Perhaps it all harkened back to my own Disney World-less childhood of hearing everyone else talk about this “magical place,” where “all your dreams come true.” Even my grandmother went, without me! At least twice! I remember she brought me back a mobile of smiling plastic Florida Oranges from her trip, circa 1980. My decision to take my kids was loaded with past and present expectations. I’m my own lady now- Let the magic begin!
I also must add that I am an active parent, a traveling parent, and an avid nature lover- I have lived with my children in a yurt in the woods, I have taken them to many spots in nature and into various oceans already, letting saltwater and sand wash over them, and love having my daughter spend hours cumulatively on a horse in the country, learning to ride. They don’t watch more than a couple of hours of TV a week with me. I grew up as a Waldorf kid- I am not “drinking the kool-aid,” nor do I think you have to be a “one or the other” kind of a mom. Does my daughter have anything with a Disney character in her possession on it? Yes. And it’s OK! Her Ariel and Elsa dolls inhabit her wooden Waldorf dollhouse, alongside cloth mice from ABC Carpet and wooden figureens from Acorn. It may not be a bad idea to show both sorts of worlds/vacations to your kids.
I’ve decided to write this article for all families considering the trip, because I can give you pointers from my experience that will make your time easier. Stay, if you can, at a Disney Resort Hotel. There are a few reasons to do this. They can be cheaper, if you use your credit card points (Delta travel miles is what I used for both the hotel and the rental car, making both free). They have parking for your car, and a wide bus (good with strollers) that will take you right to the gates of the park from the hotel, while you hold your painfully early (and much needed) coffee and pastry from the lobby bakery. These hotels are filled with other kids doing the exact same thing with their families, and their staff will be equipped to deal with any of your park-related queries.
The resort hotels also have awesome pools and fun stuff for you all to do before and after the park (if you have an ounce of energy left). Also, they have babysitting from certified Disney employees, if you need a little time for yourself. We stayed at the Swan and Dolphin, and it was beautiful, spacious, and easy. People also rave about The Polynesian. Parking your car on the Disney lot costs a tiny bit more, and requires you to take a motor train to a monorail to get to the gates. This can be really hard with a baby, a stroller, and a little girl who trips over her own feet a lot (one of the blessings of being super tall). I made the mistake of doing this for the first of our two days there.
Another mom on her own with small kids told me during our trip that, “taking a vacation like this is just a change of scenery. Actually, you do more work than staying home.” Totally true! New routines, new sinks, new outlets to cover with those plastic things, new places to store things, etc. There’s nothing like washing your plastic container of old baby food out in a tiny, cramped hotel sink at midnight with sample soap. But heck, I’m from NYC, and I’m totally savvy and tough. I can do anything, right? My daughter really believes in the princesses now; she’s almost five. My son is thirteen months old, and walks a lot. Magic Kingdom seemed like the perfect place for kids their age. Let me just say, it is so crowded. Maybe for small people this isn’t too confining, since peoples’ bodies probably won’t seem as close together from their perspective. But for a adult, it completely tests your ideas of personal space. You’ll need to get over it fast, if you want to exude happiness for your kids and try to have fun.
There were more than a couple of furious temper tantrums that came and left like fast tornadoes- my daughter’s excitement threshold was so high that anytime I said no to a toy or souvenir request, there was a special little hell to pay. So be it. Those souvenir stores are at every turn, so the kids need to get over it. There’s even a “Christmas Shoppe,” full of ornaments, where we actually had fun watching a lady dressed in turn of the century petticoats decorating them with her perfect calligraphy. Believe me, I asked myself more than a few times, “Is this the stuff that dreams are made of?” Luckily the outbursts were short-lived because a new distraction would be waiting around every bend, at all times.
If you’re planning to go to Magic Kingdom, get your fast passes lined up before entering the park. Also, from experience, get them for each person. Mine were mistakingly only for me, because I had arranged them late the night before and wasn’t paying close enough attention, but concentrate on getting the passes arranged for each person. There were a lot of people on line for same exact reason at the fast pass station, trying to fix this mistake. It doesn’t feel very good to know you paid $100 a day, each (not the baby), to stand in a line. Another thing… it’s way too crowded at Disney World, and time really stands still in a strange way once you’re in, to do anything that takes much concentration. Figure your schedule out before you get there.
If you get confused or tired, there’s plenty of fun in just sitting on the Liberty Belle paddle boat for 30 minutes and chilling out. It’s totally spacious, has no line, and is really cute as it paddles around the small river that runs through Magic Kingdom past giant fake animals whose ears and tails wriggle.
Also, because you will need to be running this app the whole time, your phone batteries will go down fast. If you don’t have your own personal charger, go to the outdoor seating area near the Rapunzel bathrooms to recharge your phones and let your baby run around and get some energy out. It isn’t really possible to let a baby or small toddler walk around in too many places within Magic Kingdom, just because of the crowds and strollers coming from every direction. Figure it all out before you get in.
Bring essential snacks and a small water bottle, which you can refill at fountains. Try to make the snacks you bring healthy, if possible (nuts, carrots, etc). Your kids will be so excited, and probably ingesting sugar at every turn (you can’t say no to a lollipop or ice cream at Disney World). No matter what anyone says, you can get three new fast passes once your first three have been used. Therefore, you can conceivably do six fast pass activities each day. Ask for help from cast members, that’s what they’re there for. One cast member even got us into a fast pass line without having one, to get on a ride. They are really nice people. Get to the Kingdom early to stand in lines that you don’t have fast passes for. What is early? I would say at 8-9am. Really. All the tens of thousands of shmucks roll in at around 11 or noon, and by then lines can be well over two hours long for the popular rides. If you get there at 8:30, the line to see Mickey will be 15 minutes, versus the 2 hours just a little bit later.
Please wear a small backpack or fanny pack. You can definitely bring your stroller, and there is stroller parking everywhere- for every ride. You just won’t want a huge NYC-style purse with you on the rides with your kids, trust me (I made that mistake). Just have a small diaper bag on your stroller, and a nice small personal bag of some sort to keep your tickets, phone, first visit pins, cotton candy, plastic toys, and hand sanitizer in. Please bring hand sanitizer- there are throngs of people (and may I say, many of them were shamelessly, loudly sneezing and coughing) and they’re all touching everything. Sure, the sun kills germs, but why take chances? Wipes became my trusted friends.
On our second day there, my daughter insisted on wearing her disney princess dress. She’d seen too many others in theirs the day before! If your daughter has one, bring her dress (try to bring the lightest one you can- it’s hot and you may have to fold it into your diaper bag) or at least a character T shirt. She will feel at home this way, and blend in. There were families who almost pageant-ized their daughters, I was shocked. Be prepared to buy a $20 Ariel bubble blower or Mickey Mouse sword and don’t try to fight it- they’re in every kids’ hands. It rains periodically in Florida during the day so bring your own cheap lightweight plastic ponchos from CVS, and keep them in your diaper bag. It’s really worth it. You won’t want to be standing, soaking wet in the rain, in an obnoxious line to buy three plastic ponchos for $10 each. Not fun. And then the rain stops anyway after an hour.
We went on all rides together, including Dumbo, Peter Pan, It’s a Small World, The Little Mermaid, and more. We saw Mickey’s Philharmagic, and The Carousel of Progress. My personal favorite was the Enchanted Tiki Room, which even my baby loved while standing on my lap (as he did in the 3D movie and in the Carousel of Progress). Prop Stylists and Production Designers will salivate in this room! It really reminds you of why adults can enjoy the place. Relax and sit in awe of these animatronic birds singing to you! Outside of the Dumbo ride, there is an amazing sprinkler comprised of the circus train that’s refreshing to walk through! There was the People Mover which my daughter loved. I wore the Ergo carrier with my 13 month old son, and he seemed fine on all of these rides. The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse was awesome too, from an artistic perspective. We went to dinner at Gaston’s Tavern, in which we ordered hummous and pretzels, veggies, and a salty bowl of stew to share. You can go to fancier places for dinner, but the wait is uber long, and personally the idea of spending lots of money at a Pinocchio restaurant on unhealthy, fattening, unorganic food kind of weirded me out. But, to each her own.
You must stay for the fireworks at night, which will be an integral part of your kids’ experience and memories. It’s at 9pm in front of the castle. Get your arm muscles ready to hold your kids up high anytime you are in front of that castle, so that they can see the stage. Also, throughout the day, there are shows. Here’s a list of attractions as well, throughout the day. Dole Whip, next to Aladdin’s Castle, is one of the best treats you can have as an adult, sharing with the kids. Do it before or after your visit to the Enchanted Tiki Room. Take your pleasure where you can get it! Just so you know, there is no alcohol in the Kingdom (which, after I saw the thousands of aimless strangers is a good thing, I think!). You will see bands of soft-looking families (where are these people from?) wearing custom made Disney/Mickey T-shirts for their annual pilgrimage to the park. You will see groups of obnoxious, loud teenagers whose parents apparently let them come without adults involved. You will see lots of aimless, zoned-out men pushing strollers into other people while the stressed-out mother is steps ahead. The one thing I was so very touched to see was a little girl from the Make a Wish Foundation, who was in front of us to meet Cinderella. There’s something so emotional, as a mom, about being at Disney World when you realize how happy it makes all the kids. It actually is magic. Do I sound corny now? I even caught myself tearing up on It’s a Small World.
About getting into and leaving the park, just understand that lines will be a major part of your time. If you stay at a resort hotel, the lines for the buses will be shorter than the lines going back to the park parking lot. Pack accordingly. You can change diapers pretty much anywhere, if your stroller goes back flat. There are surfaces along the sides of walkways to sit on.
While you’re there, take lots of pictures and have a blast! If I can do it, so can you. Seriously, it’s fun. Try to wear something comfy and cute (the last of which I didn’t- I literally wore Uniqlo grandma lounge pants and an unflattering old maternity tank top) since you will be in pictures that will be hashed over for years. Haha. That was my only permanent mistake, cultural and otherwise. Next time I’ll wear a dress with my hair down. Go have fun.
Rebecca Conroy is an artist, stylist, and Editor of A Child Grows in Brooklyn. She is from New York City, and has an MFA from Columbia University in screenwriting. Rebecca often finds herself on film and photography sets making things run or look better, and is the mom of two outrageously wonderful kids.