Time for Disney?
Is Your Child Ready for the Magic Kingdom?
A Family Favorite
And the screaming begins.
“Do-pee!” squeals a delirious three-year-old boy, breaking out into a huge euphoric grin and embracing the most hapless and well-meaning of Snow White’s seven dwarfs as if he were a long lost friend.
His folks faithfully record the moment on a video camera, all the while congratulating themselves for coming to Disney at the perfect time. Nearby, though, another kid, approximately the same age, is positively freaking out. He’s squalling like he’s just seen Satan himself, running away from the well-meaning dwarf in fear and bewilderment into the arms of his stunned and disappointed parents, who are beginning to think they should have waited a few years before making the big trip to Disneyland or Disneyworld.
The Fear Factor
Next to wondering about the best time to visit Disney to avoid crowds, many families obsess about the perfect age to take their children. The answer isn’t simple. In many ways, Disney seems the most child-friendly place on the planet, offering something for everyone. But it’s also an expensive trip, and to do it properly requires a visit of at least a few days. Making that kind of commitment requires some careful thinking about what you want from the trip, what you know about your child, and understanding your child’s limitations.
“It’s really a case-by-case basis. You have to understand your child’s patience, attention span, and what they are ready for,” says Rick Sylvain, a spokesperson for Disney World. “There are situations where kids just aren’t ready. Disney World is overwhelming. It asks a lot of kids.”
And of parents, as we discovered on a recent visit with an adventurous four-year-old, who delighted in just about everything scary, and a slightly bewildered three-year-old, who adored Disney’s roving characters but spent at least two hours a day passed out in his stroller. Yes, it was all too muchï¿½for them and for usï¿½but we still have no regrets about taking them so young. Along the way, though, we saw lots of stressed-out parents dragging fearful, clinging children (of all ages) who had clearly been pushed too far in very expensive timeouts.
Setting (and NOT Setting) Expectations
We too, had a few of those less-than-magic moments. But we also got to watch our younger son hugging Goofy, Mickey, Pooh, and Tigger with joyful abandon. And while our four-year-old informed us that Captain Hook was nothing more than “a man dressed up with a hook,” he was convinced he had climbed “the real” Swiss Family Robinson Tree House in Adventureland, twice. Even the most organized parents, the ones who read the guidebooks, visit the website and plan their trips carefully, something the folks at Disney heavily push — can find themselves confounded by their children’s reactions.
David Globin of Manhattan had low expectations of his 18-month-old daughter, figuring she’d sleep through a great deal of it. Instead, “it was like she was on amphetamines. She was so keyed up. She loved it. She just kept saying over and over again, ‘Small World, Small World, Small World,’” the infamous ride where dolls from different nations belt out the same tune in 124 languages.
Lori Hiller, a children’s therapist from Brooklyn, figured her four-year-old daughter Emily would adore everything, and wrote off one-year-old Sam as far too young. As it turned out, Emily spent her first few hours frightened and somewhat overwhelmed, while Sam laughed and clapped and generally delighted in the entire experience.
The bottom line seems to be, it all depends on your child. But here are some tips from the experts to make the choices easier and the trip more worthwhile, and some the things to consider before taking younger children.
First, remember this:
- There are more than 30 million visitors to Disney World alone each year, and the most popular visiting times naturally are during school breaks, including summer and Christmas week.
- If you’re bringing children younger than age five, you have a huge advantage: You can choose a non-school break week and beat some of that congestion.
- Before you bring younger kids, by the way, don’t say too much. Get in the car or on the bus or plane and just show up. This avoids the inevitable build-up that can end in disappointment. For example, the Pirates of the Caribbean was closed for repairs during our visit; it would have been our four-year-old’s favorite, had he been told of it.
Disney and Wee Ones
If your children are under age five, the infamous 107-acre Magic Kingdom, the oldest and most famous of Disney’s four parks (the others are Epcot Center, MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom), is an obvious best bet. The venerable MK is perfect for little ones, between the many non-scary rides, the elaborate parades (both day and night), the fireworks and the character meals, where Winnie, Mickey and even Cinderella will wander to your table for a visit. (Reservations are suggested for character meals; call 407-WDW-DINE.) Mickey’s Toontown Fair provides a guaranteed spot for meeting the mouse and his buddies and has a gentle, toddler-friendly roller coaster.
Other great spots for this age group include The Country Bear Jamboree in Frontierland, where the crooning, robot-like audio-animatronics bears provide an amusing and cooling break from the often blinding sunlight. There’s a constant array of short, but elaborate, stage presentations in Fantasyland, like Beauty and the Beast and the Lion King. Our four-year-old couldn’t get enough of the Haunted Mansion in Liberty Square (fun scary, not terrifying scary), and rode twice on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin in Tomorrowland. And when we all needed a break, we boarded the railroad that makes a 15-20 minute grand circle tour of the Magic Kingdom or took advantage of the water sprouts that provide quick cool-downs (bring a bathing suit or an extra set of clothes for each child) in places like Ariel’s grotto and Donald Duck’s boat in Mickey’s Toontown.
If you have an infant, there are diaper-changing rooms in every restroom, and baby-care services that include a nursing room (with rocking chairs and dim light) and feeding rooms with high chairs, bibs and plastic spoons. The one in Magic Kingdom is behind Casey’s Corner on Main Street USA, not far from the entrance.
Children ages four to six are young enough to enjoy a lot of Disney World in a way that will soon disappear, once the earnestness and awe of early childhood gives way to cynicism and the inevitable been-there, done-that cockiness. And if you wait too long, they may be bored by delightful rides like the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. They’ll be more opinionated, and less interested in fulfilling fantasies like posing with the Little Mermaid’s Ariel, who sits patiently in her grotto and poses endlessly for adoring youngsters. As they get older, you gain scarier and more adventurous thrills and will inevitably find yourself in elaborate water parks like Blizzard Beach, River Country and Typhoon Lagoon.
Height restrictions, meanwhile, will keep smaller kids off some of the wilder rides. That means 48 inches at Space Mountain and Alien Encounter in Magic Kingdom, the Kali River Rapids in Animal Kingdom and the Rock and Roller Coaster and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at MGM. There’s a less restrictive 40-inch requirement for some mildly frightening rides such as Countdown to Extinction in the Animal Kingdomï¿½now known as Dinosaur, in honor of Disney’s newest releaseï¿½and Splash Mountain in the Magic Kingdom, a huge hit with our four-year-old.
“A basic piece of advice is, don’t do it all, be realistic,” says Disney’s Sylvain. “This is a very big place and many are compelled to try to do it all, but it’s probably a mistake with real young kids.” Perhaps the best survival tip we got was this: Arrive at the parks early and take a mid-day break. That means heading back to your pool for the early afternoon, then returning to the parks at around 3 p.m., in time for parades, dinner, more parades and fireworks.
Don’t Forget Other Disney Resorts!
This, of course, is much easier if you are staying in a Disney on-site resort; another piece of advice we’re glad we took. We chose the budget All-Star Music Resort (each room sleeps up to five, ask for cribs and bedrails) in part because our kids were young enough not to demand amenities or elaborate water slides. The guitar-shaped pool was just fine for an afternoon swim. Also, if you stay at a Disney hotel on site, there’s in-room babysitting available, the commute to the parks is made easy by monorail, boat and bus connections and you get to enter a different park each day 90 minutes earlier than the crowds.
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