Disney vacation with a 4-and-a-half year old

My husband is taking a business trip to Orlando next June, and wants me to join him after he’s done with our daughter for a few days at the park. I know next to nothing about Disney and the ridiculous amount of theme parks in the area. What should we plan to do? Where should we stay? Where are the best places to go with a four year old girl who loves amusement park rides? We’ll have 3-4 days there.

Stay on property if you can. Pick the resort that fits best for you and your husband, it won’t matter to your kid. Don’t try to do too much. A couple of hours at one of the parks followed by a nap and then another couple of hours works well. We always did at least one day of no parks at all, just go to the pool or do what we always do: one day of just riding boats from one resort to another and pool time, costs nothing and is fun for the kids and adults (if you get an adult beverage at each resort :slight_smile:

IMHO the character meals are a total rip-off.

I second the overriding advice of not trying to do too much.

Your kid’s age will naturally keep your family away from the biggest rides that have the longest waits. MouseWait (mobile app) can help if you really want to be neurotic about things.

One park a day, naps are essential, and never forget you’re there to have fun.

We really like the Contemporary resort. The monorail goes right through the lobby, it’s very close to the Magic Kingdom, and it has a little lake with a beach in the back that you can fish in and rent boats. It also has charachter breakfast in the hotel for a really reasonable price, and the California Grill is a decent place for dinner.

Stay on the property, yes. I like the character breakfasts at DisneyLAND, never tried one at World.

len, one of our Posters here, is the author of the invaluable Unofficial Guide to Disneyworld. Get it. Must have, must read, yes subscribe to their website.

My parents took me to Disneyland when I was 3 years old. They say I ran screaming in terror from one of the characters. Either Goofy or Mickey Mouse, can’t remember which one. Don’t force the little tyke on giant mutants.

And be careful of Snow Whites Scary adventures, which may even be closed anyway.

My eldest sister was tasked with watching one of our other sisters when they(or possibly we but I would have just been a baby if I was even there,) went to Disney. S was probably 6-7 or so. L, the older, really wanted to go on some more grown-up rides, but S wouldn’t hear it. So L told her that Space Mountain was a kid’s ride called ‘Baby Space Ride’ S hasn’t enjoyed roller coasters since then.

It has indeed closed permanently as part of the present expansion of Fantasyland.

Yes, stay on property, whichever resort fits your budget (I’m greatly fond of the Polynesian and the Wilderness Lodge, but there are so many great resorts), yes, plan on returning to the resort for several hours of rest and maybe pool time at the first sign of crankiness. Do your research in advance so you aren’t bewildered once you’re there. The Unofficial Guide is obsessively detailed in the best possible way. The best park for a little one is the Magic Kingdom; I would probably suggest avoiding the Animal Kingdom in June (it gets just so muggy in warm weather). Disney’s Hollywood Studios has good stuff for the short set, and isn’t so overwhelmingly large; Epcot has plenty for kids but you’ll need to plan carefully so she doesn’t get worn out walking around.

In fact, ‘plan carefully’ is always going to be the key to a successful Disney trip. You won’t regret doing all the legwork in advance once you’re there.

Oh, and one thing you must know about is the Fastpass system. Unlike other theme parks, the Disney parks don’t charge for it. Basically, you go to a ride that uses Fastpass, feed your park tickets into the Fastpass machine, and receive your tickets back along with a Fastpass for a particular time. For very popular rides like Soarin’ in Epcot and Toy Story Midway Mania in DHS, the Fastpasses for the whole day might be allocated early on, so it behooves you to hit them soon after you arrive so you’ll be assured of riding them at some point.

My first trip to Walt Disney World was when I was 7, and the magic has never left me. It’s my favorite place in the whole world.

One specific set of circumstances where we found it to be well worthwhile to go to a character breakfast:

  1. If you can get yourself and your daughter up early.
  2. If you can get a reservation at the character breakfast at the Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom about an hour or so before the opening of the park.

It’s Winnie the Pooh themed, so it would help if your daughter likes Pooh, Tigger, etc.
The main advantage of this is that when you get to the main gate (an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half before the park opening) you’ll find people already waiting to get in. These people will all have to wait at the bottom of Main Street for the rope drop. You, on the other hand, can show your reservation voucher to the Cast Members at the main gate, and they will let you through the rope, at which point you get to have the experience of walking up a nearly-empty, freshly scrubbed Main Street. The Crystal Palace is at the Hub (center of the park), near the entry to Adventure Land. You go in, take plenty of pictures with the charactures, and then when you are done you get to go out of the restaurant and stand at the rope at the entry to Adventureland, while the vast majority of guests are standing back behind the rope at the main gate.

Not cheap, but a unique experience with the advantage of getting into the park early.
Restaurant info here http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/reservations/dining/the-crystal-palace/

It’s hard to describe how wonderful the walk up Main Street is.

Also (I don’t know if they still do this), you used to be able to ask the attendants at the monorail stations if you could ride in the nose of the monorail, up with the driver. It’s a very different, very neat view of the property from there.


Definitely take it easy. Staying on the property makes it a whole lot easier to go back to your room and take a nap and a swim, which is not only a good idea but you may find very necessary. Last time there we stayed at Port Orleans Riverside, in the Gator Bayou part, which was very secluded and shady and had a nice pool. So far it’s my favorite of the mid-range hotels. I’ll see if I can get you some pictures through Facebook.

In addition to staying on the property, look into meal plans; sometimes the plans are sold mighty cheap. Some folks say the plans are more expensive than paying out of pocket, but we found that they simplified things a lot, and if you plan it right and make reservations, you can eat some mighty fine food on the plan, places like Ohana’s and Cape May. Most plans include a daily “snack”, so you can grab some ice cream or something at the park, which is very welcome on a hot day.

Speaking of heat: bring water bottles. We brought three, like this. Every time we could, we filled up on ice and water. Florida’s hot.

Your kiddo is still little. You’ll deal with a lot less complaining if you rent a stroller. We got one from a company called Kingdom Strollers that delivered one to our hotel, and when the dates of our vacation changed due to the airline, they added on a day for free. That was the most awesome stroller ever; if I could have figured out a way to steal it, I would have. Super sturdy, smooth rolling, handle adjusted to a height that was comfortable even for tall me and my stride, and it collapsed instantly by lifting one handle. Loved that thing. You may want to make a “license plate” for it so you know which one’s yours.

Figure out what stuff she’ll want to do. The little Torqueling had fun seeking autographs from characters, collecting pressed pennies, and trading pins. Pin trading’s easy: start by picking up a big grab-bag pack on eBay for way less than they sell individually. They’ll probably all be duds, but don’t worry about that; put some on a lanyard and start walking around. Any Disney employees wearing pins have to trade with you if you ask, any of theirs for any of yours. Employees with green lanyards will only trade with kids. That makes it pretty easy to start nabbing neat pins. We were there near Halloween, so I started building a collection of Halloween-themed and candy corn pins. The little Torqueling collected princesses and Tinker Bell. For pins you want to show off and not trade, they sell locking backs at the gift shops.

Also, plan for souvenirs. If your kiddo is like ours, she’ll want one of everything. Make it clear before you even get there how many things they can get. We let her get one “baby” character plush every day, which didn’t break the bank and satisfied her yearning for stuffed animals.

Odds are your kiddo will like Magic Kingdom the best of all the parks, so plan to spend a lot of time there. If she likes rides, she’ll probably love the three Mountains (Splash, Big Thunder, and Space). As long as you’re holding her hand and telling her the ghosts are pretend, the Haunted Mansion should be fun. And this is a running joke with our family, but: steer clear of the Carousel of Progress. Trust me.

I can share lots more with you; planning Disney vacations is one of Mrs. Torque’s favorite hobbies (I think she was a kindergarten teacher in a previous life). Let me know if there’s anything she or I can help you with.

I second this endorsement. It is a key read for anyone going to DisneyWorld for the first time. ESPECIALLY if you are going with a younger child. It will tell you what rides are scary and all the height requirements and has ratings of each attraction by age group.

After a monorail accident, Disney no longer allows passengers in the front of the monorail. I agree that it was a fantastic experience, but guests can’t do it anymore. :frowning:
I love Disneyworld. June will be pretty hot so plan for downtime and scope out the attractions with lots of AC. (Hall of Presidents may bore your kid, but the AC will be welcome.)

At any counter service food service you can ask for ice water for no charge. We bring a water bottle and refill with ice water from the counter service places throughout the day. In the warmer months, we bring powdered gatorade (in individual packets) with us as well. We find that the flavoring encourages us to drink more which is very much needed in the hot months. Also, there are water fountains throughout the parks so you can refill your bottle there if needed.

If your daughter is into princesses, then you might want to research that. There is a whole Disney Princess industry with meet and greets, dresses, meals… I’d tell you myself, but we haven’t had to go down the princess path yet. Niece is currently 1 so its coming, just not yet.

Looks like the 2013 Unofficial Guide is coming out at the end of next month, so I just pre-ordered it. Since I’m a total Disney n00b, I’m sure it’ll be helpful–plus, it’s nice to know I’m helping a fellow Doper by buying it!

Thanks for all the advice. The stroller rental sounds like a fantastic idea–Josie doesn’t use a stroller at home anymore, but I’d imagine we’d both appreciate it.

It might actually let the little one take a short snooze :slight_smile:

Our younger son was 4 1/2 on our first trip to Disney World. It is a different experience than going with an older child, and of course you have to keep the kiddo’s needs first and foremost, but it was wonderful! There’s so much for little kids and their parents to enjoy together.

Yes to staying on property - even the All-Star and Pop Century resorts are awesome. Yes to planned breaks every day - a swim, a nap, or even just some cartoons on TV in an air conditioned room. Yes to reading the Unofficial Guide before you go. Use the plans in there as general guidelines, and skip what isn’t interesting.

If she likes Winnie the Pooh, a meal at the Crystal Palace can be a good introduction to the characters. Most of the kids there are small still, so the characters are good about approaching slowly and watching their reaction.

Oh - if you know you want to eat at a character meal or any of the sit-down restaurants, it pays to make reservations well in advance.

Have fun if you decide to go!

We went with my four and a half year old (and my then six month old) early this summer. It was a really great time. They know what they’re doing down there, so it’s much less aggravation than you’d expect. Don’t worry about the kid being too little – unlike the more roller-coaster centered amusement parks, Disney has a million attractions that are appropriate for that age. (As well as some that aren’t. Stay away from Expedition Everest at that age, even if the kid is tall enough. It’s scary.)

I agree to make your plans early – reservations for character meals fill up months in advance. They’re not cheap, but if you tyke would enjoy that type of thing (ours sure as hell did), they’re a lot of fun. There are princess character meals if your kid is into them. (Which, being a four year old girl, she probably is.)

I also agree that you should stay on the property and get the meal plan. In terms of economics, this is not a vacation you should be trying to pinch pennies on. Perhaps there are ways to eat for less than the meal plan, but the convenience, variety, and convenience (yeh, I said it twice) are worth a lot when you’re hot and tired.

We did the mid-afternoon nap a couple times, and a couple times we went all day. I don’t think you have to take a break every single day, but it’s certainly too much to never take a break. Plus, the afternoon nap will make it possible for a kid you daughter’s age to make it to the electrical parade in the Magic Kingdom once or twice (which starts at 9, IIRC). A must see.

I would recommend the park hopper pass, which lets you go from park to park in the same day. It’s useful if you do take the afternoon break and then want to hit something new, or if you want to go to the electrical parade a couple times even if you didn’t do the Magic Kingdom that day.

We did four and a half days at the resort, hit all four parks (Hollywood Studios just briefly), and that worked out very well, although there were still things we didn’t get around to. Absolutely use the Fastpass system. It’s so much more efficient to get a pass to come back in an hour or two and then go see the Tiki Room show than spend that entire time just standing around sweating.

In terms of attractions, absolutely go on the safari ride at Animal Kingdom if your kid digs animals at all.

Finally, Disney itself has a very good iPhone app (I don’t know if it’s available on other systems), and there are other free ones that are useful as well.


Something I forgot from earlier, but you’ll find in the guidebooks and on Disney’s website: if you stay at a resort on the Disney property, you can have “extra magic hours”. Every day one park will open an hour earlier than normal, and one will stay open later than normal, just for people staying at Disney resorts. It’s a lot easier to get into the most popular attractions during those times, since the park isn’t as crowded.

Regarding character meals, yeah, get all that you can, it’s some great one-on-one time with the characters. I recommend the Princess meal at Akershus, the restaurant in the Norway pavilion at Epcot. Loads of princesses, little girls will love dressing up and participating in the “royal procession”.

Oh yeah, that deserves a mention: touringplans.com makes a Disney World line tracking app that lets you know how long the wait is at any ride in any of the parks. Very handy for deciding where to go next. You do have to subscribe to get all the cool stuff.

One more thing in closing: one of the coolest things we did last time we were there was something I didn’t even know was available. As a group, we rented a boat and driver. Around sunset, we cruised around the lake, checking out various sights and getting a nice tour and lots of info from the driver. Then, she drove us to a nice spot near the Magic Kingdom to watch the fireworks from the lake. Finally, we drove to another spot near the Polynesian, and watched the Electrical Water Pageant up close and personal. Being on the lake at night felt great, some very welcome solitude after all the crowds.

We’ve been going every other year or so since the kids were 2 and 3.

Take it at YOUR pace - trying to nap when our kids were the age of your daughter was a huge disaster…we were much better off starting early and powering through and calling it quits at 4 or 5 with an early dinner rather than trying to get back to the room for a nap. They were just too wound up to nap, and we wasted three hours. Then, without a nap, we had early nights anyway. Instead, we perfected the “middle of the day in park downtime” - the aforementioned Hall of Presidents - the Tomorrowland People Mover. The MK Train. And were in bed by eight (my kids didn’t know Disney HAD fireworks for several years - they were always asleep).

Likewise, make your own decisions - you may find the Tiki Birds enchanting even if the guidebook tells you to pass it over. Your favorite park may turn out to be Animal Kingdom (which many people don’t like, and I adore).

On the “they don’t need to know” note - you don’t need to tell her all the things she COULD do- if you don’t want a meal with princesses, just don’t mention they are available. If you don’t want to spend two hours seeing your little girl get dolled up into a princess dress, don’t mention it (its Bibbity Bobbity Boutique, where they do her hair, nails and makeup and put her in a princess costume for some extraordinary amount of money).

Know your kid - 4 1/2 is an age where some kids go on EVERYTHING that they are tall enough for - and some 4 1/2 year olds are tall enough for darn near everything. Some are frightened of all but the easy stuff. (Disney isn’t really a big thrill ride sort of place)

Know how to work the parks, the Unofficial Guide is great for this. Make a Touring Plan. Prioritize your attractions.

With three or four days, you won’t do everything just at Disney (and there is SeaWorld and Universal Studios as well), so relax and prioritize.

Bring some snacks for your child to the parks. Official policy is no outside food allowed, but they look the other way if you do bring something in.

Thanks Drain Bead! We were updating the 2013 book as of July 25, so it should contain all the latest on the revised evening Extra Magic Hours.

Send me a PM and I’ll get you a login for our website too. This way you don’t have to wait to start planning.