A couple of years ago, I wrote a column about traveling to Disney World with kids. Since I had no firsthand experience, I crowd-sourced the whole thing and, thanks to my friends, provided some pretty comprehensive suggestions. I know, because I turned to my own column for advice when planning my family’s trip, which was this past week.
Now that we’ve returned from a ridiculously magical week, I’m happy to provide an updated column based on own experiences as a parent at Disney World. I also want to say, for the record, that it’s totally worth the hype.
My biggest takeaway is that you have to know your family and your kids. Do they like surprises? Great! Keep your itinerary a secret, which is especially helpful if things change at the last minute. Or (like my kids) do they thrive on routine and expectations, which you are destroying by taking them on an over-stimulating vacation? If so, spend the first few minutes of every day going over the agenda and what each ride is like (YouTube has videos of every ride, if that helps). You still have to be prepared for things to change and disappoint, and flexibility is still key, but you’ve done what you can to provide stability. You know whether they’ll like meeting characters, or if they get cranky in the heat, or how many hours of activity they need before a break. Take all of that into account, and don’t expect their personalities to change just because you’re in a new place.
Think about comfort. Wear your best sneakers. Bring strollers even for older kids who would normally walk. Bring cooling towels, spray fans and familiar water bottles. If you’re staying on property and expect to have “magic bands” try them on at home to see how your kids tolerate them. They get sweaty, and if kids aren’t used to having something on their wrists, they might play with them all the time. Come up with a plan for keeping track of these bands if your kids are unlikely to keep them on their wrists. On the subject of clothing, if your kids are willing to go along with it, I highly recommend dressing them in matching shirts. I found it so much easier to spot them in a crowd and found it really reassuring. Whole families at Disney wear matching outfits, so they won’t be out of place. And, further on the subject of comfort, locate indoor air-conditioned areas to take breaks as needed. (If you have younger kids, you must spend time in the Dumbo play area — cool, contained and not too crowded.)
Don’t try to do everything. You can’t, so trying will inevitably lead to disappointment. You can do one set of things and enjoy it immensely, but regret will get you nowhere. If your kids haven’t seen a particular movie, don’t feel compelled to do the ride just because it’s popular. We mostly stuck to things my kids were familiar with, which also helped get buy in when we had to wait. Also, for kids who thrive on repetition, prepare them that most rides can only be done once. If a particular thing turns out to be boring or scary or the wait is too long, don’t be afraid to walk out. Of course, that’s not possible on every ride, but when it is, someone will magically appear to help you exit.
If your kids wake up early anyway, get to the parks when they open. If you’re driving, that means a closer parking spot and greater ease when leaving. Magic Kingdom has a 9 a.m. show when it opens, and it set the scene for our whole experience there. You’ll also get to know the layout of the park a bit before the crowds arrive and the sun heats up. As per the above about repetition, you may be able to do some rides over and over again at the very beginning of the day, too, if you time it right.
Be prepared for bedtimes to shift. My kids stayed up later on this trip than they ever have before (including seder, when they’re allowed to stay up as late as they want). They also slept later, which meant our early morning park days were limited. If you had told me a week ago that I’d be changing them into their bathing suits at 8 p.m. after a full day of activities, I would not have believed you, but time works differently there. Plus, in the summer, fireworks start at 9 p.m., and did I mention they’re magical, too?
Ask for help. Disney employees (all called cast members) are there to make your visit perfect. Seriously. Just by asking, we got free cups of ice at numerous restaurants, a front row spot to watch a parade and a late checkout time at our hotel. Even, miraculously, when I committed the Disney sin of losing my kids’ autograph book, our hotel magically replaced it, complete with all the autographs they’d gathered so far, plus Tinkerbell’s.
Say yes. Of course, this is a common trope in improv games, but it’s good for vacations, too. Just like Disney cast members will basically say yes to anything you ask for, try to do that for your kids, too. You can do this without buying them everything they want, but buying them some things is ok, too! We gave our kids a spending allowance, which provided good life lessons in budgeting, but we also enjoyed saying yes to little treats along the way, or even just stopping unexpectedly to look at something that caught their attention. If you can anticipate things they might ask for, consider buying certain gifts in advance and bringing them with you to avoid the on-site markup. But mostly, try to live in the moment like your kids are. So many strangers on this trip said to me, “You’re making memories,” and the more they said that, the more I committed to trying to make the memories I want my kids to have.
I have lots of other thoughts on fast passes (use them strategically to avoid lines), snacks (bring them to avoid hunger meltdowns), and daily itineraries (make them so you can plot your path through the parks and know when mealtimes and bathroom breaks will happen), but hopefully I’ve provided enough to get you started. I initially approached this trip as something I was going along with, but I quickly realized it was magical for me, too, and I’d wish that for any parent. Finally, while you’re likely structuring most of the trip around your kids, there are places that do hourly drop off babysitting while adults eat dinner, and I recommend that, too. My kids had a great time, and we were all happy to rejoin each other after a couple hours for more togetherness.