By Matt Villano, on August 5, 2014

Walt Disney World with preschoolers

Everybody knows that Walt Disney World Resort is “the happiest place on earth” to be with kids. Few, however, know that the expansive travel destination actually is a fun place to be with YOUNG kids, too.

Over the last few years, Disney World has pumped millions of dollars into adding attractions and improving facilities for families with preschoolers. This week, I’m on-site with my wife and two daughters—ages 5 and 2—to check stuff out for ourselves.

Our itinerary reads like an Odyssey of princess-themed fun: Dinner in Beast’s castle (at the Be Our Guest restaurant), breakfast at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall (with live princesses!), a princess makeover at the Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique inside Cinderella Castle, a Princess Tea Party, a Frozen sing-along (yes!), and more. We’ll explore every square inch of New Fantasyland, the biggest expansion ever in the history of the Magic Kingdom. We also will get to spend one morning with a VIP tour guide—part of a service designed to give families the full celebrity treatment.

We’ll check out some of the other preschooler-specific things to do, too. We’ll swing by some of the new playgrounds. We’ll splash down at some of the water parks. We’ll even spend an hour or two at one of the revamped Baby Care Centers (which now have kitchens, television areas, and other amenities that make them suitable for kids up to age 6).

Heck, we’re even planning to add some inter-generational travel into our plan; toward the end of our visit, we’ll hang with my in-laws and my wife’s two sisters (and their families).

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We’re staying the week in a 1-bedroom villa at Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa. Throughout the duration of our visit, we’ll be wearing our Magic Bands, Disney World’s new high-tech way of linking hotel keys, park tickets, Fast Passes and charge accounts through waterproof bracelets for each guest. (ICYW, all three females in the family have decorated their bracelets with tiny plastic charms; mine is the only one devoid of personalization. That’s how this Dad rolls.)

Day 1: All about the bands

After a (very) full day of traipsing around the Magic Kingdom and (the new) Fantasyland inside Walt Disney World Resort, I can say this: Magic Bands are AWESOME.

The bands essentially are high-tech bracelets, consolidating personal identification, hotel key, park tickets, Fast Passes, and resort charge cards. Every member of our party has one—including the 5- and 2-year-old kids (though thankfully the kids aren’t able to use theirs to charge anything back to our account). They really do make life easier.

Here’s an example. Around 10 a.m. (when it was already about 85 degrees, BTW), the four of us decided it was time for soft-serve ice cream cones. To pay, I simply tapped my bracelet on a mouse-eared sensor and punched in a pin. I didn’t need to pull out the wallet for cash or credit cards.

The transaction took less than 20 seconds.

Cinderella Castle

Later in the day, we used our Bands to “cash in” Fast Pass tickets for Dumbo: The Flying Elephant. We also used them to get into our room, identify ourselves with on-site photographers, and rent a stroller for the night. I even used mine to access the fitness center when I went for a treadmill run at 11 p.m. (Sadly, when we travel as a family, late at night is the only time this marathoner can count on for running without interruptions.)

I won’t bore you with specifics, but the Bands operate on something called Radio Frequency, or RF. This frequency can be read at short or long distances, depending on where you are in the park.

So to recap, the Bands are cool, convenient, and fun.

Perhaps the very best thing about the new Magic Bands is this: They’re totally free if you’re staying at a Disney resort hotel or you’re a Walt Disney World annual pass-holder; otherwise you can purchase them at Walt Disney World theme parks and Downtown Disney. On your next visit, check them out.

Day 2: All about the princesses

No matter how much I try to get them to embrace stuff like whales and baseball, my daughters are like most other little girls their age: They really like princesses.

This is precisely why we started our second full day at Walt Disney World with breakfast at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in the Norway portion of the World Showcase at Epcot. The meal was a cavalcade of the traditional Disney princesses—Aurora, Belle, Cinderella, Ariel, and Snow White. At times, it bordered on sensory overload. And we didn’t mind that at all.

(For the cynics among you, no, the princesses aren’t real. They’re just actors. But let’s pretend.)

The author’s daughters with Aurora

The meal started with a warm greeting from Aurora, who then whisked the girls off for a “princess procession” around the restaurant. During this parade, separate packs of little girls followed each of the princesses. They each strolled by our table.

Later, after the girls consumed a round of (marginally) Norwegian-inspired goodies from a buffet, the princesses were back, fanning out around the dining room for personal meet-and-greets.

Snow White visited our table first. At home, she is the girls’ least favorite princess. Predictably, they were not impressed. Cinderella, however, elicited some major smiles. Ariel, too—I honestly thought my younger daughter was going to jump on top of the poor mermaid and smother her with kisses.

Without question, however, the star of the show was Belle. Not only did this princess visit our table with wonderful words of encouragement for the girls (“Follow your dreams!”), but she also invited my kids to come and take photos with her in a private little salon. The photographer snapped six shots. In every one, both kids are looking at Belle (instead of the camera).

By the time our server delivered the food—a family-style plate piled with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and a potato casserole—the girls were exhausted, breathing heavily with huge grins on their faces. They spent the rest of the meal recapping the excitement and comparing notes on each princess.

It was, they decided, the best meal of their lives.

Day 3: Disney like a rock star

There are two ways to experience Walt Disney World Resort with young kids: The normal way, and the fancy way, under the guidance of a VIP Tour Guide.

On the third full day of our current visit, my family was lucky enough to spend a few hours with a Tour Guide. The morning enabled us to have a half-day of free reign (get it?) inside the Magic Kingdom.

Our VIP day began promptly at 7:30 a.m., when we met our guide, Kevin, in the lobby of our hotel. After exchanging pleasantries and helping me with our stroller, he led us to the porte cochere, where he gave my daughters Minnie Mouse dolls and special pins you can only get on a VIP Tour. Kevin gave my wife and me pins, too. Then he ushered us into an idling SUV.

From there we headed into the Magic Kingdom—on back roads, into a cast members-only entrance behind Tomorrowland. We ducked inside the park right around 8 a.m., just as the first guests were passing by, as well. Cast members had lined up to greet guests and were applauding their arrival.

It felt like they were clapping just for us.

Princess makeovers inside the castle

We followed Kevin through Tomorrowland and the back part of Fantasyland around to Cinderella Castle, where he checked in the girls for princess makeovers at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (which I promise I’ll write about separately). When the kids were finished there, the REAL fun began: Kevin led us around the park, from ride to ride, getting us unlimited VIP access everywhere.

For this part of the day, our guide was like a human Fast Pass; so long as we were with him, we didn’t even have to scan our Magic Bands.

Considering some of the standby lines were 60-90 minutes long (and considering that you usually only get three Fast Pass slots per day), having Kevin as our squire felt like possessing the keys to the Kingdom. My wife and I in particular appreciated this benefit; we tried to capitalize on these privileges as much as possible. One of our favorites: the new Seven Dwarves Mine Train ride.

Later, Kevin whisked us (in the SUV) from the Magic Kingdom to Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, where the four of us (actually, the five of us) enjoyed stories, sandwiches, and sweet tea at the My Disney Girl’s Perfectly Princess Tea Party.

By the time tea ended, the littler Villanos were overheated, over-sugared, and thoroughly exhausted from a fun and sparkly morning. Kevin helped us in the truck and took us back to our hotel. We spent the rest of the afternoon recounting a magical day in the Magic Kingdom—a day about which all of us will be talking for years and years to come.

Admittedly, the VIP Tour Guide experience isn’t for everyone; rates run from $315 to $500 per hour. If you’ve got the budget, however, it is well worth the expense.

Day 4: Hands-on Hollywood

Preschool-aged kids love to interact with stuff. They love to climb and touch and feel. Which is why so many of them love Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Sure, this park (the one formerly known as MGM Studios) has typical rides where you sit and watch stuff go by. But the park is known best for its hands-on attractions that let pint-sized visitors get down and dirty. It’s known as the park where kids (and visitors of all ages, really) can play.

That was precisely the strategy for our visit: Play hard, and play often. And we do. And we did.

The party began at Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post and Frozen Funland, located in Soundstage One between Toy Story Midway Mania and the Studio Backlot Tour. The studio has been designed to replicate the area outside Oaken’s place in the movie. That means there are lots of fake trees. And basketball court-sized patch of real snow (despite the 95-degree temperatures outside).

Snow at Wandering Oaken’s

The whole idea with the snow-play area is to take the snow and build stuff. Like castles. Or—dare I say it?—snowmen (cue earworm now). Disney cast members cycle in groups of 30-40 people every ten minutes. A bunch of snow toys are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

We waited on line for about 20 minutes to get in and play. Once we got onto the snow itself, my girls spent their session furiously building snow bricks. They wore flip-flops all the while.

Later in the day, I took the kids to the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set, a glorified playground designed from the POV of a bug (in other words, everything is quite literally larger than life). They hid out in the “cave” of an old boot, climbed up a “spider web,” slid down a series of “leaf” slides, and frolicked in the splash zone created by a “leaky” hose.

Not only did the experience enable them to burn off steam, but it also allowed them to make new friends; my older daughter in particular made three new BFFs in the 45 minutes we were there. (It always amazes me how quickly kids can become buddies.)

We concluded our visit with the Disney Junior—Live on Stage! show, a human-and-puppet show that features some of my kids’ favorite television cartoon characters, including Sofia (from Sofia the First) and Doc McStuffins. Technically, the puppets weren’t hands-on; they were performed at the front of the room, on a stage. But considering that snow, bubbles and paper gold dubloons fall from the sky during the show, there was plenty to touch and feel.

The other thing I loved about the show: We all sat on the floor, and most of the kids—mine included—got up and danced throughout the performance. Live theater doesn’t get more interactive than that.

Day 5: Making the rounds

Traveling with preschoolers can be especially difficult when it’s time to use the potty. Some kids—the best ones—will go on the big-girl/big-boy toilets and like it. Other children—like, for instance, MINE—are afraid of everything in the big-person rest rooms: the automatic flushers, the hand driers, even the creaking stall doors.

Kidcot inside the United Kingdom at Epcot

With this in mind, we set out on our fifth and final day at Walt Disney World Resort with a simple goal: To check out at least one of the revamped Baby Care Centers inside the parks.

We had heard that these oases offered pint-sized potties, diaper-changing areas (for the really little ones), and relaxation rooms with cartoons and couches for kids to just chill out after a long and hot day in the park.

The Center inside the Magic Kingdom had all this and more, providing a comfortable spot for our younger girl to do her business (the older one still refused; such is life). The facility also served as the perfect shelter from a characteristic Orlando thunderstorm; inside, over a favorite episode of Doc McStuffins, we could barely hear the claps of thunder that rocked the park.

In Epcot, we experienced more of the same.

But our day of preschooler amenities didn’t stop there. Also inside Epcot, we took advantage of some of the park’s Kidcot Fun Stops—stations around the World Showcase where kids can color cardboard cutouts of the Disney bear, Duffy, and receive stamps from each of 11 countries.

These respites helped us bridge the gap between a hot afternoon of rides and the “Illuminations: Reflections of Earth” fireworks show that started at 9 p.m. (which, in case you’re wondering, the kids adored).

The Kidcot stations also gave the girls great souvenirs—personal mementos of our trip that they won’t ever be able to find in a Disney Store.

What are your favorite things to do with young children at Walt Disney World Resort?