Early Girlie Homeschool

Walt Disney World Lessons

Earlie Girlie, her dad, and I were discussing what we wanted to accomplish in the new year. They brought up going to Disney World. Again. 

I had zero desire to be hot weather, to fly into Florida, and especially into a crowded Disney World. However, when you've been indoors in -8 degree weather, funny things happen to your brain. I began planning for December of next year. One tip a travel agent gave me was to apply for a Disney World Premier Visa, and they had particularly good deals for this January ($200 cash back, plus 0% APR for 6 months on vacations). Then I peeked on Southwest Airlines. Flights to Florida were also low cost. So, my year-long WDW planning turned into 4 weeks of planning for our first trip to Disney. Her Dad was gushing nonstop about all of the things he wanted us to do and see. He had been there a few times, but many things had changed.

I know most families spend MONTHS planning a vacation like this. But, I've booked so many travel itineraries over the years that I know what kind of pacing we'd like and need. My Disney-fanatic friends chimed in with tips. Earlie Girlie was rather specific with what she wanted to experience: character meet & greets, shows, and finding one very special souvenir. I wanted to experience the food everyone raves about, special events that you can only experience there (such as the International Festival of the Arts), and firework shows. Her dad wanted to go on all of the rides he remembered as a child, and to explore new attractions he'd only read about. I decided a short trip would be best, and if we really loved it, we could plan a longer vacation for the future. 

How to plan a Disney trip quickly:

1. Basic itinerary and budget. This means figuring out what you want to experience (theme parks, resort hopping, etc.), where you want to stay (on location or off-site), and how many days you can be away from home. Do you want to fly, drive, or need a combination of travel options? Finally, cost. I look at cost last, because it is always flexible. I make a wish list of what we want to do, and then pair down from that point. Then, we search for deals and ways to save. 

I figured for our first trip, a 5-day and 4-night package would work. It would give us time to see at least 2 parks, and tour the resorts in case we wanted to go back another time. I didn't want to rent a car and worry about driving there. Disney World Resorts offered complimentary shuttles to and from the airport, and from the resorts to the parks. So that made the next part easier (especially in terms of time/money).

2. Hotel selection. We looked at all of the Disney World resorts before narrowing it down to the ones we liked the best. Since we were booking so late, I also had to choose based on availability. There are also Air BnB options, and a variety of affiliated hotels. For our short, first-time trip, I was looking at all-inclusive travel deals. Disney's Pop Century it was! The package included free airport transportation using Magical Express, so they sent us luggage tags and instructions. Very easy.

3. Flights. I did a quick Expedia search. Then, I chose to book directly through Southwest. They had a nonstop flight, carry-ons and 1 checked bag included in price. (Look at the numbers closely - some flights seem cheaper for base price, but then charge $35-55 for each person's luggage. So the cost ends up being the same, or even more expensive.) I chose flight times that maximized leaving mid-day to enjoy settling into our room, get a good night's sleep, and then enjoy an early Magic Kingdom day. For our return flight, I chose the latest possible flight. That way, we could check out of the hotel and still do a few more things before leaving. *Update: On our second trip, Southwest Vacations offered a Flight + Music Resort deal that was fantastic!

4. Theme parks. Magic Kingdom had the most interesting features for Early Girlie. Epcot Center was a close second. Hollywood Studios had some live performances, and Animal Kingdom finished last on our list. We spent time looking at maps and attractions - after all, learning to read maps and build an itinerary is a great life skill!

5. Travel Agent or DIY? After putting together a few packages on the Disney World park website, I called Disney World directly and had everything set up in 20 minutes! Do yourself a favor and use the Disney website, chat with them, and call them. I had the most pleasant customer service experience ever - listening to Star Wars music on a brief hold, and then someone answering everything I asked really put me at ease. Once it was all booked, the Disney travel agent acted even more excited than us: "Congratulations, you're going to Disney World! You're going to have a magical time!" My daughter overheard and started jumping up and down, and so did I. Finally, I felt excited about our trip becoming real!

6. Dining. I crunched the numbers and decided to go without the Disney Dining Plan. Other moms kept telling me that their kids' favorite memories were having pizza in room. Most kids aren't there for the food. My family? We are big foodies and LOVE to try different things, which is why it was exciting to be going to the Food Studios in Epcot Center.

Where to Dine? We had food allergies to work around, which was easy - post a note when you reserve online or by phone. Make a list of the top places (in each park or Disney Springs) that you want to try. Earlie Girlie was all about character dinners and meet & greets, so we made sure to get one. I chose a variety of cuisines and atmospheres, based on which park we were going to (admission is required for many dining experiences). Again, the Disney website made it easy to plan everything - location, photos, descriptions, menus, basic prices. We couldn't get in to Be Our Guest Restaurant at first...but the night before we left we got into ALL of our first picks! Right before your trip, have that "top pick list" ready and search again.

7. Magic Bands. As part of our package, I personalized these online and got them in the mail. Then, we went through FastPass+ options and set up our times for Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios. This was time-consuming , but also a lot of fun. We watched YouTube videos of rides, character meet & greets, and restaurant reviews. Disney Food Blog and Disney Tourist Blog were our favorites.

8. "Before We Go" To Do List. This is my checklist of everything we needed to do before leaving. It included: letting our employers know about our vacation, securing rides to and from the airport, electing neighbors to pick up mail and check on our home, decluttering phones, calling TSA Cares 3 days ahead of time, printing our boarding passes (24 hrs), automated out of office email, and last-minute packing. Amazon Prime Now will send packages right to the resort! So, I placed an order for everyone's favorite snacks, drinks, and extras on a list, which I sent out the morning of our flight. We decided to try pin trading, so we ordered some pins online to start. I packed up pennies and quarters for the squasher machines and got little maps of those printed, highlighting the ones we wanted to get.

9. Packing List. I already had a packing list from a summer road trip, so I used that for the basics. I looked at a bunch of Disney traveler blogs for ideas on what to include in our "park bags". I also researched some fun Disneybound clothing options and made some creative adjustments. I packed E.G.’s Belle dress from Halloween for Be Our Guest Restaurant. I packed our Star Wars T-shirts for Hollywood Studios. Up to age 12, children can wear full costumes, so we wanted to take advantage of that small window of childhood.

10. Weaving in homeschool lessons. This was so much fun! First, we studied the history of Disneyland, and how Walt Disney World Resort was built. We studied the main details of Florida state, particularly Orlando. We reviewed what we knew about each character, from each story, which meant reading and watching the movies. Most people just watch the films and enjoy. Not my E.G.! She has to know behind the scenes who directed it, who composed the music, who sang the songs, who modeled for the princess, when and where the films were produced, and what awards they won. Learning about Walt himself was interesting. He was not always successful. He was a big dreamer, and many people thought what he wanted to accomplish was unlikely to impossible. He is the reason many of us are still connected to fairytales. I knew that getting back into our homeschooling routine after the holidays would be tricky. The whole Disney theme made it much easier! We learned about the theme park’s designs and “Hidden Mickey’s”. I had no idea so much detail went into every part of the theme park and resort experience. The entire experience gave me a deeper appreciation into family theme parks, and sustainability, and the details that can make an experience magical. (See below for some of our Disneybound Lessons and Activities.)

Disneybound Lessons

* Princess Chore Chart. We reviewed subjects we needed to work on daily. Every circle filled in would mean a step toward earning souvenir spending, or a pin to trade. I was able to keep this part vague, but some children may need very concrete things at the end of a chart like this. At the end of each day, if all subjects were completed, then she was able to pick a Disney or Pixar film to watch.

* Make a list of Disney movie night films you haven't seen. This activity doubled as a reward at the end of the day! Earlie Girlie didn’t just make a list. She made a list in the order of year the film was released, whether it was animated or live action, and whether she was familiar with the story or not. There were a few films and characters that E.G. was not familiar with, and to enjoy the parks and meet and greets, I felt it was important for her to have this frame of reference. We watched Moana, Tangled, The Little MermaidLilo and Stitch 1 & 2, Finding Nemo, Finding Dory, and Swiss Family Robinson. I always have her study the origins of each story, and the setting where the characters are from. These happened to be stories involving characters who lived (or got shipwrecked) on islands and oceans. This helped us study the differences between mainland life, island life, and life on a peninsula.

* GeographyFlorida This includes facts, weather, and Orlando, Florida news. We always study the state and local areas of places we visit. We do "Top 10" lists of facts. These can be fun, interesting, or important to know. 

* Historic landmarks. Each of the Disney castles is based off of a real castle in Europe or Asia, as well as the fairy tale of origin! We watched the history of how Disney World evolved from swampland, and designs based off of Disneyland in California. We also did a vent diagram compare/contrast of Disneyland and Disney World. 

* Maps. Each of the Disney parks are huge. Maps are necessary when looking at where you want to eat, and how to plot out your rides and meet and greets. I didn't want us to zig-zag all over the park, so I designed our trip carefully. E.G. made a LEGO version of where each character could be found in the Magic Kingdom! This was useful because once we were there in person, she could visualize the layout and knew which part of the park we were in, and where we needed to go next. Of course, it helps to ask Cast Members. They will also help you navigate the parks.

* Time / Scheduling. FastPasses were a great way to set up the day, and teach girlie about how to manage time blocks. We had our list of FP+ options (character meet and greets, rides, and shows). We budgeted time for wake up, getting ready, packing our park bags, eating breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner. I scheduled brunches and dinners to be sit down - which we needed!

* Coins, the U.S. Mint, and where to find squished penny makers in the parks. I planned to make jewelry and key rings from these with my new metal punch! So we chose pennies that had a significant year, like our birth years and favorite times.

* Souvenir budgeting. We decided to budget 1 special souvenir per person, 1 clothing item, and 1 accessory. It would take a lot of willpower to not go crazy while shopping, but we wanted to focus on experiences rather than collecting more stuff. 

* Learning Disney language. I quickly learned that Disney has its own language, such as the shuttle to the airport (Magical Express), MagicBands, FastPasses, Park Hopper tickets, and so on. Here are a few examples:

Cast member = any employee at Disney World, whether it's the travel agent, concierge, waiter, shop keeper, performer, or costumed character.

Face characters = any character who is dressed up in costume but whose face is fully visible and not in a mask (e.g. Cinderella, Mary Poppins, Tinkerbell).

Fur characters = those with an oversized, non-moving mask serving as their entire head, such as Mickey, Minnie, Chip and Dale, or Sophia the First. 

* Character Question Cards.  This is something I made up while thinking about all of the times we meet favorite characters and blank out on what to say...then kick ourselves later, or remember what we wanted to ask them, way after the moment is over.  I didn't want our whole trip to be that way, so I had her write down what she wanted to ask her favorite characters. This evolved into something like an autograph booklet {More description below}. Girlie also struggles with printing, and is just becoming confident enough to copy full sentences unassisted. Cerebral Palsy noticeably impacts her handwriting, drawing, scissor work and coloring. I had her write on index cards with lines, and find stickers to go along with the text. That served as a rough draft. 

* Biographies. We watched documentaries and read books about Walt Disney's journey as a creator, and his inspiration for Disneyland and Walt Disney World (Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark). He envisioned a place that was fun for the entire family, clean, imaginative, and over-the-top splendid. The Who Was Walt Disney? book was a hit, too.

* Music composer biographies (and listening glyphs). E.G. chose Alan Menken, Tim Rice, Howard Ashman, Glenn Slater, and Stephen Schwartz. Who? Well, these men collaborated on one or more of these film scores: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Newsies, Hercules, Tangled, and more. Alan Menken is one of the most prolific Oscar winners in the musical categories.

* Pin trading. Although pin trading started with the Olympics, it has become something fun to do at Disney. Each shop has cast members wearing pins to trade, and/or a pin board. Guests are allowed to ask Cast Members to trade and select the pin you want, offering a pin of your own to swap. We decided to get a mixed lot of pins to trade. We found many that we wanted to keep (cuteness!) We used a zippered fabric bag with Frozen print to store the pins. We kept the ones we wanted to trade in the tiny plastic bags. It turned out to be a unique and easy way to trade pins! Pin trading also fell into the category of bartering, which is a theme we'd studied in Colonial and Native Americas.

* Science. Epcot Center is loaded with science examples, from Spaceship Earth's drainage system and construction, to the aquarium, to its special rides featuring an evolution in technology. Originally built as a utopia envisioned by Walt Disney, Epcot is pretty amazing in its construction. The World Showcase has sponsorship from 11 different countries around the world. Cast members are typically college students from the country of origin! Animal Kingdom is an obvious choice for zoology, habitats, and environmental studies. Disney also has a unique patent on “smellitizers”. Disney understood the connection between scent and memories in the brain. In order to make strong and pleasant connections to a vacation experience? Scents are pumped into areas such as Main Street confectionary, rides such as the Pirates of the Caribbean. Each resort has its own customized scent. Read more about that here: https://phdprincess.com/blog/disney-smells.

Trip planning and homeschool lessons blended together quite well!

Character Question Cards

This is something I made up, based off of EarlieGirlie's needs, and the idea of autograph books. 

While E.G. loves to do meet and greets, sometimes she gets nervous and speechless on the spot - like many of us, she gets "star struck". So I came up with a system to help her - Character "Q" Cards! The idea was to hole punch these and put a binder ring on them for easy carrying and finding. We realized that a visual image of the character would help us locate the questions quicker, so we played with different ideas, such as using stickers, pictures, or silhouettes of the characters in colors that matched their costumes.

Now, for characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald, in big-headed "Fur" Costumes, the challenge was to ask something they can nod yes or no to, or mime a response. She knew they couldn't talk but could make gestures, just like she could when she was nonverbal. E.G. had a great time coming up with interesting questions for them! Some involved asking about their favorite instruments, dance steps, emotions (Donald, do you always get mad?), and friendships (Mickey, is it true that you worked with Walt Disney himself?). I had her ask a few questions in case we ran into a character more than once (which we did - Mickey & Minnie were at Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios).

She could ask more open-ended questions and for details from the "face characters" like Princess Aurora and Cinderella. What a great lesson in close-ended and open-ended interview questions!

We found some lovely silhouettes online and I used GoogleDraw to create 2 per page with text boxes over them for her Qs. I printed these on cardstock, punched holes, and put a key ring on them. They also doubled as a place for autographs, any notes she wants to take, stickers, or trading pins.

Update: I have to say that the Character Q cards were a HUGE success at Disney! We watched a lot of people stand in line for 25 min, say hi, shift around nervously, pose for photos, and then hug a character goodbye. She would flip through the pages and rehearse her Qs in line, which gave us something to do. I was hoping that she could ask 1 question, and they'd answer before posing for a picture. From the first to the very last character, they all got into it - they answered EVERY one of her questions, danced around, and had a great time! While I worried we were taking up so much time, other parents said how fun it was to watch, and that it helped other kids in line break the ice too. We met boys who didn't know what to say, and once she shared some of her ideas, they'd get excited and come up with their own Qs to ask. One shy little girl behind us wanted to know where pixie dust came from too, and was so excited to overhear that Tinkerbell had pumpkin muffins for breakfast, just like the ones she had that day. We looked back to see her rush right up to Tinkerbell and say, "I had muffins for breaky too!" Creating these ahead of time helped build up her confidence and courage. It made the meet and greets so much more engaging and entertaining. Some of them flipped through to see if she asked everyone the same questions or not. 

Character Questions

Mickey: Is it true that you worked with Walt Disney himself? Is it true that you created your own opera with Clara Cluck and Donald Duck? Will you do the Hot Dog Dance with me? (Every Mickey did!)

Minnie: Do you play an instrument? What's your cat, Figaro's favorite game? (Catch the yarn) What is your favorite type of dance?

Donald Duck: Do you have a favorite musical instrument? Do you always lose your temper? Do you get mad at your friends sometimes? Does Scrooge McDuck get tooth fairy money?

Goofy, do you ever dance the disco style? Will you do the Hot Dog dance with me?

Tinkerbell: What is your favorite musical instrument? (Drums!) What do pixies eat? Where does Pixie dust come from? Did you team up with Porky Pig? (Yes, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit).

Peter Pan: Do you still hang out with Tinkerbell? Did Captain Hook ever capture you again? Do you play other instruments, besides the fife?

Cinderella: What's the favorite part of your day? What's your favorite book? If you could dance to another song, what would it be?

Drizella, what do you like about Cinderella?

Anastasia, would you like to have a brother?

Stepmother, do you play piano duets?

Fairy Godmother, where did you get your magic wand?

Aurora, do you still see Flora, Fawna, and Merriweather? Where's your favorite place in the kingdom? Do you like your pink or blue dress more?

Belle, do you write in a diary? Do you have a favorite dance move? When did the Beast learn to be kind to you?

Beast, what's your favorite kind of music? Do you still lose your temper? Will you dance with me?

Snow White, are you afraid to eat apples, because of the Evil Queen? What is your favorite part of your movie? Do you have a new wish? (To meet new friends, like you!)

Rapunzel, what is your favorite part of your story? Are you afraid of heights, because I am! 

Tiana, what is your favorite kind of food? Did you open your own restaurant? Do you play music? Do you ever see madame Odie?

Merida, what do you like most about your kingdom? Can your brothers still turn into bears? Did you always have red hair?

Ariel, do you still go swimming? Did you know I also lost my voice? Who are your best friends from Under the Sea? What are your most collected items in your trove?

Jasmine, where do you live? What are your favorite songs? 

Geenie, may I have three wishes too? Would you like a different bottle to live in?

Aladdin, is Jafar still in your lamp? If you could have one more wish, what would it be?


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