My Disney Top 5 - Memories of my Kids at Walt Disney Worldby Chris Barry, contributing writer
Welcome back to another Disney Top 5. I hope everyone out there is having an awesome summer so far.
When I sat down to write this Top 5, I pored through the plethora of ideas that I have stored up and I wasn't quite sure which direction I wanted to go. The great thing about writing articles on Walt Disney World is that there always seems to be an endless amount of source material to choose from. I could go with parks, resorts, attractions, locations, restaurants, music, parades, fireworks, characters and so, so much more. One thing, however, came into clear focus this particular time around. The date that this article is supposed to run is July 15, 2022. That date happens to be my twin boys, Alex and Casey's 20th birthday. While I certainly can't wait to celebrate that momentous occasion with them and with the rest of my family, the truth rears its ugly head; my kids really aren't kids anymore. Our daughter is 23, so I've already hit this milestone once, but this one is hitting me a little bit harder because…well, that's it…in a few days, we won't have teenagers anymore. It's the end of an era for this clan and I'm not so sure how to deal with it.
Now, before I get too melancholy, I have to paint you an accurate picture of me and my surroundings at this very moment. As I write this, I'm wearing a Harry Potter Expecto Patronum T-shirt, a Mickey Mouse watch and I'm quite honestly surrounded by Disney collectibles. So, the notion of being "too old" has never really sat well with me. I don't really see myself ever changing and I think I've instilled that "stay young" mentality into my kids. Still, facts are facts. My daughter and my sons are still young and will still feel young, but they'll never be little kids again and that's a hard pill to swallow. For those of you out there who are younger than I am and have young children, it's not cliche; they grow up in a blink. Sometimes Diane and I just can't believe where the last 20 years has gone.
So, as I sit here feeling a little on the older side, I thought I'd take a moment and revisit some of the most memorable, and indeed, magical moments from my kid's childhood. Anyone that has taken children to Disney knows that it has pretty much become a rite of passage for American kids. Just about every family will do so if they are able to. However, not every family will return every year, like we happily and enthusiastically did. Disney became a huge part of our life and it's given us too many memories to count. Our trips to Walt Disney World started in 2003 when my daughter was 4. The boys were too young, and we decided that they would eventually have their turn, but that first trip was just the three of us. That happened three years in a row. Once the boys were turning 4, we brought them along and so it began. Not counting the last two ridiculous pandemic years, there has pretty much been a Disney trip every year since 2003. So, what were my favorite moments out of all those many, many years? Let's check out my Top 5 memories of my kids at Walt Disney World. Maybe you've had similar moments, or maybe you're just starting off your journey with your own children and need some ideas of things to do. I'm hoping that even those of you without children can appreciate these memories.
5 - Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party, Fall 2019
This was a special "boys only" trip that my sons and I took, one of two guys trips that Alex, Casey and I took over the years. My daughter was away at college. My wife was booked to run the Berlin Marathon with her best friend and a team of other runners and as it worked out, the boys and I had a four-day Jewish holiday weekend off from school. It was a no-brainer for me. I booked a long weekend at Port Orleans Riverside and the three of us were off. Since it was fall, there was a Halloween party scheduled for the Magic Kingdom on our last night there, so I made sure to get us some tickets. These parties have gotten pricier and pricier as the years have gone on and you may question whether it's worth it or not to attend. Well, we're booked for a week next month in August, and they're starting the party early this year. I have some trepidation about going to a Halloween party on a Friday night in August but I bought tickets already, so I guess you have my answer. It's always worth the effort.
The great thing I remember about this particular night was that the three of us were on some sort of perfect matching wavelength with each other. The Halloween party is good for a few things. The first being characters. From day one, my kids were always obsessed with meeting the Disney characters. How many lines have I waited on with them clutching autograph books, my camera in hand? Too many to even list. Considering the boys were 17 at this time, we didn't need to wait in any lines, but we made sure to spot every single one of the unique characters that Disney drags out for these special parties and we got our photo with just a few of them. It was a quest reminiscent of the old days when they were little except no waiting on long lines! We had a great time tracking them all down.
The other thing that's awesome about these parties is that you have the chance of being in the Magic Kingdom for 5 hours at night with not too many people on line for the attractions. Trick or treating, the parade, the special fireworks and the character meet and greets take up most guests time on these nights. So, we literally ran to just about every attraction we wanted to with minimal wait. We had a blast together ticking off ride after ride. We stayed well after midnight and made it home to the resort exhausted, but we knew we just had a one of a kind special night with each other.
4 - Epcot's World Showcase Late at Night, Fall 2014
I'm traveling back another 5 years to another long fall weekend. Once again, the stars aligned and the Jewish faith handed us another 4 day weekend off from school, so we did the natural thing and booked a stay at The Yacht Club with another family of intrepid Disney fans. We had adjoining rooms with our favorite travel companions, and we were off again on another Disney adventure. Now, on that particular trip my daughter Samantha was 15. Sam got Disney from day one on our first trip in 2003 and her passion for the place hadn't waned into her teenage years, nor did my sons for that matter. Actually, none of them have grown out of Disney, but I digress.
On our last night there, we had plans to be at Epcot for Illuminations and then Evening Extra Magic Hours. I don't know about you all, but staying in a Disney park, especially Epcot, until midnight or later is one of the best things you can possibly do. I'm a night owl to begin with, so the later the better for me. On this particular night, it was well after Illuminations. We were running out of steam close to 12 midnight and were all headed back to the Yacht Club through the International Gateway. Right around Canada, I mention to Sam that we didn't get onto Maelstrom in Norway and it was scheduled to close forever shortly to be replaced by Anna, Elsa and Frozen. I could tell by the look in her eye, that we were going to bypass the Gateway, and we were definitely going to keep walking around World Showcase all the way back to Norway for one last ride "back, back, over the falls." Everyone else said, "Goodnight!" and Sam and I kept going. We made it into the queue with about 5 minutes to spare before they closed for the night. The line was quite long because, once again, it was shutting down forever in a matter of days. We always liked this ride, the polar bear, the trolls, the small drops, etc. But it was afterwards where the magic really happened.
One of the best kept secrets about Disney is that you don't have to leave when the parks close. You typically have about an hour to make your way out to the exit. When we came out of Maelstrom that night it was literally the few people left from that ride and that was it. If you know the layout of World Showcase, you know that to get from Norway to the International Gateway we had to go through 7 of the 11 countries just to get there. That night, Sam and I slowly…and I mean ever so slowly…made our way around World Showcase weaving in and out of pavilions by ourselves taking photos the whole way. And when I say by ourselves, I mean we did not see another guest from China to France…not one. We literally had World Showcase to ourselves and the occasional cast member. It really was a magical 30-40 minutes or so, one of my favorite Disney memories of all time.
3 - Caribbean Beach Resort Night, Summer 2012
I've long been a proponent of changing plans and shifting gears while you're on a Walt Disney World vacation, something that Disney makes harder and harder as they seem to insist that you plan out every minute of your trip ahead of time. I'm not saying you can't have a perfectly magical Disney experience if you plan everything out; you certainly can. But on more than one occasion, our families ability to cancel plans and shift gears have produced some of our favorite vacation moments. One such moment happened way back in 2012. My wife and daughter had a trip to Germany planned with my wife's father. They were going to head back to his hometown and explore my mother-in-law's hometown as well. It was going to be a special trip for those two. I easily decided that if they were headed out of the country for 10 days, then the boys and I had to go to Disney at the same time. Why stay home when Walt Disney World calls? 2 nights at the Nickelodeon Hotel and 8 nights at Caribbean Beach was the plan, and we had an incredible time.
One late afternoon, we were taking our daily cooling-off swim at the resort pool. It was one of those hot sweltering August days at Disney when the pool is your best friend. The plan was to swim, then head back to the room, shower and change, and spend the night at the Magic Kingdom seeing the parade and the fireworks and hitting up all our favorites. As we were walking out of the pool area, I saw that they were setting up the inflatable movie screen for movie night. We were headed across the bridge back to our room in Jamaica. The sun was starting to set. The sky looked amazing. I turned to the boys and asked them if they wanted to stay at the pool, order a pizza for dinner and watch Lilo and Stitch on the big screen instead of going to the Magic Kingdom. They immediately turned around and started running back to the pool. Sure, I paid for park tickets, but I also paid for the resort experience and that night we were going to get the best use out of the beautiful Caribbean Beach Resort. What happened next? I had one of the best nights with my kids on any trip. We swam in the pools. We sat in the hot tub. We ate pizza and watched Lilo and Stitch and yes, I got extremely choked up with the whole, "'Ohana means family" vibe that was happening right then and there. We had ice cream sundaes out by the pool. Basically, we had an amazing night and it was a sudden change of plans that sparked it all. I'm sure we would have had a great night at the Magic Kingdom, but this was a special night with just me and my boys that I'll always treasure.
2 - Mary Poppins at Cinderella's Royal Table, Summer 2004
August of 2004 brought my wife, daughter and I back to Walt Disney World for a nice long 9 day trip at Port Orleans French Quarter. This was my daughter's second trip there. Her first trip, the previous summer, had her pretty much hooked from the get go. For that matter, so were we. Little did we know when we booked this trip that Hurricane Charley would come barreling right through Disney in the middle of our stay. That's a whole other discussion all its own. One of the positives, if you could call it that, about the hurricane was that for a few days the parks were substantially less crowded. Disney opened the following day around 11 or so and were pretty much business as usual, minus the crowds. On one of our Disney bus rides to and from the parks, we struck up a conversation with a mom and her daughter who was about the same age as Samantha. She gave us a solid tip that she was able to walk right up to Cinderella's Royal Table and score a walk-in reservation, something completely unheard of back then. Enough people didn't make it to the resort due storm cancellations of flights and travel plans that there were plenty of openings.
The next morning, we did the same and were walked right in to a table. Needless to say, 5 year old Sam and a room full of princesses was a big hit. She had the time of her life and so did her parents watching her. And then something surprising happened. Mary Poppins walked over for her turn at our table and to our shock, little Sammy told her that she, "…was her favorite princess!" At that point, I'm pretty sure that Sam had never seen the film, but for some reason, Mary was her favorite that day. I'm guessing that being surrounded by the likes of Belle, Cinderella and Ariel all day, Mary Poppins hadn't frequently been told she was the favorite. This little sentence from this little 5 year old made this particular Mary turn up the Mary Poppins to 11. They talked and talked and looked through Sam's coloring book and her autograph book. Who knows what they were saying to each other? I have it all on video somewhere. Mary spent so much time with Sam that I think she threw a little kink into the princess rotation, but who cares? Diane and I were basking in the look on our little girl's face as she was soaking in all the Mary Poppins she could handle and was loving every minute of it.
About 30 minutes later, we were in the line for Snow White's Scary Adventure, when Mary Poppins and a penguin come walking out of Cinderella Castle headed for the carousel. Mary spotted Sam waving at her from the line and she promptly made a slight detour and said something to the likes of, "Oh dear, there's Samantha. I just had breakfast with Samantha! Enjoy your day, princess!" Once again, child beaming, parents beaming even brighter if that was possible. It's these kinds of moments that show you just how wonderful the cast members can be and what an impact they can have on a family's day.
By the way, years later, I wrote about this incident in a Top 5 Character Experiences article and received this email;
Hi - That's me as Mary Poppins in your "Top 5 Character Experiences at Walt Disney World"/Aug. 6, 2010, article. A friend of mine recognized me in the article and sent it to me. I am so pleased that after all of this time, you still remember the character experience. As a performer, that's why we did what we did - to give magical memories to all of the guests. And I'm thrilled that even now, it's still a good memory. Tell Samantha that Mary said "Hello and to have a Supercalifragelisticexpialidocious day!"
And yes, it's hysterical that her name is actually Julie!
1 - First Trips, Summer 2003 & Summer 2006
After almost 20 years of taking family trips to Walt Disney World, so many things stand out, but it all goes back to the first trips we ever spent together down there with the kids. Our first trip with Samantha at 4 years old, as mentioned above, was a brief stay, 5 days at the Caribbean Beach. Three years later, after Diane and I took Sam three summers in a row, it was time for our twin boys, Casey and Alex, to have their first trip – 10 whole days at Riverside, complete with a set of grandparents joining us for the second half.
That first trip in 2003 was the most magical because it was my first trip as well. My wife had gone once to Walt Disney World and once to Disneyland in her childhood. Both were brief stops and I guess her family didn't latch on the way we did, because she hadn't been back in years. Watching Disney unfold through our daughter's eyes was truly incredible. She bought it all right away. Cinderella lived in that castle. Mickey and Minnie really lived back in Toontown in their houses and Figment lived in that upside down house of his over in Epcot. She believed in the magic right away and to watch that happen in your child…well it was transformative. It put us a course as parents that we're still on to this day because we bought into the magic just as much as she did.
Our first ride in 2003 was The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and she loved it. Three years later, when we brought our boys for their first trip, we brought them right back to Fantasyland. They were big Pooh fans so that was a no-brainer. Their first response on Winnie the Pooh? Terror! I think it was all too realistic for them. Owl's house was shaking! Pooh was floating into the air! The Heffalumps and Woozles were going to get them! I think they didn't know what to expect and it was a sensory overload. We dialed back and took them on "it's a small world" and Peter Pan, and they soon began to realize that, "OK…these things aren't going to jump out and hurt us…they're actually quite fun." Thank God they turned and bought into the magic though otherwise it would have been an awfully long 10 days. And buy into it they did, wholeheartedly. Watching them over those 10 days fall in love with the place and get the magic was so rewarding for us as a family. We found something that we all loved to do together, and we got to watch them grown into it together. The first trips are the best of all.
Obviously, there are way too many to mention and leaving so many off of this list wasn't an easy thing to do. How many first time moments were there? How many other awesome resort nights were there? How about that hysterical night when we rented one of those surrey bikes on the Boardwalk, put the 5 year old twin boys in the front facing basket seat and listened to them scream their heads off as we rode down the hill from the bridge towards the Yacht Club. I could go on and on and so could my wife and so could the kids themselves. But these are the moments that always stand out to me.
So, yeah…I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by the fact that my kids are, in fact, not kids anymore. It happened too fast. I don't think I'd want to go back to baby days with diapers and crying at night and all that. But I'd go back to Sammy in her princess dresses and the boys dragging around their Pooh and Goofy stuffed animals in a hot second, even if just for a day or an hour. Having a family has been the greatest adventure of my life and spending time together whether it's at the lake or the beach or the ski slopes or careening around on Big Thunder Mountain…it's all been magical. The best part of it all? It's far from over. The Disney trip countdown on my phone says only 33 more days until I'm back at Walt Disney World with the family in tow again. Doesn't matter if they're 4 or 20 or 24, we'll be there together and it'll be as magical as it ever was.
That's all for this time. As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below to share your thoughts, stay safe and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.