Friday, October 9, 2009

When is the right age to take kids to Disney World for the first time?

I live in a very kid-centric neighborhood, so it shouldn't surprise you that it's also the type of neighborhood where someone is always planning a Disney vacation or going to Disney World. One topic that comes up a lot is the right age to take kids to Disney World for the first time. In fact, want to start a heated debate on a Disney message board? Ask this question. While there are definitely variables, I think the answer ultimately depends on how you personally feel about Disney World.

Conventional wisdom among the writers of travel guides is that the best time for a first-time visit is around seven or eight years of age, putting a child a few years past naps and little kid crankiness, old enough to ride most everything in the Magic Kingdom and elsewhere, but still young enough to believe in all the wonderful things that will surround him. From my experience, this is really good advice, although I have to admit that I didn't believe it until I experienced taking two toddlers to Disney myself. While I enjoyed our recent vacation, I have no problem admitting that the two-year olds got very little out of the parks. Yes, there were moments when they had a wonderful time and it was great watching their faces in It's a Small World, but they were also completely off schedule, cranky, cried a lot, and didn't sleep, the result of which is that none of us slept or really enjoyed the trip. Keep in mind I'm saying this as someone whose been to Disney World many times and knows the tricks; I probably should have known better.

So the question is, would I do it again? Well, yes. But there's a reason why and it's pretty simple: I'm a huge Disney World fan; the prospect of not going to Disney World for several years in a row is kind of . . . depressing. Plus, I have an older child whom I want to take and while we've gone with just the two of us, both of us missed his younger siblings and father. But for parents who aren't big fans, I'd say follow the conventional wisdom and wait until they are a little older, around four or five at the youngest. My twins would have honestly had a better time chasing around a cheap beach ball in the sandbox at our local park. You don't want to spend your entire vacation mentally calculating the cost of unused tickets and wasted meals. Um, not that I did that. Okay, maybe just a little.

Now, having said this, most of us have kids of different ages and really, togetherness is what a family vacation is all about, right? So since you're probably going to end up taking younger children, you'd better find a way to make the best of it and maybe even have a great time. Here are a few tips to make your stay a little easier.

1.If it's financially possible, stay on Disney property. I think the biggest mistake we made on our last trip was staying off-site. Even though our rental (Windsor Hills off 192) was very close to Disney property and was 15-20 minutes away from most Disney parking lots, since we spent most of our time in the Magic Kingdom, it took over an hour to get into the park. Dragging a tired toddler out of the Magic Kingdom, putting her on the ferry, waiting for a tram at the Ticket and Transportation Center, loading her and the stroller, and then taking your car back to the rental is exhausting. If you do stay off site, consider renting an additional car so that you aren't the only one chauffeuring others in your party from your hotel to the parks.

2.Try going during the slower, cooler months. No one wants to see a miserable, sweaty baby stuck in a stroller. You'll all be more comfortable, and the lines will be shorter, during the slower times of the year.

3.Take breaks and lower your expectations. You're not going commando this trip. You won't see every attraction. You may miss nightly fireworks displays because the kids need to sleep. Scale back your expectations and instead enjoy to the little moments that Disney does very well. One of the best parts of our trip with toddlers was spent in Mickey's Toon Town Fair while my daughter happily walked around and pointed out the various Mickey heads on the fence and buildings. True, it wasn't riding Buzz Lightyear over and over again, but it was nice.

4.Keep in mind that small children and infants may be frightened by attractions that wouldn't scare someone just a few years older. If you catch yourself pushing attractions and character experiences that your child doesn't seem to be enjoying, it's time to back off a little bit.

5.Try to stay on a schedule similar to the one they're on at home, even if it means not getting to the parks when they open. One advantage west coasters have is that they can stay on their usual schedule and take advantage of the three hour time difference by staying up “later” at night.

6.Don't overdo it on the character breakfasts and “special” activities. Here's the thing about a Disney vacation: Your park ticket gives you an extraordinary amount of activities, more than you could ever do on one vacation and rest assured, there will more than enough special moments that you don't need to purchase extras. Yes, it's nice to take your daughter to Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for a princess makeover, but she won't miss it if it doesn't happen and you'll definitely appreciate the $200 you saved. Same with the pirate cruises and and the nighttime parties that require you to buy an extra ticket. They're all wonderful, but if you're cutting money, this is the place to do it. You really don't have to dress your kid up everyday, meet every character, and have a special gift basket waiting in the room at the end of the day. There's a such thing as too much fun. After a while, it can all become a blur.

7.Take advantage of the baby care centers in each park. They're clean, generally quiet, and they sell supplies you may have forgotten. In addition to clean changing tables, there are highchairs where you can feed small children.

8.Remember to do a small amount of babyproofing in your room. Remove items that might be harmful or easily broken. Consider bringing a few doorknob covers to keep little ones out of bathrooms.

9.Don't schedule too many sit-down meals, particularly with kids who aren't used to dining out regularly. If you're on the dining plan, buffets are a good choice for kids. Some character meals and signature restaurants will use up two credits, which can give you a day off table service restaurants without the risk of not using your dining plan credits. A simple breakfast in your room of cereal and fruit can make up for the inevitable sugary snacks later in the day. Don't forget to pack a few healthy snacks in your bag. Disney doesn't object to you bringing them into the parks.

10.Consider separating. No, not the legal kind. I mean one parent taking the older child while the other takes the younger ones. Meet up after naps or when your older kid is done with the more adventurous rides. At night, one parent can take advantage of later park hours and have a bit of free time exploring the parks alone while the other parent watches the kids. Trading off parenting duties can give you a much needed break. This was, by far, the smartest thing we did on our last trip. If you're a single parent traveling alone, consider using a babysitting service to give yourself a little free time.

While I'm on the subject of babysitting services, if you feel comfortable with it, why not try a date night while you're in Disney World? There's a reason why Disney is such a popular honeymoon destination: Great restaurants and sights can make for a romantic night for two. Kids Nite Out and Fairy Godmothers come highly recommended. If you're not sure about using these services, you can ask other parents who've used these services on disney message boards like Disboards or Passporter.
I just want to close by saying you're not going to have a bad trip with smaller children. You're going to have a different trip than you would have with older kids. It will be, at times, work. But it can also be wonderful.


Suz said...

Never. Let them grow up, get married and go there on their honeymoon.

Susan said...

ITA on the lowering of expectations and the splitting up of younger/older children. Last trip I took the toddler to the pool in the afternoon and then a nap while the hubs took the older one on rides in the parks and it worked out great.
And we tried to hit a baby care center in every park (even though the toddler didn't need it) just to pee, cool off and fill up our water bottles, I loved them.
We never did see the fireworks, the toddler was screaming-at-the-top-of-his-lungs scared so we watched them as we rode the tram back to the hotel.

Chris said...

Susan, I'm following your lead! That's good advice.

anne said...

I brought my kids in Disney when they were 5 and 6. It's hassle to have little kids but it's fun at the same time. Christmas in Disney I heard is best.

Glenn Drury said...

My daughter was 3 1/2 the 1st time we went to WDW. That was the perfect age. A child will only get to see the castle for the first time ONCE. Get to meet Mickey for the first time ONCE. These memories are magical. I get sick of hearing people say that they will wait until their child is older to go so they will remember the experience. when your kids are young, you go for YOUR memories, not theirs. Tip: if you are going with a small child, stay at a monorail resort. That way you have great transportation to go back to the hotel for a nap and a swim before heading back to the parks in the evening. Another tip: take a small umbrella stroller to save time and hassles.

Anonymous said...

We took our grandson at age 4 1/2. He had a great time. I took lots of video that he watches still, two years later. His dad went at 5 and loved it. Our daughter was one and it was terrible. In fact, my husband stayed at grandmothers house the second day because no one enjoyed it. She went back at 11, when we could afford it again and loved it. Youngest son is currently nine and I am taking him on spring break for his first trip. Can't wait. It just depends on the child and the family situation.

House of Purpose said...

I think this is good advice. I was 4 when we went and honestly I remember it being mostly fun. A few things were scary and disappointed that I couldn't ride the things my brothers were. My memories are decent, but no where near the experience would have been at ages 7 or 8. For that reason we won't go until my oldest is 9 and younger one is 7 that way they can do most everything and remember it - have more meaning. My favorite part as a 4 year old was playing with a light up toy while the fireworks went off! Lol.