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Family Travel: The Tragic Kingdom

by Katy Killilea and Jaci Arnone

In each of our families, fun-loving grandparents organized a trip to Disney World. Lacking intuitive understanding of why parents consider this kind of trip “fun,” we experienced some apprehension and gathered information from every seasoned Disney veteran we knew. We’d both enjoyed mid-1970s trips to Disney World as little girls, and many of our parent-friends had gone and lived to tell about it. In fact, they’d all had a blast…but could we? Armed with lists of tips, deep knowledge of fast passes, hopper tickets, and character breakfasts, our families traveled to Orlando for multi-generational adventure. Here are our stories.


Weeks before departing, my kids and I watched a trip-planning DVD (free from Disney) to learn about the attractions and pick our favorites. Friends shared dog-eared guidebooks and annotated maps. My parents arranged the trip to be as easy as possible, booking our rooms on a hotel floor that featured a rotating array of snacks coordinated with a complicated timetable of alcohols. All we had to do was show up with shorts and flip-flops.

Sure enough, Disney World was as everyone said it would be: busy, clean, friendly. It was the kids who didn’t function as planned. Some surprising parts of our trip:

  • Pretty much everything except for the Hall of the Presidents was deemed “too scary” by my 6- and 8-year-old.
  • Not only were rides too scary, but also anyone in a mascot suit had to be avoided (Mickey, Donald, Aladdin, who was okay at first–no mask–until we got close enough to notice his dramatically airbrushed makeup). When approached by Minnie, my younger son glowered and my older son tried to nonchalantly move away, as if Minnie were a discarded sheet of newspaper that had blown against him.
  • Speaking of airbrushed makeup, a highlight of the trip took place on a Disney Monorail when a woman with Dolly Parton hair/jewelry/makeup boarded our car. This, not the Jungle Cruise, is the part of the trip I have heard the boys refer back to most often. (“Remember the woman with a lot of makeup?”/”Yes, wasn’t that exciting?”)
  • We had a view of the Magic Kingdom and its famous fireworks from our room. These were deemed “too bright!” and “too long!” which led to the second great highlight of the trip, closing the curtains to watch Biggest Loser on HDTV.
  • The hotel pool had a joy-making water slide and recreation director. Why were the mascots scary but not the bronzed, dancing recreation man?  He taught the Electric Slide and Macarena, led hula hoop contests, and offered to apply tattoos in a child’s choice of designs: flower, dinosaur, or realistic infected bullet wound.
  • The third highlight of the trip was not riding the Star Wars flight simulator but instead spotting a revised edition of our favorite Ryder Windham Star Wars book in Disney’s Star Tours gift shop.

car2Plbuzzaces the boys did respond as Disney intended: the swimming pool, the Buzz Lightyear ride, and the race track, which is like the Seekonk Grand Prix but a tad less grand. Other parts of the trip I’d repeat: staying on the 12th floor of the Contemporary Resort, and having a benefactor foot the bill. I am grateful to have gone to Disney World with my parents and children. After all, we came home with fond memories of the makeup lady. As a bonus, I no longer have to wonder how guilty to feel for depriving my children of a trip to Disney World.

The bottom line: Unless you love Disney or you get a free trip, go to Storyland and check theme parks off your list.


When my friend Katy started posting phIMG_7660otos live from Disney, I couldn’t resist leaving a snarky comment about the place my husband and I now refer to as the “Tragic Kingdom.” I had wonderful childhood memories of Disney, but as a parent? Different story.

Let me take you back. It’s 1976, and there I stand in my personalized Minnie Ears, watching Snow White pass by in Bicentennial Parade. I didn’t care that my face and hands were drenched in the sticky remains of my melted Micky Bar. I had already forgotten that we had waited for over an hour in the 100-degree heat of August to secure our place in the front row. I was oblivious to the fact that my mother’s new camera had been stolen while she was regaining her senses after the Cups & Saucers or that my parents had been up most of the night applying Solarcaine to my brother’s sunburn. I was living the Disney dream.

As the parent of four small children, Disney magic was the last thing on my mind. It was hard enough to manage a Target run let alone a Disney adventure. In preparation, I mapped out daily itineraries with snack breaks and diaper changes, but I still had my doubts. As it turns out, my gut was right. IMG_8262All the pearls of Disney wisdom I’d gleaned from friends didn’t change the fact that Disney as a parent is difficult to manage and at times, downright stressful.

If you’re in one of those families of repeat Disney-goers, I tip my mouse ears to you. You are Disney Warriors, and I on the other hand am a Disney Amateur with no intention of upgrading my status. Here are some tips this Disney Amateur wants to share:

IMG_7759-The kids run the show.  We were at the mercy of our twins’ nap schedules and if we pushed them too hard, we got a double-stroller load of twin tantruming.

-As a family of six (plus two grandparents and a brother-in-law), we found it most convenient to rent a private home adjacent to the park. Although the neighborhood looked a bit like Stepford, we had a spacious six-bedroom home with six bathrooms, gourmet kitchen, and a gorgeous screened-in pool. It felt deluxe, and it was more affordable than the four hotel rooms we would require to accommodate our entourage. The younger kids seemed to have more fun playing in the house pool than they did doing anything in the theme park, and my older son still talks about the ping pong table in the garage. The adults enjoyed having some sprawl in which to relax after taking on Disney each day and having a full kitchen was a life saver considering the cost of dining at Disney.

-Since our three younger kids were petrified of every single ride (It’s a Small World included), the Fantasy Land Playground was our salvation. This play area has an adorable Hundred Acre Woods theme and a rubberized ground surface, which was ideal for my two almost-walkers. My in-laws were perfectly content covering playground duty with our younger kids, so my husband and I could sneak in some rides with our older son. We didn’t exactly go to Disney to hang out on a playground, but it was the best place to be with toddlers.

-Vacationing with the in-laws might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in our case it was a lifesaver. They helped out when the kids got fussy, brought the twins home for nap time so we could stay longer at the park with the older kids, and even babysat so we could sneak out for a date. If you have the opportunity to bring extra hands without risking family drama, I vote yes.

-The fact that there was a souvenir shop on every corner was a nightmare considering our 3-year-old was in the thick of the “gotta have it” stage. Following a tip from a Disney veteran, we let our 3- and 7-year-old pick out snazzy autograph books and a Micky Mouse pen on the first day. They spent the rest of the trip more focused on collecting autographs from the roaming Disney characters than collecting trinkets.IMG_8302

-On the final night, my in-laws arranged for all of us to have dinner at the Hoop-De-Doo Musical Review in Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort. The review is about as campy as you can get with ‘ole Western dancing and kid-friendly vaudeville comedy. Despite the fact that my husband and I are vegetarian and the meal consists of fried chicken and ribs, this was the highlight of the trip for all of our kids. They clapped along to the music and squealed in glee at the dancers. And the best part of all: pony rides outside of the restaurant. My kids might be scared of riding a hydraulic Dumbo, but they have no fear of ponies.

Although my younger kids probably won’t remember anything about the trip, I hope my oldest son has some magical Disney memories similar to mine from 1976. Like me, he won’t remember or care about the crowds, the heat, the screaming younger siblings, the stressed-out parents, or the tired but unwavering grandparents. And perhaps as payback, someday I will treat my kids and their young families to a Disney adventure of their own.

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  • I went to DW a few yrs ago with my SO and MIL… They are serious Disney fans and loved it all. I was tired of walking and wished I’d had someone to push me in a stroller! My idea of a vacation is relaxation. My solo trip to one of the water parks granted me lots of sun, fun, and relaxation!! I hope I never go back!

  • we surprised our boys twice with 5 a.m. wake-ups: we’re going to disney. the first trip when they were 3 and 5 really was magical. lots of fun, naps in the strollers, no long lines (may). second trip they were 6 and 8. not so magical: long lines in the heat (late june), shoving matches in line. i do love disney but have lots of dos and don’t and could go on and on. if planning a trip, i’m happy to share. just visit my blog — my email addy is at my profile.

  • This is one of the funniest and saddest stories I have ever read.

    My husband and I are dying to take my almost 6 year old son to Disney this year. He is afraid of fireworks and not a big “ride” person. However, I am hoping that between the shows, the characters, and just the excitement of being their will enable us to all have a great time!

    We also go to Storyland every year and it takes a good hour or two before he gets into it.

  • Have to echo the part about traveling with kids with food allergies. Disney (all the disney parks…. animal kingdom, epcot and WDW) were AMAZING for traveling with kids with food allergies. Not just accommodating, truly fulfilling for kids (as in we could eat the french fries and they even have gf hot dog buns). We have celiac disease and traveling gluten free is a constant challenge, not there. Also, the food choices were actually really healthy and good for the most part. Yes, you can buy fries, but they don’t come with the meal… a fruit and rice or a veggie does. Made it a lot easier to buy that popsicle later in the afternoon.

    Also, it’s so clean and service oriented that any other “theme” park type place has become disappointing in comparison. Do contact guest services with any questions. Remember they really want this to be a place where kids dreams come true and are great about kids with any kind of special needs.

    My only other piece of advice is take a stroller, even if your youngest is 6 or 7. It’s a ton of walking and having a place to sit or ride and a place to store your water bottles, change of clothes (lots of chances to get wet), sweaters (it gets cold in the evening), sunscreen, snacks, etc is invaluable. I can only imagine the whining we would have had had we not made it a non issue by coming equipped.

    I also wholeheartedly agree that having more adults is better. Being able to divide and conquer is great, also the timed system they have for rides is great now too (you use your park pass under a scanner at the ride and it gives you a timed ticket to come back) and has made the ride waits so much better. Having more adults means you can send someone to get the passes or wait in a line while the rest of the group rides dumbo yet again or has a snack or rests. Cellphones also helped a ton with coordination. I highly recommend at least 3 adults for whatever size group of kids you are taking. We did not expect to enjoy it, but loved it and my kids want to go back (they were 8 and 5 when we went).

  • First off…I admit it, Roberta!
    Out of my four kids (ages 7, 3, and twins had just turned 1), it was the twins who tended to dictate the schedule. When we tried to skip naps, it backfired since they got so cranky.

    How did you folks with babies get around this….especially with older kids wanting to stay at the park for the long haul?
    I think that was our biggest challenge.

    It’s great to hear so many positive stories from the real Disney fans. I think our oldest son would probably agree with you all, he has great memories of our trip. Like myself at his age, I wasn’t aware of what goes into managing a trip to Disney with a family of 6.

    So, it’s been proven – I’m a Disney World lightweight!

  • FREE trip?! For me, husband, AND kids. Plus, on-site grandparents for FREE babysitting duty?! Don’t care where it is, sign me up!! Better not whine too much about it–very kind and generous grandparents may never offer again.

  • I agree with above comment you needed to have less plans and let the good times happen. If the parents are stressed, the kids will be stressed. My kids LOVE Disney ( several visits now by ages 4 & 6 ) and the secret to is just enjoy the day and not try and see it all.

    StoryLand is also an annual trek, but it can’t compare to Disney’s shows, parades, playgrounds, staff, and beauty.

  • Katy stated that her 6 year old and 8 year old were afraid of rides and fireworks. Katy also stated that her 6 year old and 8 year old prefered to critique women’s makeup and watch the season finale of “The Biggest Loser.” Sounds like Katy’s 6 year old and 8 year old are not only “big boys” but are in fact middle-aged women from Jersey.

  • Katy–had same madras skirt from J.Crew. Wonder where it is now? 🙂

    P.S. I know my boys would be afraid of all the rides. And the fireworks. And I’m okay with that, because someday they won’t be and then they will be BIG boys. Treasuring their naivete and innocence.

  • I agree that Disney World is nice, clean, friendly–I was just surprised and disappointed that my children didn’t like it. The fun for me there was watching them have fun…and they didn’t have much.

  • Did you go to the Nemo show? the Safari? the Beauty and the Beast show? Anything? I can’t believe you stayed at the Contemporary and still had a bad time. Next time, tell your parents to take me. This is RIDICULOUS.

  • It’s sad that children would find Disney so lackluster. (Intrigued only by a woman wearing too much makeup?) It’s also sad that children are so overprotected as to cower at the brightness of fireworks! OUCH! And that sad statement that, “The kids run the show. We were at the mercy of our twins’ nap schedules and if we pushed them too hard, we got a double-stroller load of twin tantruming.” Wow. No wonder you couldn’t enjoy Disney.

    And then Katherine’s comment about “Puerto Aventuras near Cancun”…. (” I’ll never use a penny on manufactured brand-name fun.”) Oh, please. No manufactured fun there.

    Our 6 yr old twins have been to DisneyWorld twice already. And even though they were unable to run the show like Jaci’s twins, they had a great time and are asking when we can go back.

  • One thing that Disney does really really well is customer service, especially to people with special needs.

    If you or a family member has food allergies, they have an office of people that will help you — just tell them what your dietary needs are, where you want to eat, and they will contact the chefs from the various restaurants for you to check everything out. They have several restaurants with dedicated food allergy kitchens, seperate from the main kitchens.

    If your child has a hidden disability, like autism, you can go to guest services and get a special card that will allow you to wait in different lines.

    As a part of a child with multiple food allergies, we will be going to fake Disney Mexico this year instead of real Mexico, because it is the closest our kid will probably ever get to the real thing.

    I don’t think Disney is perfect — but give them some credit for what they do well.

  • I have been saying No Disney for 5 years now, and was starting to consider caving since we have a free place to stay and free entry into the parks… this article may have pushed me back into the No Way, I’ll take Storyland group. Thanks for all your input.

  • ”Remember the woman with a lot of makeup?”/”Yes, wasn’t that exciting?”) – Best line, right there!

    We are taking our one-year-old daughter and our four-year old in February. His second time, her first.

    Keeping it short, three full days, and pretty much will stay in the Magic Kingdom once we are on the Disney grounds. My son, too, loved that playground and was soaking wet and barefoot by the end last time.

    Pooh Bear character brunch, cutest thing ever and the food was actually really good.

    Because of the article above, I am going to look into the Hoop-De-Doo Musical Review.

    We are looking forward to the trip and I will be happy that I am not 7 months pregnant this time around, chasing around a 2-year-old.

    Now I will be 40 years old, chasing around two toddlers instead. Wait, what am I getting myself into…

  • anna–i went to epcot when i was 20 and my only clear memory is of a poached salmon salad in “england” and the adorable madras patchwork skirt from j. crew i wore daily (one that i still hope to find in a dresser whenever i visit my parents’ house)

  • I didn’t think I was going to like DisneyWorld at all and wound up absolutely loving it! Perhaps the secret is NOT being on a schedule, and not having any “must-do” or “must-see” items. There are some hidden treasures that we really enjoyed. (Our son was very young when we went to DW – twice! He’s been back as an adult, and we’d LOVE to go again.)

  • It is what you make of it! We LOVE Disney World, my kids LOVE the rides, love pin-trading, love the characters, love racing from place to place to stay ahead of the crowds. I think if the parents are excited, the kids are excited too. We’re going for my 40th bday in a few weeks and I CAN’T WAIT!! 🙂 Wah-hooooo!

  • Thank you for this. I never went to Disney and I survived just fine. I’ve half jokingly said that my only parenting goal is to never get to Disney. I just can’t help but think of the expense and other fantastic things to do with kids for the same or lower price. Personally, a helicopter ride through the Grand Canyon has been a highlight of my life and I can’t wait to take my son. Or head to Cancun with Katherine…now that sounds fun!

  • Veddy interesting. This topic has been coming up with alarming frequency at our house. Will consider your blog post before making any rash decisions.

    Meanwhile, I agree that Storyland in NH is an excellent, cheaper, closer by alternative! Somehow that place has retained it’s campy charm that I remember so fondly from my childhood. And most of the rides are toddler-friendly, it’s big but not too big, plus there are lovely “mist houses” everywhere to cool off if it’s hot.

    Here’s my photoset from our Storyland trip last summer if anyone cares to check it out:

    Let’s hear it for staying local (saving money and sanity)!

  • My family and extended family just returned from WDW with our 3 1/2 and 1 year old boys. My wife’s family had gone when they were kids and have nothing but fond memories of it. My wife is a WDW enthusiast and likes to accomplish as much as possible. (I never went as a child, and probably wouldn’t go if it weren’t for her).

    The other point is that our 1 YO didn’t get much out of it, obviously. That said, we’d hyped up the trip for a few months and rented a few Disney movies to introduce our son to the characters and culture.

    Here are my condensed thoughts and experiences:
    Our son LOVED LOVED LOVED the trip. At 3 1/2 he is at the age where he believes he’s hugging Mickey and pooh which is so sweet to watch – he loved meeting all the characters. He’d give them hugs with complete abandon.

    He loved the kids’ rides and playgrounds and some of the scenery (not so much the stuff he couldn’t touch). He even sat through and was captivated by the Lion King musical (which is a short, 30 minute revue), something I was skeptical of an energetic preschooler enjoying.

    I think you guys might have been at a disadvantage because I’m not sure if it’s possible to visit WDW without knowing what to expect. My wife and I visited 4 years ago, so we have an adult perspective of the parks, crowds, and logistics. Alternatively (or additionally) reading the latest books and spending time on Internet forums also can help you get prepared for the experience.

    You don’t need to “Love Disney” or be a “Disney Warrior” to enjoy yourself and have a great time. You do need to go with a positive attitude and embrace that visiting the parks constitutes a very active vacation.

  • Love this article, and now I never have to feel guilty about NEVER taking my children there. (Also have early 80s memories and mostly loved eating Italian food at Epcot’s Italy. Would probably cost the same to eat it IN Italy.)

    You have provided an enormous service to parents everywhere. Am considering Storyland trip immediately, will be complete hero.

  • Our February trip will be to Puerto Aventuras near Cancun–sunshine, water to play in, iguanas to feed, guacamole, and that’s it. Not enlightening or educational foreign travel. But enough to “do”, and much more fun for adults. I do not know how the price compares to WDW, but since we have only a few thousand dollars to spend each year on travel, I’ll never use a penny of it on manufactured brand-name fun.

  • so glad for this article jc & katy!!! thanks…we are in the ‘not wanting to deprive our kids of a kid memory so that they feel the need to go for their honeymoon’ throws of debate right now in our house! thanks for all the tips!!!

  • Thanks so much for this post. I went to Epcot once as a child. I think I was 10, so I don’t have any magical memories of the trip. I’ve often felt like we were depriving our kids of some experience by not making the trek to Disney, but I grow less convinced every day. It sounds like a massive undertaking and more likely than not to disappoint.


  • Thank you… my son who is 5 wants to go and I’ve thought about it since we have relatives nearby that we could stay with. I can picture my son acting the same way your younger kids did. I think we’ll wait until he’s older. I have a bad memory of Disney as a kid (I was 10) and thought I was just different for some reason. I think we’ll work our way up in the adventure theme park world and leave Disney for last.