We may be in the middle of winter, but this is the time of year that the thoughts of many parents turn to planning summer vacation with the kids.
There are plenty of options out there, but there’s one trip you can’t get out of taking at least once while they’re little – the Disney parks.
The Disney demigods promise that your trip will be perfect – magical even – but every parent knows the pressure to create the best memories of childhood can break even the strongest human soul.
Don’t get me wrong, taking my kids to Disney was always a lot of fun, but there were plenty of bumps in the road along the way.
Even a few near-death experiences.
So steel yourself, don’t set the bar too high, and know that you’re in good company when things go horribly wrong.
The road to Disney is paved with good intentions.
Both times I took my now-grown kids to Disney World, we rented a minivan and made a road trip out of it.
Ever the prepared mother, I had spent weeks putting together car games and bags of snacks; coloring books and puzzles.
What I wouldn’t have given for a tablet to entertain the kids, but this was the dark ages – the mid-90s – and alas, we were old-schooling it.
Since kids are unpredictable, we thought we’d drive as long as we could before they started getting whiny, or downright out of control.
We figured, no problem, we’ll easily find a hotel somewhere that has vacancy.
Nope. Nada. Nothing.
After driving for a while, three young kids making it known that they were tired, hungry, and needed to get out – right now!! – we were desperate.
Desperate enough to take the absolute next room we could find. It happened to be at a Knight’s Inn in a rather unsavory part of a little town in Georgia.
If you haven’t experienced a Knight’s Inn before, every room is decorated with tacky medieval murals painted on the walls, swords and shields, and suits of armor in the lobby.
It may sound charming… it’s really not. It was kind of a dive.
“We’ll make do. It’s only for one night.” Famous last words.
We got the kids out of the car and headed in to find that the only room available was the “honeymoon suite.”
Ok, we thought. That sounds charming (see above), but my mother’s heart about stopped when we walked through the door.
One king-sized bed. A giant jacuzzi tub in the middle of the room and a sink and toilet behind – get this – a half-wall! The room also had a mirrored ceiling.
There was no way we were getting these kids back in that van. There would have been a mutiny of epic proportions.
Now, this may appeal to actual newlyweds looking for something kitschy, but I had three kids who needed a bath, we all need a good night’s sleep, and no one who’s been married for more than a couple of years would find any fun in this situation.
The kids ended up taking a bath in the giant tub in their swimsuits, and we all crashed together in the big bed as they made funny faces at themselves in the mirrored ceiling before drifting off to sleep.
The Unexpected Downpour
Traveling with young children is never easy, but you survive and are ready for your first day at the parks, under the spell of their propaganda that everything will always be perfect in the land of Disney.
Well, this was Florida, and we were planning on a very full day.
We checked the weather in the morning – sun, maybe a few clouds. I brought plenty of sunscreen, sun hats, extra clothes (always, always take extra clothes when traveling with kids), everything I could possibly think of.
Those few clouds came, and got darker. And darker. Then the heavens opened while we were standing in a huge line. Guess what I forgot to bring?
No umbrella. No raincoats.
We ran into the first place we could find – a little café — to escape the rain. And, of course, so did everyone else.
Being summer, the air temperature of all the indoor areas at Disney was about 20 degrees. Add soaking wet clothes and hair to that, and we were looking at hypothermia.
I ran the kids into the bathroom to change their clothes (never, ever forget extra clothes for the kids!), while they screamed, “I’m wet! I’m freezing! I want to go on the rides!”
Well, they were dry and calmed down – mom and dad still drenched, freezing, and grumpy – so we decided to grab a bite to eat.
Little-known scientific fact: Dads are not usually surrounded by the 24/7 intensity of children in the same way as mothers. Moms are desensitized, and therefore, more patient in general.
So the kids are still whining about wanting to go back out and do something fun, but it’s still pouring. They don’t want their food. They’re hyped up on sugary Mickey Mouse-shaped everything that we’ve given them all day.
So, Dad explodes. “That #!@$ hot dog was $18! If you know what’s good for you, you’ll eat it right now!”
Kids start to cry. I’m contemplating leaving them all to fend for themselves while I go find a handsome prince – I mean, they’re all over the place here — to take me away from it all.
It wasn’t just the rain. It was all of the “too-muchness” that Disney sometimes can be.
It’s a lot for kids to take in. It’s crowded and noisy. It’s expensive, and they want everything. It’s tiring – for kids and adults alike.
So plan ahead for the tantrums from Dad and the kids, stash a bottle of wine in the fridge at the hotel for later, and keep your expectations at a reasonable level.
And you’ll thank me for this parenting tip: Go to the dollar store before the trip and grab several of those plastic rain ponchos. They fold up super tiny, and come in handy for lots of unexpected disasters at Disney.
If I had packed them, this downpour – and an even worse one later on – wouldn’t have been such a big deal.
Another Unexpected Downpour
As I mentioned before, the weather is often unpredictable. Kids are always unpredictable.
This makes things interesting when you’ve planned and saved money for a year to go on the “perfect” family vacation.
For our first trip to Disney, we had a very generous family member give up their week at their timeshare at no cost to us so we could save some money.
It was a beautiful place, but small. The only thing the kids didn’t like was that they had to share the pull-out sofa bed.
Now, if you’re a parent, you know that – because kids are unpredictable — even your best planning can fall apart with any change in routine. A slight breeze from the northeast can turn a kid into a demon. There’s no point in trying to understand it.
Knowing a year ahead that we would be going to Disney World when my then-middle daughter was four, I made sure she was well-established with potty training before our trip.
What a fool I was.
The first night there, she had her first accident in months all over someone else’s sleep-sofa. It was a tsunami, let me tell you.
I was panic-stricken. This was a nice place – a very nice sofa – and it wasn’t like I could just have housekeeping come in and help me out.
I stayed up late, scrubbed and scrubbed, shoved my four-year-old into one of her baby sister’s diapers for the night – and never said a word.
So, the next time we went to Disney, I had that first trip in the back of my mind. This time, we were staying at one of the Disney resorts, a gift for the grandkids from my mother.
Now, it was the youngest daughter who had just finished potty-training. But she wouldn’t catch me off-guard.
I brought a protective cover for the mattress from home and put a pull-up on my daughter for the night.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, nothing at the resort. She did great, and there were no nighttime accidents.
We headed off to the Magic Kingdom early in the morning. It was hot and sunny, and I made sure the kids were staying hydrated in the long lines for rides.
Late in the afternoon, we decided to head somewhere indoors to take a break from the heat and noise.
We settled on the Hall of Presidents. Educational, interesting for mom and dad, dark and cool.
Just as Abe Lincoln eloquently started his speech, a scream of terror ripped through the theater. Of course, it was coming from my kid.
Because seats were limited, my 8-year-old said her 3-year-old sister could sit on her lap.
You guessed it – an epic downpour from the youngest, all over her sister’s lap. One kid was screaming; one was crying. People were staring, and a trickle was streaming down onto the theater floor.
A little part of me died inside.
What do I do first? Get the screaming kids out of the theater as quickly as possible? Stop the river of pee from flowing onto the floor? Get on my knees and scrub the seat?
I remember looking up at Honest Abe thinking, “I’m so sorry for interrupting you! I’m a terrible mother. I’ll never come back, I promise.”
I ended up finding some employee to help me clean up after the show was over, mortified because I was the only person whose kid had ever had an accident in public.
But when you’re young, embarrassment is your first reaction.
Nearly 20 years later, we all laugh about this.
Those then-small girls are now 18 and 23, and still get into arguments, as siblings always do. When they’re fighting or annoyed and trying to one-up each other, my older daughter always wins with the same response…
“Yeah? Well, you peed on me at Disney World!”
I’m pretty sure that’s her only memory of the trip – and it’s a pretty good comeback.
Except that my youngest of the three I had at the time swears that my oldest almost pushed her off the ferry after the fireworks one night.
So her comeback is a little better: “Yeah? Well, you tried to kill me at Disney World!”
Don’t sweat it.
The thing about family vacations is that we all set the bar too high. Our expectations don’t ever seem to measure up to reality.
And that’s ok.
Family time isn’t going to be perfect. It’s about accepting each other and the things you can’t change and making those memories. The Serenity Prayer is not just for alcoholics. It’s great for parents too.
We still laugh about all of these Disney adventures, even if they didn’t seem so funny at the time.
You may get stuck in a downpour; that’s why you have to bring those ugly plastic ponchos. They can also cover theater seats, wet park benches, and little girls’ princess dresses when they eat ice cream.
Your toddler may scream bloody-murder when she sees a giant Winnie the Pooh coming over to give her a hug, even though he’s her favorite character and all she ever talks about.
Move on and have a laugh about it. And don’t be afraid to take pictures of all the screaming, crying, “why did we come on this trip?” craziness.
You’ll all look back on it fondly someday, I promise.
And those photos also come in handy as blackmail when that adorable little girl in her Minnie Mouse ears turns into a teenager.
I still have one little one left at home, and we’re talking about heading to Disney one more time.
My thoughts turn to my bank account – to pee and ponchos – but also to irreplaceable memories.
So get out there and find your own family horror story at the Happiest Place on Earth.
You’ll laugh about it 20 years from now.