For a while during Scarlett’s second year Danielle and I went back and forth on whether we should take Scarlett to Disney just before her second birthday or whether we should wait until she was older. On the one hand – she’s not going to actually remember this trip. Or rather, any memories she has are sure to be false memories triggered by the photos and videos we took. On the other hand – whether or not she remembers it, it’s still forming her base memories; memories that anchor most of the subconscious feelings we feel about our lives.
We decided to do some trial runs. During the summer we took her to Coney Island. She enjoyed the rides and would even ask us if she could ride them over and over. Then during Thanksgiving we went to Busch Gardens. Again, she did well going on the rides. She was scared of Bert and Ernie, but she was totally cool with taking her photos with Elmo and Big Bird. So we decided to go ahead and go for it.
I’ll get to how it went in a moment, but first I wanted to provide some tips to others who might consider the same thing.
Let’s start with the hardest part first, people almost always forget about food. Most of us eat it at least three times a day, but it’s easy to take for granted when you’re on vacation. It cost us an average of $100 a day for Danielle, Scarlett, and I. And Scarlett was OK with snacking on Cheerios we would pack her each morning form the hotel’s breakfast. If your two year old requires more hearty food more often then you’ll be spending more.
Depending on where you’re flying from, either the flight or the tickets will probably be the next biggest expense. One of the biggest reasons we went before Scarlett’s second birthday is so that we wouldn’t have to pay for her flight – it would have been an extra $200 for us. (Almost the cost of a Disney 4-day pass). Growing up we almost never had our birthday celebrated on our actual birthday, especially if it didn’t fall on a weekend. So for me it wasn’t a big deal. Be warned: the airlines have gotten super stingy about this. You will almost certainly need to fly with your child’s birth certificate to prove they are under two. US Airways was inconsistent about asking, but Southwest ALWAYS asks.
As for the tickets: If you can afford it and if you can get the time off, I recommend spending AT LEAST 3 days in Disney to allow yourself time for everything. I’ll elaborate more on that later. Another reason to go when your child’s two instead of three – you don’t have to pay for their Disney ticket! Another savings: $300 this time. That’s $500 saved going just before her second birthday. Lots of people will try to get you to buy the park hopper. It takes A LOT of time to go in and out of the parks. For most cases, it’s not worth the money. You’re going to end up rushing everywhere and not enjoying your trip. One time it might be worth it: if you want to be able to have dinner in any park for greater food diversity or to eat with certain characters, it might be worth it. We ended up getting a four day pass and going on the day we flew in for about 3.5 days at Disney.
For the hotel: It depends a lot on your travel philosophy. My family never did anything at a hotel other than sleep. I’ve adopted the same travel habits. I think it suits a Disney trip well. There’s a lot to see at Disney and you’re spending a ton of money to go there, why waste time at the hotel? And if all you’re doing is sleeping there, all you need is a clean room with clean sheets – not a resort. So here are things to watch out for: hotels that charge for parking, resort fees, internet fees. I stayed at a Fairfield Inn (owned by Marriott) that was literally 15 minutes from the Magic Kingdom Parking lot. One of Disney’s own resorts was across the street – so it’s not like I was that much further away and the per night charge was much less. We didn’t pay for parking at the hotel, we got free breakfast, and we had free Internet. All these things add up if you’re trying not to go into debt just to give your child a magical experience.
When To Go
If you can, avoid the summer. Florida summers are extremely hot and there is usually a thunder storm every afternoon. There is really only one nice thing and that’s that the few water rides feel nice when you get wet. It’s up to you how trashy you think this looks, but I recommend taking your bathing suit top if you’re a woman so you can take the opportunity to get a nice tan and enjoy the water rides rather than having to hide your near-nudity because of a wet T-shirt.
Really, there’s only one ideal time to go to Disney and that’s in the Spring. It’s the perfect weather and if you avoid March, you avoid the Spring Break crowd. Winters are a tossup. If you’re going to go in the winter, wait to book anything nonrefundable until the last minute. It’s always a huge shock, but central Florida gets pretty cold in the winter. Ever heard about how the Florida oranges were ruined by a frost? They’re grown where Disney is. One week in January can have 60s for the lows and the following week can have 30s. The Fall is hurricane season. They RARELY hit central Florida – usually it’s Miami or it skips Florida, but it’s not unheard of for a hurricane to go to central Florida and that’s really not something you want for your vacation.
How It Went
Lucky us (not really) we happened to go there the same weekend as the Disney Marathon. I didn’t even know that was a thing. So Disney was pretty packed. I was used to going in my childhood during the winter and being able to ride Splash mountain over and over without a wait, but that was not the case this time. Although Splash Mountain was closed, Big Thunder Mountain had a 90-120 minute wait the entire time I was there. Although we were able to get in easily midday on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were very hard to get into the park from various roads being closed. We ended up having to drive to EPCOT on Saturday and then take the monorail to The Magic Kingdom. It was pretty neat to see Scarlett spotting the castle while we took the monorail over each day (even if you go to Magic Kingdom’s parking area, you still need to take the monorail to the park itself).
Scarlett got a “first time” button and a Disney Princess button. She was a bit young to wear it for more than half an hour before she wanted it off, but it was a neat perk. A lot of the employees used it to give a little extra greeting to the tourists wearing the buttons.
I don’t think I’d ever seen someone’s jaw drop other than in a cartoon. But when we got to the park and Scarlett saw the castle in its enormity, her jaw literally dropped. Also we arrived as the afternoon dance party was happening and she couldn’t contain her excitement as she pointed out all the characters she knew. But that was nothing compared to when we took her on The Little Mermaid Ride and to see The Little Mermaid in her character photography area. She was beside herself at the fact that Ariel was real. She pointed out her tail and told her to go see the witch to get legs. When Ariel asked if she could kiss Scarlett, Scarlett misunderstood and kissed Ariel – before getting a kiss herself.
A great time to talk about photos with characters. One of the reasons parents waver at taking children as young as Scarlett to Disney is the fact that many kids as old as 4 years old are too scared to take photos with the characters. Scarlett was not scared at all. She interacted with the ones she knew – asking Rapunzel, Snow White, and Cinderella to see their shoes and commenting on their hair or bows. And she was OK taking a photo with each of them although she doesn’t 100% understand it yet. Or, if she does, she still looks semi-miserable in the photos despite having a great time interacting with the characters. The only characters she had a problem with were the men – Buzz Lightyear, Aladdin, and a couple others. But she also has a problem with non-cartoon men.
OK, at this point, since I’m writing this a few weeks later, I’m just going to jump around and hit various points rather than worrying about chronology. Saturday we had breakfast with the Pooh characters in the Magic Kingdom. Breakfast was a bit expensive for the quality – and that’s not to say the quality was bad. It was about the same quality as an Embassy Suites with about the same selection – omlettes to order, pancakes, belgian waffles, etc What I really like about the breakfast with the characters is that the characters rotate throughout the restaurant to ensure each table gets uninterrupted time with each character. While we were waiting to be called in, Scarlett saw the characters through the window and couldn’t wait to get inside.
I guess that brings me to the one and, pretty much only, reason that two years old is a bit young for Disney. She had a VERY hard time waiting in line. Now, unlike some other kids (including older kids) she wasn’t crying or whining the whole time. She was very good for her age. But, she still couldn’t truly comprehend the concept. She kept saying “go go go” even though I kept pointing out the people in front of us. This did not combine well with her desire to ride certain rides over and over again. So we had to make smart use of FastPass.
Maddeningly, because of construction (and I’m sure OSHA, disabilities regulations, and stuff like that) the FastPass locations for certain rides were extremely far from the ride itself. If you look at a GPS track of my path each day it was a huge crisscrossing of the park to go get a new FastPass as soon as we’d used one up. My feet were KILLING me by the time we left on the fourth day. In the past I didn’t like FastPass because nothing makes me hate the theme park experience more than seeing sanctioned line-skipping. But this time as we made heavy use of it, what I didn’t like is that it didn’t allow one to visit the park organically. With the park so full it was madness not to make use of the system. But what I loved as a kid was to pick one area of the park and then sweep around, finishing each “land” before moving on to the next. FastPasses have you running back and forth across the park to reach your appointment time. It makes Disney more stressful and a lot less fun. I hate appointments when it comes to fun – it’s why I love DVRs. Especially with a two year old in tow, it is not fun to crisscross the park. Disney is working on fixing this with FastPass+ in which you select your FastPass rides ahead of time, but the system isn’t ready for mass consumption yet. One tip that wasn’t 100% clear until the third day – you don’t have to wait until you use your FastPass, after you’ve had it for a few hours, you can get the next one.
It turned out to be especially useful since Scarlett ended up riding The Little Mermaid nine times over the four days. Most of those times the line was 45-60 minutes long. She also really enjoyed Monster’s Inc Laugh Factor. That was surprising because, while she really enjoys the Monster’s Inc movie, there’s no way she understood any of the jokes. But when everyone else was laughing, so was she. Scarlett also surprised me by really like the Buzz Lightyear ride. She kept asking us to go on it over and over. On our last day, we went on it three times in a row when the park first opened.
Whenever you get your photo taken by official park staff, they give you a card to access the photos later. It was funny that across two days, we ended up once having the same photographer twice, but photographing different characters. She recognized us; I had no idea. I think the photography card idea is pretty awesome since it allows them to make way more money. My parents almost never bought the photos, but taking a page from wedding photographer advice, the website encourages you to share the photos. And it’s more likely the grandparents and favorite aunts/uncles will buy a photo.
Another way in which Disney has modernized is its IOS/Android app. This app is pretty indispensable when visiting the park. On the most basic level, it uses GPS and Wifis to figure out where you are in the park. That allows it to have a map that always has a “your are here” feature. But, really, that’s the least interesting part of the app. It tells you how long the lines are to each ride and when the FastPass would tell you to come back. It lets you know when/where the characters will be. That could be slightly improved because it doesn’t give you a day’s worth of character schedules. Just the current time slot. So if Mickey is there from 1000-1300 and then 1400-1600, you’d only see the first which would make you think you have to hurry to see Mickey before he is done for the day. It also allows you to make reservations at any of the Disney restaurants. Overall, it’s incredibly useful and the utility is aided by the fact that Disney has Wifi all over the park. So I barely had to use any data while I was there.
Overall, it was quite great pleasure to take Scarlett. I can’t wait to see how she reacts the second time.