Full disclosure: I am an advance planner. That's why most of my Disney trip tips start well before 180 days. If you're a spontaneous fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-and-see-what-happens while going-with-the-flow type... bless you! I wish I could be more like you!
I read an article a few years back that said that a lot of the psychological benefits of vacations are in the planning, and I often quote that to justify my months-in-advance-obsessing to my husband. I'm not thinking too far ahead, dear, I'm enjoying the psychological benefits of an upcoming trip! Eight week psychological boost? Ha! How about eighteen months? I'm not even out the door yet for our upcoming trip and I'm already thinking of the next (have you seen the new Polynesian bungalows? They're looking quite enticing for 2017!)
So, if you're the aforementioned impulsive vacationing sort, you can stop reading now. But if you're like me, geeked about optimizing every little detail of your Disney trip, read on. I have some tricks and tips and thoughts about packing that I've been dying to share with you....
Packing, the logistics:
I start planning for packing for my Disney trips (yes, you read that right) well in advance. Once our trip itinerary is set, ADR reservations secured, and FP+ plans made, I have a fair idea of what we'll be doing when. And that naturally flows into what we'll be needing when, and what we'll be wearing when. Then, I start making lists. Eventually, I'll post those lists up on the wall in a central area of our house so that everyone can see what they need to gather, and add things that I might have forgotten (yes, it happens!)
I attack the lists as follows:
- Vacation necessities: those things you'd pack for any trip anywhere like socks and shoes and undies, electronics and toiletries
- Disney necessities: things like ear hats, autograph books, and coordinating outfits
- Trip specific stuff: items that are specific to special activities unique to this trip, based on the specific itinerary, like pirate costumes because we'll be going on the pirate cruise
There are lots of great resources out there with advice on what to pack for your Disney vacation. I particularly like this one from WDW prep school and this one from TouringPlans.com, and this one. I'm sure there's a bunch more and I suggest you read as many as you find because they're each a little bit different. I was doing just that yesterday evening when I came across this list from Disney Dining and squeed out loud because it suggested organizing each kids' outfits into a ziplock bag and labeling with names/days. I started doing that on summer trips to NYC and VA and it saved so much time and frustration, especially now that the girls are getting close in size and their clothes are practically indistinguishable. I was planning on doing it for our upcoming Disney trip--- to which my husband scoffed that it was a bit too crazy---- to which I can now point and say "See! I'm not alone!!" :-)
One very important thing to note: if you are staying on Disney property you can ship yourself up to two boxes to your resort up to two weeks ahead of time. We take full advantage of this perk by sending ourselves boxes of the light items, which reduces what we have to pay for luggage on the airplane. When we are done with the items (usually princess costumes) we put them back in their box along with any light/bulky souvenirs we've picked up and they're waiting for us at home when we get back. With two little kids, anything I can do to reduce the number of suitcases we're juggling at the airport is a must-do for my trip! Go here for the details on the Disney Resort mail service.
I'm not going to get further into the general packing stuff, because what I really want to talk about are the things you might not think about doing/packing until it's too late... (in no particular order)
Safety Tattoos provide great peace of mind if you're traveling with little kids, especially mobile but pre-lingual ones (ages 2-4). It's much easier to teach your child to point to their tattoo if they get lost, then to try to have them memorize a phone number. Disney has excellent contingencies in place in the event you get separated from your child, but it certainly helps if your child has your cell phone number stuck to the back of their hand.
(I don't actually stick the tattoos to the back of their hands, of course. I try to find a less conspicuous spot that won't show up in every picture.)
The custom tattoos take 6-8 weeks to arrive, which is why they're on my early packing list. If you don't have enough time to preorder then there are some alternatives, like ordering the write-yourself version, this DIY tattoo tutorial, or having them carry an identification card in their purse or pocket. I prefer the tatoos because my girls are almost as bad about losing their bags as they are about wandering off!
Rewards gift card & PhotoPass preorder
If you are a DisneyVisa and holder then you know all about the perks (and, if you're not, you should check it out!) If you're cashing in your rewards dollars, make sure you do so a few weeks ahead to receive the gift card which will be mailed to you.
The same goes for Disney dollars which we like to order before our trips and have the girls put in their wallets for spending money--- if you forget to order Disney dollars ahead of time you can pick some up at the resort, too!
And don't forget to preorder your Disney Photopass / Memory Maker. Not for logistic reasons, but because if you order it before your trip you save $50!
Disney Gear: Trading pins, Glow in the dark stuff, and more!
We keep a bin in our basement devoted to our 'Disney Gear', that is things we enjoy having in the park that don't get much use at home like ear hats and rain ponchos and glow-in-the-dark stuff. It's infinitely less expensive to hold on to these items between trips and take them back with you to reuse---especially items like the Glow with the Show ears! They're usually bulky but light things, making them excellent candidates for sending down ahead of time in a box.
If this is your first trip and you don't have a bunch of souvenirs hanging around you might consider the suggestion by Cheapskate Princess that you buy some of your souvenirs ahead of time and take them with you... Again, ear hats especially. With some advance planning, you can pick them up really cheap on eBay or clearance sales or with coupons.
If you'll be staying late for fireworks, Illuminations, Fantasmic, or the Main Street Electrical Parade you will definitely want to pack some glow in the dark items, or end up at the mercy of the light-up souvenier carts! We always pack tubes of those really cheap glowstick bracelets. By us, they're about .99 for a tube of ten. We keep one in our park pack. They come in handy for A. avoiding the steep prices of the light-up souvenirs, B. keeping the kids occupied while they wait for night shows, C. making new friends while we wait for night shows (we always have enough to share), and D. keeping track of your kid on the dark. I usually do one bracelets on each wrist and ankle which makes them stand out in the crowd in the dark, then let them play with the rest.
Lastly, if you think there is even a CHANCE your kids will want to participate in pin trading, then you should be sure to pick up a batch of eBay resale pins. I read this advice prior to our last trip but disregarded it because I thought my kids were too young for pin trading--- boy was I wrong, and I paid for it!! A lot of 100 mixed pins will cost about $40-50 on eBay whereas a pack of 10 new pins will set you back $30 in the park!
You have to be careful to avoid scammers selling "scrappers" or scrap pins. I try to avoid the eBay sellers whose whole business is selling pins and look for the person trying to get rid of their kids' collection now that they're grown up and don't want them anymore. It doesn't matter what the pins are (so long as they're official pins) since the idea is to trade them away in the parks, so don't worry about getting your kid's favorite character and instead go for quantity!
Signature Book or item
There's lots of diversity in what folks bring to have the characters sign! You can always use the traditional little blank book available in the park, or bring your own. I've also seen picture frames, tshirts, pillowcases, Teddy bears, portraits their kids have drawn and more! People get really creative! If YOU are one of those people who wants to do something unique then make sure you start researching/thinking about it early as some of the more complex ideas (like having your child draw a portrait of each character) can take some time to prepare.
As for us, on our first trip we did the little blank book for each kid which hasn't been touched since. For our second trip we did the enhanced Princess book for our older daughter where you're supposed to go back and put the picture of the princess into the page --- we never did, and it hasn't been touched since.
For our younger daughter, however, we took along a princess storybook and had the princesses sign their page. She reads it often and talks about meeting the princesses when she sees their signature! It's hard to find one book that has lots of characters in it and isn't too heavy to carry around all day, so this idea will take some shopping.
For this trip we're still debating whether to do the storybook thing again or forego autograph books altogether. I'm tempted to encourage the girls to just talk to the characters and I feel like they'd get more 'quality' time without the autograph book ---- still on the fence on this issue!
(A little hint, BTW--- if you miss an autograph you can always have 'Tinkerbell' bring it when you get home, as most of the autographs are available online and easy to copy if you need to!)
Seasonal Items: Clothes, Shoes, and more!
Disney is warm and sunny! Which makes it a great winter vacation destination, amiright? If you're going in the winter, try to get your packing started in the fall --- why? To take advantage of seasonal clothing sales, of course. Not just for the purpose of being thrifty, but also because the selection of swimsuits and flipflops is much more robust at the end of the summer season than in the middle of winter. If you'll be taking things like water wings or beach toys, these are nearly impossible to find in December and you'll be dependant on eBay or Amazon so make sure you look at what you have vs. what you think you will need well in advance!
Don't forget sunglasses, especially if you (like me) need prescription lenses, these will need to be ordered weeks in advance! And it doesn't hurt to label your sunglasses case (and anything else you can manage to stick a label on) with your name, phone number, and resort hotel just in case. Did you know Walt Disney World's lost and found handles hundreds of glasses per week?
Specialty Clothing & Coordinating outfits
You may have special activities in your itinerary (like princess dining, or a pirate cruise, or signature dining reservation) that requires special occasion wear. Certain signature restaurants require button down shirts for men, etc. so if these are in your plans make sure to remember to pack a special outfit.
Many families like to wear coordinating outfits, too. I've never convinced my family to go for matching shirts, but I did get them all dressed up as Crayons to attend Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween party on our last trip! I try to coordinate the girls outfits so our group pictures don't look all hodgepodgy---- not in identical dresses, but for our last trip I picked up outfits from Gymboree (in the fall, on clearance) from one line so that no matter which outfit we put them in (shorts, sundress, pants) they were in coordinating fabrics. This trip I'm TRYING to expand that to the rest of the family by choosing colors for days --- day 1 is red/black, day 2 is navy blue, etc. Family members can wear whatever they want in that color scheme and hopefully we'll look like a cohesive group.
I understand that dressing up for vacation is not a priority for everyone, and I'm not proposing that you make yourself uncomfortable. But on our first trip we went for comfort first and when I got home I was somewhat embarrassed by the pictures. My theory is that with a little pre-planning effort you can be comfortable AND look nice. I think of our Disney trips as creating memories that will last a lifetime, we make photo books and frame photos for up on the wall. I'm not going to go as far as wearing makeup in the sweltering heat but at least I can TRY to look presentable.
This blogger makes the same point and has created a great guide of comfortable-fashionable clothing suggestions--- including shoes!
Speaking of shoes, did you know that you will walk an average of 14 miles per day on your Disney vacation... on your feet!! Shoes are of the utmost importance to having a good trip. Be sure you have comfortable, solid, broken-in footwear that is breathable yet supportive. If you DON'T have such, then make sure you leave plenty of time to go shoe shopping AND a few weeks to break in the new shoes. You DO NOT want to embark on a theme park trip in brand new shoes that haven't been broken in. Likewise you don't want to start out with shoes that are so broken down that they won't make it through the vacation.
First aid and RX
Speaking of feet, did I mention you'll be walking like a million miles a day?! You will. A million. Maybe even more!
This is a special concern for me because I have very bad feet for walking, so I bring ice packs, insoles, and plenty of aspirin with me so that I can keep up. at night I pack my feet/ankles and this helps to keep me on my feet throughout the trip, as it were. Our last trip occurred shortly after I broke my ankle. Though I was out of my cast, I brought ace bandages and the walking cast with me just in case and I was glad I did because by about halfway through I was in excruciating pain (and they'd just changed the disability pass, sigh).
If you are prone to any sort of condition that will be exacerbated by tons of walking, or heat (like bad feet or bad back, allergies, etc) I suggest erring on the side of caution and packing your remedies. Take a look at your medicine cabinet and think about what prescription and non-prescription items you want to bring with you to be on the safe side--- I'd rather pack a little heavy than have my trip derailed by something easily managed if only I'd packed the Tylenol/Pepto/PreparationH/Bandages.
You'll want to give yourself time to get perceptions filled, or to mail yourself a box at your resort if you're taking items that might be a hassle to fly with (like gel ice packs!)
Oh! And, you will need bandiads, so make sure you throw some of those in, too! Preferably Mickey Mouse ones! Blisters, you know. :-)
Scissors + safety pins
This one only makes the list only because I don't fly much so I'm not sure what the current rules are re: flying with sizzors. Suffice to say that a little repair kit is pretty darn invaluable on any trip. You can even buy them cheap at places like CVS: something with a little pair of sizzors, needle and thread, and safety pins.
Do not forget the safety pins!! What can't be solved with a safety pin? Planning to buy one of the in-park princess costumes? A quick pinch with a safety pin will help it fit so much better! Swimsuit strap snapped? Safety pins have got you covered, my friend! Seriously, don't leave home without them!
If you have plans to visit the princesses, or a reservation for a Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique makeover, my standing recommendation is that you bring your own princess costume with you. There is a greater selection of options outside of the park and, in my opinion, the Disney Store costumes are much nicer looking (and less expensive!) than their in-theme park counterparts. (Check out my Princess Costume Primer for examples of the different types of costumes available).
We always bring our own costumes, and a tutu for underneath to make the skirt look nice and full. When not being worn, they get rolled up and put into an extra backpack and tucked in the bottom of our stroller. Princess costumes are light, but bulky, making them a superb candidate for shipping to your room ahead of time to save luggage space.
The best time to buy costumes is around October every year--- there will be a huge selection of good quality used costumes on eBay and every store will have a selection of princess costumes. You are likely to get the best deals around this time, too, so keep an eye out for clearance sales and coupons as you get closer to Halloween! If you know you'll be going to Disney in the following year, October is the time to shop!
Ahh, strollers. This was a big issue for us on our last trip and I plan to write a longer piece about my stroller opinions in the near future. Suffice to say, if you have small children you will want to give ample thought to what your stroller plan is. Will you be renting or bringing your own? If you bring your own, what will be best: a side-by-side, a sit-and-stand, two separate strollers?
Make sure to go out and test the stroller you're intending to take: how maneuverable is it, how do the kids get along in it, can it fit all your bags, will it be easy to fold and carry on to the bus (this is huge if you're not staying on the monorail as strollers must be emptied/folded when getting on the bus--- bonus hint, its helpful if they're self-standing when folded, FYI!)
Remember, you can mail yourself a box to your hotel. If you're buying a new stroller for your trip you might just want to have it shipped straight to your hotel and avoid the hassle of taking it on the plane with you.
ADDED Bonus: Lady Concerns...
(Gentlemen readers, kindly cover your ears.)
I wanted to take a minute and discuss lady issues. You know the ones I mean.
It seems like Mother Nature is particularly unsympathetic when it comes to vacations--- especially vacations that involve swimsuits and beaches, right? Be sure to count ahead to determine whether this will be an issue for you on your trip. If it is, there are a few options available for adjusting the dates of your lady time, so long as you anticipate it being a problem a few months in advance. And I'll just leave it at that. If you aren't able to adjust dates, then at least you'll be able to pack the supplies you need to be prepared.
If you're the type whose into waxes or manicures, you may want to plan those activities prior to your trip as well. I'm not a fan of the former, but I do like to have nicely painted toes if I'm going to be out and about in flipflops. This goes for other personal appearance points too: if you're due for a trim or to have your roots touched up, try to be mindful to schedule it a bit ahead of your trip.