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A parents' guide to avoiding common Disney pitfalls

How to minimize meltdowns at Disney's Magic Kingdom

It's a beautiful morning at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida. Cinderella's Castle is gleaming in the distance.  The smell of fresh-popped popcorn and cotton candy fills the air. It's not even too hot.  

"The Happiest Place on Earth" is ready to live up to its nickname.  

Yet all around Main Street and beyond, it's Meltdown City. Toddlers are wailing. Preschoolers are sobbing. School-age kids are whining and sulking. Did I mention it's not even 9:00am yet?

What's the deal? Why are kids so upset when we are literally at "The Happiest Place on Earth"? 

If you haven't taken a small child to a Disney park yet, allow me to explain in two simple words -- sensory overload. It's just All. Too. Much.

There have been months of anticipation. Previewing rides on YouTube. Flying on an airplane. Often matching t-shirts or even princess makeovers. Promises of meeting a favorite character, eating fun foods, and visiting "The Happiest Place on Earth."

Is it any surprise that many kids implode into an emotional mess not long after they get inside the gates? 

Related: 3 kids, 2 parks, 1 day: A guide to a family trip to Universal Orlando

Having taken our three children, ages 3, 6, and 9, to various Disney parks over the past few years, my husband and I have noticed a few common pitfalls that tend to trip families up. Here's our advice, in no particular order.

Tip #1: Don't forget to feed your kids   

This tip sounds silly, but I'm going to say it anyway. Every time one of our children started to get grumpy, we realized it had been just a little too long since they ate. You know the saying -- time flies when you're having fun. Add to that the fact that you're surrounded by delicious smelling snacks at all times, and you'll often find a hungry kid on your hands.

You can bring snacks along from home, but we suggest you make trying the famous Disney treats part of the fun. Hot pretzels just taste better when they're shaped like Mickey Mouse. Ditto ice cream bars. And here, a Dole Whip totally counts as fruit.

We also highly recommend buying the $10 refillable popcorn bucket. It's literally the best deal in the kingdom and an easy way to grab a snack between meals and well, snacks. Plus it comes with a handle that attaches to your stroller. Yes, Disney thinks of everything.

Tip #2: Get there before the park opens

Disney fans call it doing "rope drop." This is absolutely essential and worth every (potentially) miserable moment of wrestling your family out of bed, onto a bus, and into the park. Lines are much shorter in the first hour and a half after the park opens.

It's a good opportunity to ride popular rides without a lengthy wait or to walk right on to less popular rides. This extra effort in the morning can make the rest of the day much more relaxing and drastically reduce the amount of time you spend waiting in line. Important note: explain to your kids why you're getting there early and what the plan is. We neglected to do this on our last trip and our kids protested loudly as we bypassed other things they wanted to do in our effort to maximize that hour and a half.

We assured them that we would go back and do those things later -- and we did. (The hour before the park officially opens is also a good time to get a picture in front of Cinderella's Castle, and all of the shops on Main Street are open. There's also an opening show with the characters on the castle steps that you can watch while you wait.)

Tip #3: Don't over-promise

Rides break down. Character greetings close the line at the person ahead of you. It rains. Sometimes a lot.  Aside from your FastPass plans, try to keep your promises of fun general, not specific. If there is something that is absolutely critical to you or one of your kids, make sure you do it early in the day, just in case.

Tip #4: Come up with a strategy for dealing with souvenirs

Every ride in Disney World ends in a souvenir shop.  This is not an accident.  Your children will want to buy something at every single store.  Obviously this is not a good situation.  Make a plan in advance to deal with this.   

Our family has our children save their own money in the months leading up to our trip to pay for their own souvenirs. Family members gave them Disney gift cards for Christmas and birthdays. They saved cash from other holidays and doing chores. We keep their money in an envelope with their name on it and pay for their souvenirs out of their envelope. (Yes, it takes a minute longer at the checkouts than whipping out my credit card, but it is so WORTH IT.)

When they're out of money, they're out of money.  We've found because they're spending their own money, the kids are much more careful about their selections and tend to value their items more after they're purchased. Win, win, win.     

Another souvenir strategy I highly recommend for school age kids is Disney pin trading.

Many of the Disney cast members, including those who work in the souvenir shops, wear lanyards with pins around their necks specifically for trading. If your child asks them to trade, they will always say yes. The pins are outrageously expensive to buy at Disney.

We're talking $9.99 to $13.99 and up for a single pin.  But you can buy large bags of Disney pins for very reasonable prices on eBay. I bought a bag of 50 pins for $24.99 and divided them between our three kids. I would recommend buying about twice as many pins as you think you need. Kids will inevitably want to keep some of the pins, so they need enough "extras" to actually be able to trade.

My six-year-old was so busy looking for cast members to trade pins with, he had very little interest in actually buying souvenirs!  

(Regarding younger siblings: We got some pins for our 3-year-old, but he did not trade them, because we know he would instantly want those pins back. He did enjoy having them to look at while his brother and sister were comparing their collections.)

Tip #5: Plan a pool day.  Or two

You may be ready to park-hop for six days straight, but your kids are probably not.  If you ask children their favorite part of most any vacation, most will say swimming at the hotel pool. Guess what? You already paid for that! You might as well enjoy it and let them get their fill. After long days trekking around the parks, most families appreciate a day (or two) to splash in the pool.

If that's too chill, pair it with a trip to Disney Springs or a character meal. We did Chef Mickey in the morning and swam the rest of the day.  

Many hotels also offer free activities for kids in the pool area or lobby. We discovered Art of Animation offers free drawing lessons three times a day.

We ended up attending four of the classes, and it was a highlight of the trip!  

Side note: If you do venture to Disney Springs, the LEGO Store has an outdoor area where children can build LEGO cars and race against each other.

Nearby, the T-REX Restaurant has an area just through the gift shop where children can dig in the sand and uncover "dinosaur bones."  

Both are a huge hit with children and totally FREE.   

Tip #6: Lower your expectations

Yes, it's an incredible amount of money to spend on one trip.  Yes, you may not be coming back here for years. Yes, you have amazing childhood memories of Disney and want your children to have the same. Yes, to all of it.  But don't weigh your kids down with your high expectations.

It's impossible to do it all. Setting up an unrealistic schedule is a FastPass to Meltdown City. Do what's most important to you, then allow yourself to stop and smell the roses -- or the ice cream sundaes.

That brings me to my final word of advice.

Tip #7: Let your kids enjoy what they want to enjoy

During our visit to Epcot two years ago, we stopped to grab a snack of chips and salsa at the restaurant in the Mexico area. My kids soon discovered the ducks gathered in the water down below had a taste for chip crumbs.  

(This is probably not good for them and I do not recommend this, BUT that's not my point here.)   For the next 20 minutes, they proceeded to feed the ducks and laugh at their antics.  Several kids tried to join them, and their parents quickly rushed them away to explore more of the World Showcase.  

Was this an efficient use of our time at Epcot?  No. Did we run out of time to visit the Canadian Pavilion at the end?  Yes. Was it the highlight of our then-four-year-old's day? Absolutely.

Whether it's throwing pennies in the fountain or riding a carousel even though you can ride a carousel at home, let your kids enjoy what they want to enjoy too.  

Those often turn out to be the moments that are truly MAGIC.