By the time she turned 4, Melanie was a Disney veteran. She'd cried when Mickey Mouse had come too close, gotten a nightmare from the ticking crocodile on the Peter Pan ride and was traumatized by the huge fireworks display. But not this trip.
This trip, Melanie couldn't get enough of the place. She raced around all day wearing her personalized black mouse ears, singing the Mickey Mouse Club song until her brother and sister begged her to stop, hugging every character she saw, insisting her happiness depended on riding every attraction again (even the Peter Pan ride!) as soon as it was over. She happily dripped mouse-ear-shaped ice cream all over her shirt. The lines didn't seem to faze her, she was so busy looking at everything and everybody.
That first morning, Melanie, who normally changes her outfit at least four times before breakfast, was the first one ready, insisting her brother and sister get a move on. She had an important date to meet Minnie Mouse for breakfast at Disney's Polynesian Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Melanie didn't care about the bland eggs at the crowded buffet. She barely touched her overcooked bacon or too-sweet apple cobbler. She didn't drink the fresh-squeezed juice. She was too busy rubbing noses with Chip and Dale, posing for pictures with Minnie Mouse and giggling at Goofy.
Four, I decided that morning watching Melanie. Younger and they're too overwhelmed by the place. We saw evidence of that all around us, cranky toddlers squirming in strollers or being dragged along by harried parents determined to make the most of the expensive day. (It's $37 for a one-day adult admission and $30 per child over 3, just to get through the gates. Call (407) W-DISNEY for information and hotel or meal reservations, which are required for all the character breakfasts.)
"Sure you think it's the biggest treat in the world for a 2-year-old. But it's just too many people," explains Patricia Shimm, the founder of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and co-author of "Parenting Your Toddler" (Addison-Wesley, $10). "It's overwhelming for adults. Think about what it must be like for a young child. Think about how you feel when you've got too much on your plate," she says.
Her advice: If you're determined to take very young children to Disney World, keep the day as low-key as possible. Spend a few hours and head back to the hotel pool to unwind. You can always return later.
A word about creature etiquette: Don't pull Tigger's tail or step on Mickey's toes. Be patient and they'll get to every child who's waiting. It helps to have your camera ready and autograph book out, though -- especially if there's a crowd.
If you miss the characters somehow and have a disappointed child on your hands, don't despair. Just ask the nearest smiling ++ Disney employee (they're always smiling) when they'll be back. It shouldn't be long.
Don't force young children into the arms of a character or onto a ride they're reluctant to try either, advises UCLA child psychologist Jill Waterman, a veteran of many trips to Disneyland with her two sons. "You want to encourage them to try new things, but you certainly don't want to traumatize them, not at Disneyland," says Ms. Waterman.
Her tip: Bring lunch, because hungry kids -- especially small ones -- have no patience to wait in long concession lines. The seemingly never-crowded Tom Sawyer's Island makes a great picnic spot.
Melanie, meanwhile, was too busy to waste time eating. She tromped through Minnie Mouse's house and saw the new "Legend of the Lion King" production. While her brother, sister and dad headed off to Space Mountain, Melanie and Mom rode the carousel and "It's a Small World" -- twice. We found the divide-and-conquer approach worked best this trip, so the older two didn't feel they had to spend all day on baby rides, while Melanie waited in line for hours for attractions she didn't want to see.
Amazingly, we always met up at the appointed place. Even more surprising, everyone left happy -- for the most part, anyway.
Another day, Melanie was just as thrilled when we visited the Disney MGM Studios and "Beauty and the Beast" (don't miss the stage production at the Theatre of the Stars), Kermit and the rest of the Muppets (the 3-D Muppet movie is first-rate, though Melanie wasn't the only preschooler in the audience who wouldn't put on her 3-D glasses) and "Aladdin's Royal Caravan" (try to get a front viewing-spot to see the 41-foot-high genie).
While we headed off to the new heart-stopping Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (don't eat lunch before taking the 13-story plunge!), Melanie and her dad played happily amid the giant Cheerios and blades of grass in the "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!" playground.
zTC Certainly we didn't see everything this trip. We didn't even try. We didn't squeeze every moment we could out of our day either. We made a conscious effort not to rush, except when we had to get to the airport.
What counted was that the sun was shining and we were all relaxed. We were having a wonderful time.
8, The secret: We let Melanie lead the way.