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Disney World with Kids
Taking a young child to Disney World can prompt a lot of questions: am I doing this for him? me? both of us? or do I just need to see if he’ll enjoy it as much as I did when I was a kid? That last one probably resonates with most parents, as they grapple with reliving their own childhood experiences while providing meaningful adventures for their children.
Although my three-year-old son, Steven, has never asked to go to Disney World since he is blissfully unaware of its existence, I decide to make the pilgrimage with him over Spring Break and bring my sister, the doting aunt, along for the ride. My husband stays home, muttering something about consumerism in mouse ears and Steven being too young for all this.
We arrive in Orlando shortly before noon and navigate a maze of freeway exits on our way to the Contemporary Resort, our home for the weekend. I’ve told my young train buff that a monorail will be coursing its way through our hotel all weekend long and he can’t wait. About a quarter mile shy of the Contemporary, we fall prey to a speed trap and are presented with a most inhospitable speeding ticket. Once inside the Contemporary, we are the victims of a booking snafu – our room has been booked for the wrong nights and the hotel is completely sold out. This glitch turns out to be a blessing in disguise as we are rebooked at the Polynesian Resort, which is also on Disney’s monorail line. The Polynesian, as its name suggests, is a lovely property in an island setting and our room has a view of a beach, a crystal-blue lagoon and the majestic Grand Floridian Resort beyond. We finally exhale.
The monorail is waiting for us as we head over to the Magic Kingdom. Steven is entranced by our sleek transport and would gladly stay on for multiple round trips. We extract him from the car and try to get the lay of the land. What hits us straightaway is the incredible number of people all around. There are crowds everywhere and thick humidity compounds the claustrophobia. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and we haven’t had a bite to eat since 7 AM so we work our way up Main Street, U.S.A. and stop in at Casey’s Corner for some lunch. Three hot dogs, two fries and three soft drinks add up to $21, making me especially happy that I’ve traveled with home-baked treats for the weekend.
Heading into Tomorrowland, we encounter epic lines at every attraction and Steven refuses to wait. We continue to stroll, finally spotting the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts cheerily signing autographs and posing for pictures. This type of character meet ‘n greet is something that’s high on Steven’s list, which is why we’ve made an autograph book our very first Disney purchase. There seems to be no particular order to things until a young woman motions to us and asks us to stand behind two other families.
“Just wait here and they’ll be with you in a moment,” she tells us.
The two groups ahead of us get their turn and now it’s ours. Suddenly, the young woman puts her hand in front of us and yells for us to stop.
“I’m sorry, we’re out of time,” she says. “The characters need to get ready for the parade.”
“Wait a minute,” I implore. “You told us to stand in line and that we’d get our turn. We’re the last ones here and it will only take a moment. My son is really looking forward to this.”
The young woman fixes me with a steely gaze and makes it abundantly clear that the White Rabbit and his queen have no time for us on this gray afternoon. Steven is crushed. I’m left to wonder what Walt would have made of all this.
More walking yields even longer lines so we decide to head back to the Polynesian for a swim. As we near the exit, we see that a parade is starting to develop. I pop Steven on my shoulder just as Mickey comes into view, a high-stepping leader of this merry band. Steven’s eyes grow wide and a broad smile crosses his face. Pooh and Tigger are next, followed by assorted princesses, Aladdin and the Genie and finally Pluto and Goofy. Steven keeps asking who Goofy is, unable to distinguish the lovable lug from the rest of the bunch. My son is enthralled…but is this one thrill worth the price of admission?
Back at the hotel, a thunderstorm washes away any thoughts of swimming so we read books until dinnertime. We have reservations at the Concourse Steakhouse at the Contemporary Resort, a good thing since the wait for walk-ups is over an hour long. We’re seated within ten minutes at a table that’s mere steps away from the maitre ‘d, another unlucky break. My sister and I order steaks while Steven requests chicken tenders. The fellow at the table behind us summons our waiter the minute he leaves our table and proceeds to tell him that his steak was the worst he’d ever had. Our steaks are serviceable but Steven’s chicken tenders are hard as a rock. I flag down our waiter and ask him to trade out the stiff chicken for a grilled cheese sandwich but Steven falls asleep before it arrives. Luckily, Steven wakes up for the monorail ride back to the Polynesian and smiles all the way home.
After a quick breakfast, we take the monorail back to the Magic Kingdom. Our first stop is the steam train that circles the property and Steven makes a point of jumping into the very last car. The engineer, a cheery fellow, is standing right behind us and chats us up, then happily poses for pictures with Steven once we get off.
We’ve disembarked at Mickey’s Toontown Fair, where our first stop is Mickey’s Country House. The four-room cottage is darling and even better, Mickey happens to be home! He’s greeting guests out back so we queue up and wait our turn. First we line up outside a building and then walk along a meandering, roped-off trail into a holding room. From here, several families at a time are escorted into Mickey’s inner sanctum. I start to get nervous as our turn rapidly approaches and make a mental note of everything I want to do – snap pictures, get an autograph, shake Mickey’s hand. My quick planning is for naught since I freeze when the big moment comes. Then Steven balks at walking up to Mickey and insists I give him one of my home-baked mini-muffins as a prop. While my son is barking orders into one ear, Mickey’s handler is trying to snap me out of my stupor in the other.
“Open the autograph book, please,” she prods gently.
I manage to flip the book open while Steven shyly walks up to Mickey. Another of Mickey’s handlers snaps pictures while my kid chows down. Steven is finally warming up to Mickey when he’s told his time is up. My son looks quite pleased, certainly more so than me when I realize I didn’t take a single picture. My memory lapse turns out to be irrelevant since the trail away from Mickey leads right into a tent where you can purchase pictures of your child’s eventful meeting. The pictures are terrific so my sister buys a set for the folks back home. This tent also serves as a superstore and it doesn’t take long for Steven to spot a whirlygig toy that he must have. It’s cute so I buy it along with a t-shirt and a few other souvenirs.
Back outside, we make our way over to The Barnstormer at Goofy’s Wiseacre Farm, a “family roller coaster.” The whirlygig toy quickly pays for itself as it keeps Steven entertained while we wait in line. The ride turns out to be twisting, fast and brief.
“What did you think?” I ask Steven.
“It was scary,” he says.
“Would you do it again?” I continue.
Saving our next roller coaster ride for later in the day, we make our way over to Fantasyland in search of more Junior Mouseketeer attractions. The Mad Tea Party, which had caught Steven’s eye the day before, is nowhere near as popular today so we line up and wait our turn. My sister, Steven and I step into a bright pink teacup and begin to whirl and twirl. Steven turns on his whirlygig and it spins in rhythm. A broad smile creases my young son’s face.
“I want to do this TWO times!” he shouts.
I explain that riding twice would involve standing in line again so we save the encore for later.
Next up is Cinderella’s Golden Carousel, also surprisingly short of visitors. The line moves incredibly fast and we’re on horseback within two minutes. The carousel isn’t fast enough for anyone in our group but Steven still asks to ride twice. We decide to return to the Polynesian for lunch instead.
Our pu-pu platters at the Kona Café are more than satisfying if a bit sweet. A mom at the next table orders a green salad for herself and an ice cream sundae for her maybe-four-year-old daughter. Suddenly the childhood obesity problem is made crystal clear.
In a karmic stroke of luck, our post-prandial return to Fantasyland brings us face to face with the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts. We are not denied this time and Steven gets his autographs while I record the event on digital film.
We walk through Liberty Square on our way to Adventureland and The Magic Carpets of Aladdin, an attraction that Steven is keen on visiting. The line here is much longer but blessedly shaded from the sun by an overhead canopy. This also comes in handy once it starts to rain. We stay relatively dry and fly around on magic carpets under leaden skies.
Doubling back to Liberty Square, we hop on board a Liberty Square Riverboat for a ride around Tom Sawyer Island. The raindrops have been replaced by sunshine and our lazy riverboat ride couldn’t be nicer. Our route back to Fantasyland leads us right to “it’s a small world,” an attraction I had expected to be closed during our visit due to refurbishment. Surprisingly, it’s open and although the line is long, I cajole Steven the entire way since this was my favorite ride as a kid. We hop into a little boat along with about ten other folks and enter the world of small boys and girls tirelessly dancing to a very catchy tune. Steven’s eyes are wide open and his jaw is agape. I don’t even bother to explain this ride and choose to enjoy the moment instead. We opt for a final spin on the carousel before heading back to the Polynesian.
Dinner on this night is at ‘Ohana, a family-style eatery where an endless array of grilled meats and island treats are in store. ‘Ohana means “family,” which everyone from the hostess to our waiter and his staff are keen on telling us. My sister and I get a raging case of island fever and order a mai tai and a pina colada, something we rarely do. A huge platter is placed on our table and is piled with assorted hot and cold salads and bright red chicken wings. Another member of the wait staff appears with skewers of beef, pork and shrimp.
“Just let me know if you need more,” he says cheerily.
I devour the shrimp while my sister works on the salads and Steven digs into a bowl of macaroni and cheese. Steven’s eyes start to close as he’s about halfway through his meal so I bring him over to my lap, where he promptly falls asleep. My son’s early snooze prevents him from participating in the kid’s games, among them a raucous coconut race that involves sweeping huge coconuts around the restaurant’s shiny wood floor.
“What a difference from last night!” my sister exclaims. “This is so much fun!”
A ukelele-playing gent begins to croon something like “hook-a-lele lady” while the kids trade in the coconuts for hula hoops. Our table is cleared off and the waiter brings us passion fruit cheesecake that is absolutely divine. We take in the Magic Kingdom’s nightly fireworks over coffee while Steven snoozes.
The character breakfast at Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary Resort is the one must-do on our final day at Disney so we dress quickly and hop aboard the monorail. Goofy is greeting guests at the restaurant, although the crowd is so thick that Steven is unable to get his autograph. We are seated within ten minutes and informed that the characters will approach us from our left and that we should have our autograph books ready once we see them coming.
Kids all around are nearly jumping out of their skin in anticipation while Steven, in stark contrast, just wants to eat. We load up on breakfast items from the ample buffet, making a point of getting an extra helping of mouse-eared waffles. The Mouse himself, in a bright red jacket and chef’s toque, comes by first and we are ready for both an autograph and a photo op. Minnie is next, her polka-dotted dress topped by an apron.
“Minnie seems to be working hard,” remarks Steven.
I think of assorted women’s work jokes that I could make but wisely let the moment pass since my son seems smitten with Minnie.
Chip is next, then Dale, with Pluto bringing up the rear. Steven gets so caught up in all of this that we linger for another round of visits by the same characters. I could swear that Steven is flirting with Minnie. Goofy is unencumbered as we exit the restaurant so Steven grabs the autograph book right out of my hands and opens it up for his new best friend.
Our hopes for a swim back at the Polynesian are dashed by the lateness of the hour so we check out instead. Steven tosses his head back and gazes skyward as we leave the Polynesian’s tall, plant-filled lobby.
“This is pretty, mommy,” he says. “I want to come back.”
A few tips to make your visit to Walt Disney World easier and more enjoyable:
- Bring snacks from home. Your child’s favorite healthy snack will help keep him energized throughout the day and will save you a lot of money.
- Buy an autograph book or bring one from home. Your kid will thank you!
- Let your child pick out a new toy at one of the many Disney shops. Aim for something simple and compact that will keep him occupied while he stands in line (which he will surely have to do).
- Make dinner reservations a few weeks before your visit. The Disney site (disneyworld.com) lists the restaurants that serve dinner in both the theme parks and at the on-site resorts and offers a brief description of each. Call (407) WDW-DINE (939-3463) for reservations.
- Return to your hotel for a midday break. Most kids wear down as the day goes on thanks to the incredible intensity of the Disney experience. Lunch, an afternoon nap or a swim are all good reasons to return to home base. Choosing a hotel on Disney’s monorail line is an especially good idea with small kids as it makes the return “home” fast and fun.
- Above all, don’t try to do it all while at Disney. It would take three full days to explore the Magic Kingdom alone with one or two small kids in tow. Older kids should feel satisfied with two full days at each theme park. A little goes a long way at Disney and it’s invariably the small things that make up the best parts of the whole.
Polynesian Resort, Walt Disney World, (407) WDW-MAGIC (939-6244) or disneyworld.com. Double rooms start at $304/night during “Value Season.” The Contemporary Resort, also on Disney’s monorail line, is somewhat less expensive ($244/night during Value Season) and another smart choice. While these properties are in the “Deluxe” Category, there are many good on-site choices in both the “Moderate” and “Value” categories. Consult the web site for more information.
‘Ohana , Polynesian Resort. A slice of Polynesia served up family-style. Dinner. Kona Café, Polynesian Resort. American fare with an island twist. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Concourse Steakhouse, Contemporary Resort. Steaks and other American favorites are served in the resort’s stories-high concourse. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Chef Mickey’s, Contemporary Resort. A buffet and characters await – the kids will find dining with Mickey and Minnie irresistible. Breakfast and dinner. Call (407) WDW-DINE (939-3463) for reservations at any of these restaurants.
Magic Kingdom Theme Park , Walt Disney World. Open seven days, hours vary. Check the web site for more detailed information (calendars are available several months in advance). Single-day tickets are $59.75 for those ten and over and $48.00 for children ages 3-9. Multi-day Park Hopper passes come in many configurations and offer considerable savings over a 4+ day visit. Tickets can be purchased at disneyworld.com.
Disney’s “Magic Your Way” package allows visitors to customize their vacation by choosing the most suitable accommodations and theme park tickets (a dining plan is also available). Rates are about $1,500 for a six-night, seven-day hotel/ticket package for a family of four at a Disney Value Resort (airport shuttle is included during the “Happiest Celebration on Earth,” see below).
The “Happiest Celebration on Earth” is an eighteen-month-long extravaganza commemorating the opening of the first Disney theme park in Anaheim, California in May, 1955. Several new attractions will be unveiled at Walt Disney World as part of this event, including “Soarin’,” a fly-over of California, Disney-style, at EPCOT and a visit with Lucky the Dinosaur, the world’s first mobile audio-animatronic figure, at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Elaine Sosa is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and three-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.