Best for Ages 3 to 5
Stay Here: Art of Animation Resort
It’s kiddie heaven, with four areas themed after Finding Nemo, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Cars. (Book in your child’s fave section.) You’ll have three pools to choose from, including The Big Blue Pool, which features underwater narration by Finding Nemo’s Dory. Buses that run back and forth to the parks make taking a midday break easy.
Play Here: The Magic Kingdom
Don’t miss the oldie-but-goodie It’s a Small World boat ride. Then, move on to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and travel through the Hundred Acre Wood by honeypot. Of course, no visit is complete without hopping aboard Dumbo, and now you can wait in the comfortably air-conditioned Big Top, with pagers that ping when it’s your turn to ride.
If your little ones are princess-obsessed, get strategic. Be Our Guest Restaurant, where you can dine with Belle from Beauty & the Beast, is Disney’s most popular eatery; use your FastPass+ (included with park admission) to get first dibs at lunch reservations online. It’s sometimes possible to walk right in at Cinderella’s Royal Table during off-hours (try 11 a.m. or 3 p.m); still, reservations (accepted up to 180 days in advance) are recommended. While Frozen sisters Anna and Elsa don’t yet have their own meal spot, the best place to meet them is at Princess Fairytale Hall. (They’ll relocate to a new Frozen attraction at Epcot’s Norway Pavilion in early 2016.) For a tiara-free lunch, try Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café, which offers healthful yet yummy eats and music from an “alien lounge singer.”
Tip: Carry a plain notebook for autographs; characters aren’t allowed to sign anything stamped with a company logo. You can buy oversized pencils in the souvenir shops so Goofy and Minnie can write more easily.
Best for Ages 6 to 8
Stay Here: Animal Kingdom Lodge
Book a savanna-view room and every morning you’ll see (and hear!) the more than 200 mammals and birds that reside right outside your window. Throughout the hotel, walking paths promise a glimpse of species ranging from African spoonbills to gazelles to red river hogs and giraffes.
Play Here: Animal Kingdom
Start your day at Dinosaur, a time-travel adventure featuring life-size prehistoric creatures. (Prep kids to expect loud noises in the dark.) At Kali River Rapids, rafts travel a winding route through geysers and waterfalls. You will get drenched, a welcome relief from the heat! Afterward, head to the bridge overlooking the rapids, where you can dry off while using free water sprayers to soak the next riders! Finally, make time for Festival of the Lion King, a high-energy amalgam of theatrical production, parade, and circus that rivals the Broadway version.
For lunch or a snack, nab a seat at Yak & Yeti. The restaurant features pan-Asian fare, along with kid standards like chicken fingers and burgers.
Tip: Need to keep the little ones occupied while waiting in line? Download the Hidden Mickeys app (Android and iOS, $8), a guide to help visitors find the many concealed Mickey Mouse images throughout the resort. “Once kids know the ‘trick’ to locating them, they start to see the Mickeys everywhere!” says Amanda Pursch of Austin, TX, a Disney Mom panelist.
PLUS: ECOTOURISM TRIPS FOR FAMILIES
Best for 9 & Up
Stay Here: Beach Club Resort
With its game-and-shop filled boardwalk area, sand-bottom pool, and 150-foot water slide, this resort appeals to older kids. Hollywood Studios is a quick boat ride away, and you can walk (really) to Epcot.
Play Here: Hollywood Studios
Keep with the Tinseltown theme and check out The Great Movie Ride. It’s a tour through old film scenes and memorabilia done with such detail and dramatic effect that even kids who don’t know James Cagney from Jim Carrey will be agog. Prepare for screams at The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, where a cab resembling an elevator ascends to a height of about 170 feet and then (you guessed it) drops. “The fall was unexpected, not like a roller coaster,” notes past guest Amelia Janssen, 10, who tried the ride twice. More thrills await at the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. There, a “stretch limousine” hurtles into a simulated L.A. night, reaching speeds of nearly 60 mph in a few seconds. Expect upside-down corkscrews and loops, all to the tunes of Steven Tyler. “It was frightening, yet awesome,” concluded recent visitor Christopher Bein, 10.
You’ll find a great meal option — especially if you have a kid with food allergies — right at your hotel. Duck into Beaches & Cream, which features a working jukebox at every table and allergy procedures that are “the most reassuring I’ve encountered,” says past guest Ellen Janssen of Babylon, NY.
Tip: By the end of the day, you may be looking for a more relaxed experience. Head over to Epcot’s flight simulator, Soarin’. After hoisting riders 40 feet in the air, the attraction sends them cruising all over California from the perspective of a bird, hang glider, jet pilot, and balloonist. Just how real does it get? You can actually feel the wind in your hair and smell the redwood forests!
Catch the Magic
MagicBands are bracelets that act as your three FastPass+ tickets per day (for rides and shows) as well as your Disney hotel key, which you can use to charge purchases back to your room. Most important, the bands allow you to activate your FastPass+ online before your trip and preselect which attractions to hit. If you’re a guest at a Disney resort, the bands are free — if not, they run $13. “Getting them is a no-brainer,” says Disney blogger Lauren Passell: “They completely streamline your entire trip!”
Downtown Disney: Worth the Time?
If you’re suffering park fatigue or get a rainy day, Downtown Disney is a great option. Stop by Disney-Quest, with its five floors of arcade and virtual-reality games. Also check out cheery Splitsville Luxury Lanes, where ramps guide little ones toward a strike and servers bring sliders and Shirley Temples right to your alley.
PLUS: MORE TRAVEL TIPS AND IDEAS
Photo Credit: Amanda Coley; Walt Disney Co. /Matt Stroshane; Fotostock Spain, s.l./Alamy; Walt Disney Co. /Gene Duncan