A Child's Very First Visit: What Do You Do First?

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer

Can you imagine walking through the gates of a Disney theme park for the first time? Many families visiting the parks wear buttons announcing their first visits. This week, we asked the Parenting Panel: If you were taking a child to a Disney theme park for the very first time ever, what would you do first?

Chris, also known as GusMan, is always planning his next family trip to the Walt Disney World Resort and loves to help others plan their trips, as well sharing his experiences. Chris writes:

Whenever I talk to people about their upcoming trip to the Walt Disney World Resort, a common question is where to go first and what sort of things should they try first. For me, the first time I took my daughter there was nothing else in my mind but reliving my own personal childhood memory by going to the Magic Kingdom first. There is something about the anticipation of walking under the train tracks into a world separate from the one you came from, only so you can start making memories that just makes your heart race with anticipation. Seeing the castle for the first time in all its splendor and hoping that it takes your kids to the same happy place where it took you when you saw it for the first time. It is when you say to your family “Yes, we made it… lets have the best vacation ever.”

Even with the buildup of anticipation, there is always the question of what to do first to celebrate the arrival of that first trip. While it may seem like overkill, this makes the first big impression. I think, for my daughter, there was only one answer to that question:

Must. See. Mickey! And that we did. Autograph book in hand and camera in focus.

This may seem like the equivalent of reading the last chapter of the book first, since there is a certain level of excitement built up to see your favorite character for the very first time. But to her, and, I think to many, this is a major point in the trip. Otherwise, parents get constantly reminded, through gentle nagging, that they would like to see Mickey (or their other favorite character of choice). Trust me, its a request best tended to immediately so that the rest of the trip is enjoyed by all.

Keep in mind, we did not do much planning for our first trip. After all, it had been 20 years since my first, and only, prior visit, and I did not know what to expect. However, letting my daughter lead the way to that first activity was well worth it. To some, it might be hitting Space Mountain for the first time. Maybe the Mad Tea Party looked like fun, especially from the commercials. Regardless, if your kids have an idea of what they would like to do first, see what you can do about making that happen. If you have more than one child experiencing a Disney park for the first time, try to determine these "first" activities as a family before you leave. Sometimes to be fair, flipping a coin to see who gets to choose first works wonders. This is where planning makes all the difference, and even more important for a first trip.

I will always remember my first trip to Walt Disney World. When I recently found pictures from that trip in 1982, I saw the joy in both my eyes and my parents'. It was the sort of joy that I want to share with my kids over and over. I think of it as continuing the tradition of firsts in hopes that they will make it a part of their legacy with their children some day. A legacy that will start off with the age old question “What should we do first?” and ask it before every single trip.

Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock’s three boys are now 13, 11, and 8. They’ve been visiting the Disneyland Resort since they were each just weeks old and Annual Passholders since their 3rd birthdays. Adrienne writes:

No matter what resort you’re visiting, my answer to this question is the same: The first time a child visits a Disney resort, the first thing they should do is walk through the gates of Disneyland Park or the Magic Kingdom Park.

To my mind, the most magical aspect of the Disney experience, is walking up Main Street to the castle. The first time we visited the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, we stopped along the way up Main Street to capture the memories with a family portrait in front of Cinderella’s Castle. In Anaheim, guests can almost always walk over the bridge and through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at any time of day. The only way to enter Fantasyland for the first time should be through the Castle, if you ask me.

On both coasts, Disney Photo Pass Photographers stand outside the castle ready to take pictures for guests. These pictures load onto accounts and guests can purchase the pictures during their vacation, or buy a CD with all of the digital files for the pictures. If you get a Photo Pass card early in the trip, you can collect quite a few photos to make the CD very worth while. You can even combine multiple Photo Pass cards on one CD. One trick I learned recently, take a picture of the back of the card whenever you get a Photo Pass. If you lose the Photo Pass, Disney can still recover your photos and attach them to a new card or CD.

It might not have to be the first thing to do, but the first time we took our children to Disneyland Park in Anaheim, I made sure to take them to Mickey’s Barn in Toontown to visit the Big Guy himself. At the time, my children were anywhere from 17-days to 12-weeks old – pretty small babies! I treasure the photos I have of my newborns with Mickey Mouse. And Mickey really seemed to enjoy meeting my babies! At Mickey’s Barn, guests get a lot of personalized attention without feeling rushed, and if you have your Photo Pass, in addition to taking pictures with your camera, the photographers can add some more to your account, too.

Sure, the other Disney theme parks offer many wonderful attractions, but for my money, nothing beats the magic of walking up Main Street to a Disney Castle.

MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry his wife Diane, 11-year-old Samantha, and twin 8-year-olds, Casey and Alex, live on Long Island and are all major Disney and Walt Disney World fans. Chris writes:

We had two very different experiences with our children as far as the very first thing we did with them at the Walt Disney World Resort. Both times, our idea was the same but we had very different results. Winnie the Pooh was always a big deal in our house. We read the books, watched the films and the TV shows, and the kids' toy boxes were always filled with various Pooh paraphernalia. When we took our now 13-year-old daughter to the Magic Kingdom when she was 4 1/2, we headed straight back to Fantasyland and made our way to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. She adored it. It was a dream come true for her, and for us as well experiencing it through her eyes. It was the start of a wonderful week together.

Three years later, and our twin boys were 4 and now ready for their first trip to Walt Disney World. They were a younger 4 than their sister, having only just turned so a month earlier. Following suit, we made that same trek back into Fantasyland and were waiting for a replay of that first experience we shared with their sister a few short years before. All was well as we boarded our honeypot and made it into Rabbit’s garden. But…as soon as we went through those doors into Owl’s shaking house, the second part of this classic attraction…chaos took over. The boys were, to put it mildly, over-stimulated. What was happening to Owl’s house? Why was Tigger popping out from all sorts of places? Oh my God, what are these giant Heffalumps and Woozles going to do to us? We thought our week was over. If they couldn’t handle Pooh, then what would the rest of the trip bring?

Don’t get me wrong; The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh is a wonderful and pretty timid attraction for young children. I just think our boys had no idea what to expect from it. A ride to them was one of those fire trucks or speedboats that go around in a circle at the local carnival. When we told them we were going on rides…I don’t think they expected so much to be going on all around them. It was a bit of a shock. We powered them down on Dumbo, "it’s a small world" and Peter Pan’s Flight and they kind of got the sense that everything was going to be OK. These rides weren’t going to hurt them. Owl’s house wasn’t going to fall apart on top of them, and the Heffalumps weren’t going to come alive and attack them. Their second go around that afternoon on Pooh was much, much better.

My point in telling this story is to suggest starting off even slower than you think with a young child at a place as over-stimulating as Walt Disney World. You never know how they’re going to react to such deeply involved and elaborate attractions. They really are larger than life to a small child. You might have to slowly work them into it.

That said, my No. 1 suggestion for your first experience with a child at Walt Disney World is to head straight to the Magic Kingdom on your first morning, after getting a good rest at a Disney resort the night before. Get there early enough to see the opening ceremony. The anticipation builds as you wait for the train to come. Your kids listen to the music and, when they spot those characters for the first time arriving at Main Street Station, they know they’re in for something special. It’s an amazing way to begin any young child’s first Disney vacation. They can experience it from a safe distance with you and not be too overwhelmed by the 7-foot-tall mouse up there on the train platform. That way, they can slowly begin to take it all in and get their bearings. The kids are much older now and used to it all, but the Magic Kingdom opening is still our favorite way to start off any trip to the most magical place on Earth. If you haven’t seen it, and chances are you haven’t because it’s not listed on the park map or Times Guide when you’re down there, then try this first with small children. After that, make sure you ease their way into everything and they—and you—should be just fine.

It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!

Visit the Parenting in the Parks forum on our MousePad discussion board, and share your opinions about this topic or many others, or send your suggestions via e-mail. Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!



  1. By Jimbo996

    Obviously, the first thing you do is head towards Fantasyland and ride the carousel. Then you ride the train. Finally, Dumbo. Small World is a big hit. Same with Peter Pan, Snow White, and Pinochio. Haunted Mansion might be too scary, but 3 year olds don't know to be scared. Pirates is okay. The Mark Twain boat ride is great. They love water. Can't do much about the height limits.

  2. By Tinker44

    Oooh I got happy chills reading this article! And I completely agree with the idea that the castle is the best "first stop". Partly because it's so utterly magical that boy or girl, young or old, it simply takes your breath away and you believe in the magic... and partly because (and lets be practical) the icon is ingrained in our subconscious through advertizing, and the logo shot on every Disney movie we've ever seen. Even the very youngest of children are likely to recognize that castle!

    I am a firm believer that first timers really ought to explore Fantasyland first. Again with the magic, there's nothing like Fantasyland to tap that inner-child in the adults, and the appeal to children is first-rate (as Walt intended), and again with the practical reason, the rides are short enough and tame enough to gauge the reactions of young children. I have had 2 friends make that "first-trip" to Disneyland recently... and both families had children with anxiety issues. One family took my advice and did Fantasyland/Toontown first. It went beautifully, almost picture-perfect. Their first character was the Evil Queen, which didn't go down so well, but the kids were ok. The second family did not follow my advice and started with Haunted Mansion (of all things)... traumatized the one kid so badly she didn't want to do anything but go straight back to the hotel. The other kid tolerated it better, but was in NO hurry to get in the queue for anything more exotic than the rafts to Pirates Lair/Tom Sawyers Island. Suffice it to say that the rest of the trip was almost a total wash for that family... they didn't do much of anything else but shop and sightsee, which is pretty pricey when you've flown down from BC Canada for this once-in-a-lifetime trip. I have a third family down there right now for their "first-time" and I can't wait to hear how it goes!

    Now I am even more excited for our big trip next year when it will be our son's first visit. Our daughter has been twice, but this one will be even bigger, as our son has Autism and those challenges will certainly keep us on our toes. I am blessed to know Disneyland well enough that I feel confident I can prepare my son adequately, and I know where to take him, and in what order, to improve his overall experience.

  3. By goalieump413

    For me, a father of 2 young kids, there isn't one thing that stands out as a "must do first" for either of them. What's worked for us, having visited Disneyland on four separate multi-day vacations now, is find something to do in the morning that is familiar to the kids' normal home routine.

    Waking up in a hotel room, walking to the gates, standing in lines. These aren't great memories for my kids. What are good memory bonds for my kids are finding something familiar in the Park they know and love at home. For my son, it was Star Wars. On his first visit he was 4 years old, and already a Star Wars fan. Disneyland was a big, confusing mess of sights, sounds, and people, until the Star Trader gift shop, where we "found" the Star Wars Lightsaber building station. Suddenly, with no looking back, he was much more comfortable anywhere we went, because he had something to play with at the Park that he also had at home.

    My Daughter was only 1 at the time for her first visit, so for her, there were simpler things like snacks from the Main Street Fruit Cart, or lunch at the Hungry Bear where she warmed up to the whole idea that DL was okay and fun.

    My advice: Build anticipation at home by finding a way to connect your child's loves with things they'll find inside the Parks. Steer them towards those areas, items, or experiences right away. After that, the Parks don't seem quite so new, crowded, or otherwise off-putting. Those long lines get shorter.

  4. By Little Mitchie

    My brother and I are both single and have no kids so we tend to take our trips to the Disney parks together. Our sister has two girls but doesn't have the income to be able to bring them. So the two greatest uncles in the world (just ask the oldest) took her for her 10th birthday. So for her 10th birthday in May several years ago we told her that we'd be taking her to Disneyland but we coudn't go until September when our schedules cleared up. We made a countdown calendar using photos from our previous trips to DL and WDW. You could ask her any day during those summer months how much longer and she knew the number. Drove our parents and sister nuts.

    On that first day we were there before the gates opened. As everyone charged down Main Street we turned into Town Hall. It was a short line. But when it was our turn I told Kassy to tell them what today was. She says, "Today is my first time at Disneyland," to which they welcomed her and gave her an Honorary Citizen button. During further conversation they learned it was a late birthday trip and said she was still entitled to a birthday button.

    We then made the walk down Main Street. We started walking slower to put some distance between us and the niece to get a photo of her from behind heading towards the hub and Sleeping Beauty Castle. She eventually realized we weren't there anymore and turned with a puzzled look. When she saw the cameras we got a big smile and great photo. I can't recall what ride we went to first. It was fun to see the park through the eyes of a child's first visit.

    The other niece turns 8 this year and we have already discussed how and when we are going to get her there in honor of her 10th birthday. Shhh, don't tell her she's going.


    My Grandson turns 5 in February of 2014 and we will be taking him and the whole family to Disneyworld for about 10 days. Everytime he sees a Disney movie or cartoon that has the castle in the beginning, he always says "I'm going there". We are trying to introduce him to all things Disney. Right now he doesn't like loud noises, but we hope that will change in the next year and a half. We have a height count down, on one of our door frames, to get him to the height of 48 inches. We will have to play his first Disney experience by ear, but we know the first place we will go is the Magic Kingdom, so he can see his castle!


    I took my DD for the first time when she was turning 5 - she is 10 now. There was a lot of planning that went into that first visit; we looked at maps, pictures, the planning DVD etc. for months beforehand. In the end, we did things a little differently and went to DCA first. We had arrived later in the afternoon and our detailed plans involved seeing the Electrical Parade that night so it made sense to be at DCA for the whole evening. So we did Bug's Land first, with Heimlich's Chew Chew Train as her first ride because that is what she wanted to do. Not your traditional introduction, but you know what? She loved it. It was all new to her, it was all magical.

    Later, I remember waiting for the Electrical Parade to start and being overwhelmed when the music started to play - I had seen the Main Street Electrical Parade on my one visit to DL when I was a kid and it was so special for me to share that now with DD.

    To this day, we usually try and go to DCA first when we visit. Because it's tradition. We still ride Heimlich's Chew Chew Train even though we have moved on to bigger and better rides. Because it's tradition. It doesn't really matter what you do first, as long as you are in the moment and sharing that special time with your little ones.

  7. By jMom

    If your child is old enough, make them part of the planning and pick 2 or 3 things to see right away; if they already have favourite movies or characters, this can be so much fun for them on a first trip! If they are not old enough to help plan, the castle is a beautiful first stop and small world is another good one, so you don't hit the backup at the end of the ride that happens just a few hours after park opening. Rivers of America is quiet and peaceful in the mornings.

    We have a favourite spot in the park where I take pictures of kids each visit. That's a nice tradition to make and see in trip photos. If we do this early on, we can avoid crowds and move on to the rides. It's a nice way to celebrate being at the parks.

    Now we have a tradition: Peter Pan first (before the line gets too horrendous), then Alice (sometimes going twice, depending on crowds), then small world. We usually try to squeeze in Nemo as well before taking a breakfast break. I used to love Riverbelle Terrace before its refurb. Now we usually hit Tomorrowland Terrace. Not only is it closer to our last ride and convenient to the Hub, we can enjoy our food while looking at the Matterhorn and waving at the Monorail.

  8. By eabaldwin

    Quote Originally Posted by jMom View Post
    If your child is old enough, make them part of the planning and pick 2 or 3 things to see right away; if they already have favourite movies or characters, this can be so much fun for them on a first trip! If they are not old enough to help plan, the castle is a beautiful first stop and small world is another good one, so you don't hit the backup at the end of the ride that happens just a few hours after park opening. Rivers of America is quiet and peaceful in the mornings.

    I agree with this. If the child is old enough to have seen movies/have favorite characters, they should help pick what to do first. Our first daughter was about 7 months old, and our second daughter about 5 weeks old for their first visits, so they didn't really have a say in what we did. One tradition of ours that we started is that they all go on their first ride on IASW with my Mom. It was the first ride I rode with my Grandma (who got us all hooked on DL in the first place ), and I love that my children will get to ride it first with their Grammy. My Mom also rode IASW when it was at the World's Fair, which I think is pretty neat too.

    Now that our oldest has a say, we usually hit up either Mickey (at his Movie Barn) or Ariel's Undersea Adventure first since those are her favorite things to do.

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