disney-charactersAny Disney experience is influenced by many factors–the weather, time of year and even the shoes you wore. Many parents return from a Disney trip remembering fun interspersed with temper tantrums and siblings arguing over whose Mickey Mouse hat had bigger ears. Here are some ways our family enjoyed Disney without stress and over-hyped expectations, as seen through our daughter through the years.

Sondra at age 3

While visiting relatives in San Diego, we decided to take a day trip to Disneyland. Our plan was to simply let Sondra explore at her own pace and not worry if we went on any rides.

Confession time: She seldom watched TV and viewed even fewer videos. While Sondra enjoyed seeing the “characters,” she didn’t distinguish between Belle and Sleeping Beauty. When we pointed out Cinderella’s castle, she calmly told us, “You know, that castle looks a lot like the one we saw in Germany last month.” (And she was right, since that iconic castle is modeled after Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria.)

She was transfixed, though, by the numerous trash cans around the park. So we spent a relaxing (yes relaxing!) day simply meandering frm Adventureland to Fantasyland, going from one trash can to the next. The colors and activity around her were more than enough to keep her attention throughout the day.

We left the park with a happy child who skipped past the exit gates saying, “I think when I grow up I’ll work here…so I can make sure the trash cans are clean.” The enjoyment factor was high since we saw the park through the eyes of a 3-year-old.

Laid Back Approach to Disney

Photo Credit: Silvan Clark/RV TravelingMomthe eyes of a three-year-old.

Sondra at age 6

While speaking at an Orlando conference in December, I brought Sondra with me to see the extensive display of Christmas lights at Disney World. Once again, we meandered through the park, without any goal of getting on rides or chasing costumed characters for their autographs .

Most of the day we simply held hands and talked about what was going on around us. We saw a few shows and took the Jungle Cruise when the line was short. In the evening as the light display dazzled us, a mother came up to me and said, “Do you want this umbrella stroller? We’re leaving tomorrow and I was just going to toss it.”

Knowing Sondra’s legs could use a rest, I accepted her offer. Sondra eagerly scrunched herself into the stroller, giggling because it had been years since she rode like a baby. Ask her about that trip to Disney and she’ll tell you, “I got to ride in a stroller and see millions and millions of lights!”

Sondra at age 14

We spent a year full-timing in an RV around the US. Chevy donated us a truck to pull our fifth wheel and Sondra spoke at churches and schools to raise money for orphans in Africa. That earned her a spot as a winner in the national Nestle Very Best in Youth Award. Our family received an all-expense paid trip to Los Angeles, along with a day at Disneyland. (Way to go Sondra!)

With 32 teenagers in a group, parents were politely told to experience Disneyland on their own, so the teens could conquer the park independently. Sondra returned to regale us with stories about going on rides with her new BFF’s. Can you believe it? Prince Charming winked at her from atop his float during the parade! (We heard that story numerous times.) There’s nothing like quickly eating a hamburger, fries and shake right before going on Space Mountain…followed by watching a friend throw up.

Summary of this trip to Disneyland? Disney is super-awesome when you are with your peers and no adult supervision!

A great camera like the Panasonic Lumix ZS40 has features that make it easy to take dramatic photos like this one of the It’s a Small World ride at Disney World. Photo credit: Cindy Richards/TravelingMom with Teens

It’s a Small World ride at Disney World. Photo credit: Cindy Richards/TravelingMom with Teens

Sondra at 24

Since the sponsors of the recent Traveling Moms retreat provided park passes for family members, I invited Sondra to visit me during the retreat. She’s now the digital marketing director for the Republican National Committee and welcomed the chance to leave DC politics for a few days.

Because I was involved in the retreat most of the time, she visited Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Animal Kingdom on her own. Yes, on her own. And she had a great time! By going in the “singles” line for various rides, she had minimal waits for even the main attractions.

“I didn’t think I’d like being alone,” she told me. “But actually I enjoyed seeing everything at my own pace. I didn’t have to listen to five people discuss where they wanted to eat or debate which ride to go on. ” While most people (especially her age) wouldn’t consider going to Disney World on their own, it just goes to show Disney appeals to all ages and all personalities. It also shows you can enjoy a laid-back, stress free Disney experience.

On our last night together, Sondra reflected on her “lifetime” of Disney experiences and concluded, “Someone sure is doing a great job cleaning all those trash cans!”