The summer holidays are fast approaching and that means a fair proportion of parents will be contemplating a trip to the theme parks of Florida.
Having visited Orlando four times in the last seven years with a growing tribe of small children – my latest trip was this Easter with my four sons aged seven, five and two-year-old twins – there's not much I don't know about navigating the parks.
After much trial and error, here I share the secrets of a successful stay in Orlando with small children.
1. Make the most of jet lag.
When you arrive you will all still be on UK time, which is five hours ahead of Orlando, but there are benefits to waking up at some ungodly hour – you can be at the parks when they open at 9am. Fill up on one of the many buffet breakfasts on offer around town then get to the park in time to nab the best parking spaces and be first on all the rides.
2. Manage your FastPass.
FastPasses are a virtual queuing system operated in all the Disney Parks, but to get the most from them you have to plan your visit carefully. They work by giving you a window of time during which you can bypass the queue for an attraction, which is well worth it during the peak summer months.
But to get the most from them you have to plan ahead. If you arrive early, it's a good idea to visit the most popular ride and book your FastPass slot then and there, otherwise you could end up waiting hours before your slot comes up, or missing out altogether.
3. Visit after dark.
My top tip for a more relaxing experience is save your time at the Magic Kingdom until the evening. Spend the day by the pool at your hotel – it will be deserted as everyone else is in the parks – have a nap in the afternoon and head off to the park for dinner. The park doesn't close till 11pm and you will find all the queues are much shorter, the weather is cooler and the night time parades and fireworks are spectacular.
4. Pack carefully.
A day at the park can be hard going, so make sure you are all wearing comfortable clothes and shoes. Other must haves are sunscreen, a change of clothes and towels, as chances are you will get wet on one of the rides and a water misting fan (they are much cheaper from supermarkets than at the parks). But Florida in the summer isn't just hot, it's wet too and heavy rain showers are common, so pack rain ponchos and rain covers for your pushchair.
5. Choose your pushchair wisely.
If you are travelling with small children then it's a good idea to take along the most lightweight, easy to fold buggy you have, as you will have to collapse it to put it on the trams that take you to the parks. It's also worth remembering that even slightly older children can become tired walking all day, so it's worth considering bringing a pushchair for them too. You can hire strollers at the parks, but it's expensive and queues to pick up and return are long.
6. Remember rider swap.
This is a great way to cut down on queues and allow the kids extra rides. My older boys soon stopped moaning about having their little twin brothers in tow when they realised it meant they got extra rides as a result. The system works like this. You queue for a ride as a family, then one adult goes on with the older children while the other waits with little ones, then the second adult goes straight to the head of the queue for their turn, along with any older children who want another turn.
7. Pick your parks.
Which parks suit you best entirely depends on the age of your children, but the best by far for toddlers are Magic Kingdom and Universal's Islands of Adventure. Magic Kingdom has all the childhood favourites including Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse and Peter Pan, and all the rides are suitable for all ages. Universal has a special area devoted to little ones, Seuss Landing, and when we visited queues here were much shorter.
Older children will also love Islands of Adventure as it's home to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, although this area is predictably very busy. Other good bets are Disney's Hollywood Studios and Universal Studios. It's also worth visiting Downtown Disney in the evening for great shops, restaurants and street entertainers. Just remember to book a table for dinner or you will go hungry.
Don't forget the water parks either, Seaworld's Aquatica, is particularly impressive. There are areas suited to all ages, but remember that the water parks do shut down in bad weather. I will never forget sheltering with my terrified children during a particularly long and noisy thunderstorm, so check the weather forecast first.
8. Eat out.
Dining out is cheap and fun in Orlando and wherever you choose to eat you will be presented with a kid's menu (with the usual unhealthy favourites), crayons, colouring in pads and often entertainers and balloon modellers. It's also common practice to take away leftovers so if you have a fridge in your accommodation you can turn one huge American meal into lunch the next day or a snack at the park.
9. Locate the Baby Care Centre.
All the Disney parks offer a special facility for parents with babies, with a peaceful and private room for breastfeeding, changing facilities, bottle and food warmers and baby supplies for sale. It can be an oasis of calm on a frenetic day out.
10. Shop till you drop.
While your children will craze you to buy toys everywhere you go, it's worth remembering that you can buy all the merchandise all over town, so you don't need to drag a huge cuddly Mickey Mouse around with you all day. Even if you do buy in the park you can arrange to pick it up at the end of the day, or if you are staying in a Disney hotel it can be delivered to your room.
Do you have any more tips to add for a brilliant trip?
Click on the banner below for more holidays ideas: