In my experience, in order to be able to maintain calm and control for situations that demand good behavior (waiting for restaurants, waiting for attractions), most kids need periods of activity that allow them to use pent up energy and blow off steam. They need to move their bodies and “get their wiggles out.” A typical Walt Disney World vacation does involve lots of movement, but this tends to be of the energy sapping sort (walking from ride A to ride B), rather than the energy rejuvenating sort (free and creative play).
So in a regimented Touring Plans, gotta-hustle-to-the-next-attraction world, how to do you get your kids to move their bodies in a constructive, appropriate, and fun manner. Here are some tips.
Take a mid-afternoon break at your resort.
This is an old saw, but it works. If at all possible, you should take a mid-day break to recharge your batteries. Some folks recommend that the best activity for break time is a nap, and for the youngest children (and my husband) this may be true. But I’d argue that for preschoolers on up, a free movement break can be equally reinvigorating.
So what can kids do at the resort to move around? Of course all the WDW resort hotels have pools which are heated to at least 80 degrees year round. I’ve seen hardy souls Marco Poloing like mad, even when the air temperature was 45 degrees. Many of the resort pools have splash areas, fountains, slides or other interactive features which encourage use of multiple muscle groups.
The resorts also have small playgrounds with slides and basic climbing structures. While most of these are covered, be aware that the plastic and metal elements can become quite hot in the Florida sun. Test surfaces yourself before allowing your child to play freely.
And best of all, many of the resorts have lawns, beaches, or courtyards that practically beg kids to run around. I’m talking to you faux football field at All Star Sports.
You can make free time more entertaining by packing one or two pieces of small sports equipment such as a frisbee, ball or jump rope. Every time my kids have tossed a frisbee in an open area at our hotel, they’ve made friends with other children who wanted to join in the fun. Be mindful to keep the noise level to a dull roar, but otherwise go ahead and enjoy the open space. Depending on your child’s need for exercise, you may want to factor the availability of play areas into your resort decision.
While “pool hopping” is generally not allowed at Walt Disney World, you are welcome to use the playgrounds and open areas at any of the WDW hotels. For example, if you’re staying at a distant off-site hotel and want a mid-day break from the Magic Kingdom, a good solution can be to take a brief boat ride over to Fort Wilderness for lunch and playtime. There is a well-shaded climbing structure and beach area where you can let kids be, well, kids for an hour or so.
And at all the resorts keep an eye out for special opportunities for movement such as beachside sack races or hula hoop contests.
What if Your Kids are Antsy in the Parks?
Despite your plan to take a break at the hotel, sometimes that’s just not in the cards. Or, perhaps you’re planning on taking a resort break later, but your child need to move around NOW. Never fear, there are some location in the parks where free play is possible.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
The primary spot for unfettered play at DHS is the Honey I Shrunk the Kids Playground. Your kids probably won’t understand why there’s a supersized Play-doh can or a giant ant sitting there, but they’ll love climbing on the netting bridges, zooming down the slides, or playing hide and seek with their siblings in the secret tunnels. Think McDonald’s Playland on steroids.
There’s only one exit, so if your kids are big enough not to get stepped on, park yourself near that exit and catch up on your emails while you wait for the young ‘uns to burn off their excess energy.
A stealth energy burner can be the Disney Channel Rocks show which takes place in front of the big hat several times a day. This attraction includes a section where kids can dance their hearts out. For an uninhibited child this is a chance for both the illusion of fame and the expenditure of a few calories.
The Animal Kingdom equivalent of the Honey I Shrunk the Kids Playground is The Boneyard in DinoLand. In addition to slides and climbing structures, there’s a sand pit area where kids can dig for buried “dinosaur bones.” Your child will definitely get some sand in his shoes here; be prepared with an extra set of socks to facilitate clean up.
While not specifically designed as an active movement area, you might want to take a squirmy child over to the Affection Section at Rafiki’s Planet Watch. This petting zoo allows kids to freely interact with, hug, and pat the tamest group of sheep and goats I have ever encountered. This has a huge calming effect on many youngsters.
Epcot does not have a dedicated playground area. The closest thing to free play you’ll find at Epcot is the interactive fountain splash area in the walkway between Future World and the World Showcase. This is an area where kids will, obviously, get wet. For here, and many other locations, it makes sense to keep a dry set of clothing in your backpack or diaper bag.
While not free form play, the exhibits at Innoventions do offer some physical activity. One of my kids’ favorities is the “Where’s the Fire” attraction which involves running from room to room in a mock house while identifying fire hazards. Similarly, the Kodak Image Works area in the Imagination Pavilion involves movement like jumping and stomping to activate some of the attraction features.
If you happen to be at Epcot during Flower and Garden season, you may find that there are temporary play structures erected for the Festival. Be sure to take advantage of them.
The Magic Kingdom is experiencing a transition in the availability of free movement areas. The Ariel’s Grotto water play area and the Toontown Donald’s Boat water play area were both closed as part of the Fantasyland refurbishment and expansion. Beyond the old standby Tom Sawyer Island, currently the only real play areas at the Magic Kingdom are a teeny todder-sized climb area near the exit to Splash Mountain and the new-and-improved interactive queue at the Winnie the Pooh ride.
The latest version of the Magic Kingdom map mentions the Casey Jr. Splash and Soak Station in the Storybook Circus area. When this opens, I assume it will provide some relief for families who want a place for their kids to cool off and run around. Again, bring extra clothing for your wet wigglers.
Much like the Disney Channel show at Hollywood Studios, the “Move It, Shake It, Celebrate It” parade invites guests to get their groove on and dance during the show. If you shake your groove thing, maybe your cranky kids will join you and activate some endorphins.
Where have you found to let your kids be kids at Walt Disney World? What are your tricks for helping little ones burn off excess energy? Let us know in the comments below.