run out of womb

... learning how to be a mum from scratch

Friday 28 April 2023

Disney World Florida hacks, tips and money-saving for young families

We’re just back from a trip to all the epic theme parks in Orlando and every night I cracked down to do more research than I did for my degree. Which Disney parks are best for young kids? Do you really need a Genie+ pass? (The FastPass is no more). What are the must-haves to pack? Where should we stay - on-park or off? What are the best rope-drop hacks? How can I pack all the rides into one day? Are there ANY ways to save money in super-expensive Orlando?

I’m far from a guru - I’ve just been on the one Disney trip as a grown-up! - but we packed in EIGHT theme parks in as many days, with a two-year-old, five-year-old and seven-year-old rollercoaster addict - and learnt a lot. This post is just focused on the Disney parks - here’s what I’d tell my best friend taking her family to Orlando, Florida (apart from ‘expect to have the most amazing time - it’s absolutely incredible.’)

The Disney Parks

There are four: Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park, Disney's Hollywood Studios, EPCOT and Magic Kingdom Park. You’ll have fun at all of them, but from our experience, if you have to skip one, Animal Kingdom was the least impressive for younger kids, although it’s mini Dr Doolittles’ dream, with wild animals intermingled with thrilling rides. It’s a relatively small park and very walkable. 

Epcot is unmissable: a mixture of dazzling rides like the 3D Ratatouille and Frozen and Guardians of the Galaxy, and older attractions like Soarin’ and the amazing international

‘countries’ of World Showcase. It’s big - if you have early access, head to your top two rides, then take relaxed wanders around the World Showcase for a few hours as these rides don’t have large queues and they’re lovely to wander.

Don’t miss the free madcap Coca Cola drinks you can try from all around the world - my son’s highlight. Epcot doesn’t have traditional, turn-twisting rollercoasters but more experiential rides and it’s very atmospheric at night, with the buzzy ambiance of excited holiday-makers and a spectacular evening fireworks show. 

For Disney purists and younger families, Magic Kingdom is your most important stop: it’s so special! We built a rough itinerary based on what felt like 57-hours of PhD-level online research. Stay on-site at a Disney hotel to get in early - we opted for Swan Reserve, which was luxurious and relaxing - and then arrive half an hour before the early rope drop. Plan to see at least one of the Magic Kingdom’s parades. They’re super organised: marker tapes spring out of nowhere to say where to stand, the smiliest, nicest staff firmly make it clear there’s no way you’re going to cross this road when MICKEY IS ABOUT TO GLIDE DOWN.

They’re worth it: hit the Mickey celebration parade at 3pm. Go to Main Street, try near the Christmas Shoppe, there’ll be a crack of pavement for your kids to sit on near the front despite others spending an hour (the time waste! The rides to fit in!) perching there to secure their spot pre-parade. 

Ride-wise, at MK It’s a Small World is as beautiful and classic as ever; updated yet still the same - it’s that Disney magic. Other hits include Buzz Lightyear’s laser-shooting fun where you control your console, Winnie the Pooh in a manic dash around 100 Aker Wood. Big Thunder Mountain is a long, fun rollercoaster suitable for even scaredycats  like me; Space Mountain has more scares. There are lots of opportunities to meet characters (and they’re bookable too with Genie+ otherwise there can be  long queues. Some good opportunities to relax are the steam train ride around the park, the 3D Mickey Philharmania where you’re blasted with Donald’s orchestra screw-up and really rained on.

Genie+ and ride timetables

Download the DisneyWorld app - it’s a must, and take a block charger with, in case you run out of battery. The Genie+ booking scheme (is around $20/extra a person; you’ll grimace at this addition to an already pricey park ticket, but you need it to ensure your day isn’t queues-upon-queues interspersed with occasional rides). You can pack the vast majority of the rides into one day with Genie+.


Buying it means you can make one Genie+ booking at 7am for one of the big-queue attractions as early as possible. Use any early access perks you have (if staying at a Disney hotel) to sprint to one of your favourite rides, then hit a second before the rest of the crowds come in, when you’ll go to your Genie+ booking. As soon as you go on your Genie+ ride, book the next ride, and keep doing this all day.

Ask attendants about ride times, the app is sometimes wrong - a 10m listing can turn into 45m, or vice versa, but the ride staff are - you guessed it - lovely and helpful. 

Timing: cram in as much as you can in the morning, queues peak at midday then never really die down, you think it will in the evening, it won’t as much as you think. The adult/teenage crowd just pour in at supper time (and they don’t ignore the kiddy rides like you think - nostalgia, I guess). On the upside, there’s no annoying European queue-jumpers, no surliness - everyone gets on. 


Other Disney World tips:

Don’t worry about getting around: the monorails, boats and buses glide in and out with the sort of frequency Londoners only dream of from the Circle Line. 

Dress your kids in bright Ts. Don’t go for some matching family affair you find on Etsy. This is near-uniform in the theme parks, you’ll lose your kids. GO FOR BRIGHT. Take ID bands and discuss what to do if kids get lost, especially if staying for the night-time fireworks parade - it’s dark, packed, a huge crowd, and easy to get lost. 

There are paid-for photographers dotted around everywhere (part of the unlimited photography package) but they will happily take pics with your own camera too for free. And they’ll get CInderella’s castle in exactly the right position for you. 

If you can, go for a hopper ticket: it gives you access any of the other parks from 2pm, and since some open til as late as 11pm, if your kids have stamina you can have huge long days packed with attractions. 

The single let down at Disney is the food: there are burgers, so many burgers, pizzas, fries, SO MUCH FRIES, popcorn stands which reeked of fake cheese for some reason, but after a while, even my kids were craving a vegetable. 

Take lunch sandwiches in if you can be bothered. Epcot has the best array of food offerings; at Magic Kingdom, Pinnochio’s has surprisingly good pizza at lunchtime. If you’re out late waiting for a parade, grab a fast food picnic, ask for a takeaway bag and eat it in front of Cinderella’s castle waiting for the nighttime show and fireworks to start, at around 8:15pm.

Money-saving ideas

Orlando is pricey, theme parks are even pricier. You’ll need to budget a lot to get there, and stay there. Our money-saving tips are: take an indirect flight if you can deal with the hassle - flying via Philadelphia took $1000s off our total bill and worked out very smoothly. 

If you’ve toddlers/young kids, pack a whole load of their favourite oat/fruit bars and other snacks from home - even supermarket food was expensive in Orlando ($8 for a pack of apples!). 

Book a condo rather than a hotel so you can make your own breakfast and pack sandwiches if you want to for later in the day - we stayed at Sonder at Vista Cay, which was clean, with lovely pools and well-located. Picnics were de rigueur. 

Other fun things to do

Wild Florida: an hour-long air boat tour where you speed along on a bed of air, warm wind rushing through your hair as you spot alligators and birds of prey. Wild Florida Gator Park next door has a huge array of impressive animals and there’s a drive-through safari too. 

Crayola Experience was a highlight for my younger kids - there are really unusual craft activities- you can melt crayons then spin their drips into wax patterns, melt down crayons into chosen shapes, model-making, colouring, make your own colouring books of your photo, create your own Crayola crayon, name it and label it and take it home; there’s dancing on crayon patterns and 3D scanners that will turn your drawings into real cars on a track and models on a runway. Plus soft play, creative app play, and more colouring opportunities - a refreshing contrast to non-stop knackering activity of traditional theme park. 

 * Thanks to Visit Orlando for helping with this trip, initially based on an Evening Standard commission where you can read much more about our visit.


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