So you’re taking a family trip to Disney World. You’ve been planning A) since your daughter was born B) for the last nine years, three months, and eight days C) since your oldest child could utter the phrase “When am I meeting Mickey Mouse?”
Oh, yes–your kids will be happy too.
But wait! To make the most of the trip, make the most of the planning (and believe me, there will be planning). Take our advice and involve your kids in the process. The trip is partly/mostly/sort of for them, right? Kids love to be involved and to feel like their opinion matters–which it does. And if you play your cards right, it can even take some of the planning, fun as it is, off you. Remember: The point of involving kids is to get their input and make them feel a part of things; and to keep them busy and thus minimize the number of times they will ask how long it will be until they’re on the Dumbo ride.
First, though, the adults in the party need to make a few decisions—budgeting being chief among them. Are you staying at a value, moderate, or deluxe resort? How long are you going for? Hammer out the non-negotiable details first. Ready? Let’s begin.
Choosing your hotel
If you’re going to have kids help pick the hotel, that’s fine, but make sure ahead of time that you have several options in case your first one–or two—choices are booked. You need to do some of the legwork, looking at variables such as distance from the parks, whether you’re renting a car, and so forth.
Rule Number One: DO NOT GIVE KIDS TOO MANY CHOICES. Keep repeating that phrase to yourself. In the way of too many choices lies madness, and many migraines. This applies both to hotels as well as to everything else at Disney World and, quite frankly, in life. Offer two or three hotel choices, laying out the relevant features of each hotel. (Example: “I know these both look great. This hotel has a pool shaped like a piano and the other one has a pool shaped like a bowling pin.”)
One you’ve chosen and booked your hotel, it’s time to start thinking about meals, so on to…
Unless you are a completely spontaneous type of family for whom food is not a priority, you’re probably going to want to book some meals. Dining reservations fill up quickly, and you can book 180 days ahead of time, so get ready. Figure out if you’re going to be on a dining plan (a good option that lets you take the worry out of paying for meals each time, and offers lots of flexibility), then get some feedback from kids. Have them flip through books and give you some ideas.
Bad idea: For your girl who’s obsessed with princesses: “Do you want to eat at Cinderella’s Castle?” (A hard ticket, if you haven’t heard.)
Better idea: “Would you like to have a character meal and meet some Disney characters? We have lots of choices, so tell me some of them and we’ll see what we can do.”
Have everyone familiarize themselves with some of the options, from fast food to sit-down meals. No, you can’t predict you’ll be standing in front of the Columbia Harbor House seafood restaurant at noon and it will be empty, but if you have a seafood allergic child, you and he might want to know of some other options. Appoint kids to find good hamburger places, ice-cream stops, and so forth.
Give everyone a job
Take into account kids’ interests and strengths. Food-loving pre-teens can start perusing the restaurant descriptions and making recommendations; tech-y teens can find appropriate cell-phone apps. Even younger kids can have jobs. That eight-year old with fabulous handwriting? Have her write out lists of supplies that you’ll be packing as you dictate. Your bizarrely neat 11-year old? He can help fold clothing and pack.
Everyone gets a secret mission
Put everyone in your family in charge of doing something nice for a friend or family member who is not going. For instance, Jimmy might be assigned to finding Donald Duck images for Cousin Frank; he can start doing research before you go. Little Amy might oversee things to put in a scrapbook for Grandma Grace–she can start thinking about good ideas and making a list.
Familiarize everyone with the Disney website and relevant books before you go
This won’t spoil the surprise; there will be endless surprises left. It will actually enhance everyone’s excitement and also quell some of their fears. (And yes, exciting though it is, kids–and adults–do have fears about going). It’s kind of like kids seeing a painting in a museum that they have only seen in books–kids are more excited that they recognize it, not less. Find out if there’s anything kids are worried about (Crowds? Getting lost?) and help find answers. Have them see if they can find out answers to specific questions ahead of time—anything from the Extra Magic Hours at the Magic Kingdom to what new stores are in Downtown Disney. The more information and familiarity they have, the more comfortable they will feel. Look at pictures of your hotel on the Disney website; put everyone in charge of researching something specific, whether it’s the hotel gift shop or a particular landmark in a park.
Have them help plan what you’ll be taking
Kids are often great at remembering things you might overlook; it’s always one of my kids who remembers the band-aids.
Give everyone their own small bag or section for a suitcase to pack, and have them choose a few small items that they want to bring, like a stuffed animal. But check it before you go. I let my daughter “add a few things” to the small rolling suitcase I had packed for Disney World one year. I didn’t have time to check it before we left; when we got to Florida I found she had unpacked everything and repacked it with her doll and the doll’s complete wardrobe. Luckily/unluckily it contained mostly bathing suits and flip flops and activity books, which, happily for her, meant a quick trip to the gift shop to replace everything. Oh, and now I check.
Let kids choose a way to document the trip, and start before you leave
My daughter loves having small sketchbook and colored pencils in Disney World; other kids might want a diary or photo album. And everyone should have his or her own camera, disposable or otherwise.
Take kids’ personalities into account and help them choose activities that mesh with that
When my daughter was young, she didn’t like anything loud, dark or scary. That pretty much let out a lot of the big nighttime activities at Disney. Had I been better prepared, I would have found out a little more about some of the nighttime displays, like Illuminations (which is loud and in the dark), before taking her there. After that (short version: she was a few years away from what anyone would call enjoying that display), we started researching together and in some cases, picking alternatives. (Be prepared sometimes to break up your group, which may not only be necessary, but desirable.) For certain children, doing a quiet crafts activity at the hotel may be more appealing than venturing out into the Parks at night. Start looking at options ahead of time.
Let kids help make a calendar with things that need to get done each day
Everyone has to help out with one thing each day, whether it’s going with Dad to buy juice boxes or researching the hotel’s facilities. Included should be some Disney treats to get in the spirit–make Chip and Dale cupcakes; watch a favorite Disney movie.
As a family, set rules ahead of time
Some rules you might want to agree on ahead of time, rather than in the moment. For instance, you might plan a no-cell-phone-use at mealtime rule for your teens when you get down there; or no-carrying-Blankie-on-the-rides policy for the little ones. (Have kids help formulate a rule for everyone so no one feels picked on.)
Give each child a small hip pack to carry around each day. Help kids plan the items that go in these: little sticker books to do while waiting on lines, a small tube of sunscreen, maybe a pay-as-you-go cell phone, and oh, yes–money. Which brings us to…
Souvenirs. Important enough that one word will suffice
Face it: The one-souvenir rule probably won’t fly. Different families have different solutions, but one idea is to give each child a set amount of money and allow younger ones to carry a certain amount each day. They can “borrow” from the larger amount if they like, but when it’s gone, it’s gone. Discuss all this ahead of time. Also, give each child money to secretly buy a souvenir for someone else in your group to give them when you get back—it’s fun for them and will help make the letdown of leaving less acute.
Ask the kids what they want to do there
Really. Don’t assume you know everything they’re dreaming of doing. Yes, plans will change, but if you know your kids love hanging out by the pool, then make sure to plan some time for that. You might not want to buy a make-your-own light saber, but it could be the culmination of a life’s dream for your nine-year-old.
And finally…enjoy the planning
Anticipation is half the fun—even if it means packing all those pairs of socks, it’ll be more fun if your kids pitch in, too.