Taking a five-year-old to Disney is exhausting, but it’s what makes the place magical. Or wait… was it magical for him, or for me? Our recent summer vacation to the “happiest place on Earth” left us all feeling delightfully satisfied, albeit incredibly tired, yet had me reevaluating what it is that really makes kids tick these days.
While I don’t want this to come off sounding like my son was ungrateful for the experience, I don’t think it was as amazing for him as it was for me when I was a child. The characters we grew up with and loved are characters that some of our kids know nothing about today. Rides and attractions that were out-of-this world for us, are nothing more than common 3D experiences for our kids. And in a world where Nintendo Wii and virtual reality exists in everyday life, it takes more than a wicked witch and topsy-turvy rides to make our children squeal with delight.
This Disney adventure taught me some important lessons that will make our next vacation (yes, we will be back) and future family trips a little more delightful, hard-to-please kids and all.
Lesson #1: Timing is everything
For starters, this year was the 60th Anniversary of Disney and a one-day park hopper pass was upwards of $160/ticket. Yea… shelling out almost $500 for our small fam just to get in caused me to get a little choked up too. But with a young child in tow, admission to the California Adventure Park was a no-brainer (you’re seriously missing out if you skip it), and besides, the attractions on that side cater to today's younger audience. Think: What Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland were to us, is what Monsters Inc., Buzz & Woody, and Lightening McQueen are to our kids. If I had to do it all over again, we would have spent more time in California Adventure Park and less time in Disneyland Park to make sure my son was able to see the characters he went there to see.
Oh, and this goes for all major theme parks and is also a no-brainer: be sure to avoid weekends and the busy seasons (you know, school vacations, holidays, 60th anniversaries, etc.) Standing in lines is hard enough, even with the assistance of iPhones and social media to keep you occupied, but standing in line for a five-year-old is downright torture. Plan accordingly.
Lesson #2: Don’t get caught up in your own nostalgia
What I mean by this is that, if this trip is for YOU, then by all means, visit every attraction that had you oohing and aahing as a child. But if this trip is for your kiddo, then don’t do what I did, and drag them to every ride that you think they should go on. My son was like, who is Snow White and who are these seven short guys? What is Wonderland? And what are these giant teacups for? To say he was underwhelmed would be… well, an understatement. Everything I thought I knew about what my son would like, I was wrong. We even took him to the Haunted Mansion (which I thought would be way cool because I used to love it) and all he did was hide behind his dad the entire time. “It’s a Small World”… again, not impressed. He liked the tiny boats we rode in, but otherwise thought there was “too much singing and too much girly stuff” for his liking. I quickly learned to stop dictating our schedule and start letting him pick which rides looked like the most fun to him.
Lesson #3: There’s more to Disney than the rides
Disney has one thing on point, locked down, that never misses a beat… and that is, the experience. The Disney characters are phenomenal at their jobs (I can only imagine what their faces look like under their masks after hours of picture taking and spreading happy cheer), but their gestures and mannerisms in public are spot-on. If your kid wants to take a thirty-minute break from standing in lines to chase down Mickey Mouse, let him! If you saw Beyonce in the mall, would you want to stop and get a picture? Exactly! And since Minnie Mouse is the Queen B of Disney, appease your child by chasing down every character their heart desires, even if it means missing out on Mickey’s giant Ferris wheel.
Remember that the overall experience of the trip is worth more than just one more ride. Take time to smell the roses. Their smiles will be well worth it in the end.
Lesson #4: Everyone loves a good parade
While it is true that all I could think about was how short the lines would be at all the kiddie rides during the daily Disney parade, this isn’t something we were willing to skip, and you shouldn’t either. The parade is akin to a well orchestrated Broadway show, with nearly every character from Aladdin to the Lion King to Mary Poppins making an appearance. And did I mention Disney princesses? Oooh to be a little girl again. Even if your kiddo doesn’t know who Cinderella is (like my son… no clue), the singing and dancing will keep them totally enthralled. And California Adventure has its own parade (with characters they are likely even more familiar with).
Sage advice: find your curbside spot early or risk having to hold your child during the entire production while you stare at the back of someone’s head. A little afternoon song and dance is good for the soul (and for a much-needed rest if you can find a place to sit).
Lesson #5: Cater to your child’s tastes
My son is super into video games, Star Wars, shooting things, and tree climbing. Thus, I should have planned better and let him spend more time tracking down Kylo Ren and Chewbacca, signed him up for Jedi Training, let him explore Tom Sawyer’s Island, and made sure we got around to Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blaster ride. There is so much to do in one day that many people buy multiple day passes, but if you have limited time to spend (like we did), don’t try to do everything, and instead focus on where you can get the most bang for your buck… and that will be anywhere that your kid is excited to go. My son is very hands-on, so in hindsight, we should have done more interactive rides, parades, fireworks, climbing adventures, and maybe even a character dinner or two.
Every kid is different. Cater to their individuality when planning your trip. There is no one-size-fits-all for Disney.
Lesson #6: Pregnant mommies can have fun too
Being at Disney while 22 weeks pregnant hardly limited my experience; I may have had more fun than my son. Most kid friendly rides are ok for expectant mothers (emphasis on most). This also depends largely on your risk tolerance and the status/health of your pregnancy. While there are no concrete studies that show that amusement park rides will harm your baby, they have never been extensively tested either. Rides which are obviously not safe for expectant mothers will say so, and as for the rest, use your best judgment and do what’s right for you.
I am a very active person who continues to engage in a somewhat rigorous fitness routine and have a low-risk pregnancy, free from complication; thus, I enjoyed most rides with my family. My biggest complaint of the day was that I was exhausted after 13 hours on my feet (as were my son and his Dad). Journeying through the parks for hours on end while pregnant is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for heels. Yes, even I had to put away my heels and wedges. Non-negotiable. Wear comfortable shoes ladies and stock up on Band-Aids. Packing a pair of back-up flip flops doesn’t hurt either.
It is true that today’s kids will likely view Disneyland very differently than you did your first time. Their expectations of what makes something awesome and what piques their interest is very different than the things that captivated you as a child. And I think we often forget this (at least, I did). If you want to make your child’s experience magical more-so than your own, let them help plan the day. You’ll probably be surprised by the things they want to do versus the things they could care less about. Despite my own selfish moments of trying to make my son love all the things that I used to, once I learned to let go of the reigns and gave him some control, we all had a fabulous time as a family and made some great memories that even he thought were way cool.