My Disney Top 5 - Things for Little Kids to do at Walt Disney Worldby Chris Barry, contributing writer
If you're as big a Walt Disney World fan as I am and head down there on a relatively regular basis, you've had the following conversation with co-workers, family members or friends who we'll refer to as "the uninitiated." You say you're headed down to Walt Disney World for vacation. The "uninitiated" will inevitably say, "Again?" And you have to say with an unnecessary apologetic tone, "Yes, again." The next words out of their mouths depend on how old your kids are. If you have kids older than 10, you might get the classic, "Aren't the kids done with Disney?" I won't even get into what they'll say to you if you don't have any kids. They look at you like you've opted to have root canal every day of your vacation. They can't help it. They're the uninitiated. They don't know what we know.
I had a strikingly similar conversation like this with some coworkers recently. One of them was planning an upcoming summer pilgrimage to the most magical place on Earth with their young kids. I was chiming in with tales from my trip this past summer with my trio of teenage kids. And that other coworker—you know the one—had to step into our Disney bubble with his comments just like the ones I noted above. And there we were, defending our positions on going to Walt Disney World yet again, as if we were being charged with committing some sort of heinous "vacation crimes."
I'll never understand that mentality. My best friend Robert used to go to Las Vegas every year for Thanksgiving with his wife Paula. Personally, I couldn't imagine being in Vegas for Thanksgiving, but they loved to go, so more power to them. I would never question their choice nor chastise them for it. My in-laws had a timeshare in Aruba for years and would typically go the same week in February each year. They probably did this for a decade straight. I would never even think of questioning them. We ski at the same resort in Vermont each year, typically several weekends out of the season. Does anybody ever question me on our choice of ski resort? "You're going to Mount Snow again?" Never. So, why do so many people feel they can do so with Walt Disney World?
We went when our kids were little. We went when they were a bit older. We've taken them as teenagers. My daughter turned 20 last month and shows no signs of diminished interest when it comes to going back to Walt Disney World. And why should she? It shouldn't come to an end when you hit a certain age. My wife and I have gone by ourselves with no kids in tow at all. And, perish the thought, I actually never went to Walt Disney World as a child. I didn't hit the Magic Kingdom until I was in my early 30s. That conversation with my coworkers got me to thinking about my next series of articles here on MousePlanet. I thought it would be a good idea to break things down according to age groups just to show to the uninitiated what we Disney fans have known all along—that there's something for everyone at Disney, no matter what age you may be. Let's start off young with my Top 5 things to do for the little ones at Walt Disney World.
This is essentially an opinion column and it's just my opinion that kids around the age of three or four are best suited to begin their Walt Disney World journeys. You can certainly take younger children, and I've been there with younger kids that were obviously having an amazing time, but my kids all started at around four.
5 – The Boneyard at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Be prepared. If you head into DinoLand at Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World with young kids, you will end up in the massive playground and dig site that is The Boneyard—and you may never leave. It's hard to blame a kid for wanting to spend hours in this place. I'm diminishing The Boneyard by referring to it as a playground, but in essence that's just what it is—a huge playground. There are ropes to climb, slides to slide down, passages and caves to explore, bridges to pass over, and of course, a giant sandbox to dig around in for "fossils." Leave it to Disney's Imagineers to come up with sand that doesn't cling to you or get stuck in your shoes.
The Boneyard sucks in kids and keeps them occupied for a long time as parents chase them up and down the multiple levels or finally get some time off their feet watching them burrow around in the dig site. It's beautifully themed and there's plenty to look at for both the kids and the adults. Keep in mind that despite having plenty of shade, The Boneyard can get pretty hot during the steamy Orlando summers. There are fans blowing and several water fountains to keep your little paleontologists hydrated, so take advantage of them to keep cool. The Boneyard was a must for all three of my kids. Considering how much time we spent in there, I can truly say I know every nook and cranny of the place.
4 – The Afternoon Parade at the Magic Kingdom
Boy did my kids love the parades at Disney. The thing they loved most was that this was their best opportunity to see a ton of characters all at once. There's nothing like being with your little ones along the parade route and having them wave so enthusiastically at the characters desperately hoping for their favorite to look at them and wave back from a float or better yet, have a walking character stop and pay them some attention. Talk about seeing a face light up.
Those were some of my favorite moments at Disney when the kids were little. Back then we had several choices of parades throughout the resort. There were parades in the afternoon and nighttime at the Magic Kingdom. The Studios had Stars and Motorcars and then Pixar Pals: Countdown to Fun. Animal Kingdom had an awesome parade, Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade. My kids never got to see the Tapestry of Nations at Epcot and neither did I actually. Today the only full-blown parade running is Festival of Fantasy at the Magic Kingdom. My best advice is to grab a seat on one of the porches in Frontierland to watch the parade. There crowds are much smaller than on Main Street, and you might luck out with a little shade.
3 – Character Dining
Following up on character sightings in the parades, I'll move right on to the best way to meet the little ones' favorites and actually get to spend a little time with them. There are lots of great choices for character dining throughout the resort, and this was something that had to happen several times on each trip we made. You can't beat the look on your kid's face when Mickey, Pooh, or their favorite Disney princess comes up to them and says hello at your table. Autograph books come out, cameras snap away, and your little one has a special moment that they will literally never forget. If you have Pooh fans, like we did (and still do), then head to the Magic Kingdom's Crystal Palace.
If Mickey and the Fab Five are more your kid's speed, then it's hard to beat Chef Mickey's.
And if your little princess wants to meet a whole bunch of princesses there's no better place than Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in Epcot's Norway pavilion.
I'll also give special kudos to breakfast at 1900 Park Faire at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort for its eclectic mix of characters.
Book a late breakfast around 11:00 am—the place empties out and you can have lots of extra character time since the restaurant doesn't serve lunch. Our character meals were all very special times; my wife and I cherish those moments and I imagine the kids do too.
2 – The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh at the Magic Kingdom
There are many rides and attractions that are perfect for the littlest travelers at Walt Disney World. Peter Pan's Flight, Under the Sea–Journey of the Little Mermaid, Dumbo, and it's a small world at the Magic Kingdom all quickly come to mind. For our kids, there was no bigger thrill than hopping into that honeypot and entering the world of Winnie the Pooh. Pooh and his Hundred Acre Wood pals were pretty huge in this house. They watched his movies and TV shows. They played with Pooh toys and wore him on just about every article of clothing at one point or another. It was a no-brainer that this Fantasyland attraction was the very first one that each of our three kids experienced at Walt Disney World. To this day, it's still a favorite.
I will say that upon my son's first visit, we headed straight back to Fantasyland on the very first morning to ride with Pooh and his friends just as we had done with our daughter several years before. Our boys had just turned four a few weeks before our trip. They eagerly boarded the ride and then as soon as we went through the doors into Owl's shaking house, they freaked out. I think it was a sensory overload that they didn't expect. I imagine it was playing out like this inside of their heads, "What's happening to Owl's house? Is it falling apart? Tigger's much bigger than I thought! Are the Heffalumps and Woozles going to get me? Will we be washed away by the rain, rain, rain?" They didn't know what to expect and were simply terrified at first. Once we went on Peter Pan and it's a small world, they realized that they were surviving these rides and nothing was really going to happen to them or their favorite characters. They wanted back on Winnie the Pooh and pretty much never wanted to leave.
1 – The Resort Pool
You can't possibly underestimate just how important the pool is to a little kid's Disney trip—at least it was to our kids. You need to abandon the notion that, "We came all the way to Walt Disney World, spent all this money, and are surrounded by so many unique and exciting attractions, how could we just spend time in the pool?" In essence, that sounds right. But the little guys don't feel that way. Learn to embrace that and you will be very glad that you did. If you're there in the warmer months, the hotel pool break is possibly the most essential piece of your day.
Leave the hot, crowded, overstimulating parks behind during the peak midday sun and head back to your pool. The Disney resort pools are all pretty much amazing. Our favorite pool is Stormalong Bay at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resort. It's quite possibly the best pool complex anywhere at any hotel, not just at Walt Disney World.
My kids would also give major thumbs up to the Fuentes del Morro Pool at Caribbean Beach, Ol' Man Island at Port Orleans Riverside, and the beautiful Lava Pool at the Polynesian. Those are my favorites as well, but I have to say, the kids were just as happy spending time in the simple quiet pools at the resorts as well. Pool time is a guaranteed magical time on your Walt Disney World vacation, and our time in the resort pools have produced some of our happiest memories with the kids over the years. Don't underestimate the pools and don't count them out on your next trip with your little ones.
There are so many other directions I could have gone with for this list. My kids loved so many different things at Walt Disney World. My daughter loved the animals at Animal Kingdom. My sons loved running around on Tom Sawyer's Island at the Magic Kingdom. All the kids loved the live shows featuring their favorite characters, and we all loved riding around Tomorrowland in the PeopleMover several times on each trip, sometimes twice in one day. But these were the things that stand out in my head most when it comes to the most magical memories from when the kids were little.
As much as I still love being at Walt Disney World with my teenage boys and now 20-year-old daughter, I do miss pushing them around in their Disney strollers, their favorite stuffed Pooh or Mickey clutched tightly in their hands, listening to their chatter as we toured the parks. What an amazing world for them to be experiencing when they're that little and everything around is real to them. Cinderella lived in that castle. Mickey and Minnie really used to live in their houses back in Toontown. That was the real Buzz and Woody we just saw at Disney's Hollywood Studios.
Years ago, when I read Disney War by James B. Stewart, the notion of just how real and magical Walt Disney World is for a little kid really came to life. The author, after being granted unprecedented access to the company to write his book, put on the Goofy suit for a shift at the Magic Kingdom. He said he really never understood the whole Disney thing until he looked down at the sight of a little boy running up to him, arms open wide and he realized that he was no longer who he was. To that little starry-eyed boy, he was Goofy and suddenly the magic of what it's like to be that little boy and feel that way was opened up to him; from that moment on, he understood Disney.
It's hard to beat Walt Disney World as a young child, but next time, we'll grow up a little and check out what the older kids like best. Until then, as always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below, share your thoughts on my list or let me know what your little ones loved most and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.