Wednesday, February 1, 2017

An Addict's Guide to Preparing Kids and Teens for Disney

Welcome to this month's Blogorail Red Loop. Today we are sharing ways for you to prepare kids for a Disney vacation.

Having visited Walt Disney World numerous times growing up, I was very excited to plan my first trip to the resort with my wife when we visited by ourselves in 2012. We got to choose what thrill rides to get FastPasses for, what parks we could go to in order to take advantage of Extra Magic Hours, and what fancy restaurants we could eat at using our Disney Dining Plan.
Gettin' lit at the Victoria Falls Lounge with our Disney mugs...drinking..soda..
Partying it up at Downtown Disney! Well, not really...
However, when we planned out our next trip for the summer of 2015, we were preparing for a very different vacation: our first visit to Walt Disney World with children. (cue dramatic soap opera music)

You see, my wife and I were in the process of adopting three kids: twin four year old boys and their fifteen year old sister. As someone who lives 800 miles away from Walt Disney World and is a teacher who can't afford to visit central Florida very often, I wanted to make the most out of my trip (I'm one of those WDW nuts that likes to do everything at the parks, sometimes going on favorite attractions multiple times). I had a few concerns:

-How often would I have to go back to the hotel for naps?
-Was I going to waste my money by staying at a moderate resort?
-Would we spend more time at the pool than the parks?
-What attractions would we not be able to experience because the boys wouldn't be able to handle it?
-Would my teenage daughter be "too cool" for Disney World?

These fears and more circulated through my mind during the months leading up to the trip.

After a little pep talk from my wife, I realized that with the boys being as young as they were, this trip would be different than those I took in my high school/college years or the two trips I'd taken with my wife since we'd gotten married. We would have to take things slow on this trip, and rather than making it about fulfilling my addiction, it would have to be more kid-centric. The selfishness in me understood, even though I didn't want to hear it.

Together, we formulated a plan: in order for our trip to be as successful as possible with our kids, we needed to prepare them as much as possible for the types of things they would experience on the trip.

Lucky for us, my wife and I are both educators, and as a result, had almost a month to help prepare our kids for the trip.

Disclaimer: The following is what worked best for my family and children. Feel free to use these as ideas or inspiration, although you may need to apply or adjust according to your family's needs.

Counting Down
Let's face it: if you're reading my blog, you more than likely have visited, enjoy, adore, love, are obsessed with (sometimes unhealthily) with Walt Disney World. When preparing for our trips, we always create some sort of countdown until that magical day when we get to depart for our happiest place on earth. Don't lie: I see your bragging countdowns all over DisTwitter and Facebook... *eye roll*

Kids like counting down to important events, too. And having the ability to get excited about seeing their favorite cartoon and film characters? They'll jump all over that like Tigger jumping on Pooh.

Our boys don't like surprises. Because of their past, they always need to know what is coming up in anticipation to feel comfortable. As a result, when we announced we'd be traveling to Walt Disney World, they needed to know where it was and when we were going. We decided to create a chain of red and black paper rings, each labeled with a number to represent the remaining amount of days. The last three days of our chain, I drew the park icons on paper plates to show that we were in the last few days to help get them more excited about the trip. We then draped it around the boys' playroom so they could see the chain and get excited about our vacation in their space. At the end of every day, the boys could tear off one of the rings to signify that another day was done and we were that much closer to our family vacation.

Park Practices and Etiquette
Those of us who are Disney World fans and take trips on a fairly regular basis as a result of our love for Disney can be quite snobby persnickety about certain things. I would argue that many of us likely have certain activities, practices, and even unwritten rules that we adhere to when we visit the parks.

As someone who counts myself among the Disney World faithful, I realized there were certain practices and a set of Disney World etiquette that needed to be instilled in my children.

If I wanted to maximize our time at the parks, I realized that we needed to get our boys (and to an extent, our daughter) into the practice of spending a day out and doing things in a similar way we would at the parks. In other words, we needed to wean all three (yes, my daughter still enjoys a good nap) off of their daily afternoon resting time.

Throughout the weeks leading up to our trip to WDW, our family spent numerous days out to prepare the children for the busy days ahead. For example, we took a day trip down to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. The zoo is so large that one could spend the entire day seeing the different animals and exhibits, as well as riding the tram from one side of the zoo to the other. On another day, we took our kids to the museums in Raleigh, once again giving them the opportunity to walk from place to place without an opportunity to rest. A few times in the month leading up to our trip, we took day trips out to the North Carolina coast to spend time on the beach, playing in the Atlantic, helping our kids to adjust to the beating of the southern sun and the draining effects it has on one's body. In all three instances, our kids did not get their typical "quiet time," and they also had to adjust to lengthy car rides to arrive at our destination (ranging from 45 minutes to approximately three hours...much shorter than the ten-hour drive to Orlando, but good practice, nonetheless).

Enjoying the NC Zoo to prepare for Disney's Animal Kingdom

Another way we got our children accustomed to the practices and etiquette of vacationing at Walt Disney World seems like a fairly regular activity and one not usually associated with preparing for Walt Disney World, but, in my opinion, important. When planning our trip to the parks, my wife and I wanted to make the vacation memorable for our kids, which meant that we wanted to include some fun dining experiences. In addition to choosing to purchase the Disney Quick Service Dining Plan for our trip, we also made reservations for the Be Our Guest Restaurant and the Cape May Cafe, located at Disney's Beach Club Resort. It is take my family of five out for a meal. There are usually two or three voices talking over each other while one boy is sliding off the booth and beneath the table, while another is sitting half of a butt-cheek on my lap and coloring or chasing his crayons off the table. However, this is not a very big deal, as many of the other families eating at Texas Roadhouse are doing the same things as us, so no one really notices the shenanigans happening at the Kiste table. We were going to be spending quite a bit of extra money on these meals at Walt Disney World, and I wanted them to be as enjoyable for our family as possible without being totally disruptive to those around us. My wife and I came up with a plan to start visiting some "nicer" sit-down restaurants in preparation for the dining experiences we would share together in late June. I convinced my wife that we should bring our family to Longhorn Steakhouse (partially because I had a coupon and partially because that restaurant feeds my Walt Disney World Withdrawal, as I explain in a previous post). This restaurant features a quieter, more intimate atmosphere replete with western theming, which allowed my children the opportunity to practice their "inside-a-nice-restaurant voices" that other vacationers may expect of them at the Cape May Cafe. It also gave me an opportunity to get used to paying a rather costly dinner bill.

Mickey Waffles at the Cape May Cafe...the meal was a success!

Bringing a couple of four year olds to Disney, I realized that we would likely be meeting many of the characters. I'm not sure about you, but there was something slightly freaky about meeting the characters growing up. I'd seen Mickey and Goofy on television and cartoons, yet here they were standing in front of me, much larger than me and not saying anything. They don't speak, they don't blink and all they really do is hug and wave and pretend to kiss or lick me. I knew that my boys were of a similar mindset. One of my boys especially is a very logical person: anything that doesn't quite make sense to him makes him nervous and hesitant, and there is nothing terribly logical about a six-foot-tall Winnie the Pooh standing in front of you to converse with. Heck, this kid was even made nervous by Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny (although maybe the Easter Bunny thing was my fault...I took a selfie sitting on my couch and superimposed Easter Bunny parts onto my picture...the boys wouldn't sleep for a week).
The thing of nightmares.
My wife and I came to the conclusion of explaining to the boys that we were entering the characters' world, that they lived, worked, and played at Walt Disney World, and that as celebrities, it would be our mission to get their autographs and pictures taken with them. Even though we knew it was fiction, the boys seemed to buy into the idea. I even faked receiving a phone call from Mickey inviting us to have breakfast with him and his friends at the Cape May Cafe, which helped to drive this illusion home to the boys even more. As our trip drew closer, we had the boys help us make homemade autograph books for the characters out of copy paper, writing the names of the anticipated characters we would meet (the Fab 5, Stitch, Pooh and Friends, etc) and placing a sticker of the character in the corner. We also left a few places blank for any characters we would meet that we didn't anticipate ahead of time (like Russell and Doug from Up). Inviting the boys to create these books with us helped to alleviate any apprehension about meeting these large, fuzzy, mute characters when the time actually came.

We also needed to figure out a way to prepare our boys for waiting in attraction queues, but this is not something you can really prepare for in the "real world" outside of going to hang out at the DMV, which was not something I was willing to sacrifice my time to do. Instead, we devised a plan of how to occupy their short attention span while waiting in potentially long lines. We were able to snag some FastPasses using our Magic Bands ahead of time (I'd woken up at midnight sixty days before our trip to make the reservations online...we got them for 7 Dwarfs Mine Train, Everest, Peter Pan's Flight, and other popular attractions), which helped a little with the more popular attractions. We also knew that some attractions had built in distractions, like the highly engaging queue for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. My wife decided to pack some "queue distractors" in her park bag, such as pipe cleaners (to make shapes and animals out of), small picture books (to read and practice letter recognition), small toys (such as cars or Lego people), and small bags of snacks (like Goldfish for me the kids to stuff their face with). Overall, these strategies were helpful in minimizing the impatience of waiting in line.

Another way that was key for preparing the children of a Walt Disney World addict connisseur for a trip to Walt Disney World was to indoctrinate them. I wanted to help educate my kids about what they were going to experience without giving too much away. I wanted them to know what to anticipate, as well as getting them excited about visiting my favorite place on the planet.

Let me just say this: the Internet is a wonderful thing.

While some kids spend their time watching Saturday morning cartoons, in the weeks leading up to our vacation, my kids spent some of their mornings watching the Walt Disney World Vacation Planning DVD or videos of different attractions and parades on YouTube. However, the most common video shown in my home in the weeks prior to our trip was the Walt Disney World Must-Dos hosted by Stacey Aswad on the Walt Disney World Resort TV channel that plays in the hotels. My boys quickly were able to recognize and identify Cinderella Castle, Figment, Spaceship Earth, the Tree of Life, the Tower of Terror, and other Disney icons. This made the trip more special when they were finally able to experience it in person.

As someone who loves Disney and even helps to support my income by writing books about the parks, I love listening to the music and soundtracks of the parks, attractions, and resorts. I have hundreds of minutes of background music loops on my iTunes, as well as regularly listen to the streaming music on the Subsonic Radio app. I often play this music as I do the dishes, play with my boys, or even help them take showers. They now regularly request certain music loops, like the Tree of Life BGM or the Animal Kingdom Lodge lobby loop. They were quite excited to hear the loop in person on our trip, pointing out to me that "we listened to that song on Daddy's phone!"

I also loved to indoctrinate my kids prior to our trip by showing them park maps or books about the resort that I'd collected through the years, pointing out my favorite lands, attractions, and restaurants. They realized how important the parks and resorts were to me and it got them excited for our trip (and also shows that my master plan for creating little Disney addicts is finally coming to fruition...*twirls my mustache* BWAH-HAH-HAH-HAAAAA!!!!).
Boy #1 excitedly holding Daddy's book, A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World Vol. 1

Enriching Ideas for Older Children
My wife and I had an interesting, yet exciting situation: not only were we bringing two four year olds to Walt Disney World for the first time, but we were also getting the chance to expose a teenager to the Disney magic for the first time, as well. Like stated above, I had some reservations about it: would she even like Disney World or would she think it was "uncool" and "kiddy stuff"? Luckily, our daughter loved the parks. She was charmed by the theming and Disney magic, even going as far as trying on princess hats and posing with the characters.

But I wanted her to get the most out of the parks as possible, as well. She would likely be more interested in the stories told by the parks and attractions, rather than enchanted by the spellbinding magic that younger kids often experience. As a result, we decided to include her in the planning process of the trip and enrich what she would experience while vacationing in the "Vacation Kingdom."

While planning our trip, we had two options of what resort to stay at, both of which were comparably priced. Because we had a family of five, there were only a few resorts to choose from within our budget: Disney's Port Orleans: Riverside and Disney's Caribbean Beach resorts, both of which had rooms featuring a bench that folded down into a trundle bed. We showed her the features and themes of both resorts, and allowed her to pick which she'd rather stay in. She was impressed with the charm of the antebellum-themed resort along the Sassagoula River. In fact, I think she enjoyed the resort that much more because she was able to help make the decision for our family to stay there (which I appreciated too, because the price was a little cheaper than if we'd stayed at Caribbean Beach).

We also included her in looking at the restaurants and attractions of the parks. We planned on only spending two days at the parks (one day each at the Magic Kingdom and Disney's Animal Kingdom), so we used that as the parameters for the restaurants she could choose from. Together, we decided to do breakfast at the Be Our Guest restaurant in New Fantasyland, as she had enjoyed Beauty and the Beast growing up (although it makes me feel incredibly old to know that it came out before she was born and I was four when I saw it for the first time) and figured it would be a good introduction to the immersive storytelling of the Disney theme park experience. She also expressed that she enjoyed thrill rides and roller coasters, so together the three of us decided to book FastPasses for Dinosaur and Expedition: Everest at Animal Kingdom and the 7 Dwarfs Mine Train and the Haunted Mansion at the Magic Kingdom (our other two FastPasses that we booked were Peter Pan's Flight and Kilimanjaro Safari). Taking ownership for our vacation plans once again made her feel included in the process and helped to her enjoy the trip more, rather than feeling like we were just going to Disney World for Dad or for her little brothers.

Because it was her first time and because she is a quite intelligent teenager, I thought it would help her to enjoy some of the attractions of the Disney parks more if she knew the context of the rides and shows she would experience. For example, one of my family's favorite attractions growing up was the Swiss Family Treehouse. While the walk-through attraction is cool as a standalone, it is enriched when you know the backstory of who the Swiss family that supposedly lived in the Adventureland treehouse was. I had picked up a VHS copy of the 1960 Disney film Swiss Family Robinson at a library book sale earlier in the summer and made my daughter and wife watch it with me a few weeks before our trip (let's be honest...she spent more time on Snapchat than actually watching the film, and we only made it about 2/3 of the way through the film before turning it off), and it really helped to explain the context and enrich the experience of climbing the 116 steps above Adventureland to marvel at the engineering feat of the Robinsons while surviving in the jungle.

Another film we watched as a family prior to our trip was the 1946 animated film, Make Mine Music, specifically for the sequence, "Casey at the Bat." This story of an arrogant baseball player upon whose shoulders the fate of his team rests on is the inspiration for the Main Street USA quick service restaurant, Casey's Corner. While there are only a few references to the animated sequence in the restaurant chock-full of historical baseball photographs and memorabilia, having the film context for the restaurant's inspiration helped to enrich the experience for all of us (I do a very in-depth analysis of "Casey at the Bat," Make Mine Music, and Casey's Corner in A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World Vol. 2).

But there was no joy in Mudville...

While we did not have a chance to watch these films, there are some other great underappreciated films that inspire Disney attractions. Yes, everyone has seen Tangled and The Little Mermaid and Frozen. But did you know that many props, images, and even foliage in Liberty Square takes direct inspiration from a film? The 1957 live-action Disney film, Johnny Tremain has numerous references throughout the early American land in the Magic Kingdom, most prominently being the Liberty Tree. While guests who have not seen the film can appreciate the history lesson provided by touring the land and its attractions, the context of the land can be more appreciated with having viewed the film first.

Thirteen lanterns for thirteen colonies

Another film that can help provide context to teens and families prior to visiting the parks is the 1944 Disney animated film, The Three Caballeros. The film stars Donald Duck on his birthday, learning about Mexico and Brazil as a result of gifts given to him. Once again, while many guests can appreciate and enjoy the Gran Fiesta Tour at Epcot's Mexico Pavilion, viewing the film before visiting the parks can provide the background context for who Panchito and Jose Carioca are, why they are riding on a magic serape, and why the three animated birds are performing in a concert in Mexico.

While not necessarily Disney films, I think it is also worth mentioning that families with older kids watch some of the films depicted on the Great Movie Ride over at Hollywood Studios. Last year, I taught a film history class in conjunction with Advanced Placement European History. To successfully teach the class, I decided to watch many of the films that were portrayed as "great movies" and considered game changers according to the Great Movie Ride. Two of my favorites, which I feel would help provide context to young people and families who plan on experiencing Hollywood Studios' iconic attraction (which were part of the previous pre-show film) are Footlight Parade (a big-budget Busby Berkeley musical from 1933) and The Searchers (directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne). Neither film gets a whole lot of attention in the attraction itself (in fact, Wayne is shown sitting on a horse discouraging guests from continuing on into the attraction...there are no other references to The Searchers in the ride), but viewing the two films ahead of time will not only provide great entertainment but will also help guests who plan on experiencing the Great Movie Ride to understand what made the big budget musicals and western films so important in film history.

I "searched" for another picture that wasn't so blurry, but couldn't find one in my files. (hehe PUNS)

Ultimately, traveling with kids is a very different experience than traveling with adults or even when you traveled to Walt Disney World as a high schooler or college student. Many people have said that vacationing the Disney World is a new and much more enjoyable experience when you get to see the magic of the parks through your children's eyes. I didn't really understand that, or necessarily even agree with it, until I was able to do it for myself. In fact, the first few moments at Disney World with my kids, seeing my boys' reactions to the statues of Lightning McQueen and Mater over at Disney's Art of Animation Resort, brought tears to my eyes and was the most magical moment of my entire trip (read more here).

But planning a trip to Disney with kids can be very overwhelming. I didn't want to be one of those parents we all see dragging a screaming kid through the parks, losing their cool, or fighting with their spouse. We saved ourselves a lot of grief by taking some simple steps to plan ahead, and it truly created a magical experience for my new family on our first trip together.
For more ways to prepare kids for Disney, check out the other great posts from the Blogorail!

Here is the map of our Magical Blogorail Red | Preparing Kids for Disney Loop:


  1. Oh, your conversations about preparing (and taking) young twins brought back such memories! You've got a great collection of ideas for kids of all ages, and I especially love that you included movies as a part of your preparation strategy! :)

  2. These are great suggestions! I'm going to have to watch "Make Mine Music" myself! I didn't realize an anthology of those great short films existed. I guess I have to watch it to get myself ready for Disney! lol