Disney with young kids: first timer tips, hotels, food allergies

Disney World certainly wasn’t at the top of my vacation bucket list, but the timing and pricing in February worked out, so we decided to give it a first-time go. Nick and I have never been big Disney people so we went in with low expectations, and honestly had such a good time as a family!

I wanted to answer some FAQ’s from Instagram, but note family preferences will vary widely based on ages and interests. As a little background, my kids are aged 3 and 5, and they’re big fans of the Disney classics and characters. Since Disney+ streaming service offers many audio languages, we have movie night in Mandarin each month as a fun way of bilingual learning, and read many of the Little Golden story books. While their familiarity with characters definitely added to the magic, I know they would’ve had a blast regardless!

You can also read my post on outfits packed (including the best princess dresses), and some things I wish we had brought.

disney family outfits gap kids abercrombie sweater sambas

When is the best age to visit Disney for the 1st time?

When I asked you guys, answers ranged from “any! it’s different at every age” to “when the kids are old enough to remember and meet all the height requirements.” After going, I believe age 5/6 was just perfect for a first visit (at least for families who don’t plan on going regularly), although our 3 year old certainly had a grand time.

At age 5 Nori was old enough to truly appreciate many elements of the trip and last through most of the day, but young enough to still believe and feel the magic. After our trip, she’s still talking regularly about the memories and things to do if we go back. The number of times the kids whispered, “wow….wow…” to each other on a daily basis just about made it all worth it!

As an FYI, kids under age 3 get free park admission and eat free at buffets / fixed priced / Character meals. That saves about $100+ a day on admission alone, so something to consider if you’re contemplating a visit! Not meeting all the height requirements was a non-issue for us since there’s no shortage of things to do.

How long did you stay?

We did 4 nights (3 park days) and would’ve liked at least 1 more. I could see staying even longer if you’d like a “rest day” in between. We did Magic Kingdom on Day 1, Epcot on Day 2, and back to Magic Kingdom on Day 3 (since we only covered half of it earlier), and would’ve loved an extra day to visit Animal Kingdom.

Budgeting at Disney: Splurge vs Save

Disney World costs took me by surprise, so I wanted to share some areas where we ended up splurging vs. saving. Friends have also done Disney on a budget by staying at much more $-friendly hotels.

What we splurged on:

  • Lodging at a convenient Disney resort along the Magic Kingdom monorail. As first-timers with young kids, we really enjoyed this.
  • Genie+ for Lightning Lanes (the “fast pass” at Disney World) – about $35 per person, per day. This really adds up for a family, but significantly minimized vacation time spent waiting in lines.

What we skipped:

  • Fixed price restaurants and buffets. The popular restaurants like California Grill or Ohana are around $250-$300 for dinner for a fam of 4. By doing mostly casual or takeout with a few sit-down restaurant meals, we kept the costs of all 3 meals to $200 – $250 daily. You can also bring a small cooler to pack food & drinks for the parks.
  • Character dining experiences. I was torn on this one! While pricey, they’re obviously fun and I do think they save a lot of time from waiting in individual meet & greet lines.
  • Bibbidi Bobbidy Boutique. The famous makeover where kids get a princess dress, hair, and makeup done by Cinderella’s fairy godmothers. But what Nori doesn’t know won’t hurt her (and saved us $500) and we brought all our princess attire from home.
  • Souvenirs. We set expectations ahead of time with the kids that we wouldn’t be buying toys or trinkets at the parks.
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Nightly fireworks from our room balcony at the Contemporary Hotel

Where did you stay?

While we usually prefer Airbnbs when traveling, we opted for a Disney resort for perks like convenience, easy free transit and early entry. Many of you recommended staying at a resort along the monorail if we’d be frequenting Magic Kingdom, citing the convenience of popping back mid-day for a pool or nap break. The monorail line stops at Magic Kingdom and 3 resorts:

  • The Contemporary. We stayed here, and an added benefit is you can walk to/from Magic Kingdom in less than 10 minutes. Great to have as an alternative option to the monorail!

    The rooms are average and plain by hotel standards with subtle The Incredibles theming, but I found them to be fairly renovated and clean. There’s a family-friendly pool with clean life jackets that we used daily, hot tubs, sandy “beach” area with cabanas, good allergy-friendly food downstairs at Steakhouse 71, and the kids loved that the monorail goes right through the hotel lobby. We stayed in a standard 2 queen bed, theme park-facing room and enjoyed nightly fireworks from our balcony! If you’re a light sleeper, though, I found that staying in the main building got a little loud at night.

    We booked 2 months in advance during a “low” week, and it averaged to around $800/night (still crazy IMO) but it did make for a great first visit. It was priced the lowest out of the 3 monorail resorts, and I’m not sure how much costs vary different times of year.
  • The Polynesian. By far, this and the Grand Floridian were named the most often by readers as their favorite Disney World resort. Many mentioned loving the pools here.
  • The Grand Floridian. The most luxurious and $$$ resort at Disney that definitely felt fancy and elegant compared to the usual Disney themes (first pic above was taken there). While visiting we also saw a large, fun-looking kids splash area.
Disney contemporary hotel A frame room review
Our room at the Contemporary hotel, right above the monorail path

Disney World Tips for a First Visit

Some tips that came in handy!

  • If you’re staying at a Disney hotel and want to take full advantage of the 30 minutes early entry, plan to arrive at the park before that time. Early entry is when you can start going on rides, but you can physically enter the parks much earlier. So if a park opens to the public at 9AM, early entry is at 8:30. I’d arrive to the park around 8:10 to walk to the first rides you want to hop on.
  • @mydisneyadventure2 has so many great Disney tips & tricks for families with kids
  • Get familiar with the Disney World app in advance. Learn how to check standby wait times and find character meet & greet locations and times, if interested (see pic below).
  • I thought it was helpful to watch a few YouTube videos (like this) on what each attraction / ride is like, whether it’s dark or has any surprises like a drop, etc.
  • We often found that the most popular rides with the longest wait times were not our family favorites (ie Peter Pan & Jungle Cruise in Magic Kingdom). If you skip some of those, you can likely go on multiple rides and attractions in the time you’d be waiting for one.
  • Learn about Rider Switch if relevant.
  • With young kids, lower expectations and don’t try to do too much. I was told to pick 5-7 rides/activities you really want to do each day. For our nap-averse kids, this also meant wrapping up mid-afternoon at the parks daily before potential meltdowns. And putting them to bed early even if it meant missing the fireworks.
  • For first timers buying Genie + Lightning Lanes (these are like a “fast pass” for lines), make sure to research online or ask your Disney planner in detail how it works and ways to maximize it i.e. with Standby Skipper.
  • Pack slow-munching snacks to keep kids busy while waiting in lines, even for Lightning Lanes.
  • If using Lightning Lane, there’s a grace period starting 5 minutes prior to your stated “return window” to at least 2 hours after that window, so don’t stress if you’re running late.
disney world app how to find character meet greets
Disney App: for character meet & greets, click into each character to see the time slots for that day.

Magic Kingdom specific tips:

  • Some shared the best spot to watch the Fantasy Parade is by City Hall on Main Street near the entrance of the park. This is also where the parade ends. The parade starts at 3PM, and we arrived at this spot around 3:10 both days and had front-row parade access that the kids loved!
  • When you’re tired: the People Mover is an easy and long ride with great views of Magic Kingdom and almost no lines. The Railroad (runs between Fantasyland, Frontierland, and the entrance at Main Street) is a nice way to get around without pushing through crowds.
  • A lunch spot with average food but a picturesque, peaceful view was the 2nd floor balcony of Pinnochio Village Haus. We welcomed the quiet respite from the crowds, and they also had allergy-friendly options for my little pizza lover.
family disney tips elsa girls dress
Loved this spot at Main Street for a front-row view of the parade!

How did you get around?

For getting to & from the airport and hotel, we did Uber/Lyft which was about $55 each way. This lighter weight Cosco car seat was a reader recommendation 4 years ago and is still our go-to for travel. There are also Minnie vans which have car seats, but they cost several times more than a standard Uber or Lyft.

For parks and airport travel, we brought our trusty Yoyo stroller with ride along board. I read that a stroller was a must at Disney, even for kids who’ve outgrown one back home, and it truly was a lifesaver having two stroller seats for the amount of walking we did. You don’t have to collapse your stroller to get on the monorail or Skyliner gondola, so the only times we had to fold it were on the Disney buses and the railroad train inside Magic Kingdom.

Disney is very stroller friendly with stroller parking at nearly every ride, and it seemed like no one worried about anyone stealing their stuff. There are also plenty of stroller rental options both in the park and companies that deliver them to your hotel.

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Peaceful lunch spot in Magic Kingdom with allergy-friendly pizza and a view

What was your itinerary?

Day 1: Arrival/Resort Day. Got in around noon and Uber’d to hotel for early check-in. Had pool time and rode the free Disney bus and Skyliner gondola (we enjoyed this!) to explore some other Disney hotels. Took the bus to Magic Kingdom, where we hopped on the monorail to dinner at Kona Cafe in the Polynesian resort (food was average). Many suggested checking out Disney Springs for dining & entertainment, which we’ll have to do next time!

Day 2: Magic Kingdom. During the early entry period and the first hour or so after public opening, there was no wait / very short waits for easy rides like the Barnstomer roller coaster, Under the Sea, Small World, Tomorrowland Speedway, Dumbo and more. We knocked many of those rides out without needing Lightning Lanes, until the kids wanted to ride a few again when the park got busier.

We also used our Lightning Lanes for popular attractions like Peter Pan’s flight, Jungle Cruise, Buzz Lightyear, Belle’s Enchanted Tales, and character meet & greets that are not open during early entry. We weren’t big fans of the first two, but the kids loved Buzz, Belle (an interactive “play” great for younger kids), the People Mover and adored the meet & greets. Rio refused his nap each day, so we stayed until the Fantasy Parade (another highlight) ending around 3:30PM, before heading back to the hotel for pool & chill time.

Day 3: We were torn on Epcot vs Animal Kingdom, so I polled you guys on what’s better for young kids and it was split exactly 50/50. So I guess it’s just personal preference! Our kids are in a princess & Elsa phase and it was rainy, so we chose Epcot for more indoor activities. We ate & drank “around the world,” rode Nemo and the aquarium, Figment the dinosaur, Frozen (our fave at Epcot), Ratatouille (we’re prone to motion sickness and would not do it again) and met several princesses in each country. This is where I believe the Princess dining at Akershus would’ve been worth it to meet everyone (except Elsa + Anna) at one meal, rather than waiting in multiple meet & greet lines throughout the day.

Day 4: Our last full day. It would’ve make sense to do a park we hadn’t gone to yet, but our kids loved Magic Kingdom so much, we went back for attractions we missed earlier. Even with two days at Magic Kingdom, there were still several attractions we didn’t get to.

disney food allergies dairy nut shiki sai epcot kids meal review
Tasty kids meal at Shiki-Sai in Epcot with allergy modifications.

Did you book through a Disney planner?

Yes! This was a big tip from you guys, and comes at no extra cost for trips that are 3 days or longer (Disney will pay planners a commission). As a first-time visitor I found it very helpful to have someone knowledgeable to ask a ton of questions and walk through our itinerary with in detail. Based on the MANY recommendations I received, there are clearly tons of good planners out there. I clicked one of the first recs I got, and the planner Joseph Cheung happened to be a fellow local parent of kids similar to mine in age (with food allergies too), so we clicked!

How is Disney with Food Allergies?

Wonderful! Disney and Disney cruises are well-known for being great with food allergies. Our kid has a dairy, nut & egg allergy, and almost everywhere we ate in the parks and hotels was allergy-conscious.

  • Most Disney restaurants have better-than-average allergy procedures in place, including a designated prep area to minimize cross contamination, and a manager checking each allergy order.
  • Each Disney restaurant has an online menu with allergy menu at the bottom. Check these out in advance as a guideline.
  • Once you’re at a restaurant, you can ask to talk to the chef to get more allergy-friendly options that may not be on the menu. The more formal sit down restaurants provided greater attention and alternative options over casual grab & go spots.
  • Kid-friendly dairy, egg & nut-free snacks that can be found throughout Disney: Mickey waffles (tho my kids were not a fan), Mickey soft pretzels, and fruit Dole Whips but not the vanilla flavor.
  • At Magic Kingdom, Columbia Harbor House has healthier allergy-friendly kids meals like grilled salmon or shrimp, though Nori preferred getting the so-so dairy-free pizza at Pinnocchio’s Village Haus (I had a decent chicken caesar salad that contains dairy).
  • At Epcot, a tasty allergy-friendly snack was the fresh baked bread and dips in Morocco. We also had a meal at Shiki-Sai in Japan which was pretty good sushi, leaps and bounds better than our meal at Kona Cafe in the Polynesian hotel.
  • At the Contemporary hotel, we got daily takeout from Steakhouse 71 for the kids (adults after the kids snoozed) and ate it either by the Contempo Cafe area watching the monorail, or by the pool. Their kids meals are well-priced for steak, “cheese” burger, fish, or chicken with a choice of 2 sides. The kiddos even loved the green beans here, and Nick & I enjoyed their breakfast & dinner.
disney dairy nut allergy friendly restaurants contemporary steakhouse 71
Enjoying an allergy-friendly kids meal from Steakhouse 71 by the Contemporary hotel pool.

Related: what we wore at Disney (including the best princess dresses) and what I’d pack differently.

Whew! That was a lot! We’re FAR from Disney experts having just wrapped up a first visit, so would love to any input or tips for our next visit. Also happy to answer any more questions on our trip or the food allergy aspect!

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4 Comments

  1. Katie wrote:

    Thank you for this! We’re heading to Disney for the first time later this year (my kids will be 5 and 8) and this is so helpful!

    Posted 3.5.24 Reply
  2. Jane L Lassner wrote:

    Excellent summary, Jean. I sent this to my son and DIL who have kids the same age as yours and are planning a trip in about two years.

    Posted 3.4.24 Reply
  3. Valeri Ann Pighini wrote:

    OMG Jean I love watching your children grow. And this was such a fun post. It’s been many years since I’ve visited Disneyland and this information would have been so helpful. I enjoy your posts so much.

    Posted 3.3.24 Reply
    • Jean | Extra Petite wrote:

      It’s always so wonderful to hear from you, Valeri! Hope you’re doing great!

      Posted 3.8.24 Reply

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