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Orlando bound? How to do Disney World with a toddler or big kid

The secret to doing Disney World with a toddler is to know which attractions best suit her age and developmental stages, and then taking in just enough to leave your family enchanted, not exhausted. As a travel writer and Disney World fanatic, I've visited Disney World many times with my children. And if I've learned anything, it's this:Lesson #1: You can't do Disney without a plan!Lesson #2:
disney world for toddlers
disney world for toddlersCourtesy of Disney / Today

The secret to doing Disney World with a toddler is to know which attractions best suit her age and developmental stages, and then taking in just enough to leave your family enchanted, not exhausted. As a travel writer and Disney World fanatic, I've visited Disney World many times with my children. And if I've learned anything, it's this:

Lesson #1: You can't do Disney without a plan!

Lesson #2: That plan will change as your kids grow.

The secret to a perfect Disney World vacation is knowing the attractions that best suit your kids' ages and developmental stages, and then taking in just enough to leave your family enchanted, not exhausted.

This age-by-age guide to Disney World will give you and your family the kind of insider information that's hard to find elsewhere, whether you're looking for places to chill out or ideal areas for greeting your favorite Disney characters. I'll help you find the best rides, resting spots and attractions for kids of every age. And, I'll share tips on when you should go and what you should avoid—so your first Disney experience isn't your last!

Things to Know Before You Go...
• Be prepared. Study the guidebooks (and don't leave home without one). Be aware of park hours and that some attractions run on limited schedules. Use the age-by-age articles that follow to help you plan your itinerary, but also get a park map at your hotel so you can review the schedule beforehand.

• Go during the school year, if possible. Crowds are thinnest in January, October, November (except Thanksgiving weekend) and December (before Christmas week).

• Be realistic.The younger your child, the less ground you can expect to cover. During the high season (Spring break, Presidents' Day weekend, the summer months, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays), you may conquer only a few attractions per day.

• If you're a single parent, consider traveling with another adult who has kids of similar age to yours. Your kids will be happier, and you'll have adult companionship, as well as an extra pair of helping hands.

• Hit the parks early. Get there at least 45 minutes before official opening time. Bring snacks and toys to amuse little ones while waiting. Guests staying in Walt Disney World Resorts are entitled to Extra Magic Hours, where certain parks and attractions open early or close later on designated days.

• Use the "FASTPASS," a system that's available for the most popular rides and attractions. When a certain ride has a long line, the "Fast Pass" allows you to return later at a specified time, when you'll get to ride without a lengthy wait. (But you can't get a second "Fast Pass" until the time frame on your first one has expired.)

Track wait times from your smart phone. Download free apps like Disney World Wait Times (for iPhone) and Disney World Lines (for iPhone, Android and Blackberry).

• Take a daily break. Having a nap or going back to the hotel for a midday swim can prevent meltdowns.

• Eat in at breakfast. Bring along cereal or breakfast bars, plastic bowls and utensils; then send a family member to the hotel food court for milk and fruit.

• Save "Character Dining" for departure day. Several of the Disney hotels and theme park restaurants have them, and it's a great way to celebrate before heading home.

Find everything you need to craft your perfect Disney trip for your kids age-by-age below.

Babies and Toddlers (Birth to 2)

Keep in Mind: A child's patience and attention span are limited at this age, so tailor your schedule accordingly. Stick to tame, slow-moving rides, and factor in lots of downtime for feeding, changing, snoozing and cuddling. Schedule just enough to sample the magic without overstimulating baby. You can always come back again in a few years when he or she will appreciate the experience even more.

• Parks to See: The Magic Kingdom—especially Fantasyland and New Fantasyland, where a lot of attractions are specifically designed for little ones.

 • Touring Strategies: Head to Fantasyland first; then New Fantasyland. It's where you'll see all the scaled-down classic Disney attractions. If your child slips into her morning nap, relax on a shady bench or check out the charming (and air-conditioned!) Castle Couture at Cinderella Castle or Big Top Souvenirs in Storybook Circus section of New Fantasyland. Break for lunch, then head back to your hotel, or stay a few more hours and leave after the afternoon parade. If you don't mind disrupting your little one's bedtime routine, hit the park again after dinner (if it's open), head for Adventureland and Frontierland and catch the nighttime Main Street Electrical Parade.

• Don't Miss: In Fantasyland: Prince Charming Regal Carrousel; "it's a small world"; The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh; Walt Disney World Railroad (kids enjoy watching it pull in and out of the station even more than they like riding it). In New Fantasyland: Dumbo, The Flying Elephant. In Adventureland: The Magic Carpets of Aladdin ride.

• Skip: Scheduled character appearances (the crowds and the larger-than-life Disney characters may be overwhelming); Tom Sawyer Island (tough to navigate with a stroller) and the Swiss Family Treehouse (too much climbing!)

• Kids May Be Scared By: Dark surroundings and loud noises at some of the attractions (for example, fireworks shows, the Sea Witch and creepy-eyed eels in Under the Sea~Journey of the Little Mermaid, or the gunfire at Pirates of the Caribbean ride).

•Meal Plans: Formula, baby food and juice are available at hotel gift shops and the Baby Care Centers located in all the Disney parks. (You can nurse there in a relaxed setting.) For a quick Fantasyland lunch, duck into the Pinocchio Village Haus, where you can cut fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pasta salad into bite-size pieces. Stash small boxes of cereal in your diaper bag to tide kids over between meals. With small children, room service or take-out dinners from hotel food courts may be more relaxing than dining out.

• Best Spots to Greet Characters: From a distance at parades and during meals at The Crystal Palace, where kids can safely wave or call out to characters without getting close enough to be frightened.

Places to Chill Out: The Baby Care Center (with rocking chairs, toys and baby supplies); the rockers outside the Frontier Trading Post in Frontierland.

Hot Tips:
• Bring your own lightweight, folding stroller so you can skip the lines (and fees) at the rental counter.

• If your baby's too young for a ride, you and your spouse can "baby switch" at the entrance. Tell the attendant that you'll hop on the ride first while your spouse and the baby wait for you on the sidelines. Then, when you come off, your spouse can ride while you hold the baby.

Preschoolers (3 to 6)

• Keep in Mind: Preschoolers love repetition and will ask to go on their favorite rides again and again. This is fine if the lines aren't long. During crowded times, however, move on to the next attraction. Children may beg for wilder rides, such as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain, but must be at least 40 inches tall to board them.

• Parks to See: The Magic Kingdom, Disney's Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. Epcot is enormous, but if you've got Finding Nemo fans in the family, you’ll want to head there for The Seas with Nemo & Friends pavilion.

Touring Strategies: Spread the sights out over the course of your vacation. Plan to see Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland, New Fantasyland and the Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin ride in Tomorrowland one day; Frontierland and Adventureland another. Set aside another day each for Animal Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios. A half-day is enough for Epcot. Occupy evenings with sit-down events like the Magic Kingdom's Main Street Electrical Parade, the Fantasmic show at Disney's Hollywood Studios or the Electrical Water Pageant (which can be seen from all of the Disney monorail hotels). Set aside your last day for revisiting the kids' favorites.

• Don't Miss:
In the Magic Kingdom: Peter Pan's Flight; Prince Charming Regal Carrousel; “it's a small world”; The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh; Mickey’s PhilharMagic; Mad Tea Party; Enchanted Tales with Belle; Under the Sea~Journey of the Little Mermaid; Dumbo, The Flying Elephant; The Barnstormer Featuring the Great Goofini coaster (for kids 35" or taller) Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin; The Magic Carpets of Aladdin; Jungle Cruise; the nightly Celebrate the Magic! Castle Projection show.

In Disney's Hollywood Studios: Voyage of The Little Mermaid; Toy Story Mania!; Muppet*Vision 3-D; Beauty and the Beast—Live on Stage; Disney Junior—Live on Stage!; Pixar Pals Countdown to Fun parade.

In the Animal Kingdom: Kilimanjaro Safaris; TriceraTop Spin in Dinoland U.S.A.; Festival of the Lion King show; Finding Nemo—The Musical; Rafiki's Planet Watch, where you can meet animal experts and ride a train to a petting zoo.

In Epcot: The Seas with Nemo & Friends ride, and Turtle Talk with Crush.

At Magic Kingdom: Space Mountain (kids must be a least 40" to ride, and are seated individually, so you won't be able to sit next to them); Tomorrowland Speedway (kids can't drive their own cars unless they're 52" tall).

At Disney's Hollywood Studios: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (has a dark, foreboding pre-show and frightening 13-story free-fall); Rock 'n' Roller Coaster (kids must be at least 44" to ride); Walt Disney: One Man's Dream (young kids will find it boring).

• Kids May Be Scared By:
In the Magic Kingdom: Snow White's Adventures (the witch pops out); The Haunted Mansion (dark, scary pre-show and ghosts galore); Pirates of the Caribbean (gunfire and menacing pirates).

At Disney's Hollywood Studios: Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular (contains fire and many explosions); The Great Movie Ride (some kids think the gunfight is real); Fantasmic (loud noises and lots of mean-looking villains); Studio Backlot Tour (which contains fire, a flood and explosions).

At Animal Kingdom: It's Tough to Be a Bug (though comical, the 3-D bees and spiders can be frightening); DINOSAUR (a T-Rex lunges unexpectedly from the darkness).

• Meal Plans: For lunch: Duck into counter-service restaurants by 11am, before they get busy. Don't miss the brand new Be Our Guest restaurant (for quick-service lunch or sit-down dinner). More dinner ideas: Try out sit-down restaurants that have kids activities and entertainment. Two kid-pleasing favorites: Whispering Canyon Cafe in the Wilderness Lodge hotel, where children can compete in hobby-horse races; and 'Ohana at the Polynesian Resort, where kids participate in Hawaiian-style sing-alongs and coconut-rolling races.

Best Bets for Character Dining: Magic Kingdom's The Crystal Palace, for buffet breakfast, lunch or dinner with Pooh and the gang; Cinderella's Royal Table at Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom or the Princess Storybook meals at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in Epcot’s Norway Pavillion. Preschoolers also enjoy Chef Mickey's buffet breakfasts and dinners at the Contemporary Resort.

More Great Spots to Greet Characters: In Magic Kingdom: Town Square Theater on Main Street (where you can get a FastPass to meet Mickey and Princesses), City Hall area; Ariel's Grotto and Pete's Silly Side Show in New Fantasyland; near Country Bear Jamboree in Frontierland; and in Adventureland Congoasis. In Hollywood Studios: Pixar Place and in front of the Sorcerer's Hat. In the Animal Kingdom: Camp Minnie-Mickey.

• Places to Chill Out: Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak Station in New Fantasyland; Hollywood Studios's Miss Piggy Fountain, in front of Muppet*Vision 3-D (kids love splashing their hands in it); Animal Kingdom's Boneyard (a gigantic sandbox and interactive playground with caves, slides and climbing nets).

Hot Tips:
• Bring (or rent) a stroller; the kids will need it.

• Buy the children a small trinket on the first day to keep them from hounding you constantly. Then tell them you'll buy them one special souvenir at the end of the trip.

Gradeschoolers (7 to 10)

• Keep in Mind: These are the thrill-seeking years, and kids may beg for rides that are too wild or intense for them. If you're unsure whether a ride is appropriate, check with a Disney staffer or try it yourself first. Most kids this age enjoy Splash Mountain (a five-story flume ride); Space Mountain (an in-the-dark roller coaster); Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (a 13-story free-falling elevator); Rock 'n' Roller Coaster (an indoor roller coaster that goes upside down three times!); and Test Track, and Mission: Space (choose the less intense flight option, if you're unsure).

• Parks to See: The Magic Kingdom, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Typhoon Lagoon water park (but hit water parks early or late in the day to avoid crowds).

• Touring Strategies: Kids will have clear preferences, so tap into their interests. For example, an animal-lover may want more than one day in Animal Kingdom. Magic Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios are extremely popular with this age group, since they offer the most thrill rides. Take advantage of the "FASTPASS," so you can ride popular attractions without a lengthy wait. If the parks are open late, you can plan on returning most evenings, since gradeschoolers have more late-night staying power than younger kids.

• Don't Miss:
In the Magic Kingdom: Space Mountain; Splash Mountain; Big Thunder Mountain Railroad; Mad Tea Party; The Barnstormer Featuring the Great Goofini; Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin; The Haunted Mansion; Pirates of the Carribbean; Jungle Cruise; Main Street Electrical Parade; Celebrate the Magic! Castle Projection show; Wishes Nighttime Spectacular fireworks.

Disney's Hollywood Studios: Star Tours - The Adventures Continue (and the Jedi Training Academy, right outside it); Toy Story Mania!; The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow; MuppetVision 3-D; The American Idol Experience; The Great Movie Ride; Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular; Fantasmic.

In Animal Kingdom: Kali River Rapids; Maharajah Jungle Trek; Kilimanjaro Safaris; DINOSAUR; It's Tough to Be a Bug!; Finding Nemo—The Musical; Festival of the Lion King.

In Epcot: Spaceship Earth, Test Track, Soarin’; Ellen's Energy Adventure, Phineas & Ferb: Agent P's World Showcase Adventure; Innoventions (save this technology arcade for after you've seen everything else, and set a time limit -- or you could be there forever); Kidcot Fun Stops, at each country in the World Showcase (kids can make cultural crafts and collect paper coins; IllumiNations nighttime laser and fireworks show (scout a viewing spot at least 30 minutes beforehand).

• Kids May Be Scared By: Rock 'n' Roller Coaster (fast, loud, dark, and goes upside-down); Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (a 13-story free-fall); Expedition Everest (goes backwards, through the dark, with a Yeti chasing you; must be 44" tall to ride)

• Meal Plans: Food-court meals offer finicky eaters lots of choices. Try Sunshine Seasons in Epcot's Land pavilion, featuring pasta, pizza, baked potatoes and more. Also seek out portable foods, like turkey legs and fresh fruit, located at carts throughout all three parks. Theme restaurants are also a big hit with this age group—especially the Sci-Fi Dine-In in Disney's Hollywood Studios, where kids dine in cars and watch old science fiction movie clips. And you won't want to miss lunch or dinner in the new Beauty and the Beast–themed Be Our Guest restaurant in Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland.

• Best Bets for Character Meals: The Garden Grill Restaurant at Epcot's Land Pavilion, where Mickey and friends host breakfast, lunch and dinner; and Cape May Café buffet breakfast or dinner with Goofy and pals at Disney’s Beach Club Resort. Character meals give kids a leisurely opportunity to clown around with favorite characters, get autographs, and pose for photos.

• More Spots to Greet Characters: Enchanted Tales with Belle in Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland; Scheduled character greetings in all parks (check park maps and boards for exact times).

• Places to Chill Out: Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak Station in New Fantasyland; Typhoon Lagoon water park; Animal Kingdom's Kali River Rapids (you get drenched on this ride!); Epcot's Club Cool (it looks like a gift shop, but inside you can sample Coca-Cola products from around the world); and Gran Fiesta Tour starring the Three Caballeros, a gentle boat ride with Donald Duck, Panchito the Mexican Rooster and Jose Carioca the Brazillian parrot; the Yacht Club Resort's Beaches & Cream Soda Shop (sundaes are enormous, so share them).

Hot Tips:
• Give kids fanny packs for holding autograph books, sunscreen and pocket money.

• At Epcot stores and carts you can buy a "passport" that kids can have stamped at each stop in the World Showcase.

Preteens and Teens (10 and up)

• Keep in Mind: Kids will want the independence to explore, without you beside them. Depending on their maturity and your level of comfort, consider giving kids the opportunity to ride some attractions alone or with siblings. Understand that kids this age are very self-conscious and often feel embarrassed by their parents. So think twice before donning that Goofy hat!

• Parks You Should See: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Blizzard Beach water park and the Disney Quest arcade located at Downtown Disney.

• Touring Strategies: Hit the parks early and head for the most popular thrill rides first. Utilize the FASTPASS system to minimize waiting time. Older teens can run ahead and secure the FASTPASSES for the whole family.

• Don't Miss:
In the Magic Kingdom: Space Mountain; Splash Mountain; Big Thunder Mountain Railroad; BuzzLightyear's Space Ranger Spin; Pirates of the Caribbean; Stitch's Great Escape; Celebrate the Magic! Castle Projection Show; Wishes Nighttime Spectacular fireworks.

In Disney's Hollywood Studios: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror; Rock 'n' Roller Coaster; Star Tours—The Adventures Continue; The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow; The American Idol Experience; Toy Story Mania!; Studios Backlot Tour.

In the Animal Kingdom: Expedition Everest; Kali River Rapids; Kilimanjaro Safaris; DINOSAUR; It's Tough to Be a Bug.

In Epcot Center: Space Ship Earth; Test Track; Mission: Space; Soarin’; Innoventions; Illuminations;

• Parades to Catch: Pixar Pals Countdown to Fun! parade of favorite Pixar stars.

• Skip: Character shows (kids will claim they're too babyish)

• Kids May Be Scared By: Twilight Zone Tower of Terror; Expedition Everest.

• Meal Plans: Restaurants with all-you-can eat buffets will satisfy teens' varied tastes and big appetites! Try out Boma at the African Kingdom Lodge Hotel, which features African dishes along with American classics. Ethnic restaurants are fun to sample, since kids are more adventursome eaters at this age. (There are plenty to choose from in Epcot's World Showcase!) And, if you have sports-loving sons or daughters, make sure you eat at the ESPN Club at Disney's Boardwalk. It's a fan's paradise, with televisions everywhere (even in the bathrooms!)

• Best Spots to Greet Characters: Parades—especially the nighttime The Main Street Electrical Parade Magic Kingdom. Kids this age still love seeing characters, but don't always want to admit it. Parades allow them to view their favorites, without having to pose with them.

• Places to Chill Out: Water parks—especially Blizzard Beach (where daredevils will zoom down the 120-foot Summit Plummit waterslide at speeds up to 60 miles an hour).

Hot Tips:
If possible, have kids travel with friends or other family members close in age.

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.