Until recently, the approach my husband and I had taken to Disneyland was to put it off for as long as possible. Having never been there myself, I was skeptical about the “happiest place on Earth” hype and dreaded the crowds and overpriced admission fees.
The plan was to take our daughters to Disneyland once the begging and pleading became unbearable. So long as they remained excited about activities like collecting snails in the front yard and running in the dunes at Ocean Beach, Disney seemed like overkill; an expensive and unnecessary hassle. In the meantime, the girls would vacation in places their parents wanted to go.
This month, after years of mostly peaceful deferment, my older daughter and I finally visited Disneyland. Her school singing group had been chosen to perform at the park and attend a workshop with Disney professionals. It was a wonderful opportunity, and even I was excited to be going.
At a group dinner upon our arrival in Anaheim, I revealed to the other parents that the next day would be our first ever in Disneyland. My announcement was met with surprise bordering on shock, most of the parents and their kids having been to Disneyland once if not numerous times before.
It was then that the guilt set in. Had I deprived my children of an experience critical to their formative years? Was there a “perfect age” for Disneyland, and, if so, had the clock already struck midnight for my now eleven and nine year-old daughters? The opinions of my fellow parents were mixed.
One mother felt that the Goldilocks Zone for Disneyland was somewhere between three and seven. Within that age-range, she said, kids are old enough to make memories but young enough to still get excited about meeting the princesses and other Disney characters.
A few other parents thought that the best age for Disneyland was around nine, when most kids meet the height requirements for the scarier big-kid rides, like Space Mountain, but still enjoy the tamer little-kid rides as well.
Someone else pointed out that if your goal is to go on every ride, see every sight, and stay up for the fireworks, it’s better to wait until your kids are a bit older, like eleven or twelve. At that age they have more stamina and will get more out of the park.
The next day, however, after exploring Disneyland with my daughter and her friends, I came to my own conclusions. The joy and wonder I saw on their faces as they skipped arm-in-arm down Main Street made clear that these tweens had not missed the window for Disneyland. Laughing and smiling their way from Adventureland to Toontown, from the It’s a Small World ride to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, they were no less enchanted by this place than any small child.
While kids of different ages will have different experiences, I have concluded that there is no “perfect age” for the “happiest place on Earth.” Disneyland is not so much about the characters, the rides or the fireworks, but a special magic that pervades it all. It’s the way the music follows you from unseen speakers as you walk through Fantasyland, bubbles floating by in the sugar-scented air; the smile that spreads involuntarily across your face when Sleeping Beauty’s castle first comes into the view; and the excitement you can’t help but feel when Goofy suddenly appears on the scene, waving his oversized hand at you.
Corny as it sounds, Disneyland is not just an amusement park but a state of mind. And whether you take your kids when they’re three or thirteen, you should definitely plan to share the Disney magic with them at some point. Take it from me, a former Disney doubter who is now begging and pleading to go back!
Inger is a former environmental attorney, full-time mom, and freelance writer who writes mostly narrative-style pieces and personal essays on travel and family life in San Francisco and places beyond. Born and raised in the Philadelphia-area, and holding both a U.S. and Swedish passport, Inger has lived in her dream city, San Francisco, since 2008. She has two daughters, born in 2006 and 2007, who are currently students at Commodore Sloat School. Inger is an active volunteer at her daughters’ school and has also served on the board of the Randall Museum Friends for many years. Inger finds spiritual inspiration in yoga and the great outdoors, and counts Swedish summers, Italian reds, and impromptu 80’s dance-parties among her favorite things. She is also fairly obsessed with her Ragdoll cat, Charlie. Inger‘s published writing and blog can be found on her website at ingerhultgrenmeyer.com.