As a parent, taking your kids to Walt Disney World or Disneyland is a rite of passage of sorts. Whether you are a Disney parks veteran looking forward to taking your first family trip or a first timer deciding it’s time to visit Disney, there is no joy like getting the opportunity to experience “Disney magic” through the eyes of a small child. Even if you feel like you’ve got this whole parenting thing wired, though, a trip to Walt Disney World presents a unique set of challenges that are often overlooked by parents engrossed in their halcyon childhood memories and idyllic expectations of these trips. Being aware of these potential pitfalls will help you get ahead of them and prevent them from disrupting your vacation!
When Deciding If An Attraction Is Right For Your Child, Ignore Disney Magic
One frequent question we hear is “Is my child old enough to do [insert attraction here]?” The reality is that you will hear opinions all over the spectrum for every attraction — some kids can’t wait to experience The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, while others are freaked out by anything that moves. All children are of course unique, so assuming height restrictions aren’t at issue, this is a decision that only you can make as a parent. When trying to decide if an attraction is right for your kid or not, however, make sure that you don’t get so focused upon the content or storytelling aspect that you forget what it does at its core. Many attractions that seem completely benign nevertheless include sudden periods of darkness, loud noises, and/or unexpected changes in direction. Particularly for children that are young enough that you can’t really explain to them what will be coming, this can unwittingly result in a terrifying experience.
I unfortunately speak from experience. I recall on an early trip with my daughter, who was two at the time, we picked out several sedate, kid-friendly attractions — or so we thought. Walt Disney World veterans tend to think of the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover as a nice, smooth, easy-going way to pass some time, but to my daughter who had no idea what was coming, it was anything but. She was mildly freaked out with the sudden increase in speed and changes of direction after we left the loading area, but things really came off the rails when we passed through Space Mountain, which was an experience marked by near complete darkness punctuated by the disembodied screams of the coaster’s riders. As far as she was concerned, Armageddon was upon us. We had no way to communicate to her that we were not, in fact, about to die, and she was terrified. What’s more, this experience made it well-nigh impossible to get her on anything else thereafter, regardless of how tame it was. “Get into a moving vehicle on a track? Not on your life, Dad.”
Obviously, plenty of small children experience the PeopleMover without incident, so the takeaway here should not be “avoid the PeopleMover” — instead, the message is “know your kid.” When trying to decide whether or not an attraction is right for a young child, do your best to strip away all of the Disney magic and just focus upon what it “does.” Knowing that, is it a good fit for your child?
Don’t Be Afraid to Live In The Now
Particularly if you’re a Walt Disney World veteran taking your small children to the parks for the first time, you may be excited to show them all that the parks have to offer. There’s so much to see and do, and you want to make sure they get to soak in every bit of it. You dutifully create your Personalized Touring Plan, you show up at rope drop, and you’re clicking along just fine, checking off attractions as you go.
Disney parks present a near endless stream of stimuli, however, and it is more or less inevitable that at some point, your child is going to find something fascinating that wasn’t on your radar at all. Personally, we can’t walk past the drums on the path between Africa and Asia at Animal Kingdom without my daughter wanting to stop to play them, and I think she literally leapt out of her stroller the first time she saw the sparkling sidewalk near Spaceship Earth at Epcot. Also, with the proliferation of interactive queues, it’s very easy for kids to get wrapped up playing while waiting in line. The knee jerk reaction of many parents is to rush their children past these diversions with an eye towards the next multi-million dollar attraction that their kids have to experience.
Very small children have no meaningful conception of anticipation (particularly for something they don’t know is coming), however, so they don’t know that you believe you’re taking them to something better, they just know that they were having fun, and now they’re back in their strollers. While we at TouringPlans.com are all about efficiency and helping you get the most out of your trip as possible, it is ultimately our goal that you enjoy your vacation — and when you have small children, that enjoyment can come in many forms. The point is, if your kid is completely enthralled by something that you hadn’t anticipated, you might consider just rolling with it unless you absolutely must be somewhere else right that moment. In most cases, a delay of a few minutes while your children get their fill of something they love is easy enough to overcome — just reoptimize your Touring Plan in the Lines app once you’re ready to get back on track and move forward. Moreover, you get to watch your kids doing something that you know they love, rather than pulling them away to do something you think they will enjoy — and happy kids means happy parents!
Again, I can unfortunately draw on personal experience on this point. The first time we took my daughter on Dumbo the Flying Elephant, she was completely rapt by the indoor queue/playground — so much so, that we had to drag her away from it so we could get on the attraction. Guess what? She liked the queue better than the ride itself and we ended up getting right back in line after riding so she could go back and play some more. I’m pretty sure that if we had opted to give her a few more minutes to enjoy the playground the first time around (just tell the Cast Member that you aren’t ready to ride yet when your buzzer goes off), we could have avoided the issue, she would have gotten her fill, and she probably would have enjoyed Dumbo more — and we would have spent less time total at Dumbo. The lesson I learned: sometimes spending a little extra time now can save you time and hassle later.
On a related note, while experienced Disney visitors are able to quickly zip around the parks and pack a lot of activity into the day (particularly users of Touring Plans), you’d be making a mistake to think that you can be as efficient with a small child in tow. If you temper your expectations of how much you’ll accomplish going into the trip, you’re much more likely to enjoy it. This impacts several aspects of your vacation:
You may not realize it, but a Disney trip involves a spectacular amount of walking. I usually walk between 8-12 miles per day at Walt Disney World without expending any special effort to do so — and a small child will take two steps for every step I take (note: not a scientific fact, I pulled this number out of the air. I’m pretty sure they take more, though). It is perhaps for this reason that it is not uncommon to see children that are well beyond stroller age being pushed around in strollers. When asked whether or not someone should get a stroller, I always suggest that they err on the side of getting one, because the downside of getting an unnecessary stroller is much preferred to finding out while you’re in the parks that you should have gotten one. If you think your child might benefit from a stroller, just get one (and do it from an off-site vendor). Worst case scenario, they don’t use it and you’ve got somewhere to store your gear.
Similarly, even a child riding in a stroller most of the time is going to do much more walking than normal and that, combined with everything else that is going on, is going to wear them out. That Disney magic will probably keep them going a little while longer than normal, but your little ones remain foolish mortals that will run themselves into the ground if you let them. You can save yourself a lot of grief by being realistic about how much they can actually take in. Be proactive by planning in a time to rest each day, and if your kids conk out in the stroller, for the love of Pete, let them sleep — it’s their none-too-subtle way of letting you know that they need a breather. It’s astonishing to me how many parents will wake up a sleeping child to do an attraction. Rather than rouse your obviously wiped out kid, why not take advantage of the opportunity to let the adults in your party experience some of the “bigger” attractions using rider swap, take a stroll around the park for a bit, or just have a seat on a bench and people-watch. Would you rather experience 10 attractions with your children screaming through most of them, or experience 6, but they love every minute? Letting them get a little rest when they need it will ensure that they are better able to fully enjoy the things they do experience.
Visiting Disney with small children can be immeasurably rewarding — even when traveling with children that are too young to remember the trip, you as parents will have incredible memories of your children having an experience that to them is legitimately “magical.” The youth that makes these trips appealing can also make them challenging, however, but with a little planning and forethought, you can minimize the chance of meltdowns while enjoying all that the parks have to offer!
In closing, I’d love to hear what sort of tricks you’ve employed when traveling with youngsters — please leave your suggestions in the comments!