I'm back today with a super fun post that I've been planning in my head for nearly a year! For Halle Jane's 3rd birthday, we decided to forgo the big birthday party and take her to Disney World! I'm a Disney fanatic and used to go all the time, but we haven't been since she's been born, because we wanted to wait until she was old enough to really experience it and remember everything. I started planning the trip almost a year ago, right after she turned 2. It felt like it took forever to finally get here, but it was more than worth the wait!
While I know there are hundreds of articles and blog posts out there with tips and tricks for Disney (I read a TON of them!), I thought I'd share my thoughts and advice from an Educator-Mommy's perspective!
Before we get started with my list of 20 Tips for Doing Disney for Educators, here's a BIG tip that's not included below: Book your trip with a MY MICKEY Travel Agent! We used to go to Disney all the time and were familiar with it, so we never thought to book with a travel agent before. This time, I knew it had been a few years since we had been and several things had changed (hello, Disney Bands!), so I wanted to make sure we had the inside scoop. I contacted a local agent for a quote, expecting it to be really expensive. Much to my surprise, we actually saved money by booking with her! She handled the Disney resort, tickets, meal plan, fast passes, itinerary, character meal reservations, and much more. We talked about what was important to us, and she made it happen. She was able to make reservations for things that I couldn't have gotten on my own. And the best part? We paid a small deposit, and then made payments until the remaining balance was due 30 days before the trip. You seriously can't get a better deal than that! So use a My Mickey travel agent if you can. It's. So. Worth it. (PS: I highly recommend that you use OUR My Mickey travel agent. Her name is Ceciley Sircy and she's simply the best! Like get-an-award-from-Disney the best. She can plan your trip remotely and send you everything. You can check out her page HERE!)
Ok, so set your iTunes to Disney's Greatest Hits Album, strap yourself in, and enjoy the ride for 20 Tips for Doing Disney for Educators:
1. Make a Count Down Calendar: For kids (and adults) who are anxiously awaiting a trip, a Countdown Calendar is a fun way for them to see how many days are left before you leave. Our countdown was simple, and Halle Jane LOVED tearing off a strip every day!
2. Use Youtube and other videos to introduce characters and rides so they won't be scared: In the months leading up to Disney, we watched Disney movies, listened to Disney songs, went to local Disney plays, and read Disney books so Halle Jane would be familiar with the Disney Characters and have some background knowledge. We also used Youtube to watch videos of other children meeting characters and riding rides, so she would know what to expect and wouldn't be scared. I knew we would be ok when she saw a Youtube video of the Beast and said, "Can he hold me at Disney?"
3. Buy Ahead, and Pack Smart: Things like ponchos, stroller covers, bandaids, Ziplock bags, sunscreen, chapstick, glow sticks, and Disney souvenirs are certainly available for purchase inside the parks, but are much cheaper to buy ahead of time, like at the Dollar Store! Your kids won't know the difference, and you'll save money for more important things. Like Disney's Dole Whip Ice Cream.
4. Bring your home "staples" with you: If it's something you or your kids use regularly, bring it along. Kids toys, blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals can help to calm them and provide a sense of security in new places, like hotels. We brought along Halle Jane's pillow, blanket, and Disney toys for the trip, as well as her EZPZ mats to use for mealtimes. (We were on the Disney Dining plan, but she was eating off of our plates. Having her own EZPZ mat made mealtime familiar and helped her stay focused on finishing a meal, despite the constant Disney distractions (especially with Disney Princesses and Doc McStuffins stopping by the table!)
HERE to order an EZPZ mat with my discount. You won't be sorry!! They're my favorite thing we own!)
5. Utilize the My Disney Experience App: You can use the app to see park hours, find characters, load and modify Fastpasses, see ride wait times, set your itinerary, view and order photos taken by Disney photographers, and so much more. Ours was loaded with our meal reservations and Fastpass choices by our My Mickey travel agent, but if you're not using an agent, you can load them on your own. It is so much faster than going to the kiosks to reload Fastpasses or tracking down characters you want to see. It's like you're walking around with a Disney cast member in your pocket!
6. Set a treat/souvenir budget for your kid(s) and let them help you manage it: If you have older kids, I recommend giving them a Disney gift card loaded with a specific amount. Once they spend it, it's gone. For younger kids like Halle Jane, we had a set amount we let her take (we kept the money). When she found something she liked, we had a quick discussion about how much it cost, and we counted to see if she had enough. This was a great lesson on money management and saving for something you really, really want. In her case, she's ALL ABOUT Beauty & the Beast, so we knew a Belle dress was a must, as were a few other B&TB toys.
7. If possible, do the character meals: If you have little ones who are dying to meet the characters, I highly recommend you do at least one character meal. They can be pricey, but many of them count as a table dining service on the Disney Dining Plan, so they're included. Even if you don't have Disney Dining, they're worth it. Our absolute favorite was the Akershus Royal Banquet Hall. The food was amazing, and Halle Jane was able to meet Belle, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Ariel. Not only did they stop by the table to talk to her, but they have frequent "Princess Processionals" where they get to walk around and dance with the princesses. The princesses took time at our table and really talked with her, asking her questions, telling her Happy Birthday, and making her feel extra special! This is also a great time to practice patience and waiting your turn. For the character meals, they make their way around to each table, so Halle Jane was expected to eat her meal until they arrived to say hello.
8. Speaking of Characters, Practice character questions ahead of time: Our travel agent gave us a list of questions to ask/things to say to get reactions out of the characters. These were awesome suggestions! While we were waiting to meet a character, we would ask Halle Jane what she was going to say to them or ask them. Sometimes we helped her with an idea from the list, but other times, she came up with good questions on her own. (i.e. She asked Gaston if he and the Beast were friends now, and she asked Cinderella where Prince Charming was!)
9. Talk About Safety Frequently: For older kids, you should decide ahead of time where to meet and what time in case someone gets lost. For Halle Jane, we reiterated over and over how important it was for her to stay with Mommy and Daddy and not walk away. We also talked about what to do if she was lost (find another mommy or Disney worker), and we discussed the importance of staying in the stroller and holding our hand when appropriate. And I know this goes without saying, but don't let your kids out of your sight! (It's super easy to do with all of the distractions!)
10. Talk About Schedules Ahead of Time: We were at Disney for several days with a lot planned on each day. To make things easier for Halle Jane, we talked only about what we would be doing that particular day. This helped her to not become overwhelmed, and prevented meltdowns if she was expecting something that day that didn't happen. Each night in the hotel I mapped out our itinerary based off of our Fastpasses, showtimes, and our "must-dos" for the next day. This helped with minimizing stress, walking out of the way, and lost time while we were trying to decide what to do next.
11. Wear the Disney Buttons: If you're at Disney to celebrate something (birthday, wedding, anniversary, your first trip, etc), stop by Town Hall in Magic Kingdom and get a button. We wore them for our honeymoon several years ago, and Halle Jane wore one this time for her birthday. They will most definitely get a lot of attention from Disney cast members! She heard "Happy Birthday, Princess" a hundred times a day. She was treated to a cupcake and autographed birthday card at literally every meal, and when one of the cast members heard she lost one of her earrings in the park, he gave her a new set of Mickey Mouse earrings for free, and told her "Happy Birthday from Mickey and Minnie!" She felt so special!
12. Bring things to do while waiting in line: While we were extremely blessed with shorter-than-average wait times during our trip, sometimes waiting in line for rides or shows is inevitable. We brought a few books and coloring books along for the wait times, and Halle Jane even chose a Doc McStuffins book as one of her souvenirs. Side note-having Disney books with us also served as a great thing for them to autograph! We didn't do the autograph book, but when Doc McStuffins signed her book during lunch, Halle Jane was over the moon!
13. Take advantage of ride sharing: Disney knows how to make the trip enjoyable for everyone! They have an awesome option for parents who want to ride rides that their kids can't or don't want to ride. Simply show your child to the cast member at the ride entrance, and let them know you want to ride share. One parent goes on the ride while the other one waits with the child. Then, they switch, and the second parent goes straight on the ride. (Wait with your child in the air conditioned gift shop which is at the exit of most rides!)
14. Plan time for breaks: No matter how much fun you're having, Disney is exhausting. You do so much walking. And it's hot. The afternoons are usually the busiest times in the parks, so take that opportunity to zip back to your hotel for a rest, or take in a few air-conditioned shows. We went back during the afternoons to our hotel, and even though she didn't nap, Halle Jane rested in bed with a Disney movie on the iPad until it was cooler outside. Then we went back for dinner and fireworks!
15. Speaking of fireworks, take those glow sticks, bracelets, and necklaces you bought ahead of time with you into the parks at night: The parks at nighttime take on a whole new look. Everything is lit up so beautifully, and cast members are selling glow souvenirs before the fireworks and light parades. Bringing our own not only saved us a lot of money and gave Halle Jane something to do while she waited, but it was also a perfect opportunity for another lesson: sharing! We brought TONS of extras, and she passed them out to other children around us. The kids loved them, their parents were extremely grateful they got to dodge the glow cart purchases, and Halle Jane got to practice being a "kind and generous princess!"
16. Take advantage of "teachable moments": Teachable Moments are everywhere at Disney! In the lines, walking down Main Street, on the animal safari, on the rides, during the shows, in interactions with people, while eating lunch....you name it, you can use it! Several things came up while we were at Disney that we stopped to teach or explain to Halle Jane. We might have been right in the middle of sprinting across the park to meet our Fastpass deadline, but when a teachable moment arises, you've gotta take advantage of it! We talked to her about Walt Disney when we saw a picture of him, we talked about how some people from other parts of the world have different accents than us (this was prompted when a lady in the bathroom line with an English accent asked HJ if she had seen Minnie Mouse yet, and Halle Jane told her "You sound like Peppa Pig!" Thank goodness the lady replied, "I do, don't I! I love Peppa Pig! WHEW!) We frequently reviewed expectations for behavior, and pointed out how other children screaming and crying make their parents and people around them feel. We took advantage not just of educational teachable moments, but also vocabulary, manners and behavior, social skills, and many more!
17. Look for opportunities for play-based learning: Disney is exhausting, and it is hot in Florida. Luckily, Disney has many different areas for air-conditioned play. They've restructured the Dumbo ride, for instance, and you can choose to wait inside in an air-conditioned playground area. They give you a buzzer and you turn it back in when you're ready to ride. This was a great opportunity to let Halle Jane run free and play while we got a chance to sit down and cool off. She was able to interact with other kids and practice social skills and more. We also let her hang out in the play area of the T-Rex restaurant in Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney). It's a play area filled with sand, and the kids can use tools to dig for buried dinosaur bones. This was perfect for teaching vocabulary, science, and letting her practice getting dirty (something she is not into!)
18. Talk about the day to unwind at night: Each night, despite how tired we knew she was, our little one was still wound up from the exciting day. We would lay in bed and ask her follow-up questions about the day (i.e. What was your favorite ride? Who did you like meeting the most? What would you like to go back and do again tomorrow? What was the best treat you ate?) This was a great way to trigger her memory, help her process everything we did, and help her unwind. She was usually asleep before she could answer the last question!
19. A SMILE and KINDNESS goes a long way-even at the Happiest Place On Earth!: Disney employees (called cast members) spend their days with a smile on their face, calling kids "prince" and "princess", helping people constantly, standing in the heat or rain, cleaning up trash on the streets, and more. Customer service is paramount at Disney, and they do a very good job of staying in character-even those employees not walking around in character costumes. We tried to keep this in mind and be extremely nice to everyone we came in contact to. When they told Halle Jane "Happy Birthday, Princess," we made her stop what she was doing, look them in the eye, and tell them "thank you." Most of the time, our little social butterfly then asked them a personal question, which is her favorite thing to do (What's your name?, How many kids do you have?, etc). They loved talking to her! We thanked everyone over and over who helped us, made sure we allowed others' kids to get in front of us during the parade so they could see, struck up conversations with other parents in the lines, etc. We tried our best to pass along kindness while we were there, and other people responded back in the same way. We modeled this for Halle Jane, because we always want her to know that everyone is important and worthy of love and kindness.
20. Compile a video/scrapbook of clips and pictures to help them remember: I'm a big scrapbooker, but you don't have to be. You can compile all of your pics in a photobook on Shutterfly, or just print them and slide them into an album. I'll get to this eventually, but on the way home, I used the iPhone app "Fliptastic" to compile a quick video of our favorite pictures. Halle Jane has watched this 28 times a day since we got home, and it helps her remember the memories we made and talk about the trip with family back home who want to hear all about it!
Well, that's it! If you made it to the end of this super-long blog post, you're a trooper and definitely cut out for a trip to Disney World!