Going to Disney is my in-laws thing. Every other year, the whole big family meets up from their various places around the country at Disney and they use their Vacation Club membership and they spend about a week there. My first trip as part of the pack was in December 2014 to January 2015 and for the most part we had a blast. Out group was kind of huge with 13 people over the age of sixteen and 4 kids who were younger than twelve. The people, plus the two service dogs that came with us made us a thing to behold when we went somewhere in full force. I learned a lot that trip about the best, and worst, things to do when you’re handling an introverted toddler with the crowds of Disney, so I decided to compile my best tips. I read a lot about what to expect at Disney and the best things to do with a toddler, but there were some things I wish I had known that specifically applied to my kid, who with one exception, wasn’t overjoyed at the idea of things like meeting characters without proper encouragement and handling. Enjoy!
Character Meets and Greets
When we were planning the trip, the only character I cared about was meeting Tinkerbell. My in-laws, being seasoned Disney veterans, all had their favorites and things they just had to do, so I saw a lot of characters and such and had a mostly fun time with Autumn. Sometimes, it wasn’t for her and we learned from it and moved on… but here are the big things we found that helped make the Disney character meet and greets a pleasant experience.
Familiarity with the characters ahead of time is huge. We didn’t do a lot of this, but the characters Autumn did know, like Mickey Mouse, Autumn was a lot more comfortable with and needed very little time to warm up to. Before our next trip I will probably switch her from some of our regular shows during tv time and we’ll make sure she is more familiar with the classic characters.
Monitoring your child’s energy level and how well their needs are being met is such a huge key to making sure everyone enjoys character meets… but if you’re traveling with a large group then the little people can be easy to overlook until they are having a breakdown until
Neutral expectations are also a big part of making sure character meet and greets are fun for everyone. I didn’t expect much from Autumn during our first Character Meet and Greet, so I kind of hung back and tried to let Autumn do her own thing. (That led to the the next tip.) But a few days into the trip we had been going
If you take nothing else from this entire post, take this advice: knowing who is handling the toddler, and who isn’t, makes things a lot smoother. I found that sometimes, the family members who seemed the most understanding about kids were the worst for trying to (sometimes literally) push them at characters and force them to interact. You can imagine about how well that went over when it happened to Autumn with our first character meet and greet, so after that one unpleasant experience we usually just had Ian or I hold her to avoid any drama. Autumn loves being with my sister in-law Rachel and when the two of them went to meet the Ariel, she really enjoyed it, except for the fact that Ariel’s lack of legs really troubled her. She hadn’t seen the Little Mermaid movie, so the concept of a mermaid was completely foreign and was a little over her head. Your toddler handler should be someone who can competently:
- Create positive energy without forcing emotions on the child
- Read your child’s body language for positive and negative cues
- Be a ‘safe place’ if the child is insecure
- Curb any truly unacceptable behavior, but know when to let things go as well
Just in case you’re one of those parents or you’ll have one of those people with you in your traveling party, let me be really, really clear here: the one thing you really should not do is to force interactions. There are lots of characters hanging around so there will be more than one chance to meet fun people. If they don’t meet Cinderella, then does it really matter in the overall scheme of things? Not really, it will truly be okay and the world will keep on spinning. But violating your child’s personal boundaries by forcing them near a stranger and expecting them to be affectionate with them is not okay. It is not a way to make the experience fun for everyone- especially for your toddler. Please don’t do it. It’s really just not a nice thing to do.
Setting the tone with your own attitude and actions is make or break, and not just for Character Meet & Greets. You’ve probably heard the expression “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” right? Well it’s doubly true on vacations. Don’t be that parent who is seen scowling through the whole experience, grouching about lines, long walks, the cost of food, or that your schedule for the day has gone to hell in the first two hours of being in the park… whatever it is, it isn’t worth ruining your family’s trip because you aren’t grown up enough to smile and make it fun for everyone. You’re at Disney and you’re the adult, so act like it and model having a good attitude and appropriate behavior for the kids.
A couple of times Autumn wasn’t too sure about a character, so Ian or I would jump in and be affectionate and have fun playing with the characters. The picture is of me hugging Goofy, who had asked Autumn for a hug and been greeted with the wide “Dad, please don’t let the large stranger touch me,” look of desperation. So I hugged him and played along, then lo and behold a really short time later she was smiling and playing along too. I have no attachment to Goofy in any way shape or form and could not have cared less if we met him or not, but when I saw this smile from her it was worth hugging on a stranger. She talked about it a few times, how Goofy hugged Mommy and how she touched his nose with Daddy. That is the Disney magic right there.
Big crowds are something you’re going to have to deal with. I would seriously advise going during the off season, because peak season is crazy and kind of miserable. Plus, in the cooler months it’s not so hot, which makes it a lot more pleasant for everyone. But, since you’ll be dealing with some crowds one way or another here is how we handled them.
Have a way to elevate your child off the ground. Being 5’9 I don’t really have to deal with being short, but I do know how hard it is to communicate with someone several feet down whose voice is quiet. Having your child up and elevated means they can not only see more than legs and other stroller-riders, but they are closer to your ears to communicate their needs.
When we went, we took a backpack with a rigid frame that my father in law and husband wore with Autumn in it for I don’t know how long. In hindsight, having a woven carrier that could support the weight of a toddler would have been a great idea, because my father in law’s back was killing him after a while. Next trip, we’ll definitely be bringing one with us.
Strollers are also a great thing, not just for storing stuff and for resting tired little legs, but a stroller with a blanket draped over the front is a great place to go for little introverts. Sometimes in the afternoon if she was too wound up for a nap and she didn’t just pass out in the stroller we would go find a quiet place and let her just talk to herself and play with one of her travel blankets while she recharged. That only happened a few times, for the most part she was so exhausted we would look down to talk to her and she would be dead asleep without any warning. But when she did need the quiet ‘alone’ time, it was nice to have.
In conclusion, we had a really fun time at Disney and having a toddler around, much less one who wasn’t to keen on all of the extra people, wasn’t a problem at all. Between my wonderful mother and father in law who took amazing care of her and spoiled her, and my amazing husband who helped by always having a backpack full of supplies so I could wrangle the small child and make sure that everything else got handled. I would love to hear if you have ever done any trips to Disney and did similar things or had luck with any other tips you wouldn’t mind sharing. I am always open to new things and would love your suggestions!