The truth about our Disney vacation

You know those videos (mostly commercials) of the parents surprising their kids with a trip to Disney? You know the ones:

Parents (likely on Christmas morning): “Merry Christmas kids! Guess what Santa brought?”

Kids (all sleepy and cute in their Christmas jammies): “What?”

Parents: “We’re going to Disney World!!!!”

Kids: “OH! MY! GOOOODDDDDDDD!!!!!” And much jumping and hilarity ensue.

I hate those freaking videos. 

We are not that family. We have never been that family. My kids don’t take too kindly to surprises, and a trip to Disney is wayyyy too expensive to get sour pusses and a couple tantrums after the big reveal.

One time I tried to surprise my kids with a trip to McDonald’s instead of going to Mom Mom’s and they cried the entire time they ate their impromptu Happy Meals.

We are the opposite of the “Surprise! We’re going to Disney” family. We plan (and save) and prepare (and put things on credit cards) and make itineraries (and cash in every piggy bank in the house). We watch YouTube videos of every single ride and make for darn sure that there are NO surprises around any corner.

Because, in our world, surprises are the enemy. It’s kind of why we wind up at Disney so often; we know that Finn has a frame of reference. Joe listens to Disney podcasts with the kids for months leading up to the trip. We had a countdown ticker on the iPad. We’ve watched the Disney vacation planning video a hundred times.

Going to Disney is a big freaking deal. And it should be. It’s not cheap, but beyond the monetary commitment, it’s a big deal because there’s a lot riding on a Disney vacation. There’s a preconceived nostalgia that accompanies a Disney trip no matter how old your kid is when you go. BIG, magical memories are supposed to happen in Disney… Their first glance of Cinderella Castle as we round the corner down Main Street. That quintessential picture in front of the castle. Riding Dumbo for the first time. Getting them the iconic Mickey head balloon (which we totally didn’t do; they were $15! For latex and helium!) Meeting Mickey for the first time (or Ana and Elsa as it may be). These are the memories we want etched into our children’s psyche. Living these memories with our children is like reliving our own happy memories or experiencing them for the first time through their eyes. It’s supposed to be magical and memorable.

And it is.

But (sometimes) it’s also hot and miserable.

Every time we go on vacation I promise myself that I won’t get so wrapped up in making sure everyone is happy that it makes me miserable. And every vacation I forget all about that promise. I always say, “I’m only as happy as my least happy child,” which makes me pretty darn unhappy most of the time. Somebody is always ticked. Finn’s getting irritated because he’s been waiting too long. The babies are hungry / need a nap / too hot. Charlie didn’t get to ride Space Mountain one more time. There is just no pleasing them all at the same time (I know, it’s every Mom’s dilemma, right?) But, alas, we were in Disney. It’s the most magical place on Earth, right? Isn’t there some pixie dust we can sprinkle on all this to make it all better?

The pressure to be happy at the “happiest place on Earth” was weighing on me like a ton of bricks.

For months leading up to the trip, we meticulously planned every nuance. We waited up until midnight to reserve our Fast Passes so we got exactly the rides and times we wanted. We labored over our dining reservations, “Do the kids see Mickey enough? Will TT get to see enough princesses? Will they actually eat African food?” Every. Little. Detail. And it was our pleasure. Admittedly, Joe and I our kind of Disneyphiles. We know more about the Disney parks than (probably) the average Disney employee.

But, now we were finally on the perfectly planned vacation. Why was it making me perfectly miserable?

I found my anxiety at an all-time high. Even after we were there for a few days and those half-conscious-startle-you-awake-nightmares where we get into an accident on I95 subsided. I was still on edge. I couldn’t sleep past 6am; I was up before the kids every day.

I felt guilty that I couldn’t relax and enjoy myself. “The kids are only going to be this age once. Enjoy their enjoyment of this,” my inner-monologue would tell me. Yet when the kids asked me (or rather whined) for another sip of water (literally) 30 seconds after their last bottle, I felt the rage of a thousand white hot suns.

Surely there was something wrong with me. Were those other moms with their matching Mickey tie dyed shirts having more fun than I?

I started looking around while riding the various Disney transportation and every other parent looked beaten and tired. They, too, seemed at the mercy of wanting to “create the memories” despite their kids’ abysmal behavior and whining. Wanting to give the kids the “picture perfect” memories, while the reality was anything but. Or maybe I was just transferring.

I actually overheard one Dad in the pool telling his kid he’d “give his right arm to trade places with him as a kid.” I gave him the universal nod for Amen, brother.

I mean, here we were running ourselves ragged from Space Mountain to Big Thunder Mountain and trying to get to the Hoopty Doo Review for a 4:00 reservation and Henry and Tallulah were (literally) whining and hitting us in the face. Who were these children? Is there something in this $4 bottle of water that turned them into little beasts?

We were powerless to do anything. We weren’t going to cancel our reservations. We paid for everything ahead of time and by golly we’re going to eat some fried chicken and play the spoons on the washboard! But when we get back to New Jersey, you’re going in time out! 

It was just absurd.

At one point, on our trans-7-Seas-Lagoon voyage to the Hoopty Doo Review, I jokingly remarked to another Dad how dealing with your own children in Disney is like negotiating with terrorists: they make unreasonable demands and no matter how hard we try, we are powerless to do anything. He laughed, and then I said, “Thank God for margaritas with a salted rim.” He only had one kid, though, so I’m pretty sure he thought I was a raging alcoholic.

I attempted reasoning with the kids to tell them how good they have it, but it fell on deaf ears. I mean, it goes without saying that while I was facing backward in a 1978 wood-paneled station wagon sightseeing through the four corner states, that yes, I would have given my right arm for the vacation we were providing for our kids. But telling that story was like telling them that I used to walk 3 miles uphill in the snow to school. It’s like urban folklore. They don’t believe it and they think I’m stupid for having done it.

Here we were on a vacation we couldn’t really afford that was completely centered around THEM! No visiting Boystown USA or waiting for Old Faithful to erupt, these kids had to wait for a 3:00 “Festival of Fantasy” parade and they complained like they were waiting for the executioner to come.

At one point during the pinnacle of the parade complaining, a kind mom said, “Oh, the waiting is so hard. There’s nothing to do. Once it starts, he’ll be fine.” And she was right, but in my mind I was thinking “You should try waiting in line for the Will Rogers museum and then tell me how hard the waiting versus the payoff is. These kids don’t know how good they have it.”

I found myself at a crossroads between envying the memories we were giving them and begrudging them for whining while they were happening. I never would have whined from the back of that 1978 station wagon! But those were different times, I suppose. It was a lose-lose situation for everyone. They weren’t going to change, so eventually, I had to just force myself to (try) and enjoy the moment (whines, tantrums and all!) They were only going to be this young once. Surely once we got home the sting from their abysmal behavior would lessen and the “picture perfect” memories would shine through. Or at least the actual pictures would make me believe it to be so.

Since we’ve been home, I’ve been artfully dodging the “How was your Disney trip” question. I liken it to the age old “How was the first year of marriage” question. My answer to both is the same– it was fun, but exhausting. There were lots of roller coaster rides. It was a lot of work, but in the end we were happy to be together and we’d do it all again in a heartbeat!

Getting ready to leave for the most magical trip on Earth. Yes, we drove. From New Jersey.

Scroll over the pictures below to read the captions.

In the end, what made it worth it was seeing this. They did this completely on their own and Joe was just fortunate enough to catch it.

Author’s Note (if you’re still here): Mom and Dad, I am so grateful for all the vacations you took us on as kids. Yes, I pined for Disney, but looking back those vacations were still some of my best memories. Your wanderlust taught me to seek adventure and never stop planning my next trip. I know these Disney days won’t last forever. Someday we’ll see the world… not just the World Showcase.


12 thoughts on “The truth about our Disney vacation

  1. Thanks so much for this! I now realize why I didn’t have a great time on our vacation to the beach last month: I think I was concentrating so much on everyone’s happiness (which is impossible to achieve) that I neglected my own. Love your pics, by the way, especially the last one.

  2. I joke that I practically grew up at Disney World, but it’s semi-true. My parents own a timeshare in Orlando, and my mom somehow always managed to “bank” weeks and somehow end up with more and more weeks of vacation at the resort (trading “higher” value weeks for more time in “lower value” seasons), so we usually went twice a year, using annual passes to essentially make the second trip’s admission free. Things that made it work: we never went in the hot hot summer, and because we had plenty of time in the parks, we usually either did half days or left for a long chunk in the middle of the day for lunch and naps at the condo. It was ONLY thanks to this that I went into our trip last fall with two 18 month olds with reasonable expectations. A Disney vacation is not relaxing. It’s not always magical. I can’t tell you how many miserable 7 year olds in polyester princess dresses and uncomfortable shoes I have seen bawling their eyes out in the happiest place on earth. I really do believe Disney can be a magical place, and we enjoyed our trip with the two toddlers, but I absolutely see the million ways it’s stressful and exhausting and brings out some uncomfy family dynamics. Looking at your photos, though, it looks like you’ve also got some beautiful memories to treasure as the stress and anxiety hopefully fades!

    • We always joke that we want to become DVC members, but once we leave we say we don’t need to go back for another couple years! Last time we were there, the twins were 6 months old and I packed a bumbo and an excersaucer in the car with us! That was nuts! We are suckers for Disney no matter how stressful it is. When you went this last time, did you guys use the DAS card? Just wondering what your experience was with it.

  3. A bit part of vacationing is letting the excitement build plus showing your kids what it takes to plan (the time and money and effort of it all). As for Disney not being so magical, I get that’, too. Although we’ve had great experiences, we recently went on a cruise that was so-so at best. We learned that we are not cruise people (especially with our 18yo daughter with moderate CP) and I’m doing the same “dodge” thing to avoid when people ask me how our trip was. Here’s to happier travels! (Visiting from Love That Max LinkUp)

  4. Hi Shannon! I always enjoy your blog, but this one really hit home with me. Probably because I was reading it as we were driving down to our own “magical” vacation with our 3 kids…and no air conditioning since North Carolina! I was literally laughing out loud and had to start reading it to my hubby because he wanted to know what was so funny. Our vacation has been super stressful so far, including having to cancel all plans today due to puking kids. But we’re making the best of it. It’s just more work for me & my husband. Thank you for reminding me that everyone struggles on vacation, but there are also amazing times as well. 🙂

    • Oh my God, Christa! No AC since NC? How are you surviving? And puking on top of it? I think I have no room to complain! We almost had pukers– I rushed Tallulah into a “companion bathroom” (thank God for those) at the Polynesian and before I realized it, she was already on the potty. I reached for the TP and put my hand in puke! I looked around and there was puke on the walls and everywhere! I ran out and doused us in antibacterial (I even wiped down our shoes!) It was so gross! Nothing like a little puke to put a damper on your vacay! Sounds like you guys are making the best of it! Where are you guys staying?

      • We are staying at my parents’ time share, about 3 miles from the Disney property. They are here with us so it makes it a great price…free. The AC was fixed yesterday so at least we don’t have to sweat the whole way back to OH. That is gross about the bathroom, yuck!! We have been dealing with a lot of stomach issues, but at least 2 of the 3 boys seem to be on the mend. We are ready to head off to Magic Kingdom, but the 3rd is still asleep and so we wait. Ahh, vacation! 🙂 Have a great Labor Day & say hi to Joe for me!

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