Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The D-Word: How to Survive Disney with a Toddler

No, we're not talking about diarrhea (although we wouldn't blame any mom who jumped to that conclusion.) This is about the OTHER D-word.


Love it or hate it, you've probably been to Disney World and/or Land at least once in your life. And if you have kids, welcome to your preferred (or at least easiest) vacation destination for a while. Now I've always loved Disney, and went many times over the years (my husband and I even went twice in one year without kids). But I'm big on travel in general, and most of our vacations pre-kid took place overseas. So I admit being one of those people who said "GOD I don't get it when people go to Disney World every year on vacation. Why not see the actual world???"

Then I had a kid. Ha ha ha, twenty-something you.

First of all, it's the one place that you can guarantee your child isn't the only one acting up. In fact, there's probably a bunch of other kids worse than yours, so yours looks awesome in comparison. While we were lucky that baby's first flight (at 18 months) was a smooth and stress-free one, if he flipped out, he wouldn't have been out of place. Plus everything in Orlando is tailored to kids. No worrying about finding child-friendly restaurants or things to do ...  everything is geared toward families.

We also have family in Orlando, so it makes sense to head down south and get some QT with the relatives (and Mickey) when we feel like getting away. Since I just put the deposit on our house we're renting for our trip later this year, I've definitely got Disney on the brain this week. So here we go: How to survive Disney with a toddler.

The first and most important tip: LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS. Repeat after me five times. Seriously. Forget about the Disney World commercials with the smiling families hugging characters and wiping away a tear as they watch their kid twirl with princesses. Not saying you won't have these moments (you definitely will) but there's also going to be tantrums. And it's most likely going to be hot as F and you're going to want to kill one of your family members at some point on the trip. Toddlers are small dictators and if you set foot on Disney property thinking that you can do every single thing on your list, you're going to wind up pissed off. Go into the vacation with lower expectations, and you won't be disappointed.

Loosen up with the scheduling
This goes back to "lower your expectations," and is probably a somewhat controversial viewpoint for those of you hard-core Disney people. But we don't plan Fastpasses in advance, and usually only book two or three ADRs for the entire trip (advance dining reservations, for those of you not obsessed with Disney FB groups/forums). We've been plenty of times, and frankly, I don't care if I miss a certain ride - except for not riding the Maelstrom one last time, I'M STILL PISSED ABOUT THAT.

But I digress. Not being locked into some rigid schedule allows us the freedom to go where we want, when we want. Which is so important when you have a toddler whose mood changes by the second. You might miss some of your dining reservations, or have to change park plans last-minute, but the key to enjoying travel to any destination with a toddler is flexibility.

Yes, there are sometimes things we don't get to do because of a long line, but we're go with the flow type of people. And if we don't have an ADR, we'll grab a quick-service meal (shout out to Columbia Harbour House!) or sometimes we cook at home, or eat at a local restaurant near the house we rent. Of course, if you're on property, and don't have a car, obviously your options are different/limited.

Anyway, my point is that the world will not end if your child needs to leave the park and nap and you miss your afternoon Fastpasses. If you're "running around with a clipboard like Danny Tanner," in the words of our friend Amy, it might not go how you planned. Just sayin' :)

He was obsessed with Jasmine. MEN.
Schedule a break 
I know some people who go back to their resort for a mid-day break to swim/relax/nap every day. We didn't do this the first day of our trip last year, and let's just say it didn't go very well. It was 90 degrees, and by dinner time small fry was flipping his shit, and I was throwing up from a dehydration-induced migraine. The next day, we went to the Magic Kingdom, and around 3:00 or so after a monumental tantrum in line for the Haunted Mansion, we said THAT'S IT. We stayed at the house until 7 p.m. or so and went back to the park for dinner, rides and fireworks and it was probably the best night of the trip. We didn't have the ability to do this every day, like at Universal, since it wasn't close enough to come back, but if you can, a break is helpful for everyone. Also schedule a "day off" if possible. We had a late breakfast at Kouzzina (RIP), walked around Downtown Disney, then hung out at the pool the rest of the day. The next day everyone felt refreshed and recharged and ready to tackle the parks again.

Get yourself a bigass bag
My husband carries a huge backpack filled with water bottles, snacks, diapers, changes of clothes ... and I always bring a Kipling crossbody bag. They don't sell this style anymore, which is a shame because it has about 5,000 different compartments. I'm barely exaggerating here - I've never seen a bag with so many sections. We just throw our bags under the stroller or hang them from the handle. Which brings me to the next point.

... and a bigass bag hook
Save your back and shoulders and hang all your crap that won't fit under the stroller - or that you need easier access for - from a stroller hook. You could spend $6.99 on a Mommy Hook from Babies R Us ... or do what I did and get a giant carabiner from Home Depot (roughly 3 bucks), which is the same f'ing thing.

Buy a pair of Fit Flops. This is important, people!! The average person walks about 8 miles a day in Disney World. Would you go for a casual 8-mile walk or run at home in your cheap plastic flip flops? (or at all, but that's me). I don't think so. I don't really do sneakers, especially when it's hot, so I turned to the ever-reliable Fit Flop (which I used to think was ugly as sin, but then I felt how comfortable they were and said F-it!) I walked all day in the parks with zero pain in these, and that tells you a lot, because the prior trip I was actually in tears from how much my feet hurt in my fancy gold sandals. Never again! Do yourself a favor and head to Nordstrom Rack, you can grab a pair for about 40 bucks as opposed to $100 full price. Lori and I wear these F'ers all summer long!

Fit Flops & Kipling bag in action at Hogsmeade

Bring or rent a decent stroller
I have an umbrella for short trips at home, but I'd never bring it to Disney World. You need to be able to turn on a dime in the middle of crowds, and your kid will probably nap in it, so it has to be comfortable and recline. We have the Britax B-agile and I highly recommend.

Leashes are your friend
Judge away, but I've got a leash and I'm not afraid to use it. My kid is a runner, and while he'll occasionally hold our hand and walk to go into a store or whatever, he bolts about 75% of the time. We have this Skip Hop monkey backpack harness and it works a treat on those rare occasions when we have to remove the small fry from his stroller, aka standing in line for rides. Ugh. Bonus: you can put small toys/snack/etc. inside.

Drink, drink, drink (water, that is)
Walking around all day in the heat and sun isn't good for anyone, so make sure you and your little one are drinking a ton of water. If you're indulging in an alcoholic bev, this is especially important (Drink around the world fans, I'm looking at you). Instead of paying roughly $4,000 in bottled water over the course of your vacation, a Brita water bottle is a great, eco-friendly alternative. Lori brought one of these on her trip last fall and loved it. You just re-fill it in a water fountain and can ask anyone at a quick-service restaurant to fill it with ice.

Get a first haircut!
The Harmony Barbershop has an awesome first cut package that's actually affordable. When we went, it was $18 and included the cut, a certificate, mouse ears embroidered with "my first haircut" and a little pouch with hair in it. It costs more than that for a kids' cut around here in Philly, so that's an F'ing good deal.

The barbers are so great with kids (obviously - it's Disney)

Don't be afraid to stay off-site
I'm sorry, but ain't nobody got time to be crammed into a little hotel room that costs 300 bucks a night when you're dealing with a toddler. Last year, I originally booked a room at the Dolphin, which would have cost $1,600 for the trip. Then I kept thinking about having to sleep in the same room as an 18-month-old who would literally wake up at the sound of a plastic bag crinkling, and started looking at rental properties nearby with 2+ bedrooms. I ended up canceling the Dolphin and we rented a huge townhouse five minutes away from the parks for under $600 for the entire week last year. Yes, you heard me right. Maybe when he's older we'll go back on-site, but right now I'm kind of spoiled having separate bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, washer/dryer ... and let's not forget the lanai. How else can I pretend I'm in an episode of Golden Girls wearing a floral kaftan with shoulder pads and/or sequins? HOW? Plus, you know, saving $1,000. That's also key. We found our house from

Check out the other parks, too
I always hear of people who "don't want to leave the Disney bubble." That's not an option for us, since A) We have family to visit and B) We're big Universal people, so even if we stayed on-site at Disney, we would rent a car or take a cab to Universal for at least a day. If you're a Harry Potter nerd like me, you've got to see the HP parks at least once! It's a nice change from Disney, especially if you like roller coasters. That being said, there's almost nothing to do with toddlers at Universal, and if we were going alone it might be a different story. They have a rider-swap option like Disney World, but my aunt isn't a huge rider - and has been to the parks a million times anyway - so she usually just sat out with our son. We stick with the Universal parks but people seem to love LegoLand for toddlers (never been) and then there's always Sea World, etc...

Remember the magic
This sounds corny, but it's true. The fine folks at Disney know what they're doing and I can guarantee you'll probably end up crying at some point on the trip. Our "this was totally worth it" moment came whilst watching the Wishes fireworks the night of the Haunted Mansion fiasco. Seeing your kid smiling and clapping and looking in awe at seeing fireworks for the first time is definitely a moment you can't put a price tag on ... or when he hugs Tigger grinning ear-to-ear when you expected him to flip out. In the end those are the moments you're going to remember forever. And why people keep coming back again and again.

Because those F'ers brainwash you. I'm sure of it.


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