Florida with a Toddler: Our Tips
When we made the decision to take our then 16-month old toddler on holiday to Florida this year, I think a lot of people thought we were just straight-up crazy. It’s often said, after all, that while you can never be too old for Disney, you CAN be too young, so let’s just address that one up front:
Is a toddler too young for Disney?
The answer? Yes, absolutely. And also no, not really. Helpful, huh?
The fact is, though, while, in many ways, Max was much too young to fully appreciate the theme parks we took him to (Both The Magic Kingdom and the two Universal Orlando parks I wrote about here and here…), he DID still get a lot out of the experience. No, he didn’t really understand what he was seeing: he recognises Mickey Mouse (Mostly because we’d coached him ahead of time, with a Mickey soft toy my parents bought him at Christmas time…), but has no idea who any of the other characters you find in the parks are, so that part of the magic was totally lost on him, for sure. (With that said, if we were to go back now, just two months later, he would 100% recognise Buzz and Woody from Toy Story, so I guess this aspect of things will depend very much on the individual toddler…)
Despite that, though, he did very much enjoy the sights and sounds of the parks: he was totally transfixed by the Magic Kingdom fireworks, for instance, and loved It’s a Small World: well, I mean, I guess SOMEONE has to, right? Ultimately, though, we didn’t actually take Max to the parks for his benefit: that was really all for us – and, for us, I think it was most definitely worth it. I’ll be adding some heavy caveats to that statement later in the post: for now, though, the other point I wanted to make here is simply that Florida isn’t just about theme parks. Actually, this trip was the first one in many years in which we’ve visited any of the parks at all: and that’s despite having travelled to Florida more times than I can count now. We always find plenty of other things to keep us occupied, so, in this post, I’ll be offering some general tips about Florida with a toddler, rather than theme park specific ones. Oh, and as I already gave some advice on flying long-haul with a toddler here, I’m going to skip that bit, and focus on the holiday itself. So! Let’s get started…
Florida with a toddler: our tips
Hire a villa rather than a hotel room, if you can
In almost two decades of visiting Florida, we’ve always opted for private villa rentals, as opposed to hotels, and, we found this particularly useful this year, when travelling with an extra, much smaller, member of the family. Hotels are great, don’t get me wrong, but we just really appreciated the extra space our villa gave us for Max to run around: it meant he was able to have his own bedroom, rather than being in with us, and we also had our own swimming pool, so no need to worry about disturbing other people, either.
The other big benefit of a house over a hotel, meanwhile, was that we were able to shop around and find a property that was particularly well equipped for people travelling with small children. Hotels will obviously provide you with things like travel cots, say, but our villa also came fully stocked with toys, books, and basically everything we needed to keep Max happy for two weeks: I could seriously have brought nothing other than clothes for him, and we’d have been absolutely fine – they’d even left us some toddler plates, cutlery, etc, so it really was a home from home.
As we were travelling with my parents, villa hire also worked out cheaper for us than a hotel would’ve been, as we were able to split the cost between the two families. Yes, it meant we had to hire a car, but I’d recommend doing that anyway if you’re visiting Florida, and our house was just ten minutes from Disney, and about five from all of the restaurants and stores on US 192, so it was really convenient, and made it much easier for us to be able to go out between Max’s nap times, and then just zip back home if he started to get tired.
With all of that said, there are obviously advantages to staying in a hotel, too, so, if that’s your preference, I’d just add this:
If you’re in a hotel, try to book a suite, rather than a single room
At 16 months, Max is able to stay for free in most hotels, but that often means he sleeps in a travel cot in our room: which we’ve learned to our cost means that no one actually sleeps, basically. This will obviously depend on the child (I’m going to be saying that a lot in this post: don’t say I didn’t warn you…), but, in our case, we find that if we’re all in the same room, we keep Max awake and he keeps us awake, so it’s really not ideal for anyone. The other big disadvantage of everyone being in one room, meanwhile, is that once the toddler is in bed, you’re pretty limited in what you can do. On one memorable occasion, Terry, Max and I had to spend the night in one tiny hotel room, due to there being nothing else available: once Max was in bed, Terry and I spent the rest of the night sitting in the dark, listening to the sound of the white noise machine, and speaking in whispers, so we didn’t wake him: never again!
This obviously won’t always be an option for everyone, but if your child is old enough to be in his room, I’d really recommend booking a suite with more than one room, if you can – that way everyone sleeps better, and the adults have somewhere to hang out once the baby/toddler is in bed!
Travel off-peak, if possible
As we only have one child, who’s still just a toddler, we chose to avoid the school holidays, and travel off-peak, when the fares are lower, and the crowds are generally a bit less intense. While I’d definitely recommend doing that if you can, though, we were still really surprised by how busy everywhere was: and I’m not just talking about the theme parks here, but also restaurants, supermarkets, malls… everywhere we went was super-crowded, and busier than I’ve ever seen it – I absolutely shudder to think how much worse it would be during peak times, so we’re planning to make the most of our ability to travel off-peak while we still can!
Buy hopper tickets for the parks, and don’t plan on spending the entire day in them
For us, the biggest issue when it came to visiting the theme parks was working things around Max’s nap schedule: at the time we travelled, he was still on two naps per day, and totally refused to sleep in the pushchair, which made it really tricky for us to go anywhere for a full day: which you really need to do any of the parks properly. (Actually, I’d say you need more than one day to do any of them properly, even without a child in tow.) Hopper tickets, which allow you to enter the park as many times as you like within a certain time period, were the only way we could’ve done it: yes, a single-day ticket is cheaper, but as we were only able to stay in each park for a few hours at a time, we couldn’t have justified the cost.
Regardless of the type of ticket you buy, though, you’ll be able to leave the park and come back again later the same day, and my best advice is to take full advantage of this. With both Disney and Universal, we planned to arrive early, head home during the hottest part of the day, and then come back again in the evening, which is often when the wait time for rides is shortest, and the temperatures coolest. Speaking of which…
Use FastPass / Express Pass where possible
Our Universal tickets (Which, full disclosure, were free of charge in exchange for blog coverage…) came with unlimited Express access, and I’m honestly not sure we’d have managed without it, given how busy the parks were: obviously no one enjoys standing in line at the best of times, but an hour-long wait with a toddler? Forget it.
You have to pay to use Express Pass at Universal, but Disney’s FastPass system is included in the admission price, with the small catch that you can only use three passes per day: make the most of these by planning ahead, selecting the rides you want to use them on, and checking in as soon as possible.
Plan for hot weather and freezing aircon
We thought that by choosing to travel in May, we’d manage to miss the very worst of the humidity, but, as it turned out, this May was one of Florida’s hottest on record, which meant I got to spend a lot of time stressing about Max’s temperature and the possibility of him getting sunburn. Sunscreen and lots of fluids are obviously a given in hot weather, and I’d also recommend buying on of those water bottle fans from eBay or Amazon before you go : we made the mistake of buying ours in the Magic Kingdom, and it cost $15 plus tax, which was way more than I’ve seen them for sale elsewhere. We also made sure to take some fruit pouches with us as emergency backup for those moments when Max was refusing to drink the water we had on us at all times, and used an umbrella as a sun shade when he wouldn’t keep his hat on (His pushchair does have a hood, but he’s not keen on that either…):
Slightly less obviously, I also recommend bringing a light cardigan or sweater in your baby bag, too: the outside temperature might be hotter than hell, but I often find the aircon indoors in Florida to be absolutely freezing, and this includes some of the indoor attractions, and queues for some of the rides!
Forget about fine-dining
You know this already, I’m sure, but holidays with a toddler aren’t really an opportunity to experience fine dining. Max isn’t badly behaved in restaurants, but he IS a toddler, after all, and he’s really not a fan of sitting still for long periods of time. Because of that, we find restaurants challenging with him at the best of times, and this trip was even trickier than we’d anticipated, because everywhere was just so busy that the wait times in almost every restaurant we visited were really long. I’m not sure if we were just spectacularly unlucky here, because it’s not something I’ve noticed before in Florida, but we waited almost an hour for food on a few occasions, and one hour with a hungry toddler seems more like five, basically, so it wasn’t much fun for anyone.
My tips here, then:
01. Choose casual, family-friendly restaurants – not just because people are likely to be more tolerant of toddler noise in them, but also because many of them provide things like crayons, etc, to help keep children entertained while you wait. Here we are, for instance, at the T-Rex restaurant in Disney Springs:
As you can see, Max and I are both wearing sweaters, as the aircon was set to freezing here, and despite the free crayons, and set of dinosaur toys we bought in the attached shop, Max is looking pretty grumpy – probably because we’d been waiting around 40 minutes at that point, with no sign of our food. With that said, the food was good when it arrived, and he did enjoy seeing the giant dinosaurs/playing in the sandpit, so this definitely wasn’t the worst dining experience we had by far.
02. Bring your own toys and snacks. I wouldn’t normally advocate taking your own food to a restaurant, but I also wouldn’t recommend forcing a hungry toddler to wait for an hour to eat, so we took to bringing a small carton of blueberries with us everywhere we went, to help keep Max happy(ish) if the wait was particularly long. We find that toys don’t normally hold his interest for long in these situations, but I kept a few smaller things in my bag, just in case.
03. Choose curbside or take-out. Eating out is normally one of our favourite things on holiday, so we persevered for the first week of our trip, before being forced to acknowledge that it was actually proving to be more trouble than it was really worth to keep Max entertained while we waited for food, and then bolt down our meals so we could help him eat his, so, for most of our second week, we opted to eat in the villa instead. Most restaurants in the Orlando/ Kissimmee area offer cubside pickup and/or home delivery, so we’d cook dinner for Max in the villa, and then, while Terry and I were bathing him and getting him ready for bed, either my parents would go out and pick something up, or we’d have food delivered. Before Max came along, I’d have hated the thought of having to sit in the villa every evening and miss out on having dinner somewhere different each night, but it was just so much more relaxing to be able to sit by the pool and actually enjoy our meal once he was in bed that it ended up being one of my favourite parts of the holiday. Which, I guess, brings me to my final point…
Adjust your expectations
I was about to write “lower your expectations,” here, but that’s not quite right: we had a fantastic time in Florida, just as we always do, but it was a very different kind of fantastic time from the ones we’ve had in the past, and, if we’d gone into this holiday expecting that it would be the same as any of our previous trips to the sunshine state, I think we’d have been in for a bit of a shock.
As I said in my introduction to this post, for us, Florida with a toddler was 100% worth the effort, but it did mean we had to adjust our expectations. We spent much more time in our holiday accommodation than we usually would, for instance (Another reason to pick a house/hotel you love!), weren’t able to spend the full day park-hopping, and had to plan everything around Max’s naps and bedtime. Was it the easiest holiday ever? Not really, no. Would we do it again, though? Absolutely: and the sooner, the better, really. It’s not known as The Happiest Place on Earth for nothing, after all…