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Taking kids under 5 to Disney isn't crazy
If I've heard it once, I've heard it a million times: "I wouldn't take my kids to Disney until they're at least 5. They'll never remember it, and it's such a hassle to bring everything we need."
At the risk of sounding like part of the Disney PR team: That's just crazy! Of course, babies aren't going to get as much from the experience, but toddlers and preschoolers? Those are magical ages because the under-5 crowd has an unwavering faith in Disney's magic. They just know it's real. And, really, seeing that joy in your children is far more fun than reliving your own childhood. Trust.
My children have been going to Disney since they were babies, and I've lived to tell the tale. (Heck, I went into labor one night with my daughter after spending the day celebrating my son's birthday at the Magic Kingdom.) Going to the Magic Kingdom is not much different than taking a toddler on another outing, if you're realistic and prepared. Young kids need frequent snacks, drinks, potty breaks (or diapers), down time (or naps) and have short attention spans. If you're mindful of these basics, you will make many more happy memories than frustrating ones.
First, realize you will be toting more supplies with your toddler than you do with your grade-school child. You also will need a stroller for your child and his supplies. I'm so used to traveling through the parks this way, I think I will actually be sad when I have to cram everything into just a backpack.
Each of the Disney World parks has its own Baby Care Center with changing pads, nursing areas and a microwave. You also can buy diapers, formula, pacifiers and over-the-counter medication.
Fantasyland is one of the areas with the most-concentrated number of attractions for young children, so start your day there. Head first for Dumbo the Flying Elephant because the line gets unbearably long in a short amount of time. Then, try the other tame rides nearby: it's a small world, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Cinerella's Golden Carousel. Snow White's Scary Adventures is just that, and if your child is scared of the dark, skip Peter Pan's Flight, and PhilharMagic, too.
Little Mermaid fans can visit Ariel's grotto for photos and autographs, and Winnie the Pooh and friends greet visitors by his playground. I used to wonder why parents would waste time at a playground at Disney World when there are so many more special things to do. But over the years I've learned that 15 minutes on Pooh's Playground is time well-spent. Kids can run and stretch their legs, which may help prevent meltdowns while waiting for other rides and shows.
Mickey's Toontown Fair
Over in Toontown, brave children can ride The Barnstormer, a mini roller coaster, if they are 35 inches tall. Most children will like splashing through Donald's Boat and seeing Minnie and Mickey's houses. Don't forget to drop into the Toontown Hall of Fame to pose with Mickey and his gang, the Disney princesses and Tinker Bell and her fairy friends. These meet-and-greets are popular, so getting there earlier is definitely better. There is another playground in Toontown.
The Walt Disney World railroad has one of its three stations in Toontown, and the wait to board is usually no more than 10 minutes. Kids of all ages love the steam engines, and the 20-minute roundtrip is a nice break for everyone. Strollers can be brought onboard if they are collapsed.
Tomorrowland has quite a few things for younger kids, too. Be sure to get a FASTPASS for Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin if you don't get in line first thing in the morning. The Tomorrowland Speedway is a fun attraction for families; adults can control the speed -- slow or slower -- and kids can steer. The Tommorrowland Transit Authority (also known as the TTA or the "peoplemover") is great because there is never a wait and everyone can go on it without being scared.
The Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor isn't my favorite, but it is a break from the heat and probably will appeal to the under-5 crowd. Brave astronauts might take on the Astro Orbitor. It's like Dumbo, but up much higher, so the height could trigger fears in some kids. Definitely skip Stitch's Great Escape for the darkness factor. And don't even think about Space Mountain.
There are two gems for the younger set hidden among the coasters for bigger kids. Next to Splash Mountain and under the railroad station is a shaded play are for those 5 and younger. For families with little ones, play areas are like bathrooms -- a necessity. Use them to break up the day. Across the way is Tom Sawyer's Island, which appeals to explorers with its tunnels, bridges, paths and a fort. You'll even cross the water in raft. If possible, give your family an hour to see everything before returning to civilization. You might even check out the County Bear Jamboree. Parents will have to suffer through, but the kids will get some laughs at the corniness of it all.
Don't miss the Swiss Family Treehouse. It's cool to see this replica, and kids are proud to say they climbed at the way to the top. Nearby, you'll find the Magic Carpets of Aladdin, a ride like Dumbo, but often with a shorter line, and the Jungle Cruise, a journey in which the kids will enjoy the scenery but not get the jokes. Good times for everyone! Some swear by The Enchanted Tike Room -- Under New Management, but it's never been a favorite for our family. Skip Pirates of the Caribbean -- the dark, fire, skeletons and fighting make for nightmares at this age.
Kids of all ages enjoy the Liberty Square Riverboat, and the wait is usually no more than 15 minutes.
Cinderella Castle on Main Street Disney World isn't just about the rides, though. Make time to see at least one show or parade on Main Street. My kids have long been fans of "Dream Along With Mickey" on the castle forecourt stage. The new-this-year "Move It! Shake It! Celebrate It! Street Party" is high-energy dancing to mostly Miley Cyrus songs, which can be fun for little one who aren't shy. But there are more characters in the Disney Dreams Come True parade, especially if royalty is important to your family.
Perhaps one of the biggest benefits for the under-3 crowd is that there is no admission charge for them at Disney. And if you choose to visit on the birthday of another person in your family in 2009, he or she will get in free, too. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me.
Things to pack for the kids:
-- snacks and a reusable water bottle
-- change of clothes
-- raincoats or ponchos
-- swimsuits and towels -- kids can enjoy the jumping water features in the parks
-- earplugs or headphones -- you might be surprised by which loud noises, such as fireworks, upset your child
-- light-up spinners or glow sticks -- for nighttime fun while waiting for the parade