Let’s face it, bringing your family to Walt Disney World can be stressful.
Let’s look at why.
A Walt Disney World vacation can be quite expensive. Expectations are insanely high. However much time you have to explore the parks, it never seems like enough. You may find yourself being almost pathologically tactical as you plan which rides and attractions to do when and in what order, doing whatever it takes to get your money’s worth and cram it all in before your time and energy run out.
When I went to Walt Disney World for the first time as a dad, I embodied every bit of this stress. During our first few hours I feverishly lurched through the Magic Kingdom, a Disney travel guidebook, park map, and prioritized list of rides clenched in both hands as I pushed my two little girls in a large rented double stroller. I recall saying to my wife, “This place is every bit as stressful as I was afraid of.”
If Future Paul (that’s me as I write this now) could travel back to that very moment, I’d tell Past Paul something that I didn’t completely understand until a few weeks ago:
Walt Disney World is exactly as stressful as you make it.
Past me wouldn’t believe future me, but I would press on, saying, “If you can’t get to all the rides, it’s okay. If the girls want to ‘waste’ a half hour or more waiting in line for a character autograph, it’s okay. If you were hoping to stay at the parks until after dark but the kids are ready to pack it in at 3:30 p.m., that’s okay, too.”
And if past me was still listening (which would be unlikely, especially after that last bit about packing it in early) I’d end with this advice, the single best way to beat stress at Walt Disney World:
Let yourself off the hook when you go to Walt Disney World. Just let go.
- During that first Disney trip our daughters, then 5 and 3, were just not that into the rides. But they loved the parades. When we made seeing the parades a priority, versus running from ride to ride, our park strategy got simpler, our days much less stressful.
- My younger daughter fell asleep in the stroller right before one of the parades began, and I started to get upset. And then my wife reminded me that our daughter would never know what she missed. And that life would go on. (It did.)
- However long you have to wait in line for a character, it’s not a waste if your kids don’t think it is. But if you still think it is, you can take advantage of opportunities like the Epcot Character Spot (top photo) where your family can wait in a single line and then meet several characters in succession. In the mind of a “time is money” dad, this is a good value.
- There was in fact an afternoon on one Disney trip where all three kids unanimously wanted to leave the parks early to go play at the hotel, and after “giving in” we had what ended up being the most memorable experience of the trip, in part because the kids had the hotel pool all to themselves… the pool attendant even gave the girls sheriff stars and hats to underscore that they were in charge of the pool.
Still, no matter how many times I go to Disney, it’s hard to shake that feeling that my family is going to miss out unless we exhaustively follow a plan.
A few weeks ago during a Traveling Dad conference at Disney, I brought my wife and kids along. There was limited time to spend with them in the parks, but at the end of the second day I caught up with my family at Epcot, and while watching an acrobatics demonstration in the China pavilion my son turned to me smiling and said “Dad, this is my kind of thing.”
I’ve come to learn that if you can get even one moment like that with your kid on any vacation, you’re lucky.
Also during that recent Disney trip we were walking down Magic Kingdom’s Main Street, and my daughters, now teens, began darting into all the stores. And I heard myself saying, “Girls, if you do this now, that’s less time you’re going to have on the rides,” and I flashed back more than a decade, when I was trying to talk these two little girls out of waiting in line to see Cinderella.
I thought, present day, that if this is how they want to spend their time, categorically examining merchandise from one store to the next, so be it. Even if this isn’t how I think we should be spending our time, this is evidently what they want to be doing right now.
It’s taken me nearly 15 years to learn that Walt Disney World is exactly as stressful as you make it. And I still haven’t learned to totally let go. But I’m getting there.