Monday, November 11, 2013

20+ Things I’ve Learned from Our Trip to Disney (Including Tips for Families with Toddlers and Special Needs Kids)

I'm going to post my thoughts on the new DAS system at Walt Disney World in a separate post.  I wanted this post to focus on more general tips to pass on.

1)  Even though the 6 ½ year old may be physically capable of doing all the walking, it’s still a good idea to get a double stroller.  We initially got a single stroller for the baby, but we found the six year old didn’t keep up well when we were moving fast, and one time got confused at which direction we were headed, and was lost for a few minutes.   We did much better when we had a double stroller.  

2)  If your baby naps, using a Disney park stroller will make napping in the park very difficult.  You’ll have to put down some sort of padding or pillows to help your baby be comfortable.  We had our puppy backpack, which is stuffed and soft enough to work as a pillow.  We also used jackets and a lightweight and smaller than usual blanket to help cover the baby.  I would seriously consider getting a fully reclining stroller.  My husband didn’t want to deal with transporting it, so we made do with the Disney strollers and he carried Baby Girl.  There are no storage baskets, though and if the baby gets out while there are things on top or strapped to the back, the stroller will tip over.  

3)  The “Stroller as a Wheelchair” tag proved invaluable for our baby with sensory issues.   One of the perks of the Disney park strollers is they are low to the ground and very easy for the kids to get in and out independently.  It was clear to us that it became her haven from all the stimuli.  She would get excited seeing her stroller and would climb in it.  She would also get agitated being out of the stroller.  When she did that, we would use it as a wheelchair.  We did our best to get by without using the option, but it definitely was needed on many occasions.  We brought a little blanket to help her further shut out stimuli. 

4)  Always, always, always bring the noise cancelling headphones.  Baby Girl did okay with the noise of the fireworks at Magic Kingdom, but didn’t like the loudness of the Indiana Jones spectacular or Fantasmic.  We hadn’t planned on attending either of the Hollywood Studios events, but we did.  I wished dearly I had just left them in the diaper bag.  

5)  Park hopping may be nice, but too much can be a bad thing.  I began planning our trip more than 180 days in advance.  I was on the phone at 6 am 180 days out from our resort reservation to get our ADR's.  I managed to score a reservation at Be Our Guest, and a couple of other restaurants we have always wanted to try but could never get reservations for before.  Unfortunately the times and/or days didn't really work with my overall plan to spend the days in the park with the lowest predicted attendance.  The food was really good on this trip, but my hard-to-come-by dining reservations left us traveling from park to park in order to meet our reservations.  (And feeling rushed and a bit short-changed).  In a word, I didn't plan it very well this time. 

6)  FastPass+ is a must.  With FastPass+ you can prepick your fastpasses online before you leave home.  This means you choose your times and the order you want to ride the rides.  (And you can plan around reservations or other planned down times).  How cool is that?  Additionally, you can change your choices once you are there, though we didn't take advantage of that because I was under the impression you had to go to Guest Services each time.  I understand going to Guest Services to change things is the most reliable way to do it, but according to the survey Disney had me take you can do it via the My Disney Experience app.  Either way, I also recommend bringing a written copy of your choices.  See below. 

7)  The WiFi in the parks is good, but still unreliable.  I don't have a smart phone, but I do have an iPod touch.  I was the primary planner in our party and we never were able to successfully link my husband to my account.  It was a challenge at times to check our FastPass+ plans on my iPod because of the WiFi issues.  We had the most issues accessing it at Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom.  I recommend you still bring a written copy of your FastPass+ times and other reservations.

8)  Plan for slow times like swimming.  This is a must for families with small or ASD children.  (We have both).  The kids really looked forward to the downtime and using the water slide at our resort pool.  We also found out by accident that they offered marshmallow roasting and movies in one of the resort building courtyards every night.  These turned out to be a welcome and surprising diversion. 

9)  Like many families out there, I've been searching Pinterest for great ideas for packing and preparing for our Disney trip.  Two tips I used that I particularly loved:  1) Using little pant hangers on the clothes lines in the bathrooms helps your swimsuits get more air circulation and therefore dry faster.  I also brought clothes pins to keep them from sliding into one big heap on the clothes line.  2) Packing the little kids' clothes in ziplock type bags for each day was a huge time saver.  The socks, underwear (or diaper), hair accessories and everything were included in the bag.  All my husband had to do was know which bag to pull out and he could dress the baby in no time.  A spare baggie of clothes thrown in the diaper bag made sure we had a change of clothes for our baby as well.   

10)  Hanging pop-up hampers and mesh laundry bags are extremely handy.  I found pop-up hanging hampers at Wal-mart and they made a world of difference.  We didn't want to put a hamper on the floor (we're always a bit terrified of bugs) and using the hampers allowed the clothes to air out a bit before we put them into the designated "dirty" suitcase.  The mesh laundry bags kept the laundry contained in the "dirty suitcase" and made it easy to pull out and do laundry once we hit home.  I'm definitely going to be updating our packing lists to reflect these. 

11)  At the Halloween party you can focus on candy and characters or you can focus on rides.  It’s hard to do both.  And even though they do not show up on the character list, the seldom since Princes, like Flynn, Charming, and Phillip, show up with their Princesses on MNSSHP nights.  There is always a long line, so get to them early!

12)  Get the baby into Fantasyland as soon as possible.  We didn’t, and aside from meeting Princesses and riding the teacups, she missed it because the times we were there she was tired and ready for bed.  Don’t put it off.  It is by far my biggest regret of the trip.

13)  Wearing something as simple as an Autism hat can make a difference in how your child is treated.  Acroboy was having a hard time remembering his personal bubble (not bumping into others), making appropriate eye contact and not blurting out odd things.  Instead of withering glares like I have received in the past, I got a few sympathetic smiles.  Acroboy was even picked to speak with Crush at Turtle talk.  I’m not sure if it was because he was wearing his “I Rock Autistm” hat or the fact he sat himself down front and center of all the kids, but he was thrilled to have been picked.  

14)  Character dining reservations require a credit card to reserve it and need to be cancelled by 11pm the day before.  Fantasmic dining packages need to be cancelled two days before.  Don't try to cancel it any later than that--(even if you want to keep the dining reservation and cancel the Fantasmic part, it is an $10/per person cancellation fee). Do not forget to do this!  And if you have sketchy cell or WiFi service, you can always stop into Guest Relations to take care of it. 

15)  If you character dining and your baby girl doesn't have much hair, don't dress her in a Minnie Mouse dress if it is not clear from the waist up it is a dress.  We dressed Baby Girl in a little dress we found at Target, and when she was sitting half the princesses thought she was a boy.  (If you look at the link you can see the top is black and can be mistaken for a boy t-shirt).  I should have gone for the Snow White version.  

16)  Food allergies will be accommodated, but plan on extra time into your schedule.  It took us an hour and a half to eat at Be Our Guest.  The food was really great, the atmosphere was incredible and yes, the grey stuff was delicious. We got to our 8:50 reservation at 8:30 and were seated fairly quickly.  We didn't get out of there until after 10:00 and Baby Girl was a wreck.  My husband took her back home while I took those who were interested in the New Fantasyland around. 

17)  If you want to explore the New Fantasyland without a toddler who will melt down, going around at 10:00 at night will almost guarantee you'll walk onto everything.  We walked right up to Daisy, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, the Little Mermaid ride, etc.  We missed seeing Gaston, but we got fairly clear pictures of his tavern.  This was a particularly good thing for my spectrum kids. 

18)  If you pre-purchase the PhotoPass+, get your red photo card immediately.  You may have a voucher in your info book they send you--find it and turn it in immediately.  We ran into issues with not having the card the first couple of days and therefore losing a couple of pictures.

19)  If part of your group is going on a ride like the Rockin' Roller coaster it's easier to give them the red photo card than to get the photo number and have to go to a kiosk later.  

20)  Don't trust your iconic photos to just one PhotoPass photographer. We did at Hollywood Studios and didn't actually get a picture of the giant sorcerer's hat behind us.  We thought he took it, but it never showed up with our photos--even after looking for it at Guest Relations.  So my advice, take advantage of as many photograph opportunities as possible. 

21)  And speaking of photograph opportunities--take the extra five minutes in the morning to get the photo if you can.  Half the time we were too tired and rushing out the gates to one of those dining reservations I had made to take a photo.  I wish we had done the photos first thing.  It's my second biggest regret. 

22)  Let go of any expectations you'll be able to do it all.  Given the ages of my children and expense of Disney, we figured this will be our last trip to Walt Disney World as a whole family before the kids graduate, and leave for college and missions.  We'd love to take them every year, but it's just not possible.  I had grand plans going in to this vacation, but about a day in I realized I needed to let them go.  We just weren't going to be able to do everything we had dreamed of in the time we had.  If I attempted to make my family get it all in, I was just going to make everyone miserable.

As I mentioned, on most days after hitting their favorite attractions and a couple of new ones, the kids just wanted to go swimming--so we went.  We took a few evenings off and swam and discovered the marshmallow roasting and courtyard movies that our resort offered every night.  It was a welcome change of pace and added some special memories into the mix.  I do regret not taking Baby Girl to more of Fantasyland, but I also know she's too young to remember this trip.  My older kids will remember some unique memories and a happy vacation, and that's what I really wanted in the end. 

So let go and enjoy the ride.  Remember what is the most important thing, that your family spends quality time together making a lifetime of happy memories.  Don't let your regrets overshadow the good memories you make.  I think my favorite memory is sitting by the pool after a fairly full day at the parks, snuggling with my baby while I watched my family play together in the water.  It was a moment of peace and happiness that I think will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I wish you similar memories.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great list! Thank you for putting so much thought into this post. After our family went to WDW, I meant to write down the things I'd learned about taking kids. I never did and, now, I've forgotten many of those lessons. Your list may keep me from making the same mistakes twice!