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7 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Planning a Disney Vacation with Kids

7 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Planning a Disney Vacation with Kids


Going to Disney can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned travelers. So much to remember and so much more to learn! But I find that I can have just as much fun in the planning stages as in the actual vacation itself. In order to make your vacation go as smoothly as possible, check out these 7 common mistakes made when planning a Disney vacation with kids.

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This article originally published on July 20th, 2016 and has been updated and republished with a new date.

Holiday themed balloons at Disneyland

Mistakes Made When Planning a Disney Vacation with Kids

Newbies and seasoned Disney travelers have something in common. At one time or another, they’ve probably made a mistake or two on their first Disneyland or first Walt Disney World vacation.

Several years ago my family and I (all seasoned Disneyland travelers) took our first last-minute trip to Walt Disney World. We made so many mistakes. It happens to the best of us!

If this is your first time planning a Disney vacation with kids your hopes will be up that everything will go well. And it definitely can be the magical vacation you’ve dreamed of!

Once you recognize the Disney travel pitfalls, you can make a detour towards a successful trip. Be sure to check out all the other links I have in this post for more Disney planning advice when preparing for Disney World or your first Disneyland trip.

Mark Twain Riverboat on the Rivers of America in Disneyland

Mistake #1: “Surprise! We’re Going to Disney…Right NOW!!”

It sounds like a great idea, right? You’ll take them to the airport or pop them in the car for the road trip and surprise them with a trip to Disney! They’ll be so happy, right??

Depending upon your kids, this surprise of a lifetime could go either way. And you’ll really have to know your kids to know how a big surprise like that would go down.

7 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Planning a Disney Vacation
What kind of reaction are you expecting?

For my two older children, a surprise vacation would not be welcome and might indeed spark a meltdown. They both like to know early-on what’s going to happen and be totally prepared. A surprise Disney trip would not be the best idea.

However, my 9-year old would be thrilled! He tends to roll-with-the-punches a little better and doesn’t mind a few changes in his routine. Only you know how your kids might react. Check out these tips about How to Surprise Your Kids (and What to Do When a Surprise Goes Bad).

Executing the Dream Surprise Disney Vacation

Instead of surprising the kids just as you’re leaving, consider a surprise early on in the planning stages of the vacation. This still gives you the excitement of “Wow, we’re going to Disney?!” But it also allows children time to let the idea of a big vacation sink in.

Kids will also be able to properly prepare and help you plan the trip as well. Children love to give input on what rides and attractions they’d like to see.

  • Create a gift bag to share with kids when you surprise them with the upcoming Disney vacation. Items like a new t-shirt or the Disney Eye Found It Card Game are both fun and practical to use on the trip. 
Disney Trip FREE Printable - Packing List for Kids

Throw in a planning guide book so that you and the kids can start planning your trip before you leave including what shows, rides and attractions you want to experience.

This book, Going to Disneyland: A Guide for Kids and Kids at Heart can help you and your child plan a trip together.

Planning a Disney vacation with kids is a way to grow excitement, not set up children (or the adults) for disappointment. Read more about How to Avoid Disappointment at Walt Disney World from Monorails and Magic.

Mistake #2: “Why Is It So Crowded?”

If you plan on visiting Disney theme parks on a weekend, summertime, holiday season or pretty-much anytime that kids are out of school, you’ll need to be prepared that the Parks will be crowded.

To know the Best Times of the Year to Visit Disneyland or when to make the WDW trip, be sure to take a look at the calendar.

crowds walking towards security at disneyland

Making the Most of Park Time

Even the time of day that you arrive and leave the parks can dictate crowd levels. The early bird can really take advantage of lower crowd levels.

There are many ways to maximize your time in the first two hours at Disneyland by arriving for “rope drop”. And while everyone else is still sleeping in or navigating the large transportation issue at Disney World, you’ll already be on the first ride of the day!

Planning to visit Walt Disney World in the spring? These are the top family travel tips about dealing with heavy Disney spring break crowds, what to pack, Epcot Flower & Garden Festival tips and special Easter holiday magic.

On the flip-side, if you can arrange to stay until park closing, you’ll often be rewarded with lower crowds. Guests with young children generally leave after fireworks.

Mistake #3: “Where Am I? I Am Totally Lost”

Finding yourself directionally challenged once you pass Main St. U.S.A? Take some time in your pre-vacation planning to study the maps of each Park. You can find the maps on the Disney Parks websites.

Each of the Disney Parks are large, with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. If you have a general idea of the layout of the “Lands” then at least you won’t be looking for the Haunted Mansion in Tomorrowland!

Check out these 7 rookie mistakes to avoid when you plan your Disney vacation.

Having a basic knowledge of the parks ahead of your trip means you’ll also spend less time on vacation figuring things out.

Fortunately the Disneyland and Disney World smart phone apps are a quick way to navigate through the parks. Be sure to download the app before your trip and use it at home as practice ahead of time.

Wondering what kids can do at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival? This kid-friendly guide to the Disney World special event explains what there is for kids to do, eat and see!

Have a Vacation Plan

Just as important as knowing your way around, is having a simple touring plan. Rather than zipping all over the park, look at the map and sketch out a rough plan of your day. By following the flow of the park, you’ll be able to maximize time and walking distance. 

Write out a schedule and keep it in a safe place to refer back to when you’re in the parks. Keep in mind what restaurants you are planning to dine at to allow yourself enough time to get there (PS: Disney World is huge – it will almost always take you longer than you think!)

Kids looking at the park map at Disney World Animal Kingdom

Mistake #4: “I Thought I’d Be Able to See ALL the Characters”

At any given moment, you might find a dozen characters meeting and greeting guests throughout the Park. Will you find your favorite? Maybe!

Not all characters meet guests year-round. Some you’ll be sure to see, like Mickey and the “Fab Five” throughout the day at the Parks. Others characters only come out for special occasions (like Mulan and Mushu during Lunar New Year Celebrations at Disney California Adventure park).

How to See Disney Characters

You’ll get an idea of which characters will be out that day on either the Disneyland and Disney World app. View the dropdown map for a pinpoint location of the meet n’ greets.

There are also special appearances that aren’t in the schedule so just keep a watch out! Of course you can see characters in the shows and parades as well.

Mistake #5: “What Are We Going to Eat? I’m STARVING!!”

Waiting until your vacation day to decide on your Disney meals is a mistake. Even if you only plan on grab & go counter service meals, you should still plan ahead of time what food you’ll be eating.

This not only saves you time deciding on the spot and time spent racing across the Park to get to the restaurant. But it will also save time perusing the menu deciding each and every meal.

Oga's Cantina non-alcoholic menu

With a large family, I always print off a few of the restaurant menus online so we can choose what we’ll be ordering before our trip. You can also find dining menus on both the Disney World and Disneyland apps.

Planning out your next meal is one of the most practical things to do while waiting in line at Disney.

Decide early about sharing platters of food, budgeting for meals and save yourself time in line. In my family, one of us orders and the other gets the table – it’s a much more expedited process!

Check out these 7 rookie mistakes to avoid when you plan your Disney vacation.
Gaston’s Tavern is open, just stop in!

It’s also important to note (especially for budget Disney trips), that outside food is permitted inside the parks. Bringing your own snacks and meals is one of the best money-saving Disney food tips.

Pack a cooler bag with sandwiches, chips, and bottled water to bring with you as an inexpensive meal. When planning a Disney vacation with kids, having snacks available immediately is imperative!

Mickey waffle at PCH Grill

Dining Reservations and Mobile Ordering

If you’re planning on dining at the Disney World restaurants including making Advance Dining Reservations, you’ll definitely want a rough plan of where things are and in what parks.

In the case of full-service dining, much of the dining at Disney is considered an “experience”. And at Walt Disney World especially, you’ll need Advance Dining Reservations (ADR) to get into these restaurants.

When we were checking in for our reservation at 50’s Prime Time Cafe, there were a half-dozen people trying to get in to the booked restaurant without any luck. You’ll definitely need ADR if you plan on full-service.

You can play it by ear at Disneyland for the most past, save for Character meals and peak season. There are definitely ways to eat at Disneyland without Advance Dining Reservations.

Check out these 7 rookie mistakes to avoid when you plan your Disney vacation.
Dining at Be Our Guest requires Advance Dining Reservations

If you prefer to eat at Quick Service Locations (Disney parks fast food restaurants), consider exclusively using Mobile Ordering.

Place your order using the menu on the park app and skip the lengthy lines. With a few button clicks on your phone, you’ll be able to walk up to the counter and pick up your order!

Mobile ordering sign at Jolly Holiday Bakery

Mistake #6: “I Should Have Brought the…”

Regretting that you forgot to bring something with you into the Parks? Having a packing list ready before your trip will help you to remember what to bring to Disney.

Besides having a printed packing list I jot down essentials as I recall them in the weeks leading up to the trip. This helps me better what I need than if I go off the top of my head when I’m loading up the suitcase!

Disney Trip FREE Printable - Packing List for Kids that they can use to pack for themselves!

Pregnant moms at Disney parks will need different things in their luggage that varies from other adults or families with a baby in tow.

Parents with children may appreciate this free packing printable for Disney with kids

Certainly there are a lot of things you can buy inside the Disney Parks gift shops from antacids to flip-flops but the prices will be higher as well. At Disneyland, there are convenience stores within walking distance of the front gates but expect to see prices that are higher than if you bought at home.

Sunglasses in Pixar Pier, Disney California Adventure park

What to Rent Instead 

Take a hard look at what you really think you’ll need and use on the trip. While not having something can be a problem, too much stuff is also an issue on it’s own. Make sure you leave room in your suitcase for souvenirs! And be sure to check this list of Disney Banned Items from Love Our Crazy Life before packing.

Thought you wouldn’t need a stroller and now you regret not bringing it? Or maybe you don’t want to stress about toting your stroller from home through the airport and would rather have it meet you when you need it. Fortunately you can rent high quality products directly for your needs at the parks.

Traveling Alone with a Baby to Disney? Check out these 20 trusted tips for solo travel with a baby.

A stroller is a must-have and I highly recommend Kingdom Stroller rental. Ideal for travel with babies and toddlers at Disney World, the strollers, inflatable toddler beds or bed rails, and crib rentals are a safe and reasonably priced option.

I’ve personally used Kingdom Strollers many times over the years and love that they deliver products directly to your hotel!

Mistake #7: “Why Are the Kids So Cranky?! This is Supposed to be the Happiest Place on Earth!”

Disney Parks are chock full of entertainment from rope drop to midnight, and beyond. For most kids, the constant activity combined with a disruption in their usual routine (and nap schedule) can cause tantrums like you’ve never seen before! A

ll the new noises, sights and smells might put anxious kids at Disney parks into stress-mode.

Check out these 7 rookie mistakes to avoid when you plan your Disney vacation.
Someone was ready for a break

Toddler moods are notoriously difficult to predict but there are top tips for ensuring a happy day at Disneyland with young kids.

While everyone else in your group might be thrilled with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, your toddler or preschooler might actually be scared by roaming Stormtroopers or bored with the lack of rides for them in this area.

And before we put it all on the youngest travelers, keep in mind that traveling with teenagers can be a challenge as well!

My kids were sort-of freaking out about Chewbacca!

The Upside of an “Off Day”

Be sure to work in some downtime into your Disney vacation schedule. I know you’re thinking, “I didn’t pay this much for a trip to Disney just for my kids to swim and play on the playground!”

However, a mid-trip “off day” will give everyone a chance to sleep in, relax and unwind a bit before getting back into the theme-park frenzy again. That day off can be invaluable so aim to make it happen with planning a Disney vacation with kids.

Swimming in Stormalong Bay at Disney’s Beach Club Resort

There are many area locations to easily explore in and around Anaheim on an off-day at Disneyland.

In Orlando, visiting the Disney World water parks, exploring other on-site resort playgrounds and dining or shopping at Disney Springs is a pleasant way to take a break (and still remain within the “Disney bubble”).

Making Disney Parks Enjoyable for Everyone

When planning a Disney vacation with kids, it’s smart to be prepared. If you have kids who tend towards frustration, consider a “bag of tricks” to help get through the day.

As mentioned before, having great healthier snack options to grab is important. A few small toys, books or entertainment options (like bubbles) can help pass the time. Surprise older kids with a book about finding Hidden Mickeys inside the theme parks. 

There are dozens of things to do at Disney World with a preschooler. Here's what to do on a non-park day that doesn't require a ticket (and many are free!)
Hidden Mickey finding is perfect fun for preschoolers! Here’s one in the Beach Club lobby.

Younger children can get annoyed with being strapped into their stroller during the lengthy park days. Make sure to allow for moments when toddlers and preschoolers can walk. 

A small backpack with an attached harness like this one was a favorite when my children were small, as it allowed them a bit of freedom without getting too far away from me.

Skip Hop toddler backpack with tether harness

Noticing your kids anxiety rising inside the theme parks? There are places for kids to destress at Disneyland and Disney World.

And if you require additional help, reach out to a Cast Member. They are always happy to help point you in the right direction when you need to find a place to calm your child down.

Need More Help Planning a Disney Vacation with Kids?

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it's a small world Disneyland

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Use the Promo Code REWRITTEN and receive an extra $10 off any 2-night or longer Southern California package. (Hotel and 2 ticket minimum purchase to qualify for the discount).

Cindy Howell

Tuesday 9th of August 2016

My boys wouldn't be ok with a surprise trip either. They enjoy the Walt Disney World trip planning, just like their mom!


Thursday 28th of July 2016

These are some great tips! I couldn't agree more about taking some down time. I was always the mean parent that made my kid nap at Disney. We would put the full five point harness on, recline the stroller and pull down the shade and even cover any openiga with a light blanket (of course leaving enough for airflow) and push him around to fall asleep.


Friday 22nd of July 2016

Great tips. Especially about the parks maps and understanding what is where. More than once we have had to explain to people we have met along the way that a ride is not in the park they are in. Their faces just fall and then they realize they have to figure out the buses!!

Patricia Mickus

Thursday 21st of July 2016

Great tips. I am always surprised when people are not prepared. Disney is not your typical family vacation. You need a plan.


Thursday 21st of July 2016

Great tips Julie! I surprised my husband with a Disney trip and it was honestly way too much work. I should've just done the "surprise, everything is planned and we're going to Disney" surprise.

One thing I regretted not bringing with me on my son's first trip- a thermometer. It meant an Uber trip to a pharmacy and a lot of stress.

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