When Walt Disney built Disneyland, his idea was wild: that amusement parks didn't just have to be for kids. They could be places where parents and their children could have fun together. That's still true of Disney Parks today, where children of all ages can explore, wonder, and encounter their favorite Disney characters.
But while brochures will have you believe that Disney Parks vacations are easy breezy experiences, it's not always the case! Orlando is hot, humid, and crowded, and the days can be very long for young ones So before you set off on a Disney Parks vacation, consider some of the points we've made below.
Once you've read through what we have to say, tell us in the comments about your experiences. What do you think is the best age to bring kids to Disney Parks, and what advice have you learned over the years? Were we totally off track with any of the advice that we've given here, or do you think we hit the nail on the head with some great things to consider before your family vacation?
1. EH HEM. Keep it Realistic
Commercials, vacation-planning DVDs, and your imagination would have you believe that your days will be blissful, enchanted, memory-making occasions of meeting characters and non-stop attractions – each of which delighting and hypnotizing your child into utter bliss.
We hate to break it to you, but Disney Parks do not have a soothing, calming effect on children, crafting them into idealized versions of their normal selves. Quite the contrary, you’re exposing your child to pure chaos in its rawest form: waiting in lines, pounding heat, unexpected ride closures, meandering through crowds, non-stop action that would make even the most hyper child’s eyes water… And that’s not even including “bathroom emergencies” at all the wrong times, temper tantrums over dinner, grumpiness, and exhaustion. To put it another way, a Disney Parks vacation will stress your child out, not turn him into an angel! And that's okay! Just be ready for it, and don't feel disappointed if, after enduring a temper tantrum, your family doesn't quite feel like the perfect ones in the brochures!
Your child will have a marvelous time at DIsney Parks no matter their age, period. And your memories will likely be great ones. But remember that your child is still a child. He or she will pout, and you might suddenly wish your child could understand what a sacrifice you made to make this day happen… and he dares to pout? It’s momentarily frustrating! So for your own sanity, prepare yourself for the truth of setting a child loose in a Disney Park! Be ready for a case of a grumpy gills, even in the happiest place on Earth!
2. HMM… Is My Child The Right Age?
This is probably the most commonly asked question when planning a trip to Disney Parks. Truthfully, any age will enjoy a Disney Parks vacation, from 9 months to 99 years. There is no bad age to visit Disney Parks. However, conventional and anecdotal wisdom suggests that the best age to bring a child to Disney Parks is between five and seven. At that age, children will be old enough to understand, appreciate and remember what they see at Disney Parks, but young enough to still believe that what they’re seeing is real. They see the pretty woman with red hair who says she’s Ariel, so she is. Why wouldn’t she be? By six or seven, a child is usually old enough to ride almost everything they’d reasonably want to.
Many families take children much younger than that, and again, there's never a bad age to introduce kids to the parks. However, there are a few things to consider when taking younger kids: it goes without saying that a two year old probably won’t remember anything about that multi-thousand-dollar trip to Disneyland. A good rule of thumb: if your only child is in a stroller, approach Disney Parks vacations differently. Of course your child will be delighted and smiling and love meeting characters, but it's reasonable to imagine that she might have just as much fun at a local park, zoo, or science museum. It's not that children who are 2, 3, or 4 won't enjoy Disney Parks... It's just that you might be better off waiting a bit before bringing them for best effect. (Note: We're not suggesting you leave them at home and bring the older children... just that if your entire vacation is centered around an infant, Disney World might be a bit much!)
If your child is a little older and has outgrown their suspension of disbelief, don’t discount a Disney Parks trip! There’s plenty for a ten, eleven or twelve year old to do at Walt Disney World even once your child (spoiler alert) figures out that that’s not really Mickey, or that the Haunted Mansion is probably not haunted. Even teens and twenty-somethings can spend days at Disneyland riding Indiana Jones Adventure, Tower of Terror, California Screamin’, and other rides that younger kids would be petrified of.
3. ZIP. Keep it Short and Familiar
Visiting the Parks is definitely the heart of a Disney vacation, and rightly so. Especially at Walt Disney World where transportation can eat up huge chunks of time, you’re likely to try to maximize your time in the parks as long as your child looks engaged and delighted. But beware: if you string a child along through a ten-hour day, they will crash. And that crash can last for days.
It’s always a good idea to work in some down time, even if your child returns to the hotel kicking and screaming. If you want to stay to see the fireworks, don’t even head to the parks until after lunch. If you want to get to the parks early in the morning, return to the hotel for a long afternoon nap and swim before heading back for nightfall. Even amid all of the stimulation Disney Parks inspire (and perhaps because of it), kids batteries can run out quickly. And a child running on empty can be a dangerous thing.
As silly as it might sound to throw away time during a once-in-a-lifetime trip, try to keep kids aligned to their normal schedule at home – wake-up, snack, lunch, nap, etc. Though you may find yourself scrambling, it will pay off in the long run. You will not see everything anyway, so you might as well make the time you do have pleasant. Quality over quantity. A six day Park Hopper would put most adults on the ground. Your eight year old can't do it. And neither can you if you've got an eight year old in tow.
4. AHHH! Remember the Scare Factor
You never know what will set a child off. The mere sight of Tower of Terror might horrify young kids. Just hearing the premise of Temple of the Forbidden Eye might keep eyes shut tight through all of Adventureland. That, though, is fairly obvious. Watch for kids who react with unease at character meet-and-greets, or who seem anxious about even simple rides like Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. Consider how much larger and darker everything seems to a child, bundled with an absolute belief that what they’re seeing is real.
It could be that your child is scared of Space Mountain because they don’t think they can hold their breath that long. Even seven year olds ask a million questions during the ride, like “Is there a scary part coming up?” “Is it going to go fast?” “Is it going to get dark?” on rides that adults find perfectly predictable, like Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. If it happens once, you’re likely to shush the child. But take it as a learning opportunity: Even though their fears are obviously unfounded, respect them. Explain to a child before each ride begins what to expect, and remind them that once the ride starts, we want to be very quiet and listen carefully. This is where reminders that everything is made of magic and not real might come in handy. But don’t force your kid. That’s not the memory any of you wants to take from a trip to the Parks.