Walt Disney World Vacation with Four Kids – Part 1 – The Planning

So way back in 2010 Zachary, the kids, Zachary’s parents and I all went to Florida for our grand Walt Disney World vacation. That’s right, we thought it would be a good idea to fly on an airplane (actually two each way, thanks to layovers) with four children age seven and younger, and spend our hard-earned money on six days at a theme park.

Just to get this out of the way first, a Disney vacation is not inherently inexpensive. I know there are ways to lessen the cost, and we did do what we could to keep our expenses moderate, but this is not going to be a series of blog posts about how to visit Disney World for pennies a day. I will point out where we saved money, but we went into this with the idea that it would likely be our only trip to WDW ever (and likely our only vacation at all for several years), and we wanted to have some indulgences.

So, yes, the world is full of locations that are far more beautiful, more educational, more inspiring and way less commercialized than Walt Disney World, and many can be visited for less money. But for a vacation that gave our children seven exciting and fun-filled days in a row, and kept everyone on a pretty even-keeled level of happiness, both Zachary and I agree that the money was well-spent.

The Decision
Last summer I had been thinking about Disney World for some reason, but assumed it would be too expensive to consider. Literally the next day I got a postcard in the mail offering discounts for 40% off lodging at a Disney property. I took that as a sign and started to badger Zachary about going.

Zachary’s parents had given us a guide to WDW with children several years beforehand, actually, so immediately after calling WDW to get some basic pricing information we called both Zachary’s parents and my dad and his wife to see if they’d want to go on vacation with us. To our delight they both said yes! Unfortunately my dad and his wife did have to decline before we booked the hotel room.

The Resort
Each Disney resort had only a certain number of rooms allotted for the 40% off promotion, and by the time we made the decision to book a vacation package many of them were already taken. And because we have four children, traditional two-queen-bed rooms were not an option for us, they only have a capacity for four (or four plus a baby in a crib, in some cases). My first choice was the Polynesian since it was on the monorail system, but it was fully booked.

We eventually chose Animal Kingdom Villas, Kidani Village. I read online reviews that it was a little far away from the parks but quiet, and when you’re a light sleeper and traveling with a baby, a quiet hotel is important! The room we chose had a bedroom with its own bathroom, a living area with a sleeper sofa and a sleeper chair, and a kitchenette with a dining table. With the kids being as young as they are, we knew we wouldn’t be staying at the parks until midnight, so it was a priority for us to have room to move around, and a separate room for Zachary and I so we wouldn’t be forced to go to bed at the same time as the kids. Big note: You will often save a lot of money by staying off property, but when you do so you’re not able to purchase a dining plan or use the Disney buses to get around.

Park Tickets
Once the resort was chosen, we also planned our package with Park Hopper option for tickets. This option is more expensive than just base tickets, but allows you to go to as many parks each day as you want. In hindsight we shouldn’t have purchased this option – we only used it one day. I think with older kids you might use it, or if you were taking a shorter vacation and wanted to see as much as you could in 2-3 days, but with young children, we didn’t even see entire parks on a full day there.

We also elected to have a dining plan option added to our package. We chose the dining plan that allowed each person to have one sit down meal (included 1 entree, one dessert, and 1 non-alcoholic beverage), one quick-service meal (same, but more of a fast-food type restaurant/counter), and one snack per day (like ice cream, soda, fruit, etc.). If you don’t think you’ll want to stop your day to eat at a sit-down restaurant each day, or if you won’t take advantage of character meals, a dining plan may not save you money. I think my in-laws found it to be too much food; they had credits left over on our last day there. But for Zachary and the kids and I it definitely saved us money over what we would have paid for the same meals out of pocket.

Having a kitchen in the room also allowed us to have groceries shipped to our room so we could eat breakfast before we hit the parks, which did save us money. We used Garden Grocer and were happy with their service, but we bought too much food and water and had to leave some at the hotel when we left. It was especially nice to have the baby food delivered so we didn’t have to travel on a plane with it.

You DO Need Reservations. I Repeat, You NEED Reservations
One thing you need to know when you plan a trip to WDW is that you MUST make reservations early if you plan to eat at any sit down restaurants. I am surprised the WDW website does not push this more. Reservations open up online or by phone 180 days in advance. Yes, that is six months. I felt bad for people we saw who tried to walk up to restaurants only to be told there was no way they would be able to get a table, or they’d have to wait an hour or more. What a way to ruin a vacation, realizing you will have to eat only fast food for a week when you had hoped for slightly finer dining. We started making our reservations at around 170 days out and there were already restaurants or times that were fully booked!

In addition to dining reservations, there are special events or experiences that sometimes need reservations. We went during the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas and there were things like the Candlelight Processional that required advance booking. We played it easy and didn’t plan to attend anything that would require us to get anywhere early, sit still, or be quiet.

But we did book an appointment for Isla at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, which gives girls the experience of being all done up like a princess for a day, and the boys at the Pirates League, which got them done down like pirates and taught swashbuckling moves. The Pirates League is newer and I don’t think as many people know about it as BBB; we saw many princesses each day, but not many pirates.

We considered driving to FL for about two seconds, then realized that with hotels, gas and meals along the way, we wouldn’t actually be saving that much money, and it would be a much bigger headache getting there. So we booked five tickets through Southwest, and eventually added a sixth seat for Jonah after I realized I didn’t want to deal with a squirming toddler PLUS three antsy kids on our flights there and back.

It ended up being cheaper for us to fly to FL two days before our WDW vacation began, and spend two nights at a cheap hotel near the airport, than to fly in the day the vacation package began. It worked out nicely because we had the whole first day of the vacation to check in and explore. There is a service called Disney’s Magical Express that will pick you up in a coach bus from the airport and transport you and your luggage to your resort. The day our WDW reservation began, we took the free airport hotel shuttle back to the airport and hopped aboard the Magical Express, which stopped at several resorts before depositing us at Animal Kingdom Lodge.

You can rent single or double strollers at WDW, but it’s somewhere around $40 a day (don’t quote me on that, I’m too lazy to look it up). We decided to bring our own double jogging stroller. While it was a hassle at the airport, it was definitely a lifesaver. It held our gear, Jonah, and whichever other kid was too tired or ornery to walk at the moment. We needed that stroller.

Now, to a part of planning that is completely unnecessary but fun if you’re a mom like me who is perhaps overly enthusiastic about kids clothes. I spent too much time finding things for the kids to wear while we were at WDW. You’ll find people at Disney who run the gamut from identical tie-died t-shirts for everyone in the family, complete with names embroidered on the front, to people who look like they just strolled in from their hotel bed and grabbed whichever crumpled shirt was closest. I wanted to fit in the middle – I didn’t buy matching clothes for Zachary and I, and I didn’t plan on head-to-toe matching Disney for the kids each day. But I did buy them black t-shirts with white Mickey head silhouettes from a shop on Etsy, and I grabbed I think one other Disney themed shirt for each kid. I also admit that I bought safari/animal themed clothes for them to wear at Animal Kingdom, and I bought pirate costumes for the boys’ day with Pirates League, and Isla brought along a blue Cinderella-ish dress for her day at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.

Anyway, if you’re at all like me you’ll want to factor in some time and funds hunting down these completely non-essential wardrobe items.

Keeping Everything Straight
I have a bit of a split personality when it comes to organization. In many areas of my life I am not organized at all, and oh how it shows, but in other areas I am downright methodical. When it came to planning our trip, I was methodical. The picture at the top of the screen is a screen cap of the Excel spreadsheet I created to keep track of our reservations and plans each day. I listed each park’s Extra Magic Hours so I knew which parks to avoid when making reservations, I put park hours, the parks we planned to visit, and our reservations with confirmation numbers (not shown) with each. I also had other worksheets for things we needed (or, ahem, wanted) to buy, and a packing list that was so detailed it was broken down by person.

And Because this Post Isn’t Quite Long Enough, a Little More Information
That about covers the basics of planning our trip. There is a message board at http://www.disboards.com that is full of good information, but be forewarned, there are a lot of Disney fanatics on the site and you sometimes have to look past the obsessively-natured to get to the good information. And make use of the search feature before asking a question, because they’re not always kind to people who post redundant questions. We also really liked the previously-mentioned Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids. Our version was slightly outdated, but most of the information was spot on and helpful.

Some message boards include information about crowd levels are for parks each day of the year, which is good to know. Often people plan park days based on which restaurants they got reservations for each day, or vice versa. When you stay at a Disney resort you are entitled to Extra Magic Hours at certain parks each day. Some people will tell you to take advantage of these EMH, while others will tell you to avoid the parks those days since everyone else from the resorts will go there. We chose to avoid the parks with EMH.

I know this post is on the dry side and probably 1500 words too long, but I wanted to write down what you might want to do when/if you start planning a trip to Walt Disney World. The best advice is to start as early as you can, make important dining reservations as soon as you know when you’re going, and unless you’re a super awesome budgeting guru, plan on spending more than you expected as you get excited about new options you learn about. And plan to want to go again, even if you originally swore you’d only take one trip to WDW in your lifetime.



  1. […] Walt Disney World Vacation with Four Kids – Part I – The Planning Walt Disney World Vacation with Four Kids – Part II – Traveling and the First Day at Epcot Walt Disney World Vacation with Four Kids – Part III – Epcot (Again) and Magic Kingdom Walt Disney World Vacation with Four Kids – Part IV – Magic Kingdom Walt Disney World Vacation with Four Kids – Part V – Animal Kingdom, Disney Hollywood Studios and a Return to Epcot […]

  2. […] get many hits to this blog from people searching for how to plan a Disney World vacation with kids, and I’ve had a few requests for a copy of the spreadsheet I use to plan our trip, from the […]

  3. […] head to Florida next month and I can’t wait. Our last trip was so fun, I’m looking forward to doing it all over again with the kids, who are all two years older […]

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