We've all seen it: harried parents dragging their very young children around Walt Disney World in the heat of summer. No one -adult or child- seems to be having a very "magical" day. I always vowed that I would not be "one of those parents" who dragged his much-too-young children through the Vacation Kingdom of the World.
Until I had children of my own.
I found that I just couldn't wait five or six years for the "perfect" age to take my children to my favorite vacation destination. As a result, my kids have visited Walt Disney World three times, and they just turned 4.
While planning those first trips, I had many concerns. Is it worth the hassle and added expense to take very young children to Walt Disney World? Will they even remember these early vacations? Will we enjoy Disney World the way we used to before the kids came along?
After some very intense planning and a willingness to change our usual vacation pattern, I found that the answers to the three previous questions was a resounding "yes."
Where to Stay
This is one of the most important decisions in planning your vacation, especially when young children are in tow. Kids like routine and familiarity. From my experience, the best places for families with small children offer lots of room as well as some "home away from home" amenities. By staying on Disney property at a Deluxe resort or Disney Vacation Club resort, you'll get just that. These resort categories offer more room, and in some cases, kitchens as well as washers and dryers. I cannot imagine taking toddlers or preschoolers and not staying in one of these resorts. This decision added significantly to the cost of our vacation, and we had to make some tough choices about the length of our stay and our dining options, but it was ultimately worth it when the kids were 1 and 2 years old (the fact that kids under 3 get into the parks for free helped offset the costs as did eating two meals a day in our room).
We tried to create a home-like atmosphere as much as possible. We brought bedding, pillows, and our own laundry soap so that the sleeping environment would feel and smell like home. We also packed plenty of nightlights and a small air cleaner to create white noise to block out unfamiliar sounds at night and during naptime. A selection of favorite toys and books—plus the ability to run around the resort room—helped the kids feel at home. As result, they were content, well-rested, and ready for the Disney adventures that awaited them each day.
Larger accommodations also enabled us to invite extended family to accompany us on our early Disney World trips. Having grandparents, aunts, and uncles along was wonderful for everyone. Family members were able to share the fun of our kids' very first Disney trips and were more than willing to entertain the troops when necessary. In all my Disney travels through the years, I have never before felt the "Disneyland is your land" philosophy so strong as during these trips with small children and extended family. Walt's goals of creating a place for families to enjoy time together is very much alive and well some 50 years after the opening of his original theme park.
This is not to say that a stay at one of Disney's Moderate resorts cannot offer an enjoyable visit. We love Port Orleans and the Caribbean Beach. We've actually stayed at both Moderate and Deluxe resorts with our young children, and we find that the extra rooms and extra amenities of the Deluxe and DVC resorts are ideal for travelling with little adventurers.
Planning for the Kids
One of the biggest shifts for me was planning a vacation around little kids and their schedules. The stimulation of new surroundings, new experiences (riding buses, boats, and monorails) coupled with the excitement of the parks can be overwhelming for small children. In order to avoid meltdowns and to ensure that everyone—adults included—enjoy their stay, pacing is essential. I had to let go of my previous manic vacation mode and face the fact that we would not see or do everything on these vacations with little children.
Each day's plan now included plenty of breaks for snacks and water, time to run around and play, and lots of quiet time after each attraction so that the experience could resonate. This meant lots more sitting, fewer attractions, and some difficult choices. Each day for example, we needed to decide if we would hit the parks early or stay a little later in the evening—we couldn't do both. Did we miss out on some of our favorite Disney experiences? Yes. We missed the Voices of Liberty at Epcot's American Adventure, we passed on renting a pontoon boat, one of our favorite Disney World pastimes, and we dined at more character meals than we ever have before or since.
But we gained so much.
There was time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings and amenities at the resort. Having little kids along forced us to slow down and take in all the details and little nuances we previously took for granted or overlooked completely. Some of my favorite memories from those early vacations include quiet moments watching caterpillars on the boat dock or watching the kids play in the lobby while rocking in a comfortable chair.
The added bonus, of course, is rediscovering all those attractions that appeal so much to the youngest guests. Classics like Dumbo, Peter Pan's Flight, and "it's a small world" resonate with charm and meaning when seen through the eyes of little children. Even attractions that we typically skip—the Jungle Cruise and the Enchanted Tiki Room, for example—were wonderfully entertaining. If we had waited to visit until our children were much older, we might have missed the joy of seeing these classics through innocent eyes.
Planning for the Grown-Ups
Vacations are for every family member, and it is vital that plans include time for parents as well as children. This is not to say that times shared with children are anything less than wonderful. The reality, however, is that a little down time is a good thing. If possible, plan some time to enjoy your favorite Walt Disney World experiences, too. That might include some alone time for shopping or visiting a day spa. Maybe it's a quiet hour or two to read by the pool or soak up some sun. Maybe it means racing from mountain to mountain in the Magic Kingdom to ride your favorite attractions early one morning or late one night. Whatever makes Disney magical for you must be part of your Disney itinerary. With a little flexibility and a willingness to change up your usual Disney vacation plans, it is more than possible to create a vacation experience that meets the needs of everyone in your family.
Songwriting legends Richard and Robert Sherman created many classic Disney tunes for film, television, and theme park attractions. One of their most memorable, "Makin' Memories" from the pre-show for the original 3D film at Journey Into Imagination, captures the joy of those quiet little moments between parents and children. The theme of this song, the idea that snapping pictures is a way of capturing life's little moments, is summed up nicely in the following lyric: "Catching little pieces of time, making them yours, and making them mine." Travelling with very young children presents countless "small hours" that will undoubtedly "still remain" long after the return home.