We just came back from our 3rd go-round of Disney World with the kids. I know there is something very first-world-problemy about describing a Disney vacation with the Dickensian quote “It was the best of times and the worst of times”, but there is the element of truth to it! The kids are ecstatic about experiencing certain rides and shows, about getting various treats, and about meeting the characters. But waiting on unpredictable lines with an exhausted preschooler and grade schooler, both of whom thrive on schedules and routines, is no picnic. Neither is carrying around 40 or 50 pounds of grumpy kid. And trust me, we were not the only family who was experiencing this roller coaster of emotions. ( I would eventually like to do photo series on kids crying in Disney World as well as one of kids sleeping in crazy positions in Disney World).
In the end, I always feel that our Disney trips are worth it, and everyone is always sad to leave. I am forever grateful that I get to experience the pure joy on their faces when they see and hug Mickey or Daisy. And despite the fact that Remy actually broke the skin (through my jeans!) of my thigh because she grabbed me so tightly during the Haunted Mansion ride, there is something so sweet about the way our kids huddle against us during exciting or scary parts.
Here are some of my tips and observations for families heading to the most magical place on Earth.
- You have to want it.
You meaning you and your spouse/partner/whatever other adults you are going to go with. Joe and I both love Disney World, but it. is. exhausting. If you or your significant other are one of those people who thinks Disney World is boring, just for kids, too commercial, etc, reconsider your vacation. Or take my husband. He is a very pleasant travel companion, and a wonderful pack mule! The lines, heat, crowds, etc are going to be especially frustrating if you already went into Disney with a grumpy attitude.
- Be prepared for challenges at most ages.
Okay, by the time they are 10 or so, most kids can handle the stimuli and long days. Of course, eventually, they will probably get into other challenging things such as wanting to not hang out with their uncool parents. But for several of the younger years, know that a day at Disney is like a marathon your kids can’t really prepare for. If you have a child who naps easily in your arms or in a stroller, you should be in pretty good shape. But if you have a little one who needs the comfort of her bed (and a specific lovey), be prepared to exit the parks at any time.
In some ways, this age (with Remy at 4 and Elijah at 6) was even harder than when they were younger. When they were little, we went to the parks in the morning for a few hours, went on a ride or two or to a show, and then returned to our hotel to play in the pool, have rest time, or nap time. We often went back out in the evening for dinner, but rarely did we think to spend the whole day out.
Now, both kids are no longer napping, and they generally have enough energy to power through their typical days without much complaint. But walking and walking for hours and standing in lines and the extreme heat (in October! Who knew?) was tough, and this time we scrapped a few late afternoon and dinner plans (which unfortunately came with a hefty cancellation fee-ouch!). I think we thought they could handle a full Disney day at this point, but we overshot their energy levels a bit.
Our kids no longer use strollers, and our umbroller recently broke so we just figured we would wing it. Which basically translated to us carrying them around when they got tired, which sometimes happened earlier in the day than we would have expected. I understand now why I saw some pretty old kids hitching rides in the Disney stroller carts.
- FastPass Plus is your best friend.
Use it, love it, and sign up again. Sign up early. Also, the wait times for various rides and attractions are available on My Disney Experience. It’s worth it to take a look and see what rides consistently have a long wait time and which ones generally don’t so that you don’t waste one of your precious FastPasses on a ride with a short (or no) line. I seriously would not go to Disney without a FastPass option. I am not a fan of waiting in line either (my brain cannot compute why people would wait 2 hours for a ride that lasts 2 minutes), and I would probably just skip all the rides and just walk around looking for more food to eat.
4. Plan ahead for meals.
Again, make reservations as early as possible for the sit-down restaurants (although be aware of same day cancellation fees). In each park, there are generally some good casual, to-go options at food stands, which we used for lunches, but if you want to eat in a climate-controlled environment where you can actually sit and relax (or if you want to go to most of the restaurants in the EPCOT world showcase), I would recommend making a reservation. This time we tried out lunch with the newish Beauty and the Beast pre-order program, and really enjoyed the ambiance and details in the restaurant (which looks like rooms in the Beast’s castle).
One of our favorite not-so-hidden-treasure restaurants is located right by the Haunted Mansion-it’s called the Columbia Harbor House. It’s quick, the lines are not usually long, and they have some healthy salad and sandwich options.
5. Pack some snacks and a water bottle!
Disney actually does a decent job of offering healthy snacks and diet restricted options (such as the allergy-free kiosk in the Animal Kingdom), but having your own snacks is way cheaper ($2 for a banana?!?) and also a good diversion during long lines. Water is key as well as the occasional Dole Whip float. Do not be fooled by the look on Elijah’s face. His body and mouth were rejoicing from this ambrosial and refreshing beverage.
- Let go of expectations.
Your kids are going to have fun. They’re in freaking Disney World. We left one park early (and missed a show) since it became obvious that they kids were overheated and running out of steam. As it turned out, playing at the pool was exactly the afternoon respite that was needed, and they were rejuvenated for dinner and then meeting friends for ice cream. And on the last night, they were just as happy eating pizza in the hotel room as they would have been at the fancier Italian restaurant in EPCOT.
One of the struggles I have had as a parent is letting go of some of the bad and not letting it overshadow the good. I have to remind myself that the tears or fussiness at the end of a very long day does not erase the hysterical laughter at a silly 3-D musical performance or the thrill of being scared by a nearby cannon blast. What they remember is how much fun they had, not that freak out when a 5 minute wait inexplicably took 15 minutes (I know, I know, FWP again, but try explaining that to a 6 year old).
- Embrace the cheese.
Disney is literally like no place else on Earth. It is awe-inspiring, magical, and even a little creepy in how precise everything works. And that’s not even counting how it inspires kids and grown-ups to buy clothes that they would never actually where outside the park (or at least that I would never wear outside of the park). And then there’s Disneybounding, where people dress up like their favorite Disney characters. Look it up-it can get pretty intense!
In any case, embrace the weirdness and your inner child as well as your actual child! What tips do you have to add?