Navigating the Friendly Skies With Toddlers

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer

Parenting columnist Adrienne Krock strongly believes every child needs a ticketed seat on an airplane. Photo by Adrienne Krock.

Many families travelling to Disney for their vacations find themselves flying to their destinations. Inspired by a recent post on our MousePad message boards, this week we asked our Parenting Panel: What tips do you have for keeping toddlers entertained while flying to their Disney vacations?

Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock's three boys are now 16, 14, and 11. They've been visiting the Disneyland Resort since they were each just weeks old and Annual Passholders since their 3rd birthdays. Adrienne writes:

There are a few standard suggestions for keeping little ones occupied and, hopefully, peaceful, on plane rides. Many parents already know to pack plenty of toddler-friendly snacks. Bring something to drink with you onto the plane because even if the flight provides beverage service, if your child gets thirsty before it starts, you’ll want something right away. One friend recently took her young children on their first flight. After spending years listening to tales told by parents traveling with children, she proudly told me how she bought new, never seen before toys onto the flights for her kids to enjoy, with great results. The flight crew complimented her family on her young childrens' behavior! So with those covered, here are some of my more opinionated suggestions:

Electronic Toys: I have been criticized by some for being “too strict” of a parent, while others have assured me I should continue to hold the line. My eldest is now a senior in high school and he seems to have survived having me as a parent pretty well, so I have to assume I have not entirely screwed up as a parent: My children have historically been pretty restricted as to how much time they spend playing video games. Their devices have passcodes that they do not know. Yes, we're those parents.

But: When I need them to cooperate and I need for them to be occupied, those electronics sure come in handy, and I just don’t feel too guilty about it. So, go ahead, put their favorite shows and movies on electronic devices. Find some age-appropriate games. In my case, my children seem to savor the opportunity and bringing out the electronic devices keeps them nicely entertained and occupied when I need it.

Get Toddlers Their Own Seats on Airplanes: Let’s Talk Safety. I am seriously hard core on this issue. Notoriously hard core. I remember years ago, when the Internet still had that new-Internet smell, a flight attendant came onto a message board I read and shared that her peers have a name for lap-sitting children in turbulence: Footballs.


Airlines install seat belts on planes, not to protect passengers in case of crashes, but in case of rough turbulence. I wonder if most travelers have no clue how rough it can get. I suspect that this is one of those issues where, until you experience it yourself, you do not necessarily appreciate the situation. But having read that statement, I had no desire to experience my lap-sitting child become a flying football on an airplane. The first time I had to fly with a young child, I insisted that he have his own ticket. I firmly believe that if I cannot afford to purchase a ticket for every person in my family, then I cannot afford the vacation that requires flight. So straight out of the gate, I stand non-negotiable: Toddlers should be best entertained on flights, in their own seats. Which leads me to my final point:

Get Toddlers Their Own Seats and Bring Their Car Seats: Let’s Talk Practicality. I feared my eldest son’s first flight as a toddler. Feared it. By every logical known issue he had, or that we now know he has, he had the potential to make our lives difficult on that plane, and everyone else's, too. But we brought his car seat along. We installed the seat on the plane seat and locked him in. And he never once asked to be taken out of the seat.

Think about it: When we take car trips with our children, we do not remove them from their seats mid-trip, unless they are getting out of the car. He understood that once in his seat, he would not come out of his seat until the end of the ride! Little ones squirm off our laps all the time. Sitting on a lap means getting off the lap when you do not want to be there any longer. Car seats are far less negotiable.

Furthermore, his seat was comfortable and familiar. Soon after take-off, he fell asleep. Just as he might during a long car trip, he fell asleep during each segment of our flights. While I cannot guarantee these results with any child, I firmly believe that the familiar environment of his car seat, helped my son relax during our flights.

Mary Kraemer is an avid Disney fan and a co-owner at EscapadeAdventures, who loves to travel with her husband and children to Disney destinations as often as possible. Mary writes:

This topic is right up my alley because I live 400 miles from the Happiest Place on Earth, and cross-country from the Walt Disney World Resort…and my kids have been going to the parks regularly since they were 12 weeks old.

I’m an unapologetic believer in car seats for kids, and that applies for airplanes. Yes, it’s more expensive to get a child younger than age 2 a seat on the plane, but it’s far safer for the child, and my experience is that my kids simply understood that they needed to be buckled in while we were flying, so they were well behaved. If you think a child is safer in a vehicle going 50 mph, then they are certainly safer in a vehicle going 500 mph. Inflight turbulence happens, and no matter how tightly you hold a child, a car seat is a much safer place for them. End of soapbox announcement.

We started road trips and plane rides before there was built-in entertainment or iPads, so we’d provide our own. Now parents don’t need to be so creative as to bungee-cord a laptop to a plane tray table with a headphone jack splitter so multiple kids can listen to the same show…there’s iPads for those flights without onboard video, and individual screens on flights with it. That is a pretty good way to while away the hours while you zoom to your Disney destination.

But video isn’t always the answer, and when we traveled by air, we always had an arsenal of activities….all of which were new for the trip. Why? Because new stuff always is attractive to little kids. A new book? Great! A new coloring book? Terrific! A new set of plastic dinosaurs? Let me have them! I bought stuff at the dollar or party favor aisle that would entertain my kids, even for a little while, and I wouldn’t mind if something dropped on the floor and got lost. (Sorry, brontosaurus.)

And snacks. Oh yes, snacks. The first thing that’s really important for little ones on flights is something to swallow during take off (and landing, to a lesser degree), so their ears adjust to the increasing altitude. Without that, you are guaranteed a screaming child, and, rightfully so, because they are in pain! So, when they’re really little, a pacifier or a bottle will help with this phase, and when they’re a bit older, lollipops can be a good choice because they don’t disappear instantly. I very rarely gave my kids lollipops, so when they got them on the plane, it was a treat.

If you are traveling a long distance on a plane, be prepared to have food for your child, and don’t rely solely on the airline to provide it (even if they offer more than peanuts or pretzels). We had one cross-country trip on Southwest that made multiple stops (like a bus in the sky), where we took an entire carry-on bag filled with food because the trip was so extended. I went to Trader Joe's and bought items that could be "cooked" with hot water (such as noodles-in-a-cup), granola bars, etc. so we not only had snacks, but our breakfast and lunch, as well. Plus, we were the envy of other passengers with our strategic meals.

Of course, all of this is somewhat easier when you’re driving with your kids, because you can haul everything you want in your vehicle, and you don’t have the TSA restrictions on what you can bring. We used to take a cooler with juice boxes, fruit, and cheese, as well as other snacks for the ride. And when the kids were "of that age," we even had a small potty in the back of the van for those fateful words, “I gotta go,” which generally did not have a lot of lead time. That little potty also worked out pretty well for less-than-desirable rest stop bathrooms, too. Since I’m mentioning the "unmentionables" here, I’d suggest stocking your car with plastic sealable bags, which have saved my vehicle’s upholstery on more than one occasion from someone with an upset tummy (usually one of my kids’ friends).

When my kids were little, I let them pick out the movies that they wanted to see on the road trip, and often, while we were at Disneyland, they would get a new movie at the park, which helped while away the hours on the road. By the time each child’s selected movie was played, we had covered a lot of miles.

MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry, his wife, Diane, Samantha (15), and twins Casey and Alex (12), live on Long Island and are all major Disney and Walt Disney World fans. Chris writes:

We’ve come a long way when it comes to being able to entertain the little ones on long trips. When my brother and I were riding in the back seat of the Volvo, all we had was ourselves. When my 16-year-old daughter took her first flight at 18-months-old, I actually had this very unique little personal VHS tape player. It wasn’t all that small by today’s standards. Just imagine how convenient that was to lug around with a bag full of Barney and Mickey Mouse tapes. Thankfully these days there are all sorts of portable electronic devices that can act as babysitters for your kids on a long flight to Walt Disney World or Disneyland.

Granted the personal DVD players, iPads, iPods, Nooks, smartphones and handheld video games of the modern era can be just what you need to keep them busy and quiet on a trip. However, our best motto on car trips or flights when the kids were younger was always the familiar, “Always be prepared!” The “prepared” bag was seemingly bottomless. The idea was to be able to pull something out of thin air as soon as they got tired of the previous thing. My kid’s personal favorites were their GameBoy devices – with headphones, of course - coloring books, activity books and small Disney mini figures to play with. These were all put into their own carry-on and we always let them pack it themselves. That way, we knew they were packing a winning assortment of stuff.

After that stuff was exhausted, I would tend to have an item or two in my carry-on to surprise them with. I had a few standbys that I used to pack for them on any given flight. My guys were big on sticker books. My daughter was fond of the Disney character sticker books. My boys loved the LEGO sticker books. These are great time killers.

In the airport newsstand I would typically purchase one of those “magic pen” books for each of the kids. They’re almost always available in the airport. They make no mess, are small and compact and typically can be found with the most popular Disney characters. Think Frozen for the girls and maybe Cars or Toy Story for the boys.

The other items that I always had success with were two different “made for kids” Walt Disney World guidebooks. The first one was Birnbaum’s Walt Disney World for Kids: The Official Guide. My little ones and I read this book on many a flight to get us in the mood for what was to come. There’s enough between these covers to entertain them for a while and give them tips and things to look forward to on their upcoming magical vacation.

Better than the Official Guide is Tim Foster’s Guide to the Magic for Kids. This amazing Walt Disney World guidebook can be found online. It’s chock full of color pictures of every park and each attraction within. There are stickers, scavenger hunts, park maps and more to keep you and your little guys busy as you get ready to lose yourself in the most magical place on Earth. There’s also a section in the back with a 14-day journal for either you or your children to document the whole trip.

Both of these books make wonderful keepsakes to look back on, as well. I thoroughly enjoyed them when they were new on flights with the kids, and I equally enjoy looking back on them now and remembering all the details we jotted down and what each of my kids either wrote or had me write for them.

Chris Salata, also known as GusMan, is a Disney-inspired author and photographer, and loves to help people get the most out of their Disney vacation. Chris writes:

Air travel can be a bit tricky when it comes to families. If your family includes a younger child, there are even more logistics that come into play for the two to three hours where your entire family is going to call an airplane your home. Personally, I think planning here can wipe out a lot of vacation travel fears.

Knowing what sort of games or activities your child likes to do during a longer car trip may be able to translate to air travel as well. However, being that there are some activities that are better than others, you may want to give them a quick review to see if they make it on the short list of things to do while in the air.

Some of my families go-to activities include:

  • Sorting games using snack food. Cereals such as fruit-flavored O-shaped cereal or even multicolored fish-shaped snacks can be great fun for a little one to sort by color. You may want to keep a few extra napkins handy to play on just in case you also want to make it the onboard snack as well. Of course, there are many printable matching games that you can choose from as well. Different ones can be used for different flights to help prevent repetition.
  • Magnetic board games may work if your child is a bit older. You can get many of these games at the local dollar store and store all the pieces in the case itself. The magnetic board helps keeps things around, even if the ride is less than smooth.
  • Print out coloring sheets that include your child's favorite characters or pictures of your destination. Our little ones used colored pencils for this in order to keep messes to a minimum. Don't forget to save some coloring sheets for the flight back!
  • Lacing games. While a bit more educational in nature, sometimes the simple act of lacing a shoelace through punched holes can provide some entertainment as well as help different motor skills. There are different edu-tainment kits that are available, as well.
  • Videos, games, or music on a phone or tablet. While this is becoming a standby of sorts, having some of your toddlers favorite shows or movies on a tablet or phone may be able to entertain them for a while as well. Just make sure you download them, as streaming video at 30,000 feet is not available even for flights that do have in-flight WiFi. Also, if this is an option for you, you may want to consider carrying a portable battery pack to power the device while in the air.

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 GusMan

    Im going to say this first thing... I agree with Adrienne and others that mentioned getting a seat for your toddler.
    I know that many try to take advantage of the fact that you can save on airfare by letting them be a lap child, but there really is no substitute for safety.

    From experience, I can say that when my son was a toddler, we did it both ways. The more relaxing trip was when he had his own seat, and he was in his car seat. He was more relaxed. We were more relaxed. It was well worth the money.

  2. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by GusMan View Post
    Im going to say this first thing... I agree with Adrienne and others that mentioned getting a seat for your toddler.
    I know that many try to take advantage of the fact that you can save on airfare by letting them be a lap child, but there really is no substitute for safety.

    From experience, I can say that when my son was a toddler, we did it both ways. The more relaxing trip was when he had his own seat, and he was in his car seat. He was more relaxed. We were more relaxed. It was well worth the money.

    My daughter was 18 months when we took her to Aruba on her first flight and there was never even a question about her having her own seat. Completely agree to that. She enjoyed having her own spot anyway and so did we.

  3. By dsnyredhead

    We used the car seat on the plane (with his own seat) until Arg was around 2-3. He was generally fine until then. When we stopped using the car seat on the plane, he started having huge meltdowns on the plane. I believe most planes do not allow booster seats which Arg had switched to at that point. Arg has always had his own seat..from the infant carrier, to sitting on his own. We always take some extra snacks with us and are prepared to find him snacks as needed even if we have to pay for extra's. Most toddlers probably wouldn't have the meltdowns Arg had but that's another story.

  4. Discuss this article on MousePad.