When to go
When travelling to Disney World with a young child, timing is crucial! Even something as simply as staying from Sunday thru Thursday to avoid higher weekend resort rates can save you hundreds of dollars. If at all possible, also avoid going during peak seasons when the crowds are high and the line ups are long. Going during the summer will guarantee you heat and humidity, something this Canuck mommy is not used to! There are several websites out there that have traffic calendars which not only advise you on crowd by week but will even give you information on good parks to go to and which parks to avoid on any given day (including Sea World, Universal Studios). Here is a general idea on the best and worst periods to go to Disney World in terms of crowd levels:
Avoid: Periods around all major US holidays (like Easter, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Christmas, New Year’s). Crowds are high and booking your hotel and flight can cost twice the price of regular season.
Avoid: Christmas week up to New Year’s Day (it would intuitively seem like a good time to go because you figure everyone will be at home with their families around the holidays…wrong! This is one of the busiest times of the time for Orlando parks). It is also very expensive to go during this time given higher resort and flight costs.
Avoid: Late May to end of August period (schools are out, people are on summer vacation, and it is HOT and HUMID). People will say that there are advantages to going in the summer, given that the parks are usually later, closing at 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on some times depending on the extra magic hours but if you’re like me, I usually don’t plan to stay up this late with my young children. I like getting to the park early and being back to the resort by 9 p.m. to get them to bed at a decent time.
(Possibly) Avoid: June to November is technically Hurricane season in Florida, but many people have travelled to Disney World during these months and it is not usually a problem with the exception that you may experience short bouts of extreme weather, like heavy rain for about an hour, and then it’ll be nice and sunny the rest of the day. You can get some really great deals during September to November.
Best to go: January 2nd up to the first week of February – crowds are low, weather is mild (you’ll need to bring a spring jacket and longer clothing), travel deals are good – however, parks do tend to use this downtime to perform maintenance on their property and rides, so some attractions and locations may be closed. We traveled to Disney World during the first week of February and we had no issues with closed attractions but we definitely experienced cooler whether in the evenings at the parks….so bring a jacket and warmer clothes!
Best to go: First weeks of December (NOT Christmas week) – crowds are low, weather is mild, and Disney World does an incredible job adding extra magic with their Christmas decorations within their parks and resorts (they really go all out!) along with organizing special events like Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party that takes place on certain nights starting in November through to December (extra admission fee applies for this event).
Best to go: September and October – if you don’t mind the heat and humidity and some rain, September offers some of the lowest prices on resorts (including Disney Resort deals usually) and flights and the crowd lows are extremely low since the kids are back in school and summer vacations are over. Disney World also begins their Mickey’s Not so Scary Halloween Party on certain nights in September and October (extra admission fee applies for this event) where you can actually get dressed up and go trick or treating at Magic Kingdom and see all of your favourite characters in Halloween costumes (note that this is the only time when Disney World will allow you to wear a costume inside the parks).
Where to stay
When it comes to booking your resort, it pays to do your research and not just booking the cheapest hotel you see. While you can always get recommendations through travel agencies, I prefer to do my research online, generally pouring hours into resort reviews, calling resorts to ask questions about shuttle service, airport shuttle, etc. and the pay off is that you know what to expect when you get there and there are no surprises, which allows you enjoy a stress free Disney vacation with your family if you’ve done a good job with your pre-planning.
Having flown down to Orlando and not wanting to rent a car, I needed a family friendly resort that was accessible and convenient to the parks. During my first two trips with my kids, we decided to stay off Disney property. Thankfully, there are an abundance of hotels to choose from that offer shuttle service to the parks every day. In the mornings, we would just take the stroller, hop on a shuttle to get the parks and arrive back to the hotel by the same means. However, before deciding to book with a resort, make sure you do your homework on the hotel’s shuttle service; while many will advertise shuttle service, there are variations in the quality of the service (how often buses run, how late do they run, how busy they get if they service other hotels also) and some hotels even charge for this (e.g. free shuttle service, part of the oh so popular “resort fee” that is charged daily to your room, usually ranging from $15-$25 per night, or per use such as $5 per person per bus trip).
I enjoy using Expedia.ca and Tripadvisor.com to do my research and for booking of my hotels. I always read guest reviews to make sure the resort is the right fit for me and family. However, just because you are looking at rates from a big company like Expedia, doesn’t always mean you’ll get the cheapest rate. It really pays to shop around. Once I’ve picked a hotel I want to stay at, I will often try other hotel booking websites and will sometimes be able to find a much lower rate. I personally have had some success with finding lower rates with lastminutetravel.com.
Booking hotels online tip: Once you’ve decided on the hotel and want to book online, check the rate comparison between your desktop computer and your tablet (e.g. iPad) and between a PC computer and Apple/MAC computer. You may be surprised to find different rates between these different hardware. If you’re interested in knowing why, there are various articles online but here is one to get you started.
We love staying in the Downtown Disney area in the Lake Buena Vista area where the Disney Parks are located. It will be a bonus if you can find a hotel that is within walking distance to Downtown Disney as they will allow easier access to restaurants, shopping and entertainment. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay for a cab ride to get to this tourist destination. In the last two years, we’ve stayed at two off Disney properties that I will recommend here and comment on:
Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista – This is a very family friendly resort that is literally right across from Downtown Disney (DD). It was so easy to head over there to grab a bit to eat and walk around to check out the sights and stores before heading back to the hotel to sleep for the night. The shuttle service was great, running to each park every 30 minutes. The hotel itself is very clean with updates. It’s not the newest looking resort on the block and is starting to show it’s age but is still a solid 4 star hotel in my opinion. We were able to get a crib (at no extra charge) for my 2 year old son. There was also a pool but we never had a chance to use it. Note that the other biggest advantage of going with this hotel besides it’s close proximity to DD was the fact that its guests had access to Disney’s Extended Magic hours, which are usually exclusive only to guests staying at Disney resorts. I was able to score a sale on Expedia.ca for a 4 night stay in a standard room with two beds for mid May 2014 by booking a month earlier for $119 CND per night (a good $30 cheaper per night than the advertised rate on the Hilton website). Note that like most hotels in the area, a resort fee of $22 per night was applied, which is supposed to include access to the Disney shuttles, pools, wireless internet access, etc. During busy season, I’ve seen rates for the same room go over $250 per night.
Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek – If you like new, modern, brand spanking new resorts, this is the place for you! We stayed here in February of 2013 for a few nights and it was absolutely beautiful (grounds, pools, rooms, everything!). The only two negative things I will say about this resort is that the shuttles don’t run as often as the Hilton resort I recommended above so you may have to wait a little longer to have access to a shuttle bus, and the fact that it is not walking distance to DD; we missed the last shuttle to DD one evening and took a taxi to get there instead and it cost about $15 one way. Again, there was a resort fee of about $15 per night, which included access to pool area, wi-fi and shuttle service to parks and DD. We were able to score a booking for $129 per night on Expedia.ca about a month before check in. Again, during high season, this rate can easily skyrocket to over $300 per night.
Disney Resort Properties – People assume that staying at Disney resorts will be more expensive than staying off property. While this can be true, it is not always so. Disney will run sales on it’s website a few times a year, offering 10, 15, 20, 25 and up to 30% off its rack prices. If you’re interested in these sales, sign up for the Disney newsletter so that you’re informed by email when these sales run. Also, over the years, Disney has added affordable resort options at their “Value” rated resorts. These are usually brightly coloured and themed, making them perfect for families and young children to enjoy the sights and sounds (along with great pool areas that are themed). During their sales, you can get a standard room at one of these resorts for about $100 per night (and no resort fee, yay!). If you’re looking to step it up a notch, consider one of their “Moderate” resorts. For our upcoming trip in September 2014, we were able to score a room at the Port Orleans Riverside resort, which is considered one of Disney’s Moderate resorts for 20% off the rack rate in a royal themed room for $156 per night. I will be posting more information on Disney resorts in the future so stay tuned!
Disney Vacation Club (DVC) Properties – If you’re looking for deluxe accommodations or access to larger rooms (including studios, 1 bedroom and 2 bedroom villas), you may consider staying at one of the DVC resorts, which are owned by DVC members (think timeshare). While you can book stays at these properties through Disney’s website and get some good deals during one of their sales, it’s actually still cheaper to consider RENTING out points from a DVC member to secure a booking. For our upcoming trip in September 2014, we used the popular service of David’s Vacation Club Rentals (their service was simple, great and professional and they are #1 in their industry) to book our DVC resort accommodations at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for a studio room. To give you a sense of how much we saved by renting through a DVC member….on the Disney website, I could have booked a 4 night stay for $910 USD (and this included a 30% discount on with their current sale). Through David’s Vacation Club Rentals, I was able to secure the reservation for $812 USD, a savings of almost $100.
MONEY SAVING TIP: If you’re planning on staying for at least a few days, you can have groceries delivered for you to your resort for a very small fee. We used Garden Grocer to stock up on snacks for the park, milk, juice, diapers and breakfast foods. We simply ordered online before our trip and filled out the online form instructing them when and where to deliver the groceries. When we checked into our hotel we simply went to bell hop to pick up our food. It was incredibly easy and saved us a significant amount of money and room in our luggage bags!
Flying to Orlando- We’ve flown out of the Toronto Pearson airport as well as the Detroit Metropolitan airport and we much prefer flying out of Detroit…here’s why. We live in London Ontario so it is approximately a 2 hour drive to the Toronto airport and a 2.5 hour drive to the Detroit airport. We find it all evens out in the end since you need to clear through US customs at the Toronto airport prior to boarding your flight and if you’ve ever had to do this, the line ups can be tremendous, which isn’t fun when you’re with a toddler who just wants to Go Go Go! My sons are pretty good in the car (thanks to the good ol’ DVD player in our Dodge caravan), so we much prefer driving the extra 30 minutes rather than waiting in line for 30 minutes at customs in Toronto. We also never experience extended line ups at customs at the US border entering Detroit and have been able to breeze through pretty easy (tip: make sure you have your bridge money in cash, flight/hotel itinerary and everyone’s passports ready at the border to make the process go by faster). If you’re traveling without your child’s other legal parent, you’ll also need to prepare a consent letter, possibly notarized by a lawyer, from the other parent, giving you permission to leave the country with the child. Check out this government page for more information on this.
We have traveled to Orlando using Sunwing (flying out of Toronto) and Spirit Airlines (flying out of Detroit). For cost savings, we much prefer Spirit Airlines, which is a discount airline. The seats are a little tighter but the discounts are so significant that it’s easy to bear with this. To give you a example of the cost difference between flying out of Toronto and Detroit, here is a comparison of our flight cost for our upcoming trip to DW from September 20th-27th, keeping in mind that our kids are now over 2 and no longer eligible to sit on our laps so we have to pay for 4 airfares:
Detroit – Roundtrip airfares for 4 people with Spirit Airlines – $753.92 USD (flight time 2 hours and 31 minutes)
Toronto – Roundtrip airfares for 4 people with Westjet Airlines – $1,655 CND (flight time 2 hours 44 minutes) – this was the cheapest airfare I could find on Expedia.ca at the time of this writing. Note that if you live in the Toronto area, Spirit Airlines does fly out of the Buffalo airport, so this may be a comparable option for you.
Why is it so much cheaper? There appear to be two big factors that come into play here: one, you are flying domestically when you fly out of Michigan, and second, the government taxes for Canadian flights are significantly higher than the taxes on flights within the USA for some reason.
Another important factor to keep in mind when booking your flight is to look at flight departure times going to Orlando and coming back. With young children, you know your child best, so you should try your best to book a flight when you know your child is more likely to take a nap, or make sure you don’t arrive at your destination too late or have to wake up too early to make your flight. These are important considerations, in addition to cost, when planning on traveling with young children.
Transportation – Once in Orlando, you have a few choices to get to your hotel. You can rent a car, take a taxi, take a shared shuttle, or take the Disney Magic Express bus (this service is only available if you are staying at a Disney Resort). All but the last option have a cost associated with the transportation service. We have never rented a car, and we’ll be using the Magic Express for our upcoming trip, so I’ll be writing on that later. Taxis are expensive – it is about a 30-40 minute drive to the Lake Buena Vista area (depending on traffic) and will cost about $45 USD one way plus tip. This is the fastest and better option for a whole family that is traveling together. If you’re traveling on your own with your child, it will be cheaper but much slower to make take a shared shuttle service, such as through Mears shared shuttle service, which can be booked online and is a fairly easy process. Kids under 3 are free to ride so you just have to pay for yourself and the cost depends on which hotel you’re going to.
As mentioned earlier, if you’re not planning on renting a car while in Orlando, I would highly recommend that you stay at a hotel that offers free or included shuttle service to the parks. Even if you’re renting a car, keep in mind that you’ll need to pay for parking each day at the parks (unless you’re staying on Disney property, and then it’s free) and the 2014 rate is $17 USD per car per day….ouch!
Car Seats– I have found that taxis and shared shuttle services will allow you to travel in their taxis without a car seat (although I believe this is against Orlando law). Some taxis will have booster seats in their trunks and you can also order a taxi with child seats once you’re at the airport (just request it from the Mears taxi guy manning the taxi stand outside of the airport and he’ll call for one). If you’re renting a car, you have a choice of bringing your own car seats and checking this in at the airport prior to your flight, or you can rent one from the car rental company (it’s around $10 per day per car seat). Depending on how long you’re staying, I’ve heard of some families just going to Walmart or Target and buying a $50 car seat rather than renting one from the car rental company to save money.
Strollers Renting vs. Bringing Your Own – We have always brought our own stroller with us to DW. You can take the stroller right up to the gate at the airport and they’ll stow it beneath the airplane for you and have it ready for you when you get off the airplane at your destination (at no extra charge). Once at the parks,there is always a chance that your stroller could get stolen (there have even been stories of theft rings that go around to parks stealing expensive/high end strollers and then reselling them for a quick buck). However, thousands of people bring their own strollers to the parks every year and have no issues. If you have a nicer stroller, perhaps you could consider leaving it at home and bringing or buying a cheaper umbrella stroller with you on your trip. You can also rent strollers from Disney World guest services (click here for information on cost and options) but I’ve found that the line ups to get one of these are very long and you still have to deal with getting your child to the stroller rental station from the hotel (it can be quite a walk for some). Here is a picture from of what they look like:
As you can see, these strollers are not appropriate for very young children, but they are roomy for toddlers and preschoolers and they have lots of storage. The disadvantage is that it can be difficult to identify your stroller once you get off an attraction (note that Cast Members WILL move strollers around while you’re on the attraction to clear traffic and make room) so I would recommend finding a way to decorate your stroller so that it is easier to find (e.g. attach a balloon, coloured scarf, ribbon, etc). Here is a picture to give you an idea of what looking out into a sea of strollers looks like and how finding a way to identify your stroller can save you tons of time searching for your stroller:
Finally, another option is to rent a quality stroller from a company in Orlando. There are several companies that will rent you a stroller and will even deliver it to your hotel and pick it up when you leave. I’ve never personally used one of these services but they are quite popular and I’ve heard good things through my research. Touringplans.com has a good review on the 4 big stroller rental companies in Orlando (he went on a trip and rented a stroller from all 4 companies at the same time to try the out). It also has several comments from other customers so you can read about other people’s reviews too.
I love getting comments and suggestions and welcome all feedback!
Please subscribe to my blog or join my Facebook page to be alerted of more new blog posts like this.