It’s not your fault. You imagined a magical family vacation at Disneyland. You honestly believed you would create happy memories that would last a lifetime. Perhaps you remember Disneyland from your own childhood and want to relive those experiences. Before you plunk down some serious cash, let’s discuss how a Disneyland trip with young children can turn best intentions into bad parenting.
Think about it. Your memories of childhood fun at Disneyland are “kid’ memories, not parent memories. They are hazy at best and are easily warped by time and sentimentality. I know this, because I grew up in Los Angeles and enjoyed Disneyland approximately 595 times. (Anyone old enough to remember “E” tickets?)
Like you, I brought my two young children to Disneyland to relive the magic of my own childhood memories. They were 4.5 and 2 years old. Without reliving every painful moment, I can assure you it was the last time we visited Disneyland until the year my son turned 14, when I chaperoned his middle school band trip. (Spoiler Alert: Disneyland is much more fun when your teen can go off with his friends and you only see him at lunch and dinner.)
Why does Disneyland inspire the worst parenting behaviors? Here are the top 5 reasons and some tips to survive your Disney experience:
- THE DAY IS TOO LONG: Unless your child is the most patient, flexible, well-rested child in the neighborhood, he or she will inevitably get bored, tired, hungry, and cranky at some point during the day. Unfortunately, parents have paid a ton of money to enjoy the park and darn it, we are determined to ENJOY the park at all costs! Result: parental anger and frustration; child tantrums.SAVVY TIP: Go for the 2 or 3 day pass and return to the hotel pool often for a rejuvenating dip and nap. You won’t be as invested in seeing everything in one day and your children will be better rested and fed.
- THE LINES CAN BE ENDLESS: I don’t care how interesting Disney tries to make the experience of standing in line, you are still waiting 45 minutes for a 5 minute ride and that is a recipe for whining, crying, and short fuses (yours and your child’s). I’ve seen beautiful tantrums thrown by children and parents, brought on by a long line that drains everyone’s patience level. Also, food lines are longest during prime mealtime hours, so avoid the rush at noon if at all possible.SAVVY TIP: Bring games, activities, and snacks with you into every line. Use this opportunity to connect and have a conversation with your child. What’s their favorite ride so far? Can they make predictions about what this ride will be like? Study the park map together and plan out where you’ll go next. If the line is 10 minutes long, plan to do another ride before resting or eating. If the line is much longer than that, take a break before the next line experience. Touringplans.com is a great resource with an app that tells you how long lines are in real time. You can also use their tools to see historical crowd levels and plan your trip to coincide with the least crowded dates if possible.
- THE TRAIL OF TEARS: When I took my kids to Disneyland about ten years ago, my daughter was a Disney Princess fanatic. Not just any princess, of course. She loved Belle from Beauty and the Beast. She dressed up like Belle, she read books about Belle, and she was DYING to see Belle live and in person. Towards the back of the park, there was a long line (more than an hour) to do the Princess Walk, a trail where children could meet and interact with their favorite princesses. Unfortunately, the organizers of this “opportunity” hid the path around the corner from people waiting in line and didn’t mention that you only got to take photos with the four princesses that were “available” during the time of your walk down the path. In other words, if Belle was on a coffee break, and you only met Cinderella, Mulan, Pocahontas, and Snow White, you will be dealing with a major meltdown that only a little Princess-obsessed girl can throw. Which is why I dubbed this Princess Walk the “Trail of Tears.” I didn’t see this “attraction” last time I visited Disney, so hopefully it’s gone and forgotten like the eighth dwarf in Snow White.SAVVY TIP: Disney began offering other ways to meet your favorite princesses. Look up “Character Experiences” on the Disneyland website to find ways for face-to-face encounters and save your child the disappointment meltdown.
- CHARACTER “EXPERIENCES” : Speaking of finding your favorite characters, some children (and even adults) DO NOT LIKE people dressed up as life-size cartoon characters. These characters are surprising, overwhelming, a bit too friendly, and very, very hot inside those large heads. Some of them have “handlers” (bodyguards) that help them navigate the park and avoid mischievous teens. Young children are often scared of these large characters, as they’ve only seen them on screens or in books, if at all. This is especially true for children who are naturally slow-to-warm with strangers.SAVVY TIP: If you spot the character from afar, lift up your small child to see them and let them watch from a distance before approaching. Never assume your child will enjoy meeting a character and don’t insist they shake hands or say “hello.” Stay nearby for support, as needed. Validate that this is something exciting and possibly a bit scary. Don’t run away, but don’t force an interaction either. Seeing the characters in a parade is a less-threatening introduction.
- FAMILY DRAMA: You love the wild rides; your partner prefers “It’s a Small World.” You love the excitement of the crowds; your partner prefers to tour the quieter areas of the park. And now there’s a third, fourth, or even fifth person on your Disney adventure and they each have a preference as well. Since you’ve invested (a lot) in this “family” adventure, you are probably upset when your children waste time with squabbling about where to go next. Sibling rivalry may peak during times of stress. Carefully balancing the needs of each family member becomes a Herculean task that leads to arguments, fights, tantrums, blaming, and, of course, tears.SAVVY TIP: Divide and conquer. Go off with one child (or two of similar temperaments) and enjoy some bonding time. Meet for lunch if you have to, or have lunch with your child, and meet up to exchange children after lunch. Everyone will be happier. I promise.
Hopefully, these tips will help you find a way to enjoy some magic at the “happiest place on Earth,” but you might want to consider relaxing on a beach somewhere instead.
Heidi Emberling, MA, is an early childhood educator and child development specialist at Parents Place on the Peninsula.