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The ‘Disney pep talk’

At this time of year when my husband and I start planning summer trips for our family of six, we abide by the “Disney Pep Talk” rule.

I first heard the talk several years ago when we were visiting my brother’s family in California. They also have four children roughly the same ages as ours. The night before our Disneyland adventure, amid planning departure times, the order of rides, the foods we would eat — all in squealing, happy voices, Dan interrupted with the talk.

“Watch the families tomorrow,” he said. “They have saved endlessly and looked forward to this trip to Disney forever. But watch, inevitably many parents get stressed and yell at their kids. And this is at Disney, which is probably the most fun place in the world.”

The talk raised critical questions for my husband and me: Why do kids refuse to have fun or be fun at times on vacations? Or is it us and our approach?

Sure enough, at Disney, we saw children weeping in long lines with sweaty, sunburned faces.

We saw disappointed parents watching children dropping or wasting expensive food. We saw tired, writhing kids that could not be persuaded to go on a certain ride, even with parents yelling, “It’s why we are here!” Other parents would shout, “You should be having a great time and instead you’re complaining.” And, inevitably some parents would get infuriated 45 minutes into a wait for a ride when their child announced he had to go to the bathroom.

As a result, my husband and I came up with seven strategies for traveling families:

  • Don’t expect kids to be grateful for all the sacrifices it takes to go on a trip. They are not going to thank you profusely or act wonderfully. Instead, watch for the moment of wonder or the “pure joy” smile. Photograph those moments and it is all you will remember later.
  • Leave a little give in the schedule. Most kids are not naturally continuous “do-ers.” If the agenda is too packed with activities, eventually the kids will start complaining and wish to just hang out. Think of kids being force marched from monument to monument in Washington and then waiting and sweating while waiting in the sun at the spy museum. Down time is needed to help them retain their enthusiasm.
  • Let each person choose one event/activity and one restaurant destination during the trip. After we select our destination, we put out a menu of options and each child can choose one of the options or propose something else. If one child chooses swimming, we make sure it happens, whether at a hotel pool or a beach. They also get to choose one type of food that we will be sure to eat. Our youngest and oldest like to do very different things but complaining is minimized because each knows that their treasured turn will come.
  • Don’t expect the perfect trip; if everything goes swimmingly, then it is a bonus. Whether by plane or car, summer vacations are filled with other people on vacation and there are inevitable delays, traffic, and waiting. Have a plan for the long waits. Electronics may be your best friend during these moments.
  • Everyone has to bring a book. My kids now look forward to going to the bookstore to select a special book for the trip. We have a Kindle and the kids love to borrow it to read. I also give extra credit for creating and writing in a journal; they can write words or draw or both. I give them $1 a page for quality journal writing. It is almost certain the kids will be asked to write something about their summer when school resumes so they are getting a head start.
  • Pack light and smart. We all tend to overpack and drag around things we just don’t need. So now we sit down and make a list together, then make it an event. “OK, everyone bring down three pairs of pajamas,” then, “Everyone go get five shirts and one has to have a collar,” etc. And they have to carry what they pack.
  • Electronics are awesome but you need to set ground rules. The iPods, phones, iPads, DSs, and other devices help distract children during the hectic travel challenges, but the children should not check out and not participate in the trip.

So have the Disney pep talk before your summer journey. It will help you savor the moments of joy. Oh, and make them go to the bathroom before you go anywhere.

Eileen Wacker is the author of the new children’s book, Silent Samurai and the Magnificent Rescue, the third installment of the Fujimini Adventure Series. Contact her via