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How Disney World, a Preschooler, and Some Waffles Can Change Your Life

Photo credit: Meredith Carroll

Photo credit: Meredith Carroll

Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks famously head to Disney Parks after the big game. Celebrities often celebrate their fame with mouse ears, tiny tots, and the Jungle Cruise. Millions of families visit Disney Parks each year, too. Disney Parks are where countless people celebrate life experiences with a life-changing experience — meeting and mingling with some of the most beloved characters of all time and watching it all come to life for small children.

Sometimes, though, a trip to a Disney Park can be even more meaningful, if that’s possible. Actually, it is possible. I know, I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited Disney World a handful of times in my life — both as a kid and an adult. My husband and I took our two daughters to Disney World a year and a half ago when they were 1 and 4. We planned to go again, but we didn’t know when. Then an opportunity was presented to me to go back this past March, and there’s no reason I wouldn’t have jumped at the chance.

Except.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January and had a bilateral mastectomy scheduled for February. The trip was less than a month after I’d be getting out of the hospital. But I knew that there was no better incentive to heal quickly than the idea of taking my daughters back to Disney World — and this time with my mom.

I wouldn’t say I was feeling sorry for myself, exactly, following my surgery. But I was in some pain and depressed about what had just transpired and what could have been. Landing in Florida, though, and driving up to Disney World — watching my kids, watching my mom watch my kids — it was like I was born again. It didn’t hurt that I have my 5-year-old on video telling me I’m the best mommy ever, and my 2-year-old called a near-truce on tantrums because she was too busy pointing out Mickey Mouse’s silhouette every time she spotted one (which was everywhere).

If catching breast cancer early and nipping it in the bud doesn’t give you some serious perspective, spend a few days at Disney World with your kids and parents. Watch your parents delight in watching your kids delighted. Realize that it’s OK to stop and smell the triple chocolate cake with the rainbow Mickey sprinkles (and, you know, eat it, too). Magic is where you find it — and it’s always found as soon as you pass through the gates into the Magic Kingdom in the morning. You’re transported to a simpler time, and even the saddest, most distracted and harried among us can’t help but get caught up in the wonder of a world created for kids — big and small. Disney is there for all ages and speeds, and it’s there to remind you to live your life and love those who are in it. It’s also there to remind you to eat waffles. There are lots of them there in case you forget.

I came back from Disney World exhausted, but it was as if my time there took me out of my life, and when I re-entered it, I was changed. You don’t need a Park-Hopper pass to be transported to a place where you look for what you do have instead of what you don’t. Look at your kids, at your parents and see the magic in your everyday life. And when you can — do it at Disney World, too.

Here’s a short video of me with my older daughter doling out some Disney Parks advice, followed by some essential tips to maximize the fun with your small kids (not to mention minimize their whining):

  • Could It Be?! 1 of 21
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    The real Mickey Mouse? The one and only?

    Preschooler Tip: If your kids are bouncing off the walls in anticipation of meeting Mickey, it's best to use one of your Fast Passes to do it first thing on the first day. Located at Town Square Theater, Mickey hangs out and gets ready for his big show, but like the gentleman he is, he takes time out to meet and greet with his biggest fans. It's so worth it to get this introduction in at the beginning of the trip if you think your little ones won't rest easy until they meet the head honcho himself.

  • Everything Is Better in an Elsa Dress 2 of 21
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    The cold never bothered her anyway. Which is good, because Orlando.

    Preschooler Tip: Your kids aren't the only ones who want to meet Disney mega stars like Elsa, Mickey, and Woody. This can mean long lines, depending on the time of day and year. It's a good idea to bring a small backpack with water, snacks, and toys to pass the time if they simply must reach out and touch their favorite characters — and wait a while in the process. Planning ahead is key for the meet-and-greets, including bringing a change of clothes if your princess wants to dress like her favorite princess when they meet (in case it's hot outside AND inside that heavy dress).

  • Aim Low 3 of 21
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    "A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes a big difference."

    — Eeyore

    Preschooler Tip: Everyone's a kid when they walk into Disney World — no matter how old they are. But you need to think like a little kid and not overdo your schedule. Don't expect that you'll get everything done in a single day. Or if you only have one day, just choose a few rides so you can also catch a live show or a parade while making sure no one goes hungry. The My Disney Experience app will become your best friend so you can gauge wait times, make a restaurant reservation, and figure out where all the action is happening.

  • Eyes on the Prize 4 of 21
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    Someone's ready, willing and able. 

    Preschooler Tip: There are maps of each park everywhere you can imagine. They are your friends. Use them. If you're in Disney World and your trip won't be complete without Peter Pan's Flight and it's a small world, then try to plan to go on those rides back-to-back since they're right across from each other (and around the corner from the Haunted Mansion). You'll be making it easier on yourself and your kids if you group your activities each day in the same area of the park.

  • Party of 5 5 of 21
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    What's not to smile about?

    Preschooler Tip: You can bring your own stroller into the parks or you can rent a single or double stroller for a reasonable price (and have your kids write and decorate it using the special Disney paper so you can easily pick it out among a sea of identical strollers). There's a lot of walking in the parks, so even if your kids are growing up and out of their own wheels, you'd be wise to let them sit back and not drain any extra energy on walking from ride to ride.

  • Guess Who’s Coming to Breakfast 6 of 21
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    "I wouldn't trade it for anything. Never, no, never. Your friendship is the best present ever."

    — Tigger

    Preschooler Tip: Maybe there's a better way to start the day than breakfast with Winnie the Pooh and friends at the Magic Kingdom's Crystal Palace, but we're drawing a blank. Fuel up for the adventures ahead with a buffet breakfast where even the pickiest of eaters will find plenty to love while Pooh Bear, Tigger, and whole gang make their way around the restaurant to give hugs, sign autographs, and take photos — with nary a line in site (unless there's a run on the Mickey-shaped waffles, of course).

  • Waffle Love 7 of 21
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    What's not to love about a waffle?

    Preschooler Tip: Waffles.

     

    Photo credit: Resorts.Disney.Go.Com

  • Sisters 8 of 21
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    Just a couple of pairs of sisters, hanging out. NBD.

    Preschooler Tip: The kingdom of Arendelle has a Florida outpost — thank goodness. Frozen's Anna and Elsa are conveniently located at Princess Fairytale Hall, where they hang out during the day, tell stories about their adventures, and are happy to listen to your little ones share their tales in return. It's not quite cold enough for Olaf, but then again, the warm weather is why you're vacationing in Florida anyway, right?

  • Paging Doc McStuffins 9 of 21
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    The Doc was in and we were in luck.

    Preschooler Tip: Not every kid is going to want to hug the roaming characters — no matter how much you know they want to see them. Don't be surprised if little ones especially are scared when they see their favorite friends. A good thing to do is check out the schedule of parades and live shows, where most every character can be seen from a distance but you don't need to worry about spooking the preschoolers who aren't so anxious for close-up interactions.

  • Ahoy, Matey 10 of 21
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    Jake and his land-lubbin' gal.

    Preschooler Tip: If you have Disney Junior fans in your family, then Hollywood Studios is a must. Whether it's breakfast at Hollywood and Vine with the likes of Sofia the First, Doc McStuffins, Handy Manny, and Jake (not to mention a chocolate fountain for dipping fresh fruit and cake) or the Disney Junior Live Show featuring Mickey, Minnie, Daisy, Donald, and Goofy — there's lots of face time with the characters that so many preschoolers know and love so well.

  • it’s a small world 11 of 21
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    No, really, it's a small, small world.

    Preschooler Tip: Bring a camera. Bring a charger. Take lots of pictures. But don't forget to put the camera down often, too, and just watch your kids taking it all in. There's really nothing quite like watching a preschool-age child drink in the majesty and magic of Disney World. Be in the moment and cherish all of them. (You know, except for that moment when they melt down.)

  • There’s No Crying in Disney World 12 of 21
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    Not when Mickey's the coach, of course.

    Preschooler Tip: Let's be honest — you have preschoolers, therefore there will be tears. Whether it's because they didn't get an ice cream cone for breakfast, they're not tall enough to ride Space Mountain or they are simply moved because they finally got to meet Woody and Buzz, don't sweat it. Every parent is in the same boat. What your kids will take away from the Disney World adventure is nothing short of magic, even if you have some flashbacks to an epic tantrum in the cave outside Pirates of the Caribbean.

  • They Love a Parade 13 of 21
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    Then again, who among us doesn't?

    Preschooler Tip: The new Festival of Fantasy Parade in the Magic Kingdom is not to be missed. From Cinderella, Tiana, Rapunzel, Ariel, Peter Pan, Merida, Maleficent, Snow White, and, of course, Mickey and Minnie — kids will see the greatest hits in a vibrant display of magic and pageantry. It's best to check the schedule to know what time it starts. Be sure to get there early for curbside seats. The parade generally ends at nap time, so if you're super smart, pick a seat near the park entrance (where the parade ends) and you can beat the crowd to the buses, boats, or monorail once it's over — and not worry about standing in a long transportation line.

  • Caution: Artists (and Animals) Ahead 14 of 21
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    Shhhh, Mom. We're drawing over here.

    Preschooler Tip: Stay at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge and you'll never turn on the TV. With balconies overlooking real animals including giraffes, zebras, and gazelles, your kids will want to be outside, coloring and playing while they have a front-row seat to one of the loveliest views you can imagine.

  • A World of Wonder 15 of 21
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    A whole enchanted world is waiting for her.

    Preschooler Tip: There's way too much fun to be had during daylight hours — but don't expend all of your energy while the sun is up. When the sun goes down, there are free, family friendly movies under the stars at many of the Disney hotel properties — not to mention fireworks in the Magic Kingdom and at hotels like the Polynesian and Grand Floridian. It might be worth sleeping in on some days so you can stay up late and let your little ones experience the magic of Disney at night.

  • I Want S’More 16 of 21
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    Mmmmmm. S'mores.

    Preschooler Tip: A trip to Disney World is not one you'll want to brag about to the dentist. There are sweets and treats everywhere the eye can see. Know, though, that Disney has gotten much healthier in recent years. While, yes, there might be marshmallows before dinner, there are also options on kids' menus for apple slices, carrot sticks, water and milk instead of juice, soda, and french fries.

  • Be Her Guest 17 of 21
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    Yes, indeed, they aim to please.

    Preschooler Tip: Let your kids be the belle and beaus of the ball at Enchanted Tales with Beauty and the Beast's Belle. Located in Maurice's cottage and the Beast's library in the new Fantasyland, little ones can meet and spend time with Belle while getting involved and playing enchanted characters in a tale as old as time that stands the test of time.

  • Run Like the Wind . . . 18 of 21
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    ... until they're finally winded.

    Preschooler Tip: If your kids aren't managing to burn enough energy running from ride to ride, have no fear — there is an ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex that spans 230 acres and will endlessly entertain (and tire out) even the most energized of kids.

  • Go Big and Then Go Home 19 of 21
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    If they don't pass out at the end of the day, you did something wrong. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

    Preschooler Tip: Unless you're staying at a Disney property that's right on the monorail, be sure to note the transportation times and locations to and from your hotel. While all buses come and go from the parks with great frequency, it's never fun to just miss it when you have a wee one who is due for a nap.

  • See Ya Real Soon 20 of 21
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    "When can we go back? Can we go today? Can we go now? Please? I have to go back! Now! Moooooommmmmmy!

    — My 5-year-old

    Preschooler Tip: Don't think you have to do everything in one trip. Disney World isn't going anywhere. Some parks are more preschool friendly than others. You might consider saving Epcot for when they're a bit older, for instance. Think the Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom when they're still quite small.

  • A Castle of One’s Own 21 of 21
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    Or so she thinks, anyway.

    Preschool Tip: Take a family picture in front of Cinderella's castle, but also be sure to snap your kids by themselves. A lovely way to remember the trip is to have your little ones make a frame when you go back home and put their own special photo inside. The great thing about the new MagicBand bracelets is that they automatically upload pictures taken by Disney photographers to your MyDisney account and you can conveniently view, download, and purchase them all from one spot. There's no obligation to buy the pictures, so you might as well have a professional take some extra special shots and choose from the best.

Photo credits: Meredith Carroll

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Follow Meredith on Twitter and check out her regular column on the op-ed page of The Denver Post at MeredithCarroll.com

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