Wednesday, July 22, 2009

So You've Decided To Take the Little Ones To Disney...

This post was updated on September 25, 2012

Many of us in the "Disney Diehard" category have gone through this... we have gone to The World so many times as adults without kids that when the little guys come along, we don't know what to do. I sure felt clueless. Children add a whole new factor to a trip, and honestly, a trip to Disney with older kids, teens, and/or adults is a totally different ballgame from one with the younger set.

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World (online at is my favorite prep material for taking young children to Disney. You can either read the chapter in the "big" full guide, or you can get the "with Kids" edition, which contains much of the same material. Read the whole section about taking kids. Then extract one major thing from it that should become your mantra:

The younger your kids are, the more likely this trip is for you, and NOT for them.

Learn it. Understand it. Live it.

And take a deep, cleansing breath...

Now, the people I see at the World who are most miserable are the ones who have high, well-planned expectations about how everyone will LOVE the parks and will instantly be transformed into good fairies from the moment they step in the gates. It ain't gonna happen. Disney is good, but not THAT good. A phrase I have heard uttered so many times that now I use it myself: "This is the Happiest Place on Earth for heaven's sake. What do you have to cry about?!" (Sometimes there are harsher words than that, of course... but this is a family show).

If the child could talk (and sometimes they can) their reply would include quite a laundry list: heat, lack of sleep, foot pain, back pain, hair pain, sticky fingers, hunger, loud noise, crowds... the list goes on and on. Does this mean you shouldn't take them? Not at all. On the contrary, Disney is all about kids, and it's hard to find a vacation with so much variety aimed directly at them. It's instant entertainment with little effort on your part. Do it!

But remember that this trip is for you, not for them, and you have to respect their needs while you are enjoying your vacation. Sure, they have fun and they laugh, but the great part for you is you get to witness it. Here are some things you need to consider when planning to take the younger generation (up to about age six):

Prepare to take naps (yes, even you) - If your gut reaction is, "My kids don't TAKE naps anymore," consider this... they will be emotionally and physically charged in a more extreme manner than they are used to at home. They may surprise you. Regardless, plan to get to the park before it opens, hit it hard until 11 or 11:30 (we would sometimes need to stop for lunch as early as 10:30 because of the energy we burn), go back to the room and nap, rest, or swim if they really won't nap or rest. Then you can return to a park between 3 and 5, depending on your proximity and your rest quality, and stay as late as the tyke(s) can handle it. Which brings us to...

Prepare to turn in early - The 8pm bedtime works fine for you at home... you get some quiet time to yourself and can do fun things like dishes, blogging, video games, etc. But at Disney, who wants to go to sleep at 8pm?! Your kids do, that's who. Very young children do not care at all about fireworks. Many kids are scared of them at this age. They need sleep. Sure, they may sleep in the stroller, but letting them get quality rest will make them quality kids the next day. Don't sacrifice your tomorrow for today. Bring things on the trip with you that are quiet and easy to do in a darkened hotel room (or in a deluxe room, you will have a balcony to enjoy). My husband and I read with little book lights, play or watch movies on our laptops, or even play cards by flashlight. On one trip, I was able to use our post-bedtime quiet time to make movies of each day's memories right there, music and all, with a laptop and a pair of earbuds.

Prepare to get up early... or sleep late, as your child(ren) may dictate - My kids are early risers, especially when they get a good night's sleep. This is especially true when we're somewhere other than home. I use this as a huge advantage, giving them something to eat and heading out before the parks open so we can be there for "rope drop" (the opening show). Getting to a park early allows you to get a lot done very quickly, with short lines... something you really appreciate when you have preschoolers who haven't quite grasped that sometimes you have to wait for a good thing. If your children really must sleep late, let them. But try to let their internal clocks drive your vacation, so they will stay in better moods. The happier the kids are, the happier you will be, and you will be energized by seeing them enjoy themselves.

Photo by Jeff Smith

Prepare to miss attractions--especially thrill rides. - The bigger, faster rides come with height requirements. Sure, there are kid swaps and ways to enjoy the attractions you REALLY want to ride. But I'd recommend choosing only a few that are really important to you. Otherwise, your child will remember the parks as a place he or she stood in lots of lines so that Mommy and/or Daddy could do something he or she could not. In our experience, having one parent ride while the other parent takes the kids for ice cream or to play in a play area is the most successful choice. Trade this off through the trip. One person rides Space Mountain, the other rides Splash Mountain. If the thrill rides are very important to both of you and you really only intend to visit Walt Disney World once or twice in your lives, consider waiting until the kids are a bit older and can ride those rides with you.

Plan to eat casually and plan to snack often - Don't bog yourself down with lots of full service meals. Kids can do sit-down restaurants, but after a week, they will be very grouchy about all the sitting and behaving. Don't plan on more than one of these Table Service meals a day, and if your trip is a week or more, maybe go for every other day. Character meals count for these, by the way. Those can be some of your longest dining experiences while you wait for characters to come to your table. Better yet, save them for Parents' Nights Out, which will be covered in a future post. (At length. We love Parents' Night Out.) Oh... and bring snacks into the park with you to save a little money and some sanity. Small zipper bags of Goldfish crackers, nuts, dried fruit... anything to keep their little tummies from rumbling and forcing you to buy a huge portion of popcorn for their little bellies.

But most of all... plan to experience magic. Because children at Disney, especially when you have been so many times without them, is the most amazing, refreshing experience. The kid inside you... the one that's been running the place all these years, gives way to the child you nurture and love.
And it's way cooler, trust me.

Photo by Jeff Smith

So there's some of what I've learned as a new mom taking kids to Disney. What about you? Any other tips to share? Please leave a comment!


Zanna said...

Great post! As you know (lol) we've been taking ours since they were newborns for the most part and while we didn't do full vacations at that age, we did start that at probably age 2 at least. It definitely is all about the photo opportunities and memories for you vs. them! Great advice about all the things to 'be prepared' for because your little one is sometimes going to be happy just playing with the phone in the hotel room vs. walking around in the sun all day with crowds. ;)

There is nothing better than seeing that tiny face look up at the castle with big thing ever! They may not remember it, but YOU will.

Raelynn said...

While I agree with most of your tips, I would like to add a disclaimer to all of them: Parents know thy kids!!! You can do table service meals if your kids are normally well behaved when dining out (it helps to have some extra toys/distractors in your park bag).

If they are early risers at home, use that to your advantage--get to the parks early. If they are night owls--stay for evening EMHs (and don't get ADRs for the first seating the Royal Table.

Elizabeth said...

You are absolutely right, Raelynn! As our kids get older, we are starting to throw in some later nights... two fireworks evenings planned for a week long trip. The key is knowing what your kid(s) really can do... so right. Thanks for adding that!

Unknown said...

This is definitely helpful "food for thought". I already know there are going to be arguments on our first few trips as Nancy drags me back to the room kicking and screaming. As adults with no kids, I am always feeling like I don't get enough time in the parks. With kids it's going to be a definite feeling of not enough time.

jenlar said...

Wow... I could have really used this when mine were babies! Excellent info! Our little ones have been going since they were new, too.

My kids were able to do one day from EMH to EMH at the ages of 6 & 8, but that meant that we really did *nothing* the next day, other than sleep late, swim, eat, and maybe shop at Downtown Disney. It's all about trade-offs.

tiptippy said...

"Prepare to take naps (yes, even you)" This is so true. As adults, we never take naps EXCEPT at Disney! We always do this. Without our afternoon quiet time, we just can't do the things we want to do in the evening and still remain in good humor. I'm taking away some great tips for when I'm with my nephews or take my grandchildren some day. tiptippy aka disney_a_go_go

Unknown said...

Dear Elizabeth,
Thank you!
This is the only article I have ever read about taking very young children to WDW that tells the unvarnished truth while also offering sensible, honest advice regarding the 'inevitable.'
Even though we waited until our daughter was 6, we followed similar advice and had a wonderful 1st visit. (Now she's off to college studying to be an Imagineer, so the magic took hold and has lasted ever since!)
I hope your post garners a wide audience, because this advice is both practical and guarantees the magic we all want from a trip to WDW. Thanks for posting!

Greg said...

Elizabeth, thanks for these helpful hints. I am preparing to visit The World with my grandchildren (ages 9, 7, and 2) and I will certainly bear these ideas in mind. I have already resigned myself, happily, to the fact that I will not get as many rides in as I would if I were on an adult trip. But there is always a next time for that; this time is for them. Oh, and for me to watch them!

disneynorth said...

Another great post Elizabeth!

We took our 10 month old to WDW in May and all the above points are bang on!

When I used to work in the Disney Store, quite often I had guests ask what was the best age to take a child to WDW. My usual answer was by the age of 4 or 5, as they probably wouldn't remember if they went at a younger age. While I still stand behind that answer, I will say taking them before the age of 3 is also great, for one reason.... they are free!!! Which means I have about another couple of years of getting to WDW before we take a couple of years off before going again....

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