My Disney Top 5 - Things for Tweens to do at Walt Disney Worldby Chris Barry, contributing writer
Last time I took quite a sentimental journey back to the days when my kids were in Disney strollers clutching onto their Pal Mickeys as I pushed them around the Walt Disney World theme parks. Several of you commented on how it brought you back to being at Disney with your own kids as well. And what memories they are! There's nothing quite like being with your kids at Walt Disney World when they're young and everything is still so real to them. My three young ones loved being at Disney and even though they still buy into the magic as much as their old man does, it's just a whole other world when they're young. I hate to use a worn out cliche but they really do grow up so incredibly fast. My kids started going to Walt Disney World at age four and we've gone just about every year since. Now my twin boys are 16 and my daughter is 20. Even typing those ages causes me to stop and catch my breath. Where did 16 years go?
Time inevitably and begrudgingly marches on and so must I. Following up on that last article, let's leave the young ones behind and continue along in this series. I'm counting down the best things to do for each age group when you're visiting Walt Disney World. This time, I'm taking a small leap ahead into the world of pre-teens and tweens. More specifically, we're talking about kids from age eight to 12 which, believe me, is still an awesome age to be at Walt Disney World. Back then, people used to try to tell me otherwise. The comment I used to get when the kids were that age and we were embarking on a trip was, "Haven't your kids outgrown Disney?" The emphatic answer, of course, was, "No. Not by any means." The kids never outgrew Disney. They still haven't. On the contrary, they just grew along with it and you can pretty much chart their growth as you look back at the trips we took. They literally grew up on Disney and, at least in my opinion, it was a great way to grow up.
Looking back, for us parents, our family vacations are like the pencil marks on the door frame that so many of us use to monitor our kid's growth. We ticked off the years as they all too swiftly passed us by. Take our yearly ski trips to Vermont. Those trips can mark the passage of time time in much the same way as marking the kids height on the door. Which years did the kids leave ski school behind? When did they first ride the chairlift without one of us? When did they want to go off on their own instead of skiing with Mom and Dad all day? When did they first start following Dad off the trails and into the trees? Looking back at what our kids did and when they did it on our yearly pilgrimages to Walt Disney World reflects back the same sort of timeline. When did they leave the stroller behind? What was the first "big" ride they wanted to go on? What year was Pal Mickey officially retired and left at home? When did they separate from us old folks and go off and do their own thing?
Articles like this absolutely fuel our nostalgia and our longing to keep the kids forever young in our hearts and in our minds. However, my goal is not just to look back, but to help you readers out there to plan as you look forward to your first trip with your pre-teenage kids. This article will give you a decent idea of what to expect at Walt Disney World for this particular age group, which is a tough one for sure. They're not exactly little any more but they are by no means grown up. It's a fine line that is sometimes pretty blurry. Let's bring it into focus with my Top 5 things to do for tweens at Walt Disney World.
5 – Stay in the parks later
Before you all accuse me of not being authentic, let me own up to the fact that, yes, I absolutely kept my little ones up later than normal on their early Disney trips. It's part and parcel of the whole experience isn't it? They get to see what life is like after 8:00 p.m. However, more often than not, those summer 10:00 o'clock firework shows were experienced by just me and Diane, while the young ones were fast asleep in the stroller. You can't blame them, and in all seriousness, they shouldn't have been there that late in the first place. Keeping your Disney schedule as close to their regular home schedule is a smart move if you want to avoid meltdowns and over stimulation. The older ones though, can handle being up a bit later and that fact, quite simply, extends your Walt Disney World day. Not to mention that, in this writer's humble opinion, the Disney parks come alive in a different way once the sun goes down.
Lighting and atmosphere are a carefully thought out thing by Disney's Imagineers and there's nothing like being in Tomorrowland, Pandora, or World Showcase at night. Since they're not passing out in a stroller, your tweens can start to appreciate the beauty of a Disney park at night. If they can handle being up for Extra Magic Hours during the summer, you could theoretically be in the Magic Kingdom some nights until 1:00 a.m. Between 12 and 1 you'll be blessed with almost no crowds, and you probably won't pay for it as much the next day like you certainly would with a 5-year-old.
4 – Typhoon Lagoon
We've never been ones to hit the waterparks of Walt Disney World. Our attitude has always been, "We can go to pretty cool waterparks at home like Splish Splash on Long Island or Six Flags in nearby New Jersey, so why do that when we're at Disney?" Granted those two parks can't really hold a candle to the theming and beauty of the Disney waterparks, but with a few exceptions, to us at least, a water slide is a water slide is a water slide. As a matter of fact, we never hit the Disney waterparks when the kids were little. We finally got there when they were tweens. In our opinion, the enormity of the parks and the intensity of most of the water rides are better suited for the older kids. Don't think that Disney doesn't do a great job of catering to families that come to the waterparks with little kids. They certainly do. Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon have kid-specific areas and they're wonderful. But truth be told, there's a lot more to do in these parks for the older kids. That becomes a major consideration if you're interested in getting more bang for your hard-earned buck.
View of the wave in the Typhoon Lagoon Surf Pool. By the time it reaches the shallows, it still packs a punch, so hang on to your hat. Disney says that this is the largest surf pool in North America. Photo by Bonnie Fink.
Despite being a lifelong skier and appreciating the whole winter theme of Blizzard Beach, I think Typhoon Lagoon is the waterpark to go to when you're in Walt Disney World. I've never seen anything like the Surf Pool at Typhoon Lagoon. It's tremendous and once the big waves start rolling out, it really does feel like you're spending a day at the ocean. The older kids will love it, and provided you're comfortable with them in a pool that size with pretty sizable waves, it's a lot less worrisome than being in there with the little guys.
3 – Pin Trading
All three of my kids followed in their dad's footsteps and got hooked on Disney pin trading and it really didn't kick in until they turned 10 years old. By this time, they had seen tons of Disney movies, been on lots of the attractions, and had started taking an interest in the diverse history of the parks and characters that are represented in the world of Disney pin trading. The artists that design Disney pins are well in tune with the company's legacy and this makes for some truly interesting pins. My guys each had their own goals as far as collecting pins. My boys typically aimed for completing entire series of Hidden Mickey pins on each trip. By this age they were a lot more comfortable walking up to cast members and asking to see their pins and trade with them and they seemed pretty knowledgable on the whole thing. It was fun to watch.
It's not difficult to get started. Buy a set of Disney Princess pins for the boys or something else they're not really going to want to keep and then send them off in the parks and resorts to trade them away. It's a great hobby for them to get into and something my kids all looked forward to doing on each trip during those years.
2 – Big Thunder Mountain
When my daughter was five, I was trying to get her to go on Splash Mountain with me. I was sure she'd love all the characters, their houses, the scenery, and the music. Given her age and her inherent cautiousness, she was worried about the drop. That's a shame, because it's about a 12-minute ride with so much to enjoy along the way and the drop is a very small and brief part of the experience. I bribed her with a set of princess pins and she agreed. Big mistake. She was terrified the entire time as she anticipated the big drop. "When's it going to happen Daddy? Is this it coming up? Is it in the next room?" Once it hit, and we slowly made that climb out to the taunting of those two vultures, the brevity of going over the falls was of no consolation to her as witnessed by her horrified expression in the souvenir photo. She didn't ride it again until she was 11. Lesson learned and I've never heard the end of it. The first big Disney ride that we got the kids to go on, aside from Sam's terrified plunge down Chickapin Hill was Big Thunder Mountain, right next door in Frontierland.
My kids wouldn't go near rides like Big Thunder Mountain when they were younger. Diane and I took many, many trips to the town of Tumbleweed by ourselves while the other took the kids over to nearby attractions like The Magic Carpets of Aladdin or shopping next door at Brer Rabbit's Briar Patch. Big Thunder was the official "graduation" coaster for all three of my kids once they entered their tween years, got braver and decided they wanted to see what all the fuss was all about. In my opinion, it's the perfect introduction to Disney thrill rides. No big drops. Not too crazy, but just crazy enough. Needless to say, they were hooked right away and it was the gateway to attractions like Space Mountain, Test Track and Expedition Everest.
1 – Let them be young
This may seem like a bit of contradictory advice since most entries in this list are about the kids getting older, growing up a little more and therefore experiencing newer and bigger things. But I can give you no better advice for taking your tween to Walt Disney World than to let them feel and act as young as they want to if they so choose. My boys wouldn't have been caught dead walking down the halls of their Middle School in a Mickey Mouse T-Shirt, but as they say, "When at Disney..." They were just fine with it because everyone else around them, no matter what the age was doing the same thing. When it comes to this sort of thing, tweens are at a precarious age. They're not quite grown up and they're not quite little anymore. They typically don't want to be thought of as little kids and no longer want to do things associated with their younger peers. But they might just want to act a little younger when faced with their favorite Disney princesses or characters that they were so enthralled by just a few short years ago. You can bank on it.
We found that our kids experienced their own version of nostalgia once we passed through the Walt Disney World arches. Just like me, they wanted to be a kid again, even if just for a week or so. There's nothing wrong with that, trust me. We heap more and more responsibility on our kids at younger and younger ages these days. Being in education for 20 years now, I've watched way too many kids grow up way too fast for their own good. If going to Walt Disney World helps keep your tween in touch with the inherent magic of being a little kid, then let them embrace it. Let them wear Mickey ears, go on the Winnie the Pooh ride or take a picture with their favorite character. That's why they're there, to get away from it all and to, once again, live out their childhood dreams.
It's tough to be a tween these days. It's a big transitional period. That doesn't mean that a trip to Walt Disney World can't fit into that transition. My kids had a ball on every Walt Disney World vacation we took during those formative years and I think it helped them become the young adults that they are now. My kids are kind and thoughtful and they've never lost that sense of magic and silliness that a trip to Disney can foster in you. Walt Disney World is not just for little kids. Of that much, I'm sure. On the contrary, it takes on new meaning to kids of all ages, especially if you keep going back as you grow older.
Each year my kids got something different out of Walt Disney World. When they were little, they were wrapped up in the magic. As they got older, they learned new things and tested their boundaries but, thankfully, they never lost sight of that special feeling that they experienced when they were 4 and 5-years-old. It's still a part of them today and I imagine it always will be. So, no, my kids didn't outgrow Disney when they were 10, 11 and 12 and yours don't have to either. Do yourself a favor and keep taking them.
That's all for this time. As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below, let me hear your thoughts on bringing tweens to Walt Disney World and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.