Every time I go to Disney World with my children, I learn something new about how to travel with them. This year's December trip was incredible, but it still took us a couple of days to get a routine together. Here's a few thoughts on what I learned this time.
1) Don't be afraid to try different parks. While the Magic Kingdom is the obvious draw for parents with young children, it can be so crowded at times that it's downright impossible to manuever with a stroller. While the other three parks may have fewer attractions for little kids, your kids will love the play areas and shows at Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. Particularly at Epcot, there's a ton of space to run around in. My younger two loved running around in Epcot in the morning while their older brother rode the attractions with my husband. The park wasn't crowded and there was so much to see; they absolutely loved the fountains. Plus, Epcot may be the most babyproofed place in America! You don't notice it because it's so beautifully landscaped, but Epcot has fences everywhere, so your child can only "stretch his legs" so much. When we got tired of the crowds in the Magic Kingdom, we headed to Epcot, rode Nemo (their favorite) and then let the kids run around.
2) Go out by yourself at night, especially if you're all staying in one hotel room. There's nothing worse than staying in the same hotel room with the whole family, sitting in the dark at 7:30 p.m. because all the kids have gone to sleep. The great thing about Disney is that you don't have to do that. The parks are safe, have great transportation, and are beautiful at night. Take advantage of the park with later hours and go enjoy yourself. You'll be surprised at how easy it is to get around a park by yourself and how fun it is to do exactly what you want to do. The next night, your partner can do the same thing while you watch the children.
3) Don't assume buffets are the easiest dining options. I spent so much time running back and forth from the buffet to the table that I barely ate anything. Disney's buffet restaurants are large--you'll get more of a workout than you will a meal.
4) Go out with your partner! We went out one evening in the middle of our trip, hired a babysitter service (two sitters, because of the twins), and went to a nice dinner and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party later that night. You're spending 24/7 with your children; you don't need to feel guilty for spending a little bit of couple time. It's a good example to your children that you two actually want to spend time together. Besides, the kids will be asleep for most of it. Our night out was energizing and fun. Plus, we both finally got to ride Splash Mountain. Next time, a babysitter will be built right into the trip planning budget.
5) One thing this trip showed us is that a longer trip is a better option with small children. While I generally prefer shorter trips for myself, as I said above, it took us a couple of days to get into a routine. On shorter trips with the kids, that's been our entire trip and while we enjoyed it, it was no way relaxing nor did we do everything we wanted to do. I think a week is a perfect amount of time to figure out how to do things and to see what you want to see. You don't feel as rushed and you can give yourself permission to skip the parks one day and spend it by the pool.
6) While conventional wisdom is that you should keep your kids on the same schedule as they are on at home, this can severely limit your time in the parks. The best days we had were the ones where we threw their regular schedule out the window and didn't follow any rules. In part, we did this out of necessity: There was no way we could get three kids into the parks by rope drop. Instead, we got up a bit late and went to the parks a couple of hours after rope drop (we based our park choice on wait times posted on Lines, which I'll talk more about later), let them nap in their stroller when they wanted to (I walked around and enjoyed the sights while my husband had some alone time with our older child, riding the "bigger kid" rides), and then stayed late in the parks. We didn't have one tantrum. The kids came back to the room exhausted and went right to bed, which was an added bonus for us since they were too tired to goof around and keep each other awake. This won't work for every kid and it certainly isn't something I'd suggest doing every day, but if your kids seem to be handling the parks well and you are at Disney World during a less busy time of year (which gives you more flexibility with crowds and when you arrive each day), you might give it a try.
7) A Disney park is not the place for kid who's almost potty trained. I'll admit it: My boy twin has been ready to potty train for a month or so; the girl twin, not so much. I put off potty training them until after the trip because I didn't want accidents in the parks. Park bathrooms can be crowded and if you don't know your way around the parks, they can be difficult to find. I'm not advocating lazy parenting (okay, I might just be) but if your little one is close but not there yet, a pull-up or a diaper might be in order.
8) A Disney vacation with small children is magical. It's everything you thought it would be. It's also a lot of work and some of that work is physical. Throw vanity out the window and wear your most comfortable shoes. I'm not a huge fan of the running shoes with jeans combo, but at Disney, that's what I wear. If you're not used to doing a lot of physical activity, consider trying to walk more starting a few months before your trip.
9) Know when to take a deep breath and walk away. I saw a few unfortunate incidents in the parks last week involving parents yelling at their children and one hysterical woman practically breaking a stroller while trying to get a little girl, about 4-years old, into it while the child had a tantrum. If we're honest, we all know the feeling of being frustrated with our kids and at Disney, there's the added problem of crowds, possibly heat, and the expectation that since you paid a lot of money for this vacation, everyone better enjoy it, darn it! A wise person knows when to hoist the white flag and walk away, knowing that you want your kid to remember Goofy and Mickey, not mommy having a screaming fit because the line for Dumbo was too long. Head back to the resort and cool off.
10) Don't underestimate your kids. Give them opportunities to try new things. My boy twin is generally more shy than his sister, so I initially thought he would dislike meeting the characters and didn't try. It turned out she was completely disinterested while he loved them.