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Parenting in the Park
Tips and ideas for the traveling family
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Adrienne Krock, editor

10 great tips for Walt Disney World with kids

Friday, January 31, 2003

by Mark Wilkinson, contributing writer

I was really looking forward to the family experience... and dreading it.

This "family experience" was the first trip to Walt Disney World for our 7-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, as well as their first trip out of California. It was also the first real vacation with just the four of us, since our previous trips had always been either my going somewhere with my wife while my parents watched the kids, or we would all go, along with my parents.

Let me first share two tips that really worked out well for us.

Tip #1: Our Good Point program

Three months before our trip, we started a "Good Point" program. Basically, each week a "Good Point"—a small square with the Sorcerer's Hat on it printed on my color-printer—was awarded to one, both, or none of the kids based on their behavior, school work, attitude, and so on. At the end of each month, the child with the most Good Points won a "Ride Pick" – another small square, this time with Mickey, inserted into a plastic trading card sleeve and put away with their collection of Disney Dollars. These Ride Picks would enable the child to pick which attraction we went to first for that day.

My daughter won the first Ride Pick, and chose Alien Encounter at the Magic Kingdom. My son won the second, and chose Test Track at Epcot. The third and final went to my daughter, who chose Pirates of the Caribbean.

Mark's daughter chooses Alien Encounter in Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland as her Ride Pick. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Tip #2: Spending money wisely

Second tip: Each child had earned or received $150 in spending money before the trip. $100 of it was in Disney Dollars, and $50 in cash (for Universal or Disney – their choice). Now you can imagine how quickly this would disappear at WDW. My kids are the king and queen of impulse buying. That money wouldn't last past the Disney Store at Orlando International!

So we inserted into each child's fanny pack a small stack of index cards. And the cash went into Mom's pack. Whenever they saw something they really wanted, instead of purchasing it, they were instructed to write down where they were, what it was they wanted and how much it cost. Then, on the last day in that park—designated "Souvenir Day"—they could purchase the items on their card that they had the money for. Eliminates impulse buying and encourages some thought and budgeting.

Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?

Well, it worked, but required equal parts of child psychology and parental resolve on our parts. We purchased several things for them: their autograph books, fat pens for the characters, Guest of Honor pins (more on this later), matching T-shirts for all of us, and so on.

My son seemed to grasp the concept better than my daughter, but even he had challenges. For example, he wanted to know how he—upon counting—only had four things, while his sister had six. We explained that he bought a very cool T-shirt at Universal Studios with Spider-Man on it that cost $20, while his sister bought a small Cat in the Hat that only cost $10. She bought small and more often. But his stuff was really cool, too.

The World of Disney in WDW Downtown Disney is just one of many shops that sells irresistible souvenirs. Photo by Brian Bennett.

As for our daughter, it was more trying to explain that writing down 20 stuffed animals at $18 each just wasn't going to help her get them all.

We also made a requirement that whatever they bought had to say somewhere on it what park it was from. Otherwise we would have come home with three spinning flashing thingies and a box of Legos, all of which we could buy for 50% less at Toys "R" Us.

Still, it made our job of staying on budget much easier, and the kids got some very cool swag.

Tip #3: Kids and Airplanes

30 minutes before departure, administer one tablespoon of Children's Benadryl. Amen.

Tip #4: Kids and going to the parks early

Worked out better than I had hoped, and I'm very proud of them. They had no problems getting up each morning around 6:00. We made sure that no matter how late we got back, they took showers before bed. So getting up in the morning became a routine of going to the bathroom, getting dressed, and eating breakfast. The only real challenge was the fact they had to share a bed, and I often had to stop them from fighting at night when going to bed. I just used the tried and true, "Stop it or we'll stay here tomorrow!" Snoring inside five minutes.

Tip #5: Kids and food

Chicken strips and fries. No matter where. Enough said.

Tip #6: Kids and Epcot

The biggest challenge we had here was in World Showcase. My daughter would constantly ask where the next ride was. She didn't care what the ride was, as long as we were either in line for it, on it, or heading to the next one. Hard to do if you made the right-turn from Future World instead of left. And my son—now known as the "Map Keeper"—would have his dog-eared, half-folded map out from his back pocket, and would routinely remind me of the location of every attraction, no matter what it was or where we were headed.

Still, they did fairly well, especially with the use of the Epcot Passport program and the Kidcot Stations. We purchased these passport kits right away, and spent the whole day getting them all stamped and signed. My daughter also created a mask-on-a-stick, where a new item is added to the mask in each country. We occasionally had problems extracating her from a table where there were almost as many crayons and markers as in her bedroom at home.

A big recommendation: Stand in line early for Miyuki, the candy artist in Japan. She made a blue doggie for my daughter, and a golden scorpion for my son. She'll pose for pictures, and the kids loved it. But you must get there early. 30 minutes minimum, and just stand right in front of her little cart. Although she is scheduled for five shows or so a day, she usually only has time for four or five animals, so again get there early!

Miyuki creates a teddy bear holding a heart, one of her artistic creations using pliable candy made from corn syrup. Photo by Alex Stroup.

Tip #7: Kids and character breakfasts

Do it! It doesn't matter which one, despite what many will tell you. It doesn't have to be Cinderella's Royal Table or another expensive location – the kids just want to have fun. We did three while we were there: twice at Donald's Breakfastasaurus in Animal Kingdom, and once at Hollywood & Vine in the Disney-MGM Studios.

The food was all good, and the kids had a ball with the characters... and the servers. Of course this is just my opinion, but I think they had a great time, and we didn't incur any of the stress of prime slots at the Castle. We were first in the park with the earliest Priority Service requests for the breakfasts, we had a great time, and it gave me an excuse to totally stuff myself. Please do at least one. The pictures I have of Goofy eating my son's pancakes, of Chip and Dale playing with my daughter's pony tails while she tried to eat a banana (and laughing hysterically), and even with me as Minnie kept coming by and kissing my head are, well, priceless.

Tip #8: Kids and autograph books

Learn from our mistake, and do not mix Universal and Disney characters in the same book. We tried to save money, but instead we ended up running out of room (especially when you needed two parallel pages for Chip and Dale, or Mickey and Minnie), as well as some strange looks from face characters when asked to sign next to Spiderman or Popeye. If only Woody Woodpecker would just sign his first name, we might have gotten away with that one.

Tip #9: Kids and Guest of Honor pins

Get them! No ifs, ands or buts, people. Go to Disney-MGM Studios and the 5 & 10 Store. Either buy the ready-made red badges shaped like a cast member's oval pin if your child has a common name, or have them customize your child's name for no extra charge. We had the whole family done, and it really paid off.

The cast members greeted the kids by their first names (and us, too). One of the bellhops at the MGM Tower of Terror told my daughter her room was ready, using her first name (freaked her out – I loved it!). My son heard his name called, spun around, and received a handshake from Bert standing next to a practically perfect Mary Poppins. Many of the characters personalized the autographs in their books simply because they knew my children's names. My wife and I also started some very cool conversations with cast members simply because we all knew each other's names. Don't deny yourself this bit of magic: Get the pins!

Tip #10: Kids and Mickey ice cream bars

These are OK to buy. They will often help change an attitude or subject quickly and effectively, but bring a bib or tuck napkins over expensive souvenir T-shirts for all kids, even those of us who are 34... thank goodness for eagle-eyed wife with a stain-remover stick.

Bonus tip

All in all, they had a great time. And so did we. If I could offer one last piece of advice, it's this:

Take a gazillion pictures and/or video. I bought a digital camera and two 128Mb compact flash cards before going on the trip, and almost maxed out the cards. I now have over 700 pictures that can never be replaced (and have been backed up on CD immediately upon return), and which are little pieces of memory that will never disappear, bringing the magic back with each view. We made sure to share the photos—and our memories—with the grandparents after Thanksgiving dinner.

The Wilkinsons—Donovan, Mona, Mark and Ariel—meet Lilo & Stitch on their recent visit to WDW. Photo courtesy of Mark Wilkinson.

You can contact Mark at


Mark Wilkinson is an active member of MousePlanet's MousePad discussion board, posting as "marklodi." It was on MousePad that Mark first shared these tips for a trip to Walt Disney World with children.

Mark was born and raised in Lodi. Known as "The Zinfandel Capital of the World," Lodi is about 45 minutes south of Sacramento in the San Joaquin Valley in California.

Although Mark is a network administrator for a local office supply company and has worked in customer service management for the past 14 years, his dream is to become a Walt Disney World park guest relations cast member. Mark says, "Helping people is a true love of mine - combine that with WDW and we're talking dream come true!"

He and Mona were married 14 years ago, and started off on the right foot by taking their first trip to WDW on their honeymoon. [Disney-MGM Studios is their favorite park, as it opened just two weeks before their honeymoon.] They have a son, Donovan (11), and a daughter, Ariel (named after that Ariel), who is 7.

The Wilkinsons recently returned from their third trip to WDW (from November 8 through 23). They saved money by exchanging timeshare credit and staying off-site at the Westgate Towers.

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