Bridging the Gap: Keeping Little Kids Entertained

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer

Juggling multiple age groups on Disney theme park vacations, families must, at times, keep younger children occupied while the older children and adults enjoy the faster "big kid rides." Parents often find themselves having to bridge the age gap between younger and older children. Disney offers Rider Switch passes for many attractions, to help negotiate situations like these. With the Rider Switch Pass, a family approaches the attraction together. The Cast Member stationed at the attraction entrance greets the family and gives the adult who is staying off the ride a pass to return later. But what should that adult do with the young children while the rest of the group rides the attraction? This week, we asked the Parenting Panel: How do you engage your younger child while the older one (or the adults) ride the "big" rides?

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 4 and 6. Jen writes:

If you have more than one kid and you've visited Disney parks, you've probably encountered the situation where one kid is tall enough to ride something and the other one isn't. Even when all the kids are big enough, sometimes someone just doesn't want to ride because it's too scary or too fast or they're just not in the mood. My family is a good example, with a 48-inch tall 6-year-old boy who loves roller coasters, and a just-barely-40-inch tall 4-year-old girl who isn't too thrilled with the fast rides yet. Though we occasionally visit other theme parks, the large variety of things to do as a family with smaller kids is something that keeps us coming back to Disneyland. What to do with the younger kid(s) while the older ones are on "big kid rides"? There are so many possibilities.

Ride something else. Percentage-wise, few Disneyland rides are actually height restricted. My daughter has favorite rides close to just about every roller coaster in the parks. If the big kids are riding California Screamin', take the little one on King Triton's Carousel. Splash Mountain is a favorite ride for my son and I, so my husband is usually the lucky one to take our daughter on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Space Mountain and Star Tours are right next to Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, the Astro Orbiter, and Autopia.

King Triton's Carousel at Disney California Adventure offers a little kid-friendly ride near the big kid ride, California Screamin'. With a typically short line, little ones might even be able to ride the carousel several times while the rest of the family rides the roller coaster once. Photo by Adrienne Krock.

Visit a character. Our daughter currently loves all the characters and will happily go see a Disney friend while her brother rides something "too fast" for her. She'll visit anyone from the princesses at the Fantasy Faire to Chewbacca in Star Wars Launch Bay to Lightning and Mater in Cars Land.

Go to a non-riding attraction. When I asked my daughter what her favorite thing is to do while her big brother rides roller coasters, she immediately answered "Goofy's house!" Tarzan's Treehouse, Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, and, yes, Goofy's Bounce House are all great places for little kids to burn off energy while waiting for the rest of the group.

Split a day. On a longer trip, why not set aside a day or an afternoon for the older kids to ride "big kid rides" with one grownup, while another does something special with the little ones? We did this on a recent trip to the Walt Disney World Resort and both our kids said it was one of their favorite days. My husband and son spent the afternoon at Hollywood Studios with Fastpasses for Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, Star Tours, and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Meanwhile, my daughter and I dressed up and attended afternoon tea at the Garden View Tea Room at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. Each kid had a special time where they did something just for them, and the grownups had a great time, too.

Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock's three boys are now 17, 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:

Kids come in a variety of ages and sizes; my biggest kid is my now 46-year-old husband. With three children, we found ourselves occasionally splitting up so that part of our family could ride the "big kid" rides during our Disney theme park trips. Now, to be honest, many times when our children were too short or too young for the bigger and faster rides, we skipped them altogether. My husband and I enjoyed the time with our kids enough without needing to ride the fast rides every time we visited the parks. I remember visiting Disneyland without any other adult, just me and my three boys. They knew that if I had no help, the big boys could not ride the faster rides because I had to stay behind with younger brother. The good news is this: With the large number of attractions in the Disney theme parks, younger guests can ride all but only a small fraction of the attractions.

The small slides in Redwood Creek Challenge Trail at Disney California Adventure appeal to younger guests. The Redwood Creek area also features net ladders, bridges and more. Photo by Adrienne Krock.

Here are a few of my suggestions for keeping the little ones entertained while the rest of the family rides the big kid attractions:

Get a snack, or a meal. Take your little ones to find a snack for the family. You can track down a nearby snack, wait in line while the big kids ride, and deliver the snack to the rest of the family as they exit their ride. Make good use of the time they're riding to take care of a little business for the family.

Find a play area or a walk-through attraction. Chances are, if you find yourself near a big attraction, there will also be a play area nearby. At Disneyland, near Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, there's Tarzan's Treehouse. At Walt Disney World's Epcot park, the big attractions—Test Track and Mission: Space—aren't too far away in Future World from numerous activity areas that younger children can enjoy while the big kids ride, including one of my family’s favorites, Club Cool. My sons love tasting the sodas from around the world.

Plan the big kid rides for naptime or other down time. Try to plan the big kid attractions to coincide with the little ones' nap times. Or if the little one falls asleep, grab the chance to ride a big kid ride. This works especially well with infants and toddlers who might need trips to the Child Care Centers for longer potty breaks or if they're still young enough to nurse or take a bottle.

Get a sitter or bring one along. At the Walt Disney World Resort, there are several children's activity centers for those 3 to 12 who are staying at any of the Disney resorts. At the Disney's Grand Californian Resort and Spa, Pinocchio's Workshop welcomes children, ages 5 to 12 years, whose parents are guests at one of the Disneyland Resort hotels, or with reservations at Napa Rose or the Mandara Spa. Many children enjoy their time at the centers, away from their parents, as much as they enjoy the parks. During our family trip to Walt Disney World, our children enjoyed the special attention of the center staff and the games they played. Many parents leave their children at the centers while the parents enjoy a special dinner, but they can also go enjoy big kid rides in the parks. Having a family friend or an aunt, uncle or grandparent along on the trip can help in these situations, too. Sometimes special attention from an adult other than mom or dad can be just the distraction and entertainment the little ones need.

The Wilderness Explorer Activity Map provides activities for guests to complete at the Redwood Challenge Trail at Disney California Adventure. Photo by Adrienne Krock

Streetmosphere. Disney fills their theme parks with entertainment. Use your Entertainment Times Guide to find when and where various musical groups and comedy troupes will be performing. The parks offer these guides at the entrances, at various kiosks around the parks, and, often times, cast members have extra available for guests who ask for one. These locations often have benches or dining tables where families can sit and enjoy the entertainment. Little ones often enjoy dancing along to the music or interacting with the players.

Don't do anything in particular. Let me be brutally honest: I have a hard time with this topic. My first rule of planning my family trips anywhere, but especially to Disney destinations, is simply: Plan but don't overplan. We rarely storm parks. That strategy stresses me out too much and my children do not respond well to being tired and grumpy. Before we go on a trip, we set our expectations for what we must see and do and what we can skip over. We also build in time to take breaks and relax. What if you just sat on a bench and watched the world go by while the rest of the family rode the big kid attractions? Talk to your little ones about what you're seeing. Take time to just catch your breath and relax. In preparing to publish this article, I made a quick trip to the Disneyland Resort. As of 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, having been in the parks for only one hour, I counted at least four young children crying, whining or screaming. We all get a little grumpy and sometimes the best thing we can do is stop and take a break. Take time to just sit and enjoy the moment wherever you are. There's plenty to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste in all of the Disney theme parks. Maybe you could just do that?

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:

During my first couple of Disney trips, we were a family of three. My daughter was 8 years old and our touring plans revolved around what she liked and disliked. Fortunately, the list of dislikes was not very lengthy and we got to do quite a bit during those first trips. My son entered the picture when my daughter was nearly 10, which certainly changed the way we toured, but it also meant seeing a lot of things differently. Keep in mind, I had something of a "we have to stick together" mindset, so having a little one really caused me to think in a new way. After all, I did not want any of us to be bored, but I had to understand that we would be splitting up a bit from time to time.

Use the Entertainment Times Guides! The Disney theme park guides conveniently list entertainment options, times and locations. Photo by Adrienne Krock.

During my son's stroller days, my wife and I took advantage of some alone time with him. While one of us would do some sort of big attraction with my daughter, we had plans in our back pocket where the other would do something neat with our son. Granted, this require a bit of planning and foresight as to what can be done in a general area without having to go to the extreme end of the park. We considered nearby alternative attractions, such as a ride on the Peoplemover while the other pair was going on Space Mountain. Maybe it was getting a snack and a drink while the others were riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. My son has been known to nap during Ellen's Energy Adventure while my daughter rode Mission: Space a number of times. (Record is seven times in a row during such an arrangement.)

As my son got a bit older, yet still not old enough or tall enough to conquer the bigger rides, we would do some of the more interactive attractions that are suitable for all ages. Once again, we would split up and maybe go over to the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids play area at Disney's Hollywood Studios or the Boneyard at Disney's Animal Kingdom while the others were doing their own thing. My wife would also take time with him to get character pictures taken, as well. We would explore different things that we might have passed up before, such as the Imagination Pavilion, only to have something like it turn out to be one of our favorite spots to meet up and cool down.

There is something of a method when it comes to working out the details. The key thing is that we wanted our son to feel just as much as part of the action as his big sister. They both got to do things they wanted to do, without either of us parents feeling like we were missing out. We planned for those times apart and tried to see what would be a good alternative. That planning gave us an edge so that we were not scrambling for ideas when it was time to put them in place. Sure, there may have been a trip or two where I didn't get to ride a "must do" attraction, but that was fine by me.

That time apart may seem a bit counter-intuitive for a family vacation. But what it also allowed us to do was to see different things in order to regroup and share in those first-time experiences. We would talk about them, share some pictures, and even figure out if it would be something that we could do as a family in the near future. Eventually, we didn't see the separation as a negative of our family vacation. We saw it as a way to plan out future trips, as well. Believe me, when you take that first family picture all riding Space Mountain together, you know you've reached yet another Disney milestone.

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!