Family fun Planning Tips & Tricks

Lessons Learned: Walt Disney World with a 3-Year-Old

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He refused to stand and smile with us. C’est la vie!

We just got back from our family’s first trip to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and boy, oh boy, what a week! There were highs, there were lows, there was a lot of laughter and some tears, there were crowds and lines and turkey legs. With nine people, including two grandparents, six thirty-somethings, and one 3.5 year old, we had some logistical challenges ahead of us. Some things worked out really well, others not so much —  definitely know what I would do differently next time! — and at the end, our shared google photos album had over 2000 amazing photos to sort through and we have lots of shared memories and inside jokes to cherish.  So let me share with you a few of our lessons learned.

Mentally prepare the child… and yourself!

Watching ride videos on YouTube

If we hadn’t told him, Skyler would have had no concept of what “Disney world” is. He’s never been to a theme park. “Disney” is simply a channel, a way to watch animated content and nature documentaries. So telling him that we’re going to go to Disney World for a week was absolutely meaningless. I got a blank stare in return. But I anticipated that!

So for *several* weeks leading up to our trip, I started preparing him for what this journey would have in store for us.

Lines. Waiting. Crowds. Rides. Trains. Boats. Photos. Lines. I showed him parts of the Disney+ docuseries The Imagineering Story and Behind the Attraction; I found ride videos on YouTube and explained that soon we’d be riding the tea cups and monorail and safaris;  we looked at pictures online of the parks, talking about the rides and how we could only go on them one time, and that we would have to wait for long periods of time, standing in boring lines. We talked about lines a LOT and any time we found ourselves in a line, such as waiting our turn for the tractor coaster at Lucky Ladd Farms or getting a free sample at a mall kiosk, I made sure to compare it to what we would be doing very soon. Before long, when I would ask him what we would be doing at Disney, he would recite back to me: “Waiting in lines for rides and going on trains and spinning cups!” And to be honest, I think he handled the lines better than other members of our party. 😝

Pack snacks and use mobile ordering.

You really can’t eat at any of the sit down restaurants on property without a reservation, and not a single place on Disney property could accommodate a party of 9 without me having to get on the phone. I also didn’t like the idea of pre-planned meals dictating the flow of our days. So we bought some food in the parks using the in-app mobile ordering feature, which was an easy way to wait without having to stand in a line. And we brought in a ton of snacks.

The Disney website specifies that you can bring in any food and drink that does not need to be refrigerated and that is not in a glass container.  We loaded up on protein bars and snack packs, cheese crackers and trail mix, peanut butter tortillas and pretzels, turkey chomp sticks and GoGos. We had a couple bottles of water and bought a couple extra to refill throughout the day.

Bring the big stroller.

We had originally planned to bring the smaller umbrella stroller but then my mom decided to drive to Florida, so she could load up her car with extra stuff that we couldn’t fit on our limited baggage allotment on Spirit. Im so glad we did. We carried my mom’s big bag, many bottles of water, an umbrella (for the sun), and Skyler’s jam-packed backpack of snacks, extra clothes, water, wipes, sun screen, and his portable potty seat.

Know and respect your own limits.

In the words of Lightning McQueen: I. Am. Speed. KACHOW!

On the first day, both of my parents ended up with a lot of back, foot, and knee pain because they walked all day with the rest of us. But on the day that we went to Animal Kingdom, my mom gave in and rented an ECV to make her life infinitely easier and less painful. And you know what? SHE LOVED IT. I think she’d been a bit nervous since she’d never driven one before, but it was easy to pick up and made the day a lot smoother for everyone. There’s no shame in it; some folks go as far as to decorate their own personal ECV. Might as well have fun with it!

Wear the fanny pack.

The Fanny Pack Club

Or whatever small body bag you like. You may want to have a small bag on your person to keep with you in line. There wasn’t a single ride that I couldn’t take my fanny pack on. So at all times, I could have with me credit cards, IDs, chapstick, mints, anxiety remedies, and my phones. This let me comfortably leave all of our other stuff on the stroller when we parked it at the plentiful stroller parking stations. No need for a locker or worrying about someone taking our stuff. You want to steal our banged up stroller and snacks? Enjoy!

Accept the less-than-perfect photos.

It can’t only be my child who absolutely refuses to pose and smile for group photos. He will learn, because photos are my love language and as a member of this family, he will be in many, MANY photos. And he was in many from this trip…. just not smiling or posing. And I’m fine with that.

I went into the trip knowing that we would not get all of the Instagram-perfect moments caught on camera. Skyler hates doing what he’s told (like his Mama) so we had to get creative with ways of making him smile. Try making silly faces or talking in funny voices, or even shouting BUTT CRACK or POOPY BUTT really loudly amongst the crowds; it worked a couple times for us :-p To save yourself the embarrassment of shouting questionably appropriate phrases around strangers, just accept that your kid may or may not want to participate in the photo taking. There will always be more photos. It’s okay.

Only go with people you can stand to be grumpy around.

I’ve always felt that deep friendship is thicker than blood and have a lovely little family of friends — a framily? Some of them were able to join us on this adventure and I’m ever grateful for them all! T

hese are people who have seen me at my worst and still put up with me; they’ve seen me when Im out of my mind with stress or panic, tears sliding uncontrollably down my face, and they’ve seen me at my best, most relaxed, most organized, and funniest.

So I felt more than comfortable venturing with them into the crowded, sweaty masses of a Disney park. I was thankful for them as extra hands and eyes for the child, as tech support and navigators, to remember things when my brain was full, and to bring me back from the edge of a panic attack (more on that later lol).

Next time, though, I think we’d be better off with a smaller group, maybe even just the three of us! We’ve developed a pace when the three of us go places, and adding other people to the mix throws that off. Nine is also just too many to navigate any crowded experience. I think six would be my absolutely max for theme parking in the future.

Stay on property if you can, but don’t sweat it if you can’t.

Did you know that the Walt Disney World property is over 40 square miles in size? That’s bigger than Manhattan (23 square miles) and almost the size of San Francisco (46 square miles). It is literally its own town. So staying within the confines of the property where you’ll be playing for several days makes a ton of logistical sense. It’s easier and faster to get to a Broadway show if you’re staying in the city versus coming in from a borough; Disney is the same. It’s just way simpler to get places when you stay on property.

Previously, Justin and I have stayed at a WDW hotel and loved it! We definitely will again. But staying on property is EXPENSIVE. And we are not made of money. If it had just been the three of us, we would have absolutely crammed into a cheap to mid-range Disney room to simply not worry about transportation or parking each day. But with 9 people, it just made more financial sense to rent a condo off property.

We stayed at the lovely, tidy (if cookie cutter bland & beige) Storey Lake Resort in a 5-bedroom, 4 bathroom condo with a private plunge pool. On the resort property was also a playground, putt putt, and a huge pool area with a bar, a big hot tub, a large pool, a lazy river, volleyball, and a splash pad. What more do we need?!

Have fun outside of the parks.

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In 2019, Justin and I spent two nights of our babymoon at a Disney resort and we had so much fun, we both look back very fondly on those days. That’s because there is a TON of free or cheap stuff to do on property at Disney.

Psych the kids up to ride all the ferry boats, the Skyliner, the trams, the shuttles, the Monorail. Visit the hotels, go on a pub crawl, let the kids burn off energy at the splash pads and playgrounds. Hang out at Disney Springs. Take silly photos. So get creative, save some money, and enjoy a slower paced day having non-park fun!

Build in rest.

Our intrepid protagonist, with his Grams, and his aunties keeping watch.

We did not want to burn ourselves, the kid, or our friends out by over-planning. This will not be our only trip to Disney, so we didnt try to do it all. But even if it IS your own trip to Disney, you won’t be able to do it all. Focus on a few primary objectives, and play everything else by ear… but build in rest!

The agenda for the week varied by member of the party (e.g. three of our friends had never been to Harry Potter world and did that on Tuesday, while we enjoyed a non-park day; my dad was fighting off a cold on one of our park days and remained home and then had to fly to London the next day), so here is what the Schwannema party enjoyed:

  • Sunday: Fly in mid-day, arrive early at condo, relax by the pool until check-in
  • Monday: Magic Kingdom with the whole group (9 people)
  • Tuesday: Non-park day hotel hopping (5 people) + off-property group dinner (9 people)
  • Wednesday: Animal Kingdom (6 people total)
  • Thursday: Non-park day lounging by the pool, followed by child-free date night in Disney Springs
  • Friday: Hollywood Studios (6 ‘big kids’)
  • Saturday: Fly home

We even left a buffer day on the end before going back to work. (Though my company also gave us Monday off for Indigenous People’s Day, so I had an extra day of rest to really recover. Definitely not mad about it.)

In some ways, I wish we’d done only two parks over three park days, to allow us to revisit and try to see more of the parks that we’d missed. Next time, I think I would do two days at Animal Kingdom, with a rest day in between, and allow for two non-park days for other, cheaper, less crowded fun.

Don’t worry about what they’ll remember.

We travel a lot with Skyler, and would have done so much more by now if it weren’t for, ya know, the whole pandemic and all. But Im trying to make up for the lost time, now!

Ever since our first trip together, people have commented on how little he’s going to remember from the travels of his early years. No, he will not have many solidly formed memories from our South American cruise or his first trip to Vegas.  He wont remember his first dozen flights or his first many road trips or his first few beach vacations. He will not remember being dragged around Universal Studios in a carrier or going to Huntsville or Chicago and he won’t remember much from this Disney trip.

And that is 100000000% okay.

Because his remembering is not the point.

Even though his parents will certainly remember and enjoy reflecting fondly on those memories as we flip through photo books, our remembering is also not the point.

Travel of any form can change you, often for the better. The travel that we do, the places that we go, the people we meet, the worlds we’re exposed to… all of it becomes part of us. Even after decades have faded the details of the memory, we still feel the effects of our experiences. We are still changed by what we experienced.

Travel has already begun to change Skyler. By taking our kiddo on all sorts of adventures, riding different modes of transportation, eating different types of food, hearing different languages, killing time in airports, sleeping in unfamiliar locations, hanging out with unfamiliar people, standing in long boring lines, and dealing with uncomfortable situations, he is becoming adaptable.

Being off schedule and out of his normal environs doesn’t seem to phase him. He is learning the importance of listening to Mama & Dada in public, and how to deal with disappointments and boredom. He is learning how to interact with people in the service industry, how to ask for what he wants, and that there’s an order to things. He is learning to cope with disrupted routines and discomfort and how to deal with life’s lemons along the way! Really, he is learning that home can be anywhere when you’re with your people, as long as you have a place to rest your head and charge your phone at night.

He gets to practice patience and following instructions and dealing with limited choices, while we try to empower him with as much autonomy as we can allow. Because at the end of the day we are not raising a child but a fellow human. And I want to raise someone who can go with the flow, who is kind to strangers, who yearns to know more about this amazing world.

Through travel and even visiting theme parks, we are building a foundation for his future, and for our family’s trips. While he may not remember the specifics of his early travel days, he will one day cherish the photographic memories and also be ready for anything that our wanderlust throws our way.

So don’t worry if your kiddo will or won’t remember all of the money you spent on that dream Disney vacation. YOU will remember it. THEY are getting so much of out of the experience, intangible things, quality time with you, learning new ways to be in the world, practicing patience and building important life skills. It is more than just going to a theme park; it’s a learning opportunity wrapped in adventure!

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Look how freaking relaxed he is!!

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