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Travel and Beaches

Going to Disney with children? Planning makes it magic

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 03:22 PM

Nothing says you can't just show up at the Magic Kingdom at your leisure, pick an attraction and get in line.

It's a theme park, after all, not a military operation. What's the big deal?

Well, the big deal is that the four Disney World parks themselves are a big deal – big in size, big in price and big in experience. They offer beloved characters to meet, rides that promise thrills and laughter, and photo opportunities around every corner.

And that sets up expectations that are difficult to fulfill, especially when you toss in large crowds, wilting heat and, oh yeah, those little children we assume will love every Mousey moment but get tired, fussy and hungry at the most inconvenient times.

If you're taking your kids for the first time, having a plan in place will help you enjoy a trip with more magic, less meltdown.

Advice abounds in guidebooks and online for how to maximize your fun at Disney. Park veterans say the best approach is to educate yourself, prioritize your must-sees and stay flexible.

"It takes planning, because it's very overwhelming," says Marisol Lopez, a Lakeland mom who started taking her youngest when he was just 3 months old. But, she warns, "It's not to say that you have to sit at the computer and look up and plan every step you're going to take. If you do that, you're going to have a miserable time, because you have to roll with the punches."

Lopez, whose children are now 10 and 13, serves on Disney's Moms' Panel with other experienced park parents who were chosen to give advice to families planning to visit.

She and two other Tampa Bay panel members offered their insider tips for successful first visits, along with theme park blogger Leigh Caldwell of www.themeparkmom.com.

What age is best?

Deborah Bowen started bringing her, now 6 and 7, when they were infants. She pushed them in a tandem stroller, and they enjoyed looking at the bright colors.

"Part of the beauty of Disney is, when you're ready to come, it's ready to have you," says Bowen, a Moms' Panel member from Land O' Lakes.

Disney is baby-friendly. Each park has a Baby Care Center with kitchens, changing stations, private nursing rooms and rocking chairs. Rides also offer "baby swaps," which allow families to wait together in line and let parents take turns riding while one stays with the baby.

Moms' Panel member Leslie Krzan first took her son to Disney at 3 months old. Her daughter is due in August, and Krzan expects to bring the infant to a panelist reunion in September.

But the early trips are more for the parent than the child, she says.

"If you're going for the kids' experience, 2 or 3 is a really good age," says Krzan, of Holiday. "They recognize the characters, they know what they like, they're old enough to enjoy the rides."

The Magic Kingdom, especially Fantasyland, is the best place to start, the moms say, because small children can go on the most rides. With the Mad Tea Party's teacups, Dumbo and "It's a Small World," nothing is too scary, which Bowen says makes it a great way to acclimate little ones to Disney.

On the other hand, Krzan says she has learned not to assume anything is too big or too scary for her son. He's almost 3 and loves the Haunted Mansion. She tries to keep it light for him by asking him to spot as many ghosts as he can.

Just in case things get intense, Disney provides ample opportunities to leave an intimidating ride if children think they are ready but change their mind. And when a child tries something new or finally gets tall enough to ride Space Mountain, for example, Disney staff makes it special.

Bowen's oldest son recently rode all the "mountain" coasters at Magic Kingdom – Space, Splash and Big Thunder. They told a worker (called a Cast Member at Disney) who gave him a certificate for his accomplishment as a "magical moment."

When should you go?

Disney says attendance is at its lowest after New Year's in January, between Labor Day and Thanksgiving week, and the week after Thanksgiving until the week before Christmas.

Some days of the week tend to be busier than others at certain parks, with Magic Kingdom's hottest days falling on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Lopez likes going in September, when most kids go back to school and attendance drops. Krzan can't resist the holidays – her family loves Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and looking at the lights -- and she says there's a lull in the crowds the first two weeks of December.

If you are bound by the school calendar, you can look for crowd projections and historical numbers online and take that into consideration when you choose which parks to hit and when. TouringPlans.com shows projected crowd levels on a scale of 1 to 10, singling out which parks to avoid and which are your best bet.

Avoid mealtime letdowns with reservations. Disney is a great place for kids to experience finer dining, Caldwell says. Everyone expects children to be there, so you won't get any funny looks, but popular spots fill up fast.

Visitors can make reservations up to 180 days in advance. Caldwell likes to make hers online, because she can try various dates and get alternatives if her first choice is taken. She says she usually can get at least her second choice as little as a week or two ahead of time, unless it's a big holiday.

What should you bring?

Sunscreen and hand sanitizer are at the top of Caldwell's list, and both get reapplied frequently during the day.

Other musts: snacks (Goldfish crackers and fruit chews are popular) and bottles of water. Concession stands will give out free ice water, or you can bring a cup and refill at fountains. Caldwell takes Crystal Light powdered drink sticks to mix with water from the fountain and makes her own lemonade.

Lopez says she doesn't go anywhere without baby wipes to clean up dirty, sweaty kids. She also freezes wet washcloths in zipped plastic bags the night before. As they thaw, they stay cool enough to be refreshing.

Her children pack drawstring backpacks with T-shirts and shorts, rolled up in a plastic baggie so they have dry clothes after water rides.

Krzan likes to bring small toys her son can play with while waiting at the dinner table or in long lines.

And Caldwell always has a first-aid kit with Band-Aids. She also outfits her daughter with a wristband that shows her cell phone number, in case they get separated (available at www.callmecuffs.com).

What park should you go to?

If you can do only one park, the moms say make it Magic Kingdom.

"It's where all the characters are, it's the castle, it's the Disney magic," Lopez says. "You walk into that park on Main Street, and you see that castle – I don't care how old you are, you're amazed."

The downside is it's so popular, first-timers really should dedicate two days to see as much as possible without making themselves crazy. Lopez says the extra time also will let them repeat the rides they love.

Should you take a midday break?

A lot of guidebooks suggest staying on Disney property so you can arrive at the park early and leave around lunchtime, taking Disney transportation back to your resort for a nap or swim and returning to the park later for more attractions, dinner and fireworks.

What works best for your family will depend on how long you stay and what suits your kids.

Caldwell says the break is nice for children who require afternoon naps. When her daughter, now 7, used to fall asleep in her stroller, Caldwell and her husband hopped the monorail to one of the resorts. They live in Clermont, so they weren't staying over, but anyone is welcome to wander the resort.

They enjoyed relaxing with a drink from the hotel bar in the air conditioning while their daughter slept – and everyone got a second wind for the rest of the day.

For Krzan, leaving when her son napped failed because he would wake up and not fall asleep again. Now she and her husband remain at the park, but they take a breather and get a snack, seek out air- conditioning and people-watch.

They also love the water parks and frequently "park hop," starting at Typhoon Lagoon and heading to one of the theme parks for the afternoon and early evening.

Did you know?

Don't tell your kids, Lopez says, but you can save money on souvenirs by buying them in advance when www.disneystore.com has sales. You can dole them out here and there, satisfying the need for a memento without breaking the bank.

Buttons are also great free collectibles, she says. Guest services stations give them out to commemorate birthdays, first visits, graduations and anniversaries.

Bowen and her children bring lanyards and pins so they can swap pins with Disney workers. Autograph books also are fun for kids. Bowen recommends kids bring a plain T-shirt, a Sharpie and a clipboard. Clip the shirt on the board and seek characters to sign the instantly personalized tee.

And finally:

Repeat this mantra: You can't do it all. You can't see it all.

Bowen has each of her family members tell her which attraction or restaurant is most important for that particular visit. They prioritize those choices, and everything else is a bonus.

"My No. 1 tip: Relax," she says. "Make your list, figure out what you've gotta do, and let the rest just happen."


cpastor@tampatrib.com (727) 815-1072 Follow Courtney Cairns Pastor on Twitter @TBOmom.

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