Remember 11-year-old Riley, the protagonist of Pixar’s Inside Out? Her brain was controlled by the (sometimes conflicting) emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. This war zone of feelings is pretty typical for a “tweenager,” a kid who is in-between a small child and full-fledged teenager. They have one foot in childhood and the other in the adult world. They may remain playful and naive, while also liberally deploying sarcasm in your general direction. If you have a a child around middle school age, you may find them a delight at times and wonder if shipping them out with a pirate crew is an option at others.
So, how about taking a tween to Walt Disney World?
This may seem like the worst possible age to take your child on a vacation that will put your family in close quarters for several days. And yet! I make the case that a Walt Disney World vacation is an opportunity to break down barriers between you and your tween, and enjoy some family bonding.
So how do you plan a vacation with someone who is fluent in the language of eye rolls? Here are some pointers from our family experience traveling to the Happiest Place on Earth with a tween:
- Give everyone some input. You don’t need to let your tween run the itinerary, but it’s a great idea to ask everyone to name a few priorities for the vacation. Their answers may surprise you! Our tween daughter (11 and a half at the time) was most interested in going on as many rides as possible…then spending lots of time at the resort. We did do some things she wasn’t crazy about, like shopping at Disney Springs and having a table service meal, but we made sure to ride her favorite rides and build in some pool time for her in the evenings. Tweens thrive on feeling like they are being listened to, so give them a voice. But also…
- Do some expectation management. Before you go on the trip, talk as a family about the number of days you will be there, the theme parks and attractions you hope to visit, and what you can realistically see and do during your vacation. This is good advice in general, because a lot of Disney-goers try to pack their days full without realizing the impact of lines, weather, and transportation on their schedule. Tweens need to know what to expect from a trip, and what the plan is, so they can feel a little bit of control.
- Consider some outdoor entertainment options beyond the parks. Having bigger kids means that you can do some activities that aren’t as easy with small children and babies. We like playing miniature golf at Fantasia Gardens and Winter Summer Land. It’s also fun to rent a Sea Raycer at one of the marinas. Those things don’t fit baby seats, so enjoy having a more capable kid with you.
- Keep ‘em busy. Epcot is amazing (to me). I love visiting World Showcase and taking a leisurely walk around the park for shopping and snacking. This is, apparently, super boring to a tween. The Kidcot stations are definitely geared toward smaller kids, so they’re no help. The Agent P World Showcase Adventure is much beloved, even by adults, so look into it with your tween. Another option for Epcot and elsewhere is pin trading. We didn’t know much about pin trading before our last trip, when our daughter talked us into a starter kit and spent the rest of the trip enthusiastically swapping pins with cast members (bonus – this activity can help kids who are shy around strangers get the nerve to approach the always-friendly Disney staff).
- Finally, enjoy your time together. Seeing you in a relaxed setting at Walt Disney World, where even the stodgiest adults usually loosen up, can improve communication with your tween. Without pressure to act cool, tweens can indulge in wearing mouse ears, hugging Mickey, and being silly with you – because everyone is a kid at WDW! Eat ice cream for lunch, ride Splash Mountain three times in a row, and stay up late for fireworks. Suspend the normal rules (within the bounds of common sense and safety) and have fun. Your family vacation may not look like a WDW commercial every moment, but you’re sure to return home with a few magical Disney memories to treasure.
And the next time you get an eye roll? Fantasize about a future adults-only trip. I have some suggestions….