Little Life Lessons Learned

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer

One of our Parenting Panelists recently stopped to appreciate the little lessons her son has learned along the way as he grows up regularly visiting Disneyland. She inspired this week’s topic when we asked the Parenting Panel: What life lessons have your children learned from their visits to Disney theme parks?

Jen, also known as *Nala*, is an engineer, a Disney fan, and a MouseAdventure fanatic. She lives in Southern California with her husband and two future MouseAdventurers, ages 1 and 3. Jen writes:

Kids are always learning, and trips to Disney parks are no exception. Some lessons are fun, and some we learn the hard way, but there's almost always a good opportunity to teach your kids something while enjoying the day at Disney.

Wait your turn – This may be the most obvious but sometimes difficult lesson to teach a very small child at Disney parks. Often, they can see the ride. It's right there. It's shiny and fun and they want to go right now! What worked with my 3-year-old son, after some trial and error, was to point out the people in front of us and say, "After their turn, it will be our turn." For some reason, that explanation makes more sense to him more than "5 more minutes" or anything else, and sometimes now he'll say it himself: "Mommy, after they go, it will be our turn!"

Make a good choice – Disney parks are full of toys that kids want, and those things are usually placed right at kid height (spinny toys, anyone?). The kids don't often get to take home a new toy since we visit the parks often, but sometimes we'll let them choose something if they've earned it, or it's a special occasion. When told that he can pick a toy, sometimes the 3-year-old will run to the first thing he sees and say that's what he wants. We'll remind him to look around the store and be sure about his choice before we pay, so that he ends up with something he really likes.

You don't always get to choose – My son's favorite color is green. Absolutely, no doubt, no hesitation, he will always pick green if given a choice. There are several rides that have different-colored ride vehicles, but because of the way the ride is loaded, you don't get to choose your color. We've had a rather unhappy toddler a couple of times on Toy Story Midway Mania and Voyage of the Little Mermaid because we got the red-and-blue shooters or the orange clamshell. This one is still a work in progress, but what's been the most successful so far is to make a game out of it. While still in line I'll ask him, "What color do you think we're going to get today? I guess... red!" He'll inevitably say "green," and then I'll remind him that we get whatever color we get, we're not going to cry about it, and the ride is fun no matter what.

Share – Whether it's splitting a bag of Mickey freeze-dried apples, sharing a box of popcorn with Mommy, or taking turns sitting in the cars in Toon Town, there is always a good opportunity at Disneyland for the kids to practice sharing.

Long-term goals – Every parent has had a child want to ride something they aren't quite big enough for yet. My 3-year-old son wanted to ride "the Star Wars ride" (Star Tours) and "the big giant Cars ride" (Radiator Springs Racers) for months. For a while, we made a game of checking his height every time we went to the parks. I found the height stick by the Tower of Terror Fastpass machines was out of the way enough that we wouldn't hold up any lines, and it got to the point where every time we went by it he'd ask to check how big he was. He would hold up his fingers together and say "just this much bigger," and some days it was an incentive to get him to eat his dinner. One day, his head hit the top of the stick! He proudly stood up tall when height-checked (twice) at Radiator Springs Racers, and happily said, "I'm big enough! I'm big enough!" as he was let onto the ride.

It's OK to be silly – One of the reasons we enjoy Disney in the first place is that even grown-ups can play, have fun, and be silly. I think it's important that our kids see this side of us. In "real life," we're running from one thing to the next, and we don't always slow down and just enjoy time with our kids. Disney parks are a great place to show kids that grown-ups don't always have to be serious. After all, where else can a grown man wear a Simba hat and nobody thinks anything of it?

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:

Vacation is naturally viewed as a time where you don't do the ordinary. You do things that are fun, exciting, relaxing and tiring—all at the same time. I stay away from work and we put “normal” things aside such as cooking and cleaning as much as possible. At the same time, there is no better time to help expose your family to things they normally experience. The best part is that when on a Disney vacation, it actually is pretty easy to throw in a bit of learning, disguised as vacation fun.

I will admit, it can be something of a fine balance to keep learning experiences at the parks subtle enough to not be noticed, but with enough purpose to be useful. After all, nothing shuts a child down faster than when they find out they are being tricked into learning something new—on purpose. The key is trying to get the kids involved in the learning to the point where they think they are the ones driving the experience.

Here are some ways that our family makes an extraordinary vacation into something educational.

  • When our kids were younger, we wanted to be sure that they knew how to navigate a crowd—and more importantly, what to do if you get separated. This included learning things like our names, address, phone number, and where to stay. That seems rather basic, but for younger child, it is a set of basic information that already needs to be memorized. Vacation time gives motivation to practice such basic memory skills.
  • When my daughter was learning math skills, I would have her help me calculate the tip at different percentages. It also gave them an idea of how much some things cost. After a while, they got a realization on why we have a vacation budget and why we try to stay within that budget.
  • We give each of the kids a gift card they can use through the trip. We allow them to buy whatever they want with the small stipend we gave them since they were young. When they got older, they earned funds through certain chores. This also helped them learn the power of dollar and how to keep track of their money.
  • Our kids love Epcot, especially World Showcase. We have them tell us not only what they think of some of the different displays, but have them tell us what they learned through what they read. My daughter still brings up things that she learned throughout the parks.
  • People skills are also easy opportunities throughout the trip. Our kids learned the art of compromise through taking turns picking attractions. Without our prompting, they also learned the art of negotiation between themselves as they talked out different ideas of when they should do different attractions and in which order.
  • They also notice what not to do. This may seem to be somewhat odd, but they love to people-watch. When they see people behaving badly at the parks, they notice it. We use that as an opportunity to explain to them proper behavior without being judgmental towards what they observed.

As you can see, there are many opportunities that parents can use to help teach their children. Of course, every child learns differently but I think that Disney provides a nontraditional environment for kids and parents alike to come out of a vacation with great memories as well as a bit wiser.

Nancy is an enthusiastic Disney parks fan. She has been married for 10 years and has two little ones: a 3-year-old son and an infant daughter. A Disneyland local, she first visited Walt Disney World in 2006 and has returned four times since. Nancy writes:

My 3-year-old son has been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in Disney parks. He’s visited the Disneyland Resort (on average) at least once a month since he was 6 weeks old, and has been to Walt Disney World twice. Disney park time for us is a great time to reinforce all the things we are striving to teach him at home. I acknowledge there are many places to encounter life lessons, but I have discovered that since Disneyland is such a special place, it holds highly motivational powers over even the littlest of mouseketeers. My son has had his fair share of meltdowns at the parks, but his dad and I do our best to create learning opportunities for him during our time there, and to reinforce and remind him that boundaries exist and hold true, even at the most fun of places. Here are a few areas in which I’ve identified opportunities for growth in my son while having tons of family fun in our favorite parks:

Work before play – Before my baby girl was born, I’d take my son to the parks, often during the week, just the two of us. I’d often work around the house quite a bit the day before going to the parks and invite him to work with me. I’d tell him that today is a work day and if we can finish all the things we need to, then tomorrow we can go on a special adventure. This has been advantageous in two ways. First, he gives me more time to work, and entertains himself a little better because he knows I need to finish my list. Second, I give him tasks he needs to finish also, like our mommy-and-me class homework, picking up his room, sorting laundry, or putting away dishes. He works with me with greater attention when he knows a fun adventure is hanging in the balance. We get a lot of work done and then we get to go play. A couple of times he has had really hard days on those work days and despite warnings from me, he has persisted in his bad attitudes, refusing to cooperate or work or give me time to work. As a result we did not go to the Disneyland the following day. When we are stuck at home again the next day and he asks why, I have the opportunity to explain to him that we did not get our work done and so we do not get to play.

Take turns, think about others – Isn’t this what we do all day long at the parks? We wait in lines to take our turns at rides, for characters, and for food. He has become an expert line-waiter. He never plays video games or phone games while in line. We talk and spend time together and eat snacks while waiting patiently. If he grows antsy, I remind him what we are waiting for and ask if he’d like to wait or go do something else (and remind him if we go to another ride we will have to wait there, too). A couple of times, he decided the prize wasn’t worth the time, and after clearly explaining to him that he could choose to leave (but it would mean we wouldn’t ride that particular ride for the entire day) I let him make the choice. I remind him that we are waiting so that other people can take their turns on the rides. As often as possible I try to remind him that Disneyland is not about him, but about everyone enjoying the parks together, both as a family and as a greater population. Lately we’ve been reminding him that everyone in our party gets turns to choose a ride, and working with him to remember to ask what other people would like to do. A couple of weeks ago at the park, he turned to me, looked me right in the eyes, and said, “Now, Mama, what ride would you like to choose?” Melted my heart. He is getting it!

Respect social and physical boundaries – My son has learned how to respectfully provide space to the people around us as we wait in queues. He does not bump into the people in front of us as the line moves. If another kid has their hands on the queue ropes or chains, he knows not to touch them or move their hands off the rope. And he is respectful of the characters, interacting gently and considerately. He has also learned to not climb or invade spaces that are off limits. I’ve seen this carry over into other situations outside of Disney park time.

Make choices (and be OK with the outcome) – When we are squeezing in one last ride before a meal or before leaving for the day, we will give him a choice between two or three rides. We explain that the rides he does not choose we will not get to ride before lunch/dinner/we go home and to choose carefully. We also tell him that once we enter the queue for the chosen ride he cannot change his mind. Sometimes he has melted down because he can’t have two (and then he doesn’t get any) and sometimes he has regretted his choice and been sad he didn’t choose one of the others. We then have the opportunity to gently remind him to think about what he wants before choosing, be happy he got to experience what he did, and you don’t get to fuss about the things you chose not to do. Consistency and lots of opportunities here reinforces the ideas that you can’t do everything, enjoy what you get to do, take ownership of your choices, and choose good attitudes.

Follow the rules (even when other people do not) – Like everyone else, we’ve seen kids climb into areas that are restricted, off limits, or not meant to be climbed on. Kids swing ropes in the queues or cut in line. There are lots of opportunities in the parks to remind my son that just because other people are breaking the rules doesn’t mean that he gets to do so and there are natural consequences that happen to rule breakers. He needs to keep doing what is right regardless of others and eventually he will reap the benefits.

As my children grow, I’m hoping to continue to have lots of time in the Disney parks. I’m looking forward to using our family fun time to reinforce life lessons in age appropriate ways, all the while enjoying one of my favorite places.

Elizabeth, who posts on our MousePad message board as eabaldwin, has been a Disneyland annual passholder since 2010. She and her husband have two daughters, Katie (3) and Josie (14 months). Elizabeth writes:

It is possible to learn things while visiting a Disney park! Of course it is just plain fun for the kids to ride on all the rides and enjoy a yummy treat here and there, but there are some life skills that can be learned while visiting as well. We don’t go out of our way to make learning happen while visiting Disneyland, but as you parents all know, learning can happen whenever and wherever you take your children if the opportunity presents itself.

Our daughter Katie is a champ at waiting in lines. We have been taking her to Disneyland since she was 9 months old. She waits in line with us, except for the occasional potty break these days. Usually, she is quite patient and is very good at making friends with children who are in line around us. We also try to distract her when possible. I would say that she is better than most 3-year-olds at waiting in line. Hopefully with continued trips, our younger daughter Josie, who has been visiting Disneyland since she was just 6 weeks old, will be just as good about waiting in line.

I think that visits to Disneyland have also helped Katie develop her sense of direction. She can direct us as we walk from our house to our local Starbucks. She knows her way from the entrance of Disney California Adventure to Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, which is her favorite attraction. Obviously, at 3 years old, we don’t let her go anywhere on her own. We just ask her which way we should go next when we come to an intersection. She loves telling us which way we need to go next.

A visit to Disneyland can also be a lesson in diversity. There are people of all walks of life who are different from us. Children and people in wheelchairs, people speaking different languages, or people wearing clothing that represent their culture help show our children that there is a lot of diversity in the world. Sure we can see some examples of diversity in our neighborhood or in our city, but Disneyland is a relatively small area where lots of different people have come to celebrate or create special memories. Opportunities to see and discuss people who are of a different culture or who may have a disability with our children can help make them more accepting of others.

Another social/life skill that we work on is conversation, usually on the way home or the walk back to the parking structure. Our daughter Katie has a speech delay, so having her talk to us about her day really helps her develop her conversation skills and work a little on her sounds. It helps us all to remember which attractions we visited that day and it is a great way to end our day.

Our focus for our trips is more about fun and spending time together as a family, the learning that may happen is just a little icing on the cake.

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 familymemories

    Great insights. Our family always seems to work on something new when we visit the parks with our children.

  2. By davidgra

    The Disney theme parks are a fantastic place to teach your children many important life lessons -- not necessarily "little" lessons, either.

    Impulse control has been a very important lesson -- don't buy the first thing you see; don't go on a ride just because you're walking past it. Our children learned many lessons about shopping, including budgeting, but the most important lesson has probably been to look at a lot of different things before you decide which one you're going to buy. They learned about logic and maximizing your park experience by learning how to plan a ride strategy, rather than just run from ride to ride.

    Planning skills in general have been big life lessons, too. From the time they were little, we'd include the children in almost every aspect of the planning. Where to stay, where to eat, what to pack; every step of the process is an opportunity to get the kids involved and teach them something at the same time.

    Since we almost always have taken the kids out of school in order to go to Florida, they have also learned life lessons about dealing with teachers and with friends who are jealous. We never really considered what the children were learning from doing this, but it turns out they learned some very valuable interpersonal skills from this.

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