No city in the world is geared more to family travel than Orlando. In addition to its theme parks, Orlando's recreational facilities provide an abundance of opportunities for family fun. Most restaurants have lower-priced ($5–$10) children's menus (if not, the appetizer menu works just as well) and fun distractions such as place mats to color while younger diners wait for their food. Many of the hotels and resorts offer children's activity centers.
Keep an eye out for coupons discounting meals and attractions; they can be found practically everywhere. The "Calendar" section in Friday's Orlando Sentinel newspaper often contains coupons and good deals. Many restaurants, especially those in tourist areas, offer great discounts that are yours for the clipping. Check the information you receive from the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, including free or cheap things to do. Additionally, many hotel lobbies and attractions have free coupon books for the taking.
Most of the major theme parks offer parent-swap programs in which one parent can ride without the children, then switch off and let the other parent ride without having to return to the end of the line. Inquire at Guest Services or Guest Relations, near the park entrances, for details on which rides are included.
All parks have a baby care center for heating formula, nursing, and so on. But think carefully about whether your child is ready for the theme parks. Too many parents consider an Orlando vacation such a rite of passage that they rush into it too early without considering whether their child will find the experience overwhelming, or even if they’ll remember it. I agree with many parenting experts who say that about 3 years old is the minimum age. It's not just that many younger children get wigged out when they see their first costume character, but also because it's no fun for a kid to get turned away from a ride they have their heart set on.
Some experts say kids are not truly ready for the rigors of theme parks until they can walk on their own all day. Whether or not very young children are advisable, they are possible: Scarier rides have what’s called a child swap. That provides an area where one adult can wait with a child while their partner rides and then switch off so the other gets a chance. Many rides also have a bypass corridor where chickens can do their chicken-out thing.
Let kids take an active role in planning their vacation. Their excitement will make the going easier. The Walt Disney World website (http://customizedmaps.disney.go.com) provides online maps of its parks, which you can use to highlight a must-see list according to your tastes. With 3 weeks' notice, the resort will print your maps and mail them ahead for free.
Strollers will not be allowed inside most attractions, and they will not be attended in parking sections, so never leave anything valuable in them. Come prepared with a system for unloading valuables. Also have something that covers the seat; like in parked cars, they get sizzling hot in the Florida sun. Finally, tie some identifying marker (like a white flag, as in “I surrender”) to yours so you can identify it amidst the sea of clones.
* Familiarize yourself with the height restrictions for all rides, which are posted at the parks’ websites and listed on the maps. Universal also keeps physical gauges in front of both its parks. Everything is measured in inches, so if your child is usually measured in centimeters, multiply by 0.393.
* Bring supplies to kid-proof your hotel room.
* Slather your kids in sun lotion. Florida sun is stronger than you think.
* Dress kids in bright colors. You’ll spot them faster if you’re separated. Some parents even put their phone number on their kids with child safety temporary tattoos (yes, they exist).
* Dress kids to get wet. There are water playgrounds, plus frequent rains.
* Hotels offer “kids eat free” programs—you pay, they don’t. Ask.
* Theme park strollers are easy, but basic; they don’t recline, and they won’t secure kids younger than toddlers. Folding "umbrella" strollers have distinct advantages. They make getting onto trams, monorails, and into other tight spaces easier (not just for you—also for people waiting for you).
* Bring a picture of your child or keep one on your mobile phone.
* Use a walkie-talkie app such as Voxer or WhatsApp to communicate with your party; the phone carriers are often overwhelmed by the volume at the parks and text messages sometimes arrive with long delays.
Here are more suggestions for making traveling with children easier:
Are Your Kids Old Enough? -- Do you really want to bring an infant or toddler to the parks? If you plan on visiting Disney several times as your children grow, then the best age for a first visit to Disney is just about 3 years old. Why? Because the kids are old enough to walk around and enjoy the sights and sounds, as well as a good deal of the rides and shows. The thrill rides would most likely frighten them, but most inappropriate rides for the tiny-tot set have height restrictions that prevent any unfortunate mistakes. If, however, this is going to be a one-time trip, then I recommend waiting until your children are between 7 and 10. They'll still be able to appreciate the wonder of the experience but won't have reached the stage where all they'll want are chills and thrills.
Some of the characters walking about may make young kids a bit nervous, though most will run right up to Donald or Mickey and give them a big hug. Younger kids may need a nap just when you want to see a show or hop on an attraction, but if you have kids this is nothing new to you. When you plan your day's activities, be sure to account for necessary breaks and naps. Will your whole family be able to enjoy the experiences that Disney and other parks have to offer? This is something you will have to decide. My five kids range in age from 9 to 17, and we have traveled with just about every age combination you can think of. On our first family trip, my oldest (now 17) was 4, and his two younger siblings were ages 3 and 1. While the 1-year-old has absolutely no recollection of the trip, he was thoroughly amused by the sights and sounds everywhere we went. The 3-year-old (now 15) still remembers plenty. You'll need to take into account your kids' stamina, interests, and tolerance levels before you decide whether to make the trip and when planning your daily itineraries. My kids could go well into the evening inside the parks, but many other children can't, so it may take you longer to cover a park (it took me 2-3 days to do Magic Kingdom when my youngest was 2). At the time, my nephew was 7, and he was petrified by some of the rides in the parks; even my own kids, who'll try anything once and have never been wary of rides, freak out at attractions involving sensory effects. It may be repetitious, but I'll say it again: Know your own child before deciding whether he or she is ready for this sort of trip. Not every child will fall in love with Disney World at first sight, and it's a rather large expense to incur if Junior's going to be frightened, sleepy, or cranky for the entire trip.
- Planning Ahead -- Make reservations for character breakfasts at Disney as soon as possible. Disney usually accepts them up to 180 days in advance (recently changed from 90 days), and many are booked minutes (I'm not kidding!) after the 180-day window opens, so mark your calendar to call (and be sure you keep in mind that the line opens for calls at 7am EST). Also, in any park, check the daily schedule for character appearances (all of the major ones post them on maps or boards near the entrances), and make sure the kids know when they're going to get to meet their heroes. It's often the highlight of their day. (Be wary, however, of promising specific characters, as schedules and character lineups can change.) Advance planning will help you avoid running after every character you see. The "in" thing of late is getting character autographs. The lines can be quite long, so you may want to pick and choose just a couple of favorite characters to do this with.
- Packing -- Although your home may be toddler-proof, hotel accommodations aren't. Bring blank plugs to cover outlets and whatever else is necessary to prevent an accident from occurring in your room. Most hotels have some type of crib available; however, they are usually limited in number. Some hotels can also supply bedrails, though they are not as readily available as cribs are. Outside of hotel supplies, your biggest packing priority should be sunscreen. Locals can spot tourists by their bright-red sunburns. Both parents and children should heed this reminder: Don't forget to bring and use sunscreen with an SPF rating of at least 30. If you do forget it, it's available at convenience stores, drugstores, and some theme-park shops. Young children should be slathered, even if they're in a stroller. Be sure to pack a wide-brim hat for infants and toddlers. Adults and children alike should drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
- Accommodations -- Kids younger than 12, and, in many cases, those as old as 17, stay free in their parent's room in most hotels, but to be certain, ask when you book. Most hotels have pools and other recreational facilities that will give you a little no-extra-cost downtime. If you want to skip a rental car and aren't staying at Disney, International Drive and Lake Buena Vista are the places to stay. Hotels often offer family discounts; some offer Kids Eat Free programs, and some provide free or moderate-cost shuttle service to the major attractions. International Drive also has the I-Ride Trolley, which travels the length of the road and makes numerous stops along the way.
- Ground Rules -- Set firm rules before leaving home regarding things such as bedtime and souvenirs. It's easy to get off track as you get caught up in the excitement of Orlando, but don't allow your vacation to seize control of your better judgment. Having the kids earn their own money or at least allotting a specific prearranged amount for them to spend works wonders. Making them part of your decisions also works well. They'll be far more cooperative when they understand that everyone in the family gets a say in the plan for the day and that they will eventually get to do something or go somewhere that they want to.
- At the Parks -- Getting lost is all too easy in a place as strange and overwhelming as the theme parks. Toss in the crowds and it's amazing it doesn't happen more often. For adults (yes, they get lost, too) and older kids, arrange a lost-and-found meeting place before you arrive in the parks, and if you become separated, head there immediately. Make sure your kids know to find a staff member (point out the special name-tags worn by the staff) to help them. Attach a name-tag with the child's first name and your cellphone (or hotel) number to the inside of younger kids' T-shirts and tell them to find a park employee (and only a park employee) immediately and show them the tag if they become lost.
- Read the Signs -- Most rides post signs that explain height restrictions,if any, or identify those that may unsettle youngsters. Save yourself and your kids some grief before you get in line and are disappointed. A bad experience, whether it be a dark, scary section of a ride, the loop-de-loop of a roller coaster, or too big of a drop, can cause your child long-lasting anxiety. It can also put a damper on things for the rest of your day (and possibly even your vacation).
I've often explained to my children -- irrespective of their ages -- that if they hear screaming, that's a pretty good indication that a ride may not be the best choice for them. With younger kids, you have to be steadfast in your decisions, though most height restrictions will keep those who really shouldn't be riding at bay. With the older ones, well, you may have to indulge them a bit and let them ride just one -- they likely won't make the same mistake twice. Note that once you get past the height restriction, age is not always as much of a deciding factor when it comes to rides as one might think. It really depends on your child's previous experiences and personality. I've seen 5-year-olds squeal with glee on rides that I can't even stomach; on the other hand, I've observed kids as old as 8 or 10 walk out of some of the attractions with "touchy feely" effects practically in tears.
- Take a Break -- The Disney parks, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld have fabulous interactive play areas offering both parents and young kids a break. By all means, take advantage of them. They allow kids to expend some of their pent-up energy after having to wait in lines and not wander far from Mom and Dad all day long. They offer a nice break for you, too (if you can sit down to watch them, that is). Note that many of these kid zones are filled with water squirters and shallow pools, and most of the parks feature a fair number of water-related attractions, so getting wet is practically inevitable -- at least for the kids. It's advisable to bring along a change of clothes or even a bathing suit. You can rent a locker ($10 or less) for storing the spares until you need them. During the summer, the Florida humidity is enough to keep you feeling soggy, so you may appreciate the change of clothing even if you don't go near any water.
- Show Times -- Schedule an indoor, air-conditioned show two or three times a day, especially during midafternoon in the summer. You may even get your littlest tykes to nap in the darkened theater. For all shows, arrive at least 20 minutes early to get the better seats, but not so early that the kids are tired of waiting (most waits are outside in the heat at Disney; Universal has covered queue areas at most attractions).
- Snack Times -- When dreaming of your vacation, you probably don't envision hours spent standing in lines, waiting and waiting (unless you have done this before, that is). It helps to store some lightweight snacks in a backpack, or in the stroller if you have one, especially when traveling with small children. This may save you some headaches, as kids get the hungriest just when you are the farthest from food. It will also be much healthier and will certainly save you money, as the parks' prices are quite high.
- Bring Your Own? -- While you will have to haul it to and from the car and on and off trams, trains, or monorails at Disney, having your own stroller can be a tremendous help. It will be with you when you need it -- say, back in the hotel room as a highchair, or for an infant in a restaurant when a highchair is inappropriate. Remember to bring the right stroller, too. It should be lightweight and easy to fold and unfold with one hand, have a canopy, be able to recline for naps, and have plenty of storage space. The parks offer stroller rentals for around $10 to $31 per day (depending on size); however, these are often hard and uncomfortable (and rental fees could easily exceed the cost of a purchasing a stroller after just a few days). They do not recline and have little or no storage space for the gear that goes along with bringing the kids. They are good, however, if you have older kids who may just need an occasional break from walking. For infants and small toddlers, you may want to bring a snugly sling or backpack-type carrier for use in traveling to and from parking lots and while you're standing in line for attractions (where strollers are not allowed). And while many parks now have a small number of infant-friendly strollers on hand, I still highly recommend bringing your own if your kids are younger than 3 or 4.
- Recommended Reading -- The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World is a good source of additional information, as is Frommer's Walt Disney World with Kids.
In every listing in the major parks, you'll note the "Recommended Ages" entry that lists which ages will most appreciate that ride or show (though you should keep in mind your child's personality and maturity when evaluating these recommendations). Though most families want to do everything, these guidelines are helpful in planning your daily itinerary. In my ride ratings, I indicate whether a ride will be more enjoyable for kids than for adults. Many, even a couple in the Magic Kingdom, are too intense for young kids; all it takes is one bad experience, and the rest of your day will be ruined. You'll also find any height and health restrictions noted in the listings.
Parental Touring Tip -- Many of the attractions at Walt Disney World offer a Parent Switch program, designed for parents traveling with small children. While one parent rides an attraction, the other stays with kids not quite ready to handle the experience; then the adults switch places without having to stand in line again. The bonus (beyond the obvious) is that the kids able to ride the attraction will get to ride again, too. Notify a cast member if you wish to participate when you get in line. Most other Orlando theme parks offer this option, too.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.