I’ve survived two Disney College Programs, over a dozen family vacations, and now live within a half an hour of Walt Disney World, where I head when the weather’s nice for a change of pace, some photography practice, and maybe a Peter Pan float. When your gear bag has to get you through a long day in hot, humid, storm-prone weather and overwhelming crowds — and be light enough not to kill your back during this all-day urban hike — you learn how to pack it with only the best of essentials. Here’s what makes the journey on my park-hopping adventures!
Princesses need pockets
I’ve worn a shoulder holster for three years, and while it’s handy to have every day, it’s twice as handy at theme parks. There aren’t any worries about things falling out of my pockets, it’s harder to pickpoket, and the only ride that makes me take it off is Flights of Passage. I have a Phonster X from 2017, which was replaced by the Phonster Z a few months ago.
$128 at AGE
Jack in, POWER UP!
AUKEY USB C Charger with 18W Power Delivery 3.0
18W chargers don’t get much smaller than this, and for topping off my phones, power banks, or headphones in a hurry, this pocket-friendly charger is absolutely perfect. I’m anxious to try the 27W “GaNFast” model for my Chromebook, but the 18W is great for tablets and phones.
$20 at Amazon
Cable of queens
Anker Powerline+ C to C 2.0 Cable
This is the USB-C cable I carry most often in the parks — 6 feet long and it comes with a handy magnetic and velcro carrying wrap. This cable is flexible without just swinging everywhere and won’t fall out of my phone with the slightest tug.
$16 at Amazon
Real world earplugs
AUKEY Key Series B60 Magnetic Switch Wireless Earbuds
I wasn’t huge on earbuds before I moved to Walt Disney World, but these are on my neck all day every day at the parks. Need some light hearing protection during parades, and fireworks? B60s to rescue! Plus, they stay in my tiny ears quite well without being painful.
$60 at Amazon
My next cans
I don’t have these yet, but since the Bluedio A2 headphones I use and abuse are getting kind of impossible to find these days, the Sony XM3’s are my next pair. Active noise canceling (ANC) is great, but 30-hour battery life, and fast USB-C charging are even better. Now if only they came in cute colors…
$348 from Amazon
Lenovo Chromebook C330
$260 from Amazon
Lenovo’s diamond in the rough Chromebook can last over 10 hours on a single charge, is light enough to carry all-day, and with 64GB of storage, I won’t run out of local space for emergency movies or downloads anytime soon. And it’s bright enough to use in the Florida shade.
Big, adaptable bag
OnePlus Explorer Backpack
$100 at OnePlus (invitation code required)
This is the gear bag I haul to the parks most days, and even though its regretfully still an invitation-only bag, it serves me well day in and day out. While I’d like more sections, the big main compartment is adaptable enough for my rotating weather-related gear.
For light nights
XINCADA Messenger Bag
If I’m not bringing the Chromebook with me (and it’s not going to rain), I’ll swap out to this XINCADA bag I grabbed on a Lightning deal last year. It’s big enough to squeeze a small journal or a trade or two into the back section, and the main compartment is plenty big for snacks, chargers, and a bottle of water.
From $28 at Amazon
D-Rings are awesome
Gimars 3″ Aluminum D Ring Carabiners (10-pack)
D-ring carabiners are awesome and can last forever, and the one I’m actually using right now is from a high school keychain — with my high school’s name somehow still on the darn thing! Now that I’ve got a growing collection of popcorn buckets, I’m grabbing these for them to keep them strapped to my bag.
$11 at Amazon
Keep cool and carry a fan
OMyTea Chinese Kung Fu Folding Fan
My folding fan was $7 at the China Pavilion at Epcot, but this model from OMyTea is the larger version for not much more. There are smaller fans out there, but most are delicate and don’t provide as much air circulation. When it’s 95 degrees outside with 100% humidity, you need all the breeze you can make!
$10 at Amazon
Beat the lines and the rain
Trinny Women’s Long Dot Waterproof Raincoat
Yes, I bought a pink Minnie Mouse-style polka-dot raincoat. It goes to my knees, has a handy travel sleeve that condenses it down to about the same size as my Mickey Mouse umbrella, and with the double ended zipper, I can unzip the bottom part around my legs to access my jeans pockets or just get a little more air flow.
$17 at Amazon
Disney Parks Classic Mickey Mouse Compact Umbrella
I bought my Mickey Mouse umbrella at Disneyland during my 2016 birthday trip and three years later, it’s still kicking. This umbrella lives at the bottom of my OnePlus Explorer next to my Trinny raincoat, and it’s taken my use and abuse quite well, lasting longer than most compact umbrellas I’ve used.
$28 at Amazon
Infinitely useful: Walt Disney World Refillable Popcorn Tubs
It’s no secret that WDW’s popcorn tubs are the best deal in snacks short of bringing your own from home — I’m a pro at snack packing, but that’s another roundup for another day — and while the ultra-cutesy sculpted popcorn tubs are neat, I’ll take the regularly-shaped, easy-to-clean tubs any day of the week. They cost $10 and have an infinite number of uses both during and after your vacation:
- $2 refills — When you buy these, they say the $2 refills only last as long as your vacation, but you can usually bring them back trip after trip for refills. It’s June, but the tubs from last Christmas are still pretty easy to spot in the parks.
- Lunchbox — This is a sturdy, hard-sided container that’s food-safe, so treat your popcorn tub like a bento box and fill her up with snacks before you head out for the day. I can usually fit 3-5 different snacks into the tub and still get the lid snapped on, and I have to eat all those snacks before I can fill it up with more popcorn. You gotta carry it all day, anyway, might as well use it for storage!
- Snack plate — The lid functions as a small plate with a high lip, which can be useful for divvying up fries/chips/popcorn/veggies and ranch among the family while resting for a snack break. Just make sure to wipe it down when you’re done before snapping it back on the tub.
- Miniature stool — Lines can be ridiculous, and when they tend to move in big jumps followed by 5-10 minutes of not moving, having a makeshift seat can be a lifesaver. This only works if you’re small and relatively light, and you’ll want to shift positions semi-regularly since there’s no padding. However, I’ve sat on my popcorn tubs for hours while staking out fireworks and used it as a footstool to boost my knees up while using my Chromebook before performances.
- Lantern/Nightlight — These popcorn tubs can make a neat lantern with very little work: take an LED candle that is either remote activated or triggered by turning (I use some IKEA candles leftover after my twin’s wedding), add some clear plastic packing airbags that come with shipped packages to keep the candle from banging into the sides, and voila, a Disney lantern with an easy-grip handle! I use these if I don’t want to blind myself in the bathroom in the middle of the night.
- Crush-resistant souvenir storage — Bought a cute new coffee mug and need to get it home safely? These popcorn tubs can provide crush protection for a medium-sized mug if you use that fancy wrapping Disney puts on mugs when they’re sold (or wrap it up in a T-shirt or two if that somehow got destroyed). This way, your new souvenir hopefully makes it through those two connecting flights on your way home without shattering.
- Kit storage — These tubs are roughly the height of a pen, meaning they’re great for kit storage, whether it’s art supplies, a sewing kit, yarn holder, or cable storage. I also use one of mine as a super-sized key tray to dump everything out of my pockets into: earplugs, earbuds, PocketBacs, receipts, candies, and a lot else.
Popcorn tubs are the best purchase you can make on a Walt Disney World vacation, so pick up one on your first trip and use it over and over again.
Hearing protection for all
My family rolls their eyes when I tell them I’m wearing my earbuds or headphones for hearing protection in the park, but theme parks are louder than you think, especially over hours and hours for days on end. Screamers on roller coasters, tantruming toddlers, shouting at stragglers and kids running too far ahead: just the din of tens of thousands of people adds up. Even if the crowd noise doesn’t overstimulate you, blasting parade soundtracks and booming fireworks will take a toll on your hearing — and they can turn an exciting night into a terrified tantrum for younger children.
Every night I’m watching Happily Ever After, I always see at least half a dozen kids desperately covering their ears. As a kid that couldn’t stand loud noises, fireworks weren’t fun for me for a long time, but there are solutions! Affordable protective earmuffs are available for smaller heads and while they aren’t as cute as Minnie Mouse ears, they’re 150% worth it if it keeps your child from going into a panic.
Don’t tell your kid to suck it up if fireworks make them scared; protect their hearing!
About the gear bag itself
I use the OnePlus Explorer as my gear bag right now, but that won’t be the best pick for most users unless you, too, bring a laptop to the parks with you all the time. The separate laptop sleeve is handy as all-get out, but the main compartment is a bit big and unruly once you start really filling it up, while the side and bottom exterior compartments have their uses, only having one real interior compartment is a bummer.
Oh, not to mention this is a spot-clean only bag that is in desperate need of a full washing and disinfecting after six months of sweat, rain, and spills.
When picking a backpack for the theme parks, there are a few big things to consider:
- Size — While I think those tiny Loungefly Mini Backpacks are too small to be practical, they are actually a great size for theme parks because they’re just big enough for a few snacks, a poncho, a water bottle, and some sunscreen. Only use as big a backpack as you need, because hauling around a half-empty bag not only make the items inside more prone to shifting or spilling (snack bags ripping in a backpack is never fun), but overstuffing a tiny bag makes it harder to quickly pull out what you need — and it takes longer to go through at park security.
- Bag type — While I’m partial to satchels when I don’t need to carry a Chromebook, when you’re carrying a bag in the heat for 10-14 hours, you’ll want to distribute the weight more evenly. Backpacks are best for in the parks, but cross-body sling bags that keep the weight distributed across your back can work well, too.
- Water resistance — Regardless of whether your forecast calls for rain, you should buy a bag that’s water-resistant or water-repellent. This can help keep your gear dry if you get dragged onto a flume ride that’s more wet than it used to be — I’m looking at YOU, Pirates — or if your water bottle leaks over your bag. If you already have a backpack you like, buy a waterproof cover for it. Luck favors the prepared!
- Easy to clean — Being able to wash the sweat and other stains/smells out of your backpack is essential if you want to use any bag long-term. Machine-washable is best, but so long as you can at least soak it in the bathtub with some dish soap, you should be okay.
I’m still searching for a new gear bag, and once I find one that can withstand my hauling it around Walt Disney World, I will let you know!
Where’s the water bottle?
Hydration is key when it comes to lasting the day at a theme park, but I don’t have a single go-to refillable water bottle that I use every time I go to the park. What I do have is a mix of tactics to stay hydrated and cool.
- Frozen bottled water — Freezing refillable bottles isn’t great for long-term use, but freezing regular bottles of bottled water is my favorite method of staying hydrated in the park. Firstly, it gives me an ice pack to hold to my neck or temples while walking around in the head, and since a single large piece of ice takes longer to melt than loose cubes, I can drink the melted ice, refill the bottle from a fountain or…
- Free cups of ice water — You can walk up to any quick service restaurant (or really any stand that sells fountain drinks instead of bottled drinks) and get a free cup of ice water. Normally, I just ask for a straight cup of ice and then munch on it while in line. If you find a location with pellet ice, it’s the perfect size for filling water bottles with.
- Refillable resort mugs — You can’t actually refill your resort mugs with soda or coffee in the parks, but you can fill that insulated mug up with ice before you leave and then add water as you walk around. You can also transfer and soda or coffee you do purchase into the mugs for easy drinking, which is quite useful now that lids aren’t being offered for most drinks in-park.
Between these three methods, I’m usually hydrated and cool in the park, but with the ice long melted and the water running low when I finally head back to my car, I keep an RTIC Tumbler with 2-inch ice cubes and water in my car to drink on the way home. Plastic Tervis tumblers are prettier, but they don’t insulate as well, but metal tumblers will still have ice waiting even after a long, long triple-digit day.
That’s what I carry in the park right now — but my system is always tweaking, always optimizing the more time I spend in the parks. If you’ve got some great parks gear you think I should know about, hit me on twitter, and put some magic in your life!