As far as traveling with young children goes during spring break, Fort Myers Beach, Florida is about as good (and easy) as it gets. After taking one of the many available non-stop flights to the Southwest Florida airport, you’ll find a small, narrow island off the gulf coast, with vast stretches of soft, pale pink sand, clear ocean water, and not a single high-rise hotel in sight.
After an incredible trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, I feel super-connected to my family and am flooded with memories and images that I will cherish for a very long time. The kids gave up the bunks for their own king bed together. They held hands as they slept. The grins and shyness at meeting the ‘real’ Woody and Jessie are etched into my consciousness. We enjoyed every minute. We felt like great parents, and all of the bits of good behaviour and thankfulness made us feel as if we’ve done a bang-up job for the past few years. (Especially when we left a store at the end of each ride empty-handed and no meltdown occurred).
Both of our boys (3 and 5) were transfixed with the rides, the performances that popped up out of nowhere, the Jedi training Academy, and the plentitude of characters that were wandering around. I was very impressed with how many opportunities there were for photos with Disney stars.
That being said, I had already booked a lunch with the Disney princesses (the last time I came, I was 8 and I remember that being the only way one could see characters). We jumped on a boat from Hollywood Studios to Epcot, and raced to lunch. I should mention that my husband is currently in a wheelchair (torn achilles tendon) and I pushed him (usually with the kids on his lap) around for hours. When we got to Akershus (Norway Pavillion) I was soaked with the 90 degree heat but the lunch (and the air conditioning) was out of this world. Apparently Johnny Depp’s fav restaurant at Disney (he donated his red throne from Pirates of the Carribean), we were whisked into a castle only to meet Belle (in the gold gown) at the front. Needless to say, my 5 year old son dove for cover. Not because he’s against girly things (pink is his favourite colour) but because he was so taken by her princess beauty that shyness overwhelmed him (after just having done a rollercoaster and conquered the dark side of the force). The little one, incidentally, was asleep in the wheelchair, and missed every princess. My husband and I proudly have an 8 x 10 of he, I, and Belle (me looking like the soaked-in-sweat third wheel). Lunch was exquisite, the service was even better, we (well not my shy son or the asleep one) met all 5 Disney princesses and the chef will be emailing me recipes of my favourite dishes – not because they even knew I was a writer, but because that’s what they do. Cool.
In all 4 Disney parks we experienced customer service like I’ve never seen. You know.. it’s super expensive for a family to come to Disney (and the Park didn’t sponsor me in any way, by the way). But throughout our day, I didn’t have one single criticism of the place. No chips in any paint. Perfect smiles from every server, security person and vendor. The ‘Magical’ experience for every family seems to be taken to heart by all Disney personnel (or ‘cast’ as they call them.) Many families save for a lifetime to allow their kids to experience Disney, and you know, I think Walt Disney World does such a good job that all of the saving is totally worth it. The key, though? Good parenting. After every ride, everywhere you turn, there is stuff to buy. Stuff that kids really want (Disney does their homework on desirable kitch). I overheard one mom screaming at her child in the ladies’ room for asking for more toys, and witnessed so many tantrums. Most people would say: ‘prepare the kids’. ‘Know what you’re getting into before you go and figure out how you will handle it.’ But really? How are you supposed to prepare? Disney is like no experience on earth. Just set some boundaries, stick to your guns, and know that this experience and the sensory overload is probably just as overwhelming and difficult to manage for your children as it is for you.
One piece of large crowded areas that always scares me is safety. The kids have business cards in their shoes and know their names and numbers, but I still wasn’t relaxed. I mentioned lost children to the lady at the will call booth, and she handed over shiny buttons sporting ‘My First time at Disney’, on which I wrote all info on the back with a sharpie marker. (Several employees throughout the day picked up on the buttons and talked to the kids about it being their first time). Still…. what if (gasp) some psycho-crazy nabbed them and easily disposed of the buttons and cards. (I also wrote on their arms with pen but it was so hot the sweat got rid of it within an hour). So I conjured up an idea. Henna Tattoos. Can I patent that? I think I might be brilliant.
A highlight of my day at Hollywood Studios was the Muppet 3D experience. It is so comforting to know that the stuff I watched every Sunday when I grew up still goes strong. And it has also evolved. The 3D experience transposed on Kermit and gang was so warm and current. And the kids liked it as much as the new stuff – Cars, the Little Mermaid, or anything else.
At both Epcot (for obvious reasons) and the Magic Kingdom, I was so impressed on the inclusion of different cultures and esthetics into the park. The catch? A parent must choose to go to these places over the roller coasters and help children understand (yes, I was the obnoxious one on ‘It’s a Small World’ teaching about continents) but the learning opportunities are certainly there, provided by Disney.
Magic Kingdom is all about tradition – an American tradition, a cultural icon that is Disney – and there is no alcohol at the Magic Kingdom. While it would be nice at times (ahem) to have a glass of wine after the “why can’t I get the 3 foot Buzz Lightyear temper tantrum”, it is also incredible. I’m sure more money could be made if they sold liquor, but the party atmosphere didn’t suffer a bit, and I am sure parents were more attentive and tuned in to their kids without the late afternoon beer skin. Good job, Disney, on being a role model. That’s one lesson I’m certainly taking home.
In all, we have come back with so many family memories. My goal for the year is to incorporate as much magic into our daily lives as possible – Magic a la Disney.