I think the key to making a success of an action packed holiday like Disney is to plan ahead. I'm a natural planner anyway, so I like to know what I'm going to be doing when, and having a rough plan definitely helps to keep things running smoothly, stops you from wasting time, and helps you get to do all the things that you want to.
For the record, we were there for five days and four nights. This was a great length of time for a first trip, with children our ages (two and a half and four); we didn't feel rushed or under pressure to have massively long days because we knew that we had time to revisit the parks and tick anything off the list that we had missed the previous time. Visiting in March meant that the parks were relatively quiet, and we never queued more than about 15 minutes for any ride, and the vast majority we basically walked straight on to. This was a big advantage of going out of school term time and during the Spring months rather than the Summer, and the result was that we possibly could have got away with a day less if we'd wanted to cut the cost of the trip down.
Some of this is very Disneyland Paris specific, but some would apply which ever Disney parks you were lucky enough to be off to. Okay, so the tips...
1. Check out the website before you travel. You can organise a lot of your trip from the warmth of your own home. There are detailed interactive park maps, copies of the programme of events so you can plan when to watch shows and parades or meet the characters, you can read about all the different restaurants and start to make a plan. The park also closes at different times depending on the time of year, so the Disney Dreams show will change times according to that so it's worth taking a peek on the site just to see how long you get in the parks each day.
2. Look at the closures. Keeping a massive park like Disney ticking over is a big undertaking, and they obviously have to do maintenance on their rides to keep everything at such a high standard. We knew in advance of our trip by checking online, that the Dumbo ride and Space Mountain were going to be closed for the duration of our trip. Knowing this is advance meant no surprises or disappointments when we got there.
3. Make use of the extra magic hours. If you stay in the Disney hotels you are allowed into the main Disneyland Park at 8am, a full two hours before it officially opens. I would definitely recommend that you take advantage of this! Queues at the gates get pretty hectic from 10 o'clock, and you can waste a good part of your day just waiting to get into the park. Not all the bigger rides are open during magic hours, but most of Fantasyland is, and it's also a great time to grab those castle photos when the park is slightly quieter.
4. Book a Dining Plan if you can. We booked the Plus level dining plan for while were there, and it was one of the best things we did. Food is expensive in the parks and the Disney Village, but the vouchers basically gave us a set menu which was more than enough food. Its worth noting that under threes don't qualify for the dining plans, so if you have a particularly hungry toddler, you may end up paying out extra to feed them. But we found that because the children's meals included a starter, main and dessert, that it was more than enough food to share between our two children. We ate in Cafe Mickey, Silver Spur Steakhouse, Parkside Diner and Walts for main meals and all offered really good food (Rich and I think Silver Spur was the yummiest and Cafe Mickey the most fun.)
5. Book your restaurants in advance. I can't really stress this enough, and you will be told repeatedly when you check in that if you have meal plan tickets you should book your restaurants ahead of time. You can do this on the phone up to two months before you travel, and if you are travelling at a peak time I would definitely take advantage of that. We booked a couple that we really wanted to visit before we left, and booked the rest with the concierge at the hotel.
6. Visit Cafe Mickey. It was a massive highlight for all four of us. We did this on our first night to kick start the holiday, and getting to meet Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and some of the other characters while we ate our dinner was fab. It meant that we avoided boring long queues to meet those characters in the parks, and the characters give you so much time at your table that it is such a treat.
7. Meet the Princesses. Auberge de Cendrillon should definitely be on your restaurant list if you have any princess mad members of the party. We didn't visit this one, but it offers a similar character dining experience to Cafe Mickey, but with princesses. Its one of the more expensive restaurants and is only included in the Premium dining plan, but great for a special treat for a princess fan.
8. Think about your meal times. Most of the restaurant offer bookings in sittings, so the lunch sitting is from 12 until 3.45, and the the dinner sitting starts at 6. This is definitely worth thinking about if your children are used to having their dinner about 5-5.30ish like ours are. We found that booking restaurants for 6 o'clock worked okay, but it also depended on what we were doing that day. For example the parade in Disneyland Park is at 5.30 each day and lasts about 20-30 minutes (depends where you are on the route as to when it finishes), so a 6 o'clock booking can be quite a push if it's in the Disney Village or one of the hotels. Bookings are held for 15 minutes and then you lose your table, so there is some wiggle room, but not a lot. I obviously can't tell you what will work best for you but thats why planning ahead is really useful.
9. Take packed lunch. The dining plans are basically for half board, so it works on the basis that you have your breakfast in the hotel, and then you can use your vouchers for either lunch or dinner during the day. We opted to take packed lunches for the children as we know they like to eat little and often (Warburtons sandwich thins and some nutella works a treat for an easy to make sandwich that stays fresh all day). That way they could eat their lunch around midday like they do normally, then around 2ish Rich and I would buy something simple in the parks (tacos, toasties, baguettes etc) to share between us to keep us all going until we had dinner booked around 6-6.30ish. And leading on from that...
10. Pack snacks. You're a captive audience in the parks so snacks are expensive, because they know that people will buy them. We packed apples, small packets of biscuits and crisps to keep us all going throughout the day. But also...
11. Use your snack vouchers. If you have the dining plans booked, you also get a voucher for snacks each afternoon between 3pm and 7pm. This entitles you to a drink (water, soft drinks and hot drinks) and snack (doughnuts or ice creams) from the listed eateries each day. We didn't know about this ahead of getting there, but it proved to be really useful and meant that we could afford to carry around a little less food and drink with us each day.
12. We heart EuroTunnel. This isn't so much a tip as just saying that we found it fantastic. It was simple, straight forward and so quick. Its a far cheaper travel option than the EuroStar or flying and it gave us the advantage of being able to fill our car with all the paraphernalia that you need with small kids. Yes, using the ferry is slightly cheaper still, but the crossing takes a lot longer. And as for driving to Disneyland once you are in France, we are pleased to report that it was super straight forward and we would definitely use that option again.
13. Have money (or a flexible friend) for tolls. The main road that gets you from Calais to Paris is a toll road, so just be aware and have some euros or a credit card ready. It costs about €20 each way.
14. Book a Disney hotel if you can afford it. I appreciate that they are expensive, but remember that the more expensive accommodation costs INCLUDES your park tickets and entitles you to the those extra two hours each and every morning. So I think any savings in a different hotel would be quickly evened out. And there are a variety of budget options within their hotels, from the most expensive Disneyland Hotel with its views over the park, to the Davy Crockett Ranch which offers self-catering accommodation a five minute drive away. There is something about the whole Disney ethos that works its way through into every single person that works for them, and nothing is too much trouble. Everybody, from check in staff to the concierge, from maintenance staff to cleaning ladies, from restaurant staff and car park security... everybody has a big smile for you, and even bigger smile for the children and will do whatever they can to give you the best holiday. Even the people picking up litter will wish you a good morning and a good day. And thats a wonderful kind of environment to be immersed in when you're on holiday.
15. We heart Newport Bay Club. This is the hotel that we stayed in and we don't have a bad word to say about. It has a New England, nautical theme which carries through everything, from the swimming pool with an enormous boat in it, to the rope knotted pattern on the carpet (knotted to make Mickey Mouse shapes I might add.) The rooms were spacious, and had two double beds, as well as a foldaway bed. We originally planned to make do with the two double beds, but at the last minute decided the foldaway bed might be worth having too for the little miss to sleep on. A quick visit to the concierge on our way to dinner and when we came back it had been made up ready for her.
16. Plan your parade spots. Okay so this may just be me, with her crazy need to photograph and video everything, but I wanted to get a good spot for watching the parade at least once. The ropes go up to mark out the route about an hour before, and the really good spots at the front will go fast. We were in place for Disney Magic on Parade a good half hour before the parade, and I'm sure in the height of summer you'd need a full hour to be near the front.
17. Plan your fireworks spot. I know, I'm a geek, but the first time we watched Disney Dreams we kind of rocked up in the middle of main street facing the castle, and as soon as it started a bajillion selfie sticks went up in the air in front of us which kind of spoiled the view for little shorties like me. My big tip would be to get on a bench in the central circle in front of the garden that faces away from the castle, that way behind you will be garden area and when the show starts you can simply turn around for a completely uninterrupted view. We probably got in place there an hour before the show because we were weary and happy for a sit down. A bucket of popcorn and some people watching passed the time pretty well.
18. Leave your children in buggies. This is one of the reasons getting a good spot mattered to me, was because it meant that I knew I could leave the children comfy and cosy in their buggies to watch. As soon as the parade and Disney Dreams finish, a mob of people will all start moving in the same direction (the exit) and you really do not want loose children in that kind of crowd. Our children were mostly pretty happy to be watching from their buggies, they got a good view, as did we standing behind them.
19. Take a buggy for preschoolers. We had much debate before we went about buggies. Our children don't use buggies at home anymore; at four the little man is happily on his feet most of the day, and if he is on his feet there is no way that his sister is going to ride in the buggy. But we took our double buggy to Disneyland in the end and it was THE BEST DECISION. If you start your day in the park at 8am, and don't finish until after Disney Dreams does (which was 8pm for us but later in the summer) then any kid is going to struggle with 12 hours on their feet. Add in the fact that the parks are big and you are walking miles in a day and a buggy became a no brainer for us. It's amazing the bribery power of "Just jump in your buggy and we'll go and find another ride to go on", and our two resistant buggy users happily jumped in every single time. There are places to park up your buggy at every single ride, so you don't have to worry about that, and it was invaluable for loading up with drinks, snacks and spare clothes.
20. Take two bags. On the subject of loading up the buggy, this may seem like a weird tip, but two bags worked a treat for us. We had one (bigger) bag with all the spare clothes, food and snacks in, and then one smaller bag which contained all the valuables (phones, money, tickets, camera, other camera, spare memory cards etc). When we went on rides, we left the bigger bag in the buggy parked up, and we simply took the smaller bag of valuables into the queue with us. It worked really well and meant that we didn't have unnecessary, bulky bags in queues or on the rides themselves.
General Tips and Tricks
21. Get in the spirit. You'll have seen from my photos that we wore Disney clothes, had Mickey and Minnie ears and generally got in the spirit of the whole thing. You can't help yourself once you're there, and believe me when I say that we were pretty understated compared to a lot of people. The Disney Village is packed to the rafters with shops and every imaginable Disney product, people embrace it when they are there, and it adds to the magic for everyone. But...
22. Buy ahead of time... and save yourself a pretty penny. I hit Primark a few days before we went and got a couple of Mickey Mouse t-shirts for myself and the two kids (Rich was still firmly in the "I'm not wearing stupid Disney clothes" camp at that point) for the under £30. We did buy another t-shirt each for the kids while we were there, but they were easily three times the price of the Primark stuff. And all they wanted to wear while we were there (and since we've come back actually) was Disney clothes, and I was so glad I'd shopped ahead of time. If you are even considering dressing your little one in a character costume while they in the parks then definitely buy this ahead of your trip. Costumes in the park were on sale for €50!
23. Meet the characters. It was without a doubt the best bit of the trip for us... seeing our children meet their hero, and lets be honest, getting to meet them ourselves. The character dining experiences are a good, no-queuing-no-rushing way to meet some of them. The Stars n Cars parade/show at Walt Disney Studios is another. But just accept that sometimes you'll have to join a queue, wait in a crowd and just know that it will be worth it. You may see characters walking around the park, but they will only give you autographs and photos at the scheduled Meet n Greet times (which are all on the programme which you can collect with your map, or see online before you go.)
24. Buy an autograph book. This was the first thing on our list for when we arrived. Getting the characters to scribble their names in your book was such a highlight of Disney trips when I was younger, and I so desperately wanted that for my children. They were the first things we bought in the Disney Village on our arrival, and they were put to good use as soon as we stepped foot in Cafe Mickey that first night. The children really enjoy leafing through those books now we are home and remembering who they met.
25. Take you camera. I feel like I shouldn't really need to put this in here, but I will anyway. Take your camera, take spare memory cards, take spare batteries (and don't blow up your charger in the hotel room like I did), DO NOT PUT IT DOWN! You never know when you're going to stumble across something magical at Disneyland, and you sure as hell don't want your camera safely tucked in your bag when you do. It doesn't need to be a fancy camera, most of the ones in this post came off of my iPhone, but make sure that whatever the camera, you take too many photos, ask people to take some with you in, learn to use your self timer... collect those memories to get you through the dark days when you have to come home.