Is Disney worth it with toddlers?

Early this spring, I got a call from Disney inviting us to come down for a weekend with our two littlest people. They had a weekend planned for bloggers with preschoolers and wanted us to participate. We actually had a window in our schedule and agreed to take Louis (just turned two) and Elsie (just turned six) down to experience some of the special moments that Disney has available for preschoolers. It ended up being an adventure of the good kind that left me, a working mom of four, in tears last night.

The Disney team met us at our hotel and, for several days, walked with us through a handcrafted experience designed to teach us how to have fun with the littlest members of our family in a Disney Parks environment.

 Some of our magical moments (keep reading for the less magical moments):

Walt Disney’s life is captivating to me personally. Disney Parks started with a train in Walt Disney’s backyard and turned into an amazing thing that my family gets to enjoy together long after his death. There’s something inspiring about boundless imagination and persistence that could mean for my comparatively tiny diaper company. Someday, I really want this poster on my wall. It’s a good reminder to keep dreaming.

We stayed on resort at The Yacht Club. We loved The Yacht Club. It’s near the entrance to Epcot. The pool is zero-entry and had a real sand beach. I was surprised at how much stress was relieved just by being able to walk back to our hotel after a day in the parks.  Being cost conscious, we’d always used Marriott points to stay off the resort because it was so much less expensive. This trip helped me finally understand why it’s worth it to spend extra stay on resort. No car rental. No long rides to the farthest corner of the parking lot when you’re exhausted. A character dining experience and a small convenience grocery store was within an arms reach, and other dining was readily available for any budget.

We started the castle adventure by getting an appearance and a photo with Cinderella.

Elsie got dressed up as Cinderella and, with some convincing, went to the Bippity Boppity Boutique to have her hair and makeup done.  She’s always beautiful, but a formally polished little girl, now decked out in her best Cinderella finery, was also invited to attend the premier of Cinderella at Walt Disney World. She practically glowed through the whole movie and her moment on stage with the other little girls dressed like Cinderella.  We later found her climbing a light post while wearing her beautiful dress. Because that’s what girls do.

Rider Switch passes give the parent waiting with a little a “front of the line” pass they can use when the first parent to ride finishes. This helps in more ways that one. You can double your Fast Passes by scheduling three for one parent and three for the other parent…. the parent with the Fast Pass gets the Rider Switch Pass for the other parent… and you have six awesome rides to experience easily instead of just three.

In the parks, we rode plenty of rides, but she wanted to ride Dumbo again and again. In addition to the amazing play area inside the wait line that both kids could have easily played for an hour in, Elsie was completely enamored with being able to make the little car on this ride go up and down, much to the cameraman’s chagrin.  It’s pretty easy to see from the grin on her face that we could have done this all day and she would have been just fine with it.

Knowing that the wait can be really hard for the little people, Disney has integrated entertainment for littles (and bigs) into their wait lines for a number of rides. The  interactive Peter Pan line and a play area inside the Dumbo line were amazing. Thoughtful line design could be seen everywhere though.  This photo of Louis is a great example of how a creative approach to the line turned into a meaningful moment for my little guy.  He was afraid to get a picture with Tigger and Winnie the Pooh, but he was totally enraptured with the experience of watching them from behind this box that was just the right size for a little person to hide behind.  He loves Pooh.  And this was just enough for his tiny little brain.

In additional to all of the magical moments, we also had…

  1. A shy little girl who didn’t like having people comment on how pretty she looked and definitely wasn’t into having cameras around.
  2. An independent little girl who was on her own schedule and really didn’t want to do what was planned.  If  grown-up suggested it, she thought it was a bad idea.
  3. A two year old who preferred not to be in the stroller.
  4. A two year old who was covered in food mostly always.
  5. Stressed out parents who were worried about what these amazing people hosting us were thinking about our clearly precocious children.
  6. Kids uninterested in smiling for the camera.  My kids are often the subject of unwanted attention when we’re in public.  All of them (except one) have developed an aversion to people being  in their faces with cameras. Consequently, most of the pictures and video footage we took turned out to be of kids avoiding the spotlight.  But we captured the reality of those imperfect moments.  So there’s that.

All of those issues we encountered with our kids were normal. Six year olds and two year olds are unpredictable, strong-willed, and not necessarily willing to perform on cue.  In the middle of dealing with the chaos of normal kids doing normal things, the team from Disney did an amazing job of teaching us how to absorb the Disney experience from a preschooler’s perspective.  Walt Disney’s primary goal was to create a place where parents could actually engage in experiences with their kids.  That experience is going to be different for parents at different points in a child’s development.  It’s easy to approach Disney with the goal of doing all the things. Older kids want to run around and do all the rides. They don’t mind waiting.  But you just can’t do that with littles.  That said, this trip proved to me that you can have fun creating some incredible memories with your littles in spite of the corresponding unpredictable chaos they add to any vacation.

Honestly, if we all tell the truth, there’s not a parent on this planet that wouldn’t think twice about taking that unpredictable chaos to Disney.   Toddlers scream at inopportune times, they need naps, diaper changes are inevitable, and sometimes there’s just poop everywhere.  By the time you’re done doing the administrative side of keeping littles alive and healthy… you’re exhausted and wishing that it was all just a little bit easier.  Disney  somehow managed to read our minds.  Over the last few years, they’ve been making changes that were specifically for the family with the very young child… to be sure that we (you, me, and our littles) could have a good time too. Those efforts have manifested into baby care centers that are also quiet, air conditioned places for all of your kids to rest for a few minutes, age-appropriate ride experiences, water play, random bubbles on the street, bright lights and engaging parades at night, and dining experiences that can include Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh. For a complete list of resources that Walt Disney World makes available to parents of small children, read this article from Walt Disney World News, a publication of Disney Parks.

Strategy and lists aside, the “why we do things” is always a much bigger deal to me than the “how we do things”. Louis surprised me last night with a little trip into his mind that showed me in a few short minutes how important this trip was to him.  I’d been gone on a stressful business trip all day in New York.  I walked in late at night, exhausted after intense conversations, fully expecting to find all of the kids in bed.  I’d put my bag down inside the front door, taken my boots off, and had turned to head towards our room where my pillow was calling me.  As I turned, I saw Louis running towards me.  He wrapped his little arms around my legs, solidly kissed my knees, and started talking and talking and talking.

“You home, Mommy?  You ride on airplane, Mommy?  You go up hill in airport, Mommy?” And then, unprompted, he started into a 60% understandable blue streak of words that I finally realized were a string of  memories of his last time on a big trip that involved airplanes… to Disney. Somehow, my trip to New York had triggered some memories of our trip and he needed to tell me all about them.  Right that minute.  With his arms wrapped around my legs.  It helped me realize that, with the helpful guiding hands of the team hosting us, we had slowed down enough to let some of the experience sink meaningfully in to his little brain.  And he was remembering good things, good memories, that happened with us.  As a working mom who is often traveling, I’m always hoping that something special is registering with my kids.  Those few minutes with Louis last night, looking at the smile on his face while he talked, were so meaningful to me. I travel all the time. I have a full-time job. Seeing that this trip and the way it was approached had made an impact, even on my two-year-old, simply made my day.

Moments like this, even months later, are what can make a trip to Disney so worth it… really.

Jenn is the Founder and CEO of Cotton Babies. She holds an Executive MBA from Washington University. She was awarded Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Emerging Category for the Central Midwest Region in 2011. Among many other awards, she recently received a 2017 YWCA Leader of Distinction Award for Entrepreneurship. Jenn holds many patents on various inventions in a number of different countries and is listed as one of 50 Missourians You Should Know. She is particularly fascinated by languages, chickens, and children (she has four) when she’s not reading economics journals.

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One thought on “Is Disney worth it with toddlers?

  1. This comes just in time as we are taking our 4 year old to Disney in 4 days. I’m sitting in the resort on Treasure Island as week speak. We go to Venice in the morning to stay with my husbands aunt and then on to Disney for the week. She’s in her 70’s so this is an important trip. Probably a first and last Disney adventure with her. It’s bittersweet. Two and a half years ago we had air tickets in hand to leave a week after Christmas to fly my dad down to his house west of Disney to help him for two weeks with things that needed done. I was going to treat him with a day at Magic Kingdom with his last grandchild. Sadly he died unexpectedly two days after Christmas. We still went and worked on the house for him but skipped WDW. We have take. Her once since then but she was a very compliant strollers two year old. This time she’s flourished into a very opinionated, completely independent 4 year old. I’ve been a little apprehensive about going. I’ve so wanted to make an appointment at the Bippity Boppity Salon but at the price I’m worried she will get there and suddenly go “NO”. She’s packed her Cinderella dress and her Minnie Mouse tutu. She’s been promised she can buy any Mickey hat she wants with her name on it if she tries harder at #2 on the potty. Praises so far it’s working. We went from daily accidents to one in two weeks. I came prepared with wets bags and a flip covers to go over panties just in case we needed to ensure our day at the parks went smoother. If we wouldn’t have to change an entire outfit and avoid leaving a trail of mishap everyone would be a little happier at the happiest place on earth.
    My little miss impatient child may just make it through the day with the way you described the play areas in the lines. She’s hit 41″, a little tall for her age. Her dad and I have been having deep discussion about what rides she will ride. Some she can according to Disney standards, like the Mine Train roller coaster. But I’m being the cautious mom and worried it might be a little too rough yet for her usually five point harnessed body. I still use a Cares Flight harness for her too.
    Hers hoping our experience is just as wonderful even though we will be staying at one of the resorts a little further away and won’t have WDW people. But the perks you deserve for all of the traveling and hard work you do for us CD mommas.