance to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios and have a bunch of activities for kids. I love staying anywhere in this area because you can have dinner downstairs, the kids can stroll along the actual Boardwalk and you don’t have to take a bus anywhere. All three of these resorts also have busses to Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom (as well as the water parks) and have short boat rides to Epcot and Hollywood Studios (in case you don’t want to walk). These are also in the process of getting renovated and the Yacht club no longer has carpets in their rooms (yay!!).
Contemporary, Grand Floridian and Polynesian Resorts (Deluxe Villa and/or Deluxe Resort)
These are all in the Magic Kingdom area. They also have busses that take you to all the parks, with the exception of Magic Kingdom. To get there, you can take the monorail directly from your resort or a. short boat ride. I absolutely love the Contemporary and Grand Floridian. They are very expensive, however. The Polynesian is one of those places that I hate more than anything but people love it. Similar to the Animal Kingdom, it’s dark, expensive and ugly. The additional drawback (for me) is that they have a “signature scent” sprayed all over the property that makes me want to vomit. I asked the Front Desk Guy last time I went and he probably hates me (and by probably, I mean definitely).
A: I’m sorry, do you guys have like… something spraying a scent?????
FDG: Why yes we do, Princess!
A: What is it?
FDG: It’s the smell of Polynesia 🙂
A: Yeah, I’ve been to Polynesia. It doesn’t smell like this.
FDG: You’re a pretentious bitch, Princess. (I’m assuming. In reality he was silent.)
Semi on property
There are a bunch of options which are technically on Disney property but are not owned by Disney therefore don’t have all the perks. You have access to busses and are close by, but that’s pretty much it.
Swan and Dolphin Hotel
I love, love, love these hotels! They’re walking distance to the Boardwalk, fairly priced and they’re part of Marriott which means I get a heavenly bed and points when I stay at either resort.
The Four Seasons
I have yet to stay here because every time I go to Disney it’s during peak season and I just can’t justify spending $1,200 a night on a room. Wait, let me clarify. Santiago can’t justify spending $1,200 a night on a room. So anyway, we’re married and he sees the credit card bill and we haven’t stayed but I heard it’s amazing. I have been for dinner and it’s spectacular.
Bonnet Creek Resorts (Waldorf Astoria and Hilton)
These are very nice but very corporate. Ehh.
I have never stayed ate any of these hotels and actually didn’t know they existed until I looked it up. But see–that’s the beauty of the Disney website. It’s all outlined under the tab Places to stay, more great accommodations.
There are so many places to choose from. I’d look up “Hotels in Lake Buena Vista” or “Hotels near Disney”. Good luck.
What to do:
How do you tackle your trip? What do you do first? Well, that’s really a loaded question. It depends on the ages of your children, their interests and if you care about them more than yourself. In any case, these are my suggestions:
Plan what parks you want to go to
- Make dinner plans accordingly
- Check websites for Disney’s crowd calendar and make sure the day you want to visit a park isn’t their busiest day
- Plan your fast passes accordingly–know what part of the parks you want to visit first and work your way around from that starting point.
- Know the parks. You can visit the website and look at the map of each park. You can get a list of attractions, see photos, show your kids and make a list of what you want to see and do.
- Now, this isn’t for everyone and perhaps not for every day of your trip, but if you want to make the investment, hire a tour guide.
- If you’re going with lots of kids during a busy time of year (like during the holidays which is my favorite time to go), there are two places I know of you can contact. The first is Disney. They offer private tours and they’re pricey. The company we always contact is Caio Giardini. They’re nice and accommodating and will even help you get dining reservations. They’re not as expensive so if you want to do them for multiple parks it’s great. I usually use them for Magic Kingdom because it’s a huge park with so many things to do and I don’t want to wait in line with my kids. They’re also great for if a new area opens in a park, they’re typically able to get you fast passes if you hire their services with enough time.
Plan what else you want to do in the area
- Disney Springs:
- Vintage Amphicar Ride (a boat that goes into water!)
- Splitville Bowling
- Marketplace Train Express (little train ride for little kids)
- Marketplace Carousel (perfect for someone who isn’t planning on hitting Magic Kingdom)
- Aerophile (Hot air balloon ride)
- Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (where all of your Disney Princess fantasies can come true…for your daughter)
- Surrey Bikes (These are the bikes that the parents pedal their asses off and the kids sit and do nothing)
- Atlantic Dance Hall
- Boardwalk Games
- Here you can go at night and there are games for kids to play like a carnival
- Other Hotels:
- Campfire smores in the Wilderness Lodge
- Outdoor movie in the Wilderness Lodge
- Carriage rides in the Port Orleans
- Golf in the Grand Floridian
Where to eat:
You have so much wiggle room here because it really depends on what type of cuisine you’re looking for, dining experience and location! My trip is a little like this:
- Breakfast at hotel (typically something quick or I eat in my room)
- Character breakfast (exclusively on Sunday’s before I leave)
- Lunch inside theme park (I don’t make a reservation for this)
- Dinner (In Epcot, Disney Springs or another resort)
**I’m going to exclude Epcot until the end because, well, it needs its own category**
There are restaurants that offer Character Dining for breakfast, some for lunch and even dinner! I think the food is overrated and over priced but Santi absolutely loves it! I try to make this a Sunday morning ritual.
In a resort:
- 1900 Park Fare in the Grand Floridian (Mary Poppins, Tiger, Pooh Bear, Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter)
- Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary (tough to get a reservation because you’d be dining with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto)
- Ohana in the Polynesian (Lilo and Stitch and a big pass from me)
- Story Book Dining at Artist Point in the Wilderness Lodge (this is for dinner and it’s with Snow White, Seven Dwarfs and the Evil Queen)
- Cape May Cafe in the Beach Club (underrated and sooooo cute with Minnie Mouse and her friends in full beach gear)
- Trattoria al Forno in the Boardwalk (Ariel, Eric, Rapunzel and Flynn Rider)
- The Four Seasons offers a character breakfast on Saturday’s (in case that’s what you’re in to)
At a theme park:
- Crystal Palace at the Magic Kingdom
- Hollywood and Vine at Hollywood Studios
- Tusker House Restaurant in the Animal Kingdom
Like I said before, I like to eat lunch in the park (quick service, nothing too fancy) because it impedes me from the rest of my day. I’m not listing every restaurant because it would take forever and I’m not your tour guide, but here is a small list from each park. If you have the Disney app, all of these restaurants are listed and you can preorder your food before you arrive at the restaurant so it’s waiting there for you. Not all places offer this so check the app before you decide on a place.
- Casey’s Corner at the end of Main Street (hot dogs)
- Columbia Harbor House directly in front of the Haunted Mansion (“seafood”and it’s actually very good. I put seafood in quotes because I had a tuna sandwich. You aren’t going to find stone crabs here–sorry honey.)
- Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe by the teacups ride (burgers, chicken fingers)
- Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe right by splash mountain (Mexican)
- Pinocchio Village Haus in Fantasy Land (Italian)
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
- ABC Commissary on Commissary Lane (American)
- Backlot Express near Echo Lake (American)
- Dockside Diner near Echo Lake (hot dogs)
- Fairfax Fare on Sunset Boulevard (multiple places to order from here)
- Dino Bite Snacks in Dinoland (American)
- Flame Tree Barbecue
- Pizzafari (Pizza)
- Restaurantosaurus (American)
- Trilo-Bites (American)
I will note that each park has restaurants that are apparently very good and worth a try. I’m excluding Epcot because I’ll talk more about that in the dinner section.
- Tony’s Plaza (Italian)
- Be Our Guest (“French”)
- Crystal Palace (American)
- 50’s Prime Time Cafe near Echo Lake (Old-school American)
- Hollywood Brown Derby on Hollywood Boulevard (Old-school American)
- Mama Melrose on Grand Avenue (Italian)
- Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant on Commissary Lane (American)
- Woody’s Lunch Box in Toy Story Land (American)
- Tiffins Restaurant (Multiple Cuisines)
- Nomad Lounge (Multiple Cuisines)
- Rainforest Cafe (I’m laughing as I type this)
- Tusker House Restaurant (African + American)
- Yak + Yeti Restaurant (Multiple Cuisines)
So I don’t think Disney has good food but I love their snacks. Even if they’re not super tasty, they’re super cute. Also, please include in every park the option to get ice cream from the Disney Ice Cream stands. My personal favorite is the Mickey Premium Bar and it’s an absolute must on any trip–regardless if it’s 30 degrees out.
- Main Street Confectionery (OMG anything!! Cotton Candy, cake pops, fudge, bagged candy, you name it! The smell alone is intoxicating and I love it in there)
- Aloha Isle (I vomit a little in my mouth as I type this because I hate Dole Whip but apparently it’s *the best* and you “have to try it” so if that’s your thing, do so here)
- Gaston’s Tavern (the cinnamon rolls!!)
- Liberty Square Market (ok random but they sell a corn on the cob that is DELISH)
- Plaza Ice Cream Parlor (so cute and so yummy! Last time we shared a brownie sundae and Santiago and I were sad we had to share it with the boys)
- Sleepy Hollow (Funnel Cake–just say yes at this point you’ve already gained 500lbs. Also, they have Nutella filled waffles. You’re welcome)
- Big Top Souvenirs (Inside this cute tent there is a small bakery with goodies. Go for it!)
- Main Street Bakery (it’s Starbucks and Starbucks is a must when you travel with children)
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
- Anaheim Produce (fruits, juices, etc…)
- Hollywood Scoops (Ice cream)
- Neighborhood Bakery
- Anandapur Ice Cream Truck
- Creature Comforts (Bakery)
- Isle of Java (coffee, coffee, coffee)
- Kusafiri Coffee Shop + Bakery
I really do love going to dinner! I love going back from the park, taking a shower and regrouping before going somewhere to eat. Usually, I take one night to go to dinner in Epcot, and the other nights somewhere either on property (meaning in a hotel), semi-on-property (in a nearby hotel) or in Disney Springs. Typically it’s a combination of all three.
Ok…this park is my favorite for dining. There are snacks on every corner (I can’t even begin to write them all down) but every country has a restaurant (or two or three!) and they’re not all owned by Disney. They’re owned by independent people who rent out spaces in Epcot. They’re typically from the country of origin and hire college students from their countries to work at their restaurants. These are not alllllll the restaurants in Epcot–they’re not even all restaurants in the countries, but these are the big sit down ones…
Chef De France
L’Artisan de Glaces (this is actually an ice cream shop but I didn’t want to skip it. It’s amazing and delicious and better than a Mickey Premium Bar)
Teppan Edo (this is a Benihana/Samurai type restaurant)
Regal Eagle Smokehouse
Via Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria (this restaurant is sooooooo good I loved it!–They have another restaurant in Maryland)
Nine Dragons Restaurant (this restaurant looks pretty and “fancy” online and when you get there it’s anything but. It’s simply ok, but if you’re craving Chinese–come here)
Akershus Royal Banquet Hall
La Hacienda de San Angel (This restaurant is across from the building in Mexico with the ride. In my opinion, the menu is better than the San Angel Inn)
San Angel Inn
Le Cellier Steakhouse
Rose and Crown Pub and Dining Room
On Property Resorts
- Boma Flavors of Africa (In Animal Kingdom. My guess is that you’d really want to to try Disney’s take on African Cuisine. Have fun)
- California Grill (My favorite on property restaurant! Try to get a reservation so you’re there while Magic Kingdom has their firework show. It’s on the top floor of the Contemporary Hotel and has views of Magic Kingdom. The food is good and the view is spectacular)
- Citricos (Grand Floridian and it’s mediterranean dining)
- Flying Fish (Seafood in Boardwalk)
- Narcoossee’s (Grand Floridian and it’s seafood)
- Trattoria Al Forno (Italian in the Boardwalk)
- Victoria and Alberts (very, very pricey and it’s in the Grand Floridian. It’s a degustation menu)
- Yachtman’s Steakhouse (Yacht Club–it’s a steakhouse. It’s literally in the name)
- Swan Hotel
- Il Mulino (it’s not the same as the real Il Mulino but it’s good)
- Kimono (it’s delicious sushi and a karaoke bar)
- Dolphin Hotel
- Shula’s (it’s a steak house)
- Todd English Bluezoo (He’s a famous chef and his specialty here is seafood. It’s actually very good!)
- Four Seasons
- Capa (spanish tapa restaurant on top floor. Very good!)
- Ravello (Italian)
- Wolfgang Puck Bar + Grill (New and super improved. Farm to table type dining and sooooo delicious)
- Morimoto Asia (Same old, same old. Very good, very pricey, kind of annoying with kids)
- Paddlefish (I’ve never been but I threw it in here for good measure)
- The Polite Pig (I’m not a huge barbecue fan but whatever)
- STK Orlando (If you’ve never been it’s good, but I hate doing fancy dining in Disney)
- The Boathouse (It’s cute and nautical and expensive but again–cute)
- The Edison (Very cool contemporary cuisine)
- Jaleo by Jose Andres (he’s always a good idea)
- Maria and Enzo’s Ristorante (PASS)
Anyway, now that I’m done with this unofficial tour guide to Disney, everything has changed thanks to Covid.
Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk. You’re welcome.