The Best Disney World Souvenir

How planning our family Disney trip changed how we travel

Have you ever been to Disney World?  What was the best souvenir you took home?  Was it the hat with Mickey ears?  Or perhaps an autograph book with all the characters' signatures?

My family and I went to Disney World in 2012.

That is, my family and I went, but they were the only ones “present.”  I was caught up in the world of planning and ensuring maximum fun during every single moment at the happiest place on earth.  And during that time, I was living in my own head which could well be described as the most miserable place on earth.

For those of you who know me, you know how I love to plan.  Planning for me is nearly as good as actually going on the trip itself.  Writing lists, making spreadsheets and researching are all very exciting to me.  While planning is an integral part of my every day life, the most enjoyable thing to plan for is a trip. Exploring hotel options, airfare deals, entertainment and activities—it gives me such a thrill to know I’m getting the most out of a trip and getting the best value. I want to know that every penny is well spent.  And so I plan.  And in the past I have done so endlessly.

Do any of you spend months planning a trip?  My husband has referred to my version of planning as the“plan every second” of our trip type of plan.   

A guide book JUST about Disney World.

A guide book JUST about Disney World.

Our 2012  Disney World trip is where I reached the height (or perhaps rock-bottom?) of my planning craziness.  If there was ever an Olympics dedicated to planning, I am sure it would be hosted at Disney World.  You could spend an entire month there, day after day, and still not meet every character, see every show, go to every attraction, or ride every ride.  And that’s a very dangerous thing for a planner.  Because actually, there is no way you can come and go in one week and feel like you’ve somehow managed to conquer this place.  And depending on your mindset going in, you could leave as a very disappointed little mouse.


            In my mind I built up this trip like no other.


If you have been to—or even contemplated going to—Disney, you know how overwhelming the visit can be. Let’s just start with the cost.  The Disney folks are very clever marketers—if you go to the park for a couple of days it’s crazy money, but just add a little bit more to that sum and you can stay another day.  And another day.  In the end, visiting the park for a whole week comes out to just a bit more than staying for 2 days.  Then comes the decision of whether or not to do the “hopper” option where you can visit more than one park per day (of course you want that—who wants to miss the fireworks at night in the park which you didn’t visit that day??).  Following those critical decisions are more decisions you need to make (which shows to see, which rides to prioritize) that could keep you busy planning for months. After all, when you’re spending that much money, you don’t want to enter into this lightly.  At least not if you have a budget and are trying to be responsible with that money.

Our Disney countdown

Our Disney countdown

To surprise or not to surprise the kids…

And then comes the actual “trip reveal.”  Should you tell the kids ahead of time or should you surprise them with the trip of their (so far, short) lives?  If you choose to surprise them, how should you break the news to them?   Did you know that Pinterest actually has ideas for how to reveal the Disney World trip?  There are countdowns you can make and videos on Instagram showing how you could surprise your kids—making the trip reveal an actual critical event in and of itself.   THE PRESSURE!!!!  It’s like planning a wedding or getting ready for a new baby!  And for many who may only be able to travel there once in a lifetime, there might be even more pressure.  It was certainly true for us—knowing that we may not be able to go there again as a family placed a whole new type of pressure on me to make it the most perfect trip—one the kids would NEVER EVER forget.

And so I set off, to plan our most perfect trip.  Ever.

With books piled high around me (yes, travel guides exist which are solely dedicated to Disney World) and my blog reader filled with post after post of “How to Make your Disney trip Magical,"  I allowed Disney thoughts to take over my mind. I joined online forums to gain valuable knowledge from those Disney experts.  I downloaded the obligatory planning strategies and apps. And once I had booked our flights and finally settled on a hotel I proceed to spend the remainder of our beautiful sunny summer of 2012 in front of my computer.  I still had work to do, for goodness sake!  I needed to  research the best restaurants where we could have breakfast with the characters, and still needed to figure out the best way to use a fast pass!  Once those tasks were finished I moved on to create checklists of rides and shows we just couldn’t miss.  It was exhausting, anxiety provoking, and exciting—all at the same time.

Where was my spreadsheet?


The beautiful Disney World Polynesian Resort - we wish we had spent more time here

The beautiful Disney World Polynesian Resort - we wish we had spent more time here

We finally arrived. 

Maybe I should have said we finally survived.  What we (I) had spent all those months planning for was finally here.  Instead of the joy and excitement that I thought would magically transpire, I had even more anxiety.   Instead of being present in the moment and watching my children’s eyes fill with wonder and delight as we reached the park gates, I was preoccupied with checking my list to ensure that I carefully stuck with the plan.  I briefed the team on what was next, where we should be for the optimal experience and the quickest way to get to it. I dragged my kids from character to character and ride to ride. The awesome pool at our resort would just have to wait.  We could go swimming anytime, right?

When we stumbled across an unexpected (and <shudder> unplanned!) event at Epcot I experienced even more anxiety.  In this case it was a rock concert starring Starship (This was not part of the plan!).  And instead of stopping and enjoying the moment with my husband and son ("We Built This City” is still one of the boys’ all-time favourite songs) I went off to stand in yet another line with our daughter to meet yet another character whose name I cannot recall.  To this day I still cannot believe that I gave up seeing my son enjoy his first rock concert in order to stick with my “plan.”

Surprised to find a Starship Concert at Epcot and meeting Mary Poppins.

Surprised to find a Starship Concert at Epcot and meeting Mary Poppins.

What is the measure of planning success?

From a technical perspective, this was probably the best planning I had ever done for any trip we have ever taken.  I really should have earned some kind of medal or award or at least recognition for efficiency!  But was I really successful?  I guess that depends on how you measure success.  Sure I had the checklists and schedules set, but that checklist ended up being one of my single worst sources of stress, and I know I stressed out my kids, too.  It’s true that all of this craziness came from a place of good intentions, and at the time I truly thought that I was doing it for my children.

Where to next?

Where to next?


The checklist was about me, and not my kids.

But what I realize now was that the act of checking stuff off a list was actually for me.  I had read(and even watched YouTube videos) so much about the park that there was no element of delightful surprise for me. Iknew exactly what was going to be around the next corner, what meals to order and not to order, when to line up for the show. I didn't let me kids take the lead for our days out of fear of missing out on something.  My sole function (and activity) was “official list-checker,” instead of Mommy. 

My kids would have been just as happy (perhaps happier) taking each day as it came.  But instead of making memories together I was running around ticking off my long list of activities that each lasted only for a brief moment.  That hit home the hardest when years later when I asked my kids to name their favorite part of our Disneyworld experience, and they named the Buzz Lightyear ride.  That was actually all they really remembered.  Yes, you read that correctly.  All of those hours and days and weeks planning and they remembered and loved one ride. 

The Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin: The kids favourite ride.

The Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin: The kids favourite ride.


When I look back on that trip myself, apart from the huge bill we were presented with upon checkout,  all I can remember is the stress and the feeling we needed to keep moving to make sure we made the most of our time.  If I didn't have the photos I wouldn't be able to remember my kids' laughter or the wonder in their eyes.  Oh boy, what a huge and expensive lesson that was.  

FOMO.  It’s a thing.

What I realise now is, while part of my planning obsession is about spending our money and time wisely,  an even bigger part of it has to do with my fear of missing out.  

FOMO.  Fear of missing out. 

Did you know that FOMO actually has its own Wikipedia entry?  Often FOMO refers to teenagers and their obsessive use of social media, but it also most definitely applies to how I have felt when planning family trips. I worry I will miss the important must-see sights, worry that if I don't research properly we'll miss an opportunity because we could have spent our money more wisely,  FOMO has caused me much anxiety in the past. I often push my family (and whoever we may be traveling with) to the extreme.  I push limits of how far we can drive, how long we can stay out and how much we can cram into one day. And in the past, if things didn’t go exactly to my plan, I would lose it.  And that would wreck everyone's day, including my own.  In fact, it would also wreck the next day for me as well—because that’s when I would feel guilty for losing it.

Getting back to basics.

Things are slowly getting better, and I am consciously making an effort to go with the flow. Sometimes it’s just not easy to let go of those old habits.  But I persevere.  Importantly, I have done some soul-searching and have been able to remind myself of the original purpose of family trips—time together.  To that end, I employed a 5-step plan to help launch me out of this self-inflicted obsession.  (You knew that plan was coming, didn’t you?!)


1. I've stopped researching so extensively:

I still research and I still plan.  That part will always be in my blood.  But I have learned not only when to stop, but to be good with the fact that despite my careful research there will always be a better place to stay and a better deal to be found. I am learning to be satisfied with good enough. I have found that sometimes the more I know, the more I will expect.  That inevitably leads to a higher likelihood of disappointment. 

As my husband says, going "old school” occasionally can lead to the thrill of a new discovery.  Just the sheer volume of information available on the web can be anxiety provoking.  Instead, we try to balance the internet with actual interactions with … shock …. live humans beings!  We make it a point to talk to people when we get to our destination.  That combined with the internet can be a great combination.

2. One thing a day

This can be a really tough rule for me, but it is so important.  While a theme park may not be the best example to use here I can still apply the sentiment.   Had we chosen just one “must-see"character, or one “must-do”ride per day, the rest of the day could have evolved organically.  I can stop and laugh with my kids and interact with them, and watch the day unfold from their eyes.

3. Plan in “unplanned” time

By planning for “not planning” you can flex and adjust based on the day, and more easily go with the flow.  I find this one the most difficult, but especially critical when you have a young family.  See how the day progresses.  Maybe the day needs more time by the pool or an extra nap in the afternoon.  Or a snack.  Or a glass of wine.  Yes, often the day benefits from a happy glass of wine.  For heaven’s sake, you can even do an entire unplanned day if you got super brave.  I am not quite there yet.  But I’m closer.

4. Take on the pace of a child

Kids are on to something. Wander and stroll, taking notice of the little things.  Try to remember a time when you were really delighted.  Often you’ll find that it was a time when you didn’t plan, and didn’t know what was going to happen. Your expectations were low, and therefore you could find great delight in small things.  Get back to that pace, at least once in awhile.  

5.  Talk to your kids

During your family trip, take time to ask them what they’d like to do.  Let them have a bit of control and voice for what the family does.  This not only fosters responsibility but makes the children feel like the important little members of the family.  Their choice may not be what you would have chosen, and sometimes it may not be that exciting, but to them it is a wonderful opportunity to participate and not just be dragged along.


So back to the souvenir.  You may have already figured out that the best souvenir we have from this trip is the insight I gained about myself and how I’ve used it to make our family trips more peaceful and joyful.  I’m a work in progress, so I’m not 100% there yet, but I feel great about what I’ve learned through the process.  I am also reminded of what a wonderful, loving, and forgiving family I have—that when I start to obsess, they are all still there to love me.  

Where are you on your trip planning evolution?  Are you a planner or do you like to take every day as it comes?  Share your stories with us about your best trip ever and what made it so good!

What I learned from a trip to Disney World