We were tucked inside a mercifully cool theatre on a scorching afternoon, singing Be Our Guest as clips from 1991′s Beauty and the Beast flashed on the screen, when I looked over the heads of our two children and saw my husband’s eyes welling with tears. That’s when the realization hit: We were now Disney people.
Before this trip, our children, ages 5 and 2, had never heard of Mickey or Minnie, Woody or Buzz, Elsa or Anna. It wasn’t a planned Disney boycott, but we try to limit screen time and the kids were already on decent terms with Elmo, Cookie Monster, Peppa Pig and the Paw Patrol gang.
But the pandemic has a way of changing plans. To borrow some amusement park lexicon, we’ve been on an unending roller coaster for three years, except instead of stomach-dropping thrills, it’s been worry and anxiety over isolation, daycare and school closings, and developmental delays.
So when the opportunity came in the form of an invitation from my brother-in-law and his family to take us all to Disney World for a week last August, we didn’t need much convincing (I even dragged my sister along). It helped that the invite coincided with our family’s first bout with COVID-19, giving us ample time to start streaming some of the classics before our adventure. It turns out parental guilt over excessive screen time evaporates pretty quickly after several days cut off from the outside world.
We quickly realized planning a trip to Disney World has a steep learning curve. Navigating the Disney app, figuring out what parks to go to and in what order, making reservations, narrowing down attractions and rides to a few must-do items and organizing a bunch of just-in-case-everything-is-booked backups is just the beginning. It all seemed exhausting and we hadn’t even left yet.
But once we passed through those iconic gates, we slowly started to get why Disney has such a loyal following, with millions making the trip each year. For the kids, the attraction was immediate. We snagged a last-minute cancellation spot at Chef Mickey’s (pro tip: always check for cancellations the night before!), a restaurant famed not for its menu and accompanying steep prices, but for the cast of characters who interact with all of the kids (and adults) they see.
Even if my children will have been too young to remember that meal, the sight of the pure joy and exhilaration on their faces upon meeting Mickey Mouse and his friends for the first time will be etched in my memory forever. And that’s how we as parents ended up buying into the magic of Disney, only a few hours after stepping off the plane. It wasn’t just the smiling faces that sold us. It was Disney’s meticulous and consistently excellent customer service that sealed the deal. Small, loud children aren’t just tolerated: They are welcomed.
Throughout each of the resort’s parks, there are ramps aplenty, with ample room for double strollers, as well as breastfeeding and baby change areas, break areas for children experiencing sensory overload and cast members every few feet who will solve reservation snafus in mere moments, all without snark and barely contained eye rolls. Did I mention outside snacks and drinks are welcome? But let’s not pretend this trip was all stress-free and smile-filled. Note the use of “trip” rather than “vacation,” as we were travelling with kids, who somehow wake up even earlier with triple the energy and snack requirements when they’re away from home, even if the adults stayed up too late the night before catching up over wine. We lost count of how many meltdowns took place, both among the kids and the grownups.
We had to put up with searing heat, big crowds and long lines, things that definitely triggered many of the aforementioned meltdowns. Parks we thought would be a hit – the Magic Kingdom with its beautiful Cinderella castle – ended up being too overwhelming and crowded with not enough grab-and-go food options to please a couple of starving, cranky kids.
But other aspects of the trip surprised us in welcome ways. For instance, the Animal Kingdom, which most Disney travel sites seem to place firmly in the “meh” category, was an absolute must-see for our family. Unlike the Magic Kingdom or Hollywood Studios, which open onto main streets that usually have a parade of Disney characters marching down them, the entrance to the Animal Kingdom is like walking into a tropical rainforest, with waterfalls and leafy trees providing ample sun coverage for the birds, wallabies and other animals on display.
It was a needed reprieve from some of the busyness of the other parks and set the tone for a more relaxing day. Since we aren’t big theme-park people, we weren’t sure what we would do with ourselves for several days at Disney World. But we were glad to discover this wasn’t an issue. There were enough rides to keep our two-year-old busy while the other parent lined up with our five-year-old for the Slinky Dog Dash at Hollywood Studios, a ride that was one of the highlights of the trip. And as we did that, the older kids and adults in our extended group got to enjoy some of the most intense thrill rides the park has to offer, including a roller coaster that speeds around and through a replica of Mount Everest (another win for the Animal Kingdom).
One of the most enjoyable activities wasn’t a ride at all. It was wandering through Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, an immersive experience at the Hollywood Studios park, which has become an acclaimed area of the resort since it opened in 2019. And with good reason. Even a casual Star Wars fan like me was thoroughly impressed by this section of the park, which is like literally stepping into the Black Spire Outpost on the planet Batuu, complete with Oga’s Cantina and a replica Millennium Falcon.
The kids were spent after a morning of action at the adjacent Toy Story Land, which left me time to push the stroller through the Star Wars area with relatively few interruptions, watching with amusement as a very convincing Disney cast member dressed as Kylo Ren interrogated an innocent park goer who may or may not have been part of the resistance. But even moms need their own fun when on a kid-centric trip to Disney World. I got mine in the form of a ride with my sister on Aerosmith’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, which seemed like a fun idea at the time – until I found myself hurtling into the darkness at90kilometres an hour, doing upside turns in complete darkness while the band’s classic tunes blasted into the very core of my brain.
I never thought I’d find myself on a ride like that. But I also didn’t expect to take two small children to Disney World and really, truly enjoy almost all aspects of the experience. Maybe that’s what the magic of Disney World is all about: a place where you can dance and sing, relive parts of your childhood, laugh out loud and scream in terror all while finding your inner, forgotten, fun self.
We’re saving our Minnie ears for our next trip.
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