I know I've posted various tips in the past - some of these may be a repeat and some of them will be new.
Free dining is offered during slower times at Disney. The catch is that you pay the rack rate for your resort room. There are certain times of the year when either free dining or a room discount is offered. Because the numbers will vary based upon how many people are in your party, which resort you are staying at and what the rack rate is for that time of the year, I suggest running the numbers to see which offer will give you better savings.
You should also take into consideration whether or not you are big eaters. The dining plan (if you are staying at a moderate or deluxe resort) provides for one quick service meal, one table service and one snack per person per day. Don't forget that you can share meals too. Quite often, Grammy and I shared one meal for lunch. Or we would only order two meals for the girls to share.
If you want to eat at a certain table service restaurant, you need dining reservations. Make them. Reservations can be secured 180 days in advance but don't flip out if you aren't able to log on or call that day. The more popular meals (Cinderella's Royal Table) fill up quickly but during slower times, reservations can be made months or even weeks before your trip. If you have your heart set on certain character meals or dining experiences, I suggest you plan accordingly and make your reservations asap.
Disney Visa Rewards
I don't want to encourage anyone to open an unnecessary credit card but I do want to talk about the benefits we receive from using this particular card. We earn rewards dollars based upon how much is charged to the card. (We also received dollars as an incentive to open an account.) Once we landed on Disney property, we didn't pay out of pocket for anything. Most of our food was covered under the dining plan and we used our rewards dollars to pay for the rest of our purchases - souvenirs, stuffed animals for the girls, Advil that Allie had an allergic reaction to, antihistamine to counter the allergic reaction, autograph books and restaurant tips.
Tips are not included with the dining plan (except for Cinderella's Royal Table) but you can use your rewards dollars to tip your server(s). Because we had a party of 6, a 15% gratuity was automatically added to each of our dining bills. We paid for all of our tips by using our rewards dollars.
Even if your kid hasn't used a stroller in years, keep an open mind that he/she may need one at Disney. There's a lot of walking involved. Age is only a number and all kids are different.
Okay, so this one isn't Disney specific but I thought it was worth mentioning. I have a Jo Totes "Rose" camera bag and while it serves its purpose most of the time, it was not designed to lug equipment around all day. I find that using it for its intended purpose is not comfortable, in my opinion, for long excursions. I also have a weak back, so maybe it's just me.
Based upon the recommendations of photographers who frequent Disney, I purchased this Lowepro camera backpack. It is so much more comfortable to carry and I was easily able to fit my camera with my 35mm lens attached, my wide angle lens, my speedlight and some personal items into it with no problem. It's not that large either. I meant to have Rich take pictures of me wearing it but there never seemed to be a good time for a faux photo shoot. (Maybe next time.)
So while I really like my new backpack, it does have some downfalls. It's not convenient to remove the camera from the backpack or to place it back in. You have to completely remove the backpack and place it on a flat surface so that you don't accidentally drop an expensive lens out of it. This Lowepro slingshot was also recommended and looks like it would solve my problem of easy access to my camera but I'm still not convinced that it would be as comfortable as a backpack.
If you plan to bring your camera and extra equipment to the parks with you, think about the comfort of your current bag.
My kids need about 11-12 hours of nightly sleep. They normally do not nap. Because they typically go to bed later while on vacation, they will sleep later in the morning to compensate for that lost sleep. I kept this in mind when planning out our days. For example, staying out late to watch a fireworks show and then expecting to make it to a park the next morning for rope drop would mean less than normal sleep for the kids.
Some folks suggest returning to your room in the afternoon for a nap. If your kids normally nap, I think this is a great plan. Only you know how much sleep your kids need and how and when they will sleep. Don't expect them to sleep 9 hours instead of 12 and be perfect little angels. Witnessing massive meltdowns is not uncommon at Disney.
Visiting the Parks
In order to maximize your time, I suggest you decide which parks you will be touring when, in advance of your vacation. (This will also allow you to make your dining reservations.) You can find free crowd calendars at www.easywdw.com or pay for calendars at touringplans.com. Touring plans does offer a small window of the calendar for free.
If you have a smart phone, apps are available that list the current wait times for rides and attractions. This one is free.
If at all possible, take advantage of Fast Passes, Extra Magic Hours and rider swap (for those with little ones.) For information on what exactly these are and how it all works, check out DISboards. (There's a button at the bottom of this page.) If you need a clean, cool, quiet place to nurse or change diapers, there is a Baby Care Center available at each park. The Baby Care Centers also have toilets that do not automatically flush if you have little ones who have issues (like the noise) using those auto-flush toilets.
From our experience, arriving as early as possible to a park gives you the opportunity to hit up a few rides/attractions before the crowds roll in. If you do arrive with the masses, don't stop at the beginning of the park. Go to the back. Most folks will start at the front of the park or stop at the first ride or meet and greet that grabs their attention.
*Please feel free to add your tips in the comments!