Pack Your Bag(s)!
I think my family can qualify at this point as professional-level park-goers. I mean... we're basically at WDW every weekend.
I'd like to think we have visiting down to a science at this point. Whenever friends or family are coming to town to hit the parks, one of the first things I cover is what to bring with you into the parks. The initial reaction is usually hesitation: do we really want to haul a backpack around with us all day? I get it. Trust me, I do.
Theme parks are in my blood. My dad and I were a well-oiled, roller coaster-obsessed machine and we hit every park from Orlando to Kansas City growing up. We were there for every rope drop, and if it didn't fit into our super-fashionable neon fanny packs? It wasn't coming with us. But we were thrill-seekers. You can't take backpacks on roller coasters (or most rides at Universal parks): locker-city, sweethearts. Becoming a WDW Annual Passholder, one of the things that surprised me the most about these parks was that there's literally no ride you can't take a bag with you. None. Even the roller coasters: as long as you can tuck the bag between your legs, it rides with you (so don't be tempted to bring a rolling suitcase, ok?).
So is it worth it to bring a backpack? For us, absolutely. But we travel with a kid. Kids are little sacks of need on legs. While I'm more than capable of handling a grown-up park day with a decent sized purse, any amount of time with the little one in tow is going to require SO MUCH MORE STUFF. Parents, y'all feel me right? You look at ladies holding little clutches and reminisce about how nice it was to not feel like your purse was a glorified, overgrown diaper bag (even long after your kid stopped needing diapers).
So I'm going to make a list of some things that are our "must", "nice to have", and "don't really need" items. No affiliate links, no profit in it for me, just some suggestions to help you make your time at the parks as magical as possible.
1- USB recharging brick and cell phone charging cable. I cannot stress this enough: you are going to use your phone A LOT. You'll record videos and photos, you'll post to social media, you'll use the My Disney Experience App. Your kid will want to watch netflix while you're waiting in a long line or for a show. YOU WILL RUN DOWN YOUR BATTERY. You will never find me at the parks without a brick. Now, there are little USB charging sticks you can take. You get one, maybe two charges out of them. I hate them. I forget to charge them. The charges they hold are weak. For a slightly larger investment, get a decent brick that's only a little larger than your phone, has dual outputs (charge your phone and your SO's at the same time!), and can get you as much as 6 or more recharges out of a single charge. I recently picked up a brick that can charge via USB at home OR will also recharge via solar panel, and it's AWESOME. The one I've linked here is 10KmAh, which will give you a few charges, but if you pop for one that's as much as 20K you could go several days without needing to recharge it.
2- Hydro Flask You are going to spend a ton of money in the parks, but what really got my goat early on was spending $5 a bottle on water I HATED (Dasani, ugh). For people who've already owned a Hydroflask, I won't have to explain to you why this is a worthy investment. For the rest of you, a Hydroflask loaded with ice and water at the beginning of the day WILL STILL HAVE ICE IN IT AT THE END OF THE DAY. These things are sorcery and packing them has saved us so much money. We take 2 32oz loaded hydroflasks, and those tend to get our little family of three through a hot summer day at the parks. Hydro Flask is pricey, but I've heard there are great cheaper brands out there of these double-walled insulated canteens, so bring what you want as long as it works.
3- Snacks. The exception to this is if you're on the Disney Dining plan, most people I know who have done this with snack credits have trouble even using all their credits. For the rest of you, if your kid is anything like mine, she's a bottomless pit of sudden and instantaneous hunger pangs (that is, until you actually sit down for a meal, when they eat 2 bites of the $30 buffet you just paid for). We ALWAYS have a selection of hot weather friendly snacks in our park bag: crackers, chips, raisins, fruit snacks. IF we bring a cooler bag with us, then we ALWAYS have some protein bars with us, too (as well as cans of La Croix, 'cause we bougie like that). If you don't bring snacks, you'll find yourself shelling out $5 for a Mickey Pretzel or a churro every time your kid announces that they are suddenly FAMISHED.
4- Change of Clothes (for the kid)
If you can imagine a scenario for a kid to unexpectedly need a new outfit at the parks, we've encountered it. Even shoes (I've gotten stuck buying a new pair of shoes in the parks TWICE now $$$). Sometimes it's a spontaneously spilled tub of queso down the front of the kid's shirt, or maybe they just want to go play in the Storybook Circus splash pad. Either way: bring a small, replacement outfit and pack it in a big ziploc baggie (you'll be glad to you have that baggie once you have to pack up the outfit you just finished rinsing off in the bathroom).
5- Sunscreen I used to think this should go without saying, but no matter what time of year it is YOU WILL NEED THIS. AND YOU WILL NEED TO REAPPLY. It's called the "sunshine state" for a reason. And you do NOT want to shell out for it in the parks (Trust me, I forgot once. My wallet is still crying). I'm a big fan of the spray-on sunscreen, since it tends to go on and dry quickly (less chance for the kid to wipe their face and start screaming that it's in their eyes), but whatever works for you, do it. And yes, go for waterproof. You're going to sweat. A lot.
NICE TO HAVE
1- Frogg Togg. I've been asked by non-Floridians how we survive an August day at the parks. This is the main reason. Frogg Toggs are made of this magical material that, once wet, evaporates that water at around 20 degrees below ambient temperature (it's 90 degrees out? The towel feels like 70). The great thing about the Frogg Togg as opposed to just a generic towel, it doesn't have to be dripping wet to feel good (that whole sopping wet tshirt under a wet towel look sure makes us feel attractive, eh?) I also recommend packing a nice big ziploc bag to carry them in.
2- UV Protective Parasol/Umbrella I am infatuated with mine. It's probably going to rain, so it's nice to have for that, but half the time I just have it out to give me a break from the direct sun. This is particularly useful if you're camped out in front of the castle, waiting for the show (AKA Roasting).
3- Water-friendly footwear There is nothing more miserable for me than that long trek back to the car in soggy socks and shoes. Feels like you're walking in an abrasive foot swamp. Ugh. I'm shuddering just thinking about it. Pack a pair of flip flops to change into in case you find yourself facing off against one of Florida's torrential downpours. A lot of areas of the parks will temporarily flood during these storms, and you will be trudging through inches of water. Wouldn't you rather you had your sneakers and socks all dry and cozy, waiting for you in your backpack for when it was over? I'm including a link to the crocs flip-flops. They're less ugly than their traditional counterpart, have a very comfy squishy sole, and are reasonably comfortable for plodding through a theme park for a few hours.
4- Brush/Make Up bag. You will absolutely never hear me advocate for trying to pull off a full face make-up in the heat swamp known as Orlando. WITH THAT SAID, you and your darling family are going to be in pictures. I can't tell you how many pictures I have of my kid looking like she just stuck her finger in an electrical socket with her hair going every direction. A brush for touch ups, maybe some matte powder to de-shine yourself right before photos, DEODORANT to reapply, etc.
5- Costume(s) for the Kid My kid absolutely loves to dress up at the parks. Buying a costume at the parks is VERY expensive, so I recommend shopping before you come and bringing one with you. Make sure your kid has taken it for a test drive and is comfortable in it (but make sure you've got that change of clothes, just in case). There's something to be said for the extra level of magic your kid can have from being called a princess by every Cast Member she sees while also being dressed as her favorite princess. My friend, Amy, recently wrote a great article for doing costumes at the parks, so check out her site for more tips.
YOU PROBABLY DON'T NEED IT
1- DSLR camera. That's right: the woman who never leaves home without it is telling you that you probably should. But hear me out: It's heavy. It's bulky. You're not going to have time to offload and edit your photos on your vacation. WDW has a veritable army of photopass photographers all over the parks ready, willing, and eager to snap photos for you with your cell phone as well as with their own cameras (and you can buy all your digital downloads for your trip with a flat rate Memory Maker purchase, if you want that). Also, especially if this is your first trip with your kid, there's something to be said for experiencing these magical moments right there with them, instead of behind your camera. Small kids tend to be shy the first time they meet characters, so you end up going up, too, to break the ice, which means you can't shoot the moment anyway (that's why the photopass people are there!). Most cell phones have pretty awesome cameras on them nowadays, so unless you feel like a real pro with your DSLR? It will probably be more of a burden than a boon. A very heavy burden. Trust me, I'm the person who carts hers around with her every trip, remember?
2- Matching, Custom-made Family Vacation T-shirts Y'all.... beyond my own personal aesthetics, ask yourself if your kid would rather have some $40 "JOHNSON FAMILY DISNEY VACATION" t-shirt with a castle silhouette that they wore once, or a lightsaber they designed and assembled themselves? Or maybe the plush Porg in Hollywood Studios? Search your feelings....
3- Costume shoes. Your kids are going to complain about walking no matter what they wear, but the last thing you need is them covered in blisters from little plastic dress shoes. They make some remarkably cute sneakers these days, covered in glitter and bows, to satisfy the most finicky princesses while still keeping their feet battle-ready for a day at the parks.
4- Any form of cooler or suitcase on wheels. Or wagons. Technically, most of these items are not supposed to be allowed inside the parks, yet I still find myself tripping over them. I'm a huge fan of my stroller as a place to help me carry all our stuff, but anything as cumbersome as a wagon or a giant cooler? Nope.
5- Selfie Sticks. These aren't allowed in the parks, and yet people still try to sneak them in. And thwack me in the head with them. Or get belligerent with the cast members who have to confiscate them when they get caught. Don't. Be. Those. People. Not to mention, YOU DON'T NEED THEM. You are literally surrounded by people who would be more than happy to take a photo for you, no need for phone-on-a-stick.
There are other things I never visit the park without: my magic band, chewing gum (they don't sell it at the parks, and I'm an addict), chapstick, an emory board (I hate snagged nails. HATE THEM.) But I feel like these items apply to the vast majority of people coming to take a vacation at the parks, rather than an AP who is there every weekend.