We all wish for that special vacation for our family; creating memories, spending quality time together and hoping it will be a success. But let’s face it, traveling with a preschool-aged child can be challenging, and you're very brave to do it! It’s not always a piece of cake, but it can have moments where everything is zen and balanced in the flurry of sensory explosions, out of whack schedules and the Florida heat.
After numerous years of Disney family vacations, earning early childhood education and development degrees, and as a former preschool teacher, I would like to share with you my top five tips that have benefited my vacations with three small children. Please contribute your ideas below for making a family vacation to Walt Disney World with your preschooler a magical success, too!
Plan Before You Go
Discussions and visuals set the stage for a successful trip. When young children can feel like helpers with packing, understanding expectations, and empowering them with a couple of choices (like choosing which masks to bring) offers the first stages of autonomy, which is important for their growth. Role playing airplane/long car rides or mask wear, storytelling or YouTube visuals can build up excitement while alleviating any anxieties. Washing hands properly at home while singing a Disney song for twenty seconds preps for lots of hand washing ahead, too!
You’re on vacation and want to break away from your typical family routines at home. However, young children thrive on routine. Keeping (as best as you can) nap times, wake up and sleep times, and other routines (such as eating schedules) also help to keep the day enjoyable. Staying on property offers easy access and transportation to support these routines. I always preferred resorts that had walking opportunities or non-bus transport, such as the monorail, to makes things easily accessible to come and go. I would have loved to have had the new Grand Floridian walking path to access the resorts for stroller walks as well.
Consider a short vacation with visiting only one or two parks if you are new to family vacations and this is your first experience. Taking it slow, sometimes stopping to do familiar things like coloring, allows for sensory overloads to become more manageable.
Consider a multi-generational trip, which can help with taking breaks. Preschoolers can drain parents physically and mentally, and having multiple generations along for the trip could offer support and much needed parental time-outs!
If not multi-generational support, splitting the family core up throughout the day can be beneficial. If you have a partner coming along, taking time out to be alone and/or splitting up siblings a little throughout the day gives not only a little breathing room, but also creates some special memories through one-on-one time with each child.
Disney creates support through their My Disney Experience app, such as selecting food via mobile ordering, and tips for making this age more comfortable with their trip through ride recommendations, musical playlists, stroller rental access, and rider swap information. Disney also provides a guide for planning a WDW trip with little ones.
Even though your child may have outgrown strollers while at home, in Disney, you may need a stroller to support your vacation. Clear Ziploc bags are useful for seeing through your grab-n-go bag (for a few years, a large jumbo Ziploc under the stroller was actually my park bag). Favorite cups, snacks, bottles, familiar loveys, and if you’re staying at a resort with a sand play area (such as the Polynesian Village Resort which is set to reopen this summer), pack a few sand toys or a small pool toy.
Safety and Health Plan
Planning for illness while away will keep things calm when your preschooler doesn’t feel well. Taking along medications, knowledge of local health care availability and onsite help, including possibly purchasing Disney travel insurance, are important. I always packed a medical care kit which included a thermometer, tweezers, homeopathics and sunscreens for those legs that dangle out of the stroller! It also included items for overheating like fans, hats, and cooling cloths.
For parents of special needs preschoolers, this includes our arsenal of special needs items (medications, sensory items, sticker charts/tokens). Using your phone to keep local information on pharmacy, urgent care, hospital locations are other ways to lessen the stress of a sick child.
Making memories at Walt Disney World with preschool-aged children can be magical and the beginning of wonderful future trips ahead. Trial and error are part of the stories we tell later on. On one enjoyable trip, I did not pack my preschooler’s underwear. Great. No underwear. A four-year-old with no underwear. Should've had my four-year-old pack instead of me! But my motto after that was, “If mommy forgets something, WE ARE IN DISNEY WORLD; we will have a good laugh and some of our best shopping (and memories) happens when mommy forgot the (fill in the blank).
What are your helpful tips for this age level? I would love to hear your feedback!