Disney World is a magical place.
It is one of those places I've returned to again and again in my life because it allows me to step inside an imagined childhood just like I would walk into books when I would read as a kid late into the night with a flashlight under a quilt made by my great-grandmother.
When I was preparing Eleanor for her first trip, we talked about how when you go to Disney World you get to step into stories. In one day in the Magic Kingdom you can be a pirate, an adventurer, a miner, and an explorer of the future. You can step into the story of being inside a haunted house without actually being scared of an unfriendly ghost. You can tumble down the biggest waterfall you can imagine when you're four while knowing that you are going to be okay and laughing next to your mama when you get to the bottom.
We talked about how much fun it was going to be to step into the stories. And she was beyond excited.
Stepping into a pirate story with "this is my best pirate face Mama"
There are several reasons why the trip was magical and several things I would do differently to make it even more magical for us next time (more naps! no dining plan! staying two more days! soaking in the whirlpool after she goes to bed!).
Today, I want to focus on two reasons why I think the trip was as magical as possible for her and her personality.
1) For a few months before we went, we watched videos of the rides on YouTube.
Here's what I mean: I'd search YouTube for, for example, Splash Mountain Disney World. And then I'd literally find videos people had taken of the experience of going on the ride. In HD. As in there are channels by people who love Disney/have Disney travel blogs/and so on, and they record videos of the rides and share them.
(And if you're like me and secretly miss Horizons or the original Journey into Imagination, oh never fear, they have you covered.)
Anyway, Ellie and I would have a little ride watching party each week and watch a few rides that she'd be going on during our trip.
She loved it! And sometimes wanted to watch a parade (awesome - 20-minute parade viewing means I could jump in the shower!) or a show like Beauty and the Beast (again awesome! you watch that while I finish dinner).
And most importantly: She knew what to expect.
Because she's so young, there was no worry that this would spoil the surprise of the ride. Everything was new and magical and REAL to her when we were there. Instead, she felt secure in what to expect because the truth is going on rides at Disney World is nothing like what we do in our real life.
Yes, we stand in line for things, but we don't get into a boat that takes us into a village being burned by pirates or ride a flying elephant or go on a runaway mine train.
And because I watched the videos with her, even though I've been to Disney World many times, I was able to remember details to tell her when we were there, like: This is the last big drop or This is the part where it gets dark for a minute or Remember, the car is going to swivel around but you don't have to worry it's going to go fast.
She was so prepared that she would sometimes remind me.
And my little brave daredevil went on every roller coaster she was tall enough to ride. We road Splash Mountain just about daily and Thunder Mountain 4 times in a row on our last morning in the park. I was 18 before I really wanted to ride either. I love her.
2. The second thing I did was talk right to the characters when we met them to give them some info as they began to interact with my daughter.
What I mean: So to say Eleanor has been waiting to meet Mickey since she was about 1 is not an understatement. She was actually way more interested in meeting Mickey than any of the princesses (which isn't to say she didn't love meeting the princesses or that I didn't, maybe, ugly cry on the sidelines when she met Anna from Frozen because she was so "all in" with the magic of it all.)
She's been talking about what she's going to say to Mickey for about two years. This might make us sound like a crazy Disney family, but in reality, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is her favorite TV show just like Mister Rogers was mine. Spending time with Mickey and the gang is like hanging out with old friends for her. They're kind and cheer each other on and simply have fun.
I heart that show.
Anyway, when I realized how important these interactions were to her while also reading about kids as old as 6 or 7 being a bit "overwhelmed" by meeting the characters, I was honestly a little worried and ready to say if needed, "You don't need to be afraid because this is really just a person pretending to be Goofy" etc.
Her first interactions with characters was at dinner with Pooh and Friends at the Crystal Palace. As Eeyore got closer and closer to our table, she started climbing into my lap and saying, "I'm nervous."
When Eeyore got to our table, I stood up while holding Ellie's hand and said, "Hi Eeyore, I'm so happy to see you again. This is my daughter Eleanor and she's a little nervous to meet you. You are the very first character she's ever met here at Disney World."
Eeyore dropped to one knee and held his arms open. Ellie immediately relaxed and hugged him like an old friend.
This happened again and again. Now of course this is mostly because: Dude, Disney knows what they are doing, and Eeyore, Mickey, Cinderella, and all their friends are pros. BUT I found that by just sharing a few words to give them a glimpse into Ellie's world, she was more at ease and they gave her attention that felt really special.
And I could translate for them.
Pooh and Goofy etc. don't talk, and that is wacky. I mean, it makes sense, but it does add another layer to the whole experience. (There is a talking Mickey in the Magic Kingdom now and it was awesome to meet him.) This means that you communicate with them through their body language.
So when we walked up to the characters and Ellie was nervous, often standing behind me at first, I would interact with them to help her feel comfortable.
And it meant that when she made simple decisions like, "I only want them to sign my autograph book once," I could say at a character meal, "Minnie, so good to see you again. You signed our book yesterday so Ellie would just love a hug and a photo." Minnie would nod her head and hand me back the autograph book she'd picked up off the table and turn to Ellie for a hug. Or I could say, "Cinderella it is so good to see you again after meeting you with Rapunzel yesterday" and then like magic she would say, "I'm so happy to see you again" to Ellie.
Simple magic that made Ellie feel so special. And you can see how exactly what I mean when you look at this moment I shared last week. And the photographers at Disney World did a great job of often getting photos of just her with the characters even if I was standing nearby.
So this is the part where I just say it: If your kids really want to meet characters but are nervous at first, get over any awkwardness you have about talking to a 6 foot tall striped Tigger and get in there to help facilitate that joy.
I'm going to share a few more posts about our Disney experience over the next few weeks because going with a child for the first time had me just really noticing things in a different way. Plus, I've promised to tell you how I survived all that walking with plantar faciitis. I've already shared my tips for keeping your little one busy on a plane ride over here because after 6 hours on a plane both ways, I've got a few ideas for you!
Have you been to Disney with kids? What unexpected tip do you have to make it even more magical? Share in the comments!
PS And one more quick story: That first photo of Ellie and me with Minnie shows me explaining the gift that Ellie brought for Minnie. As in unbeknownst to me, my daughter packed a gift to give Minnie Mouse - the beads she'd been gathering for her for the last 8 months or so because she thought Minnie might like to make a beaded necklace. I'm not kidding. I had a vague memory of her asking for a ziploc to put some beads in when she was sorting her collection one day last summer because she "wanted to give them to Minnie one day." On the morning we were leaving for the airport, she asked me if I'd packed her "comfort pouch," which is a zippered pouch with treasures and a small journal in it that she named and created a few months ago. I stuck it in the carryon without much thought. The first morning we're at Disney World she asks for it and pulls out the beads, asking me if I'll carry them for her in case we see Minnie. What the what? And then suddenly it all comes together. We put a "You Are Awesome" sticker inside and I went with it.
Here's what you should know: If your kid suddenly decides to bring a card or you know a random bag of beads to give to a character, the peeps at Disney totally know what to do. After I explained to Minnie and it was captured forever and ever in that photo, I handed it to Minnie's "handler" who put it in a bag she carries and nodded that she'd take care of it as though it was the most normal thing ever.
I'm kind of still not over the crazy, awesomeness of my kid saving beads for Minnie and then REMEMBERING to bring them without even telling me about it.