As we embarked on our first real family vacation last week, it never occurred to me that it would be any different than other vacations my husband, Mark, and I have taken together. Sure, I’d have to keep tabs on Ellie, my almost-3-year-old, make sure she was content, throw some food her way, have milk and water handy at all times, but other than that… I thought, “Smooth sailing… sunshine, no winter coats, pools, princesses, fun!” Sittin’ on the Dock of The Bay played somewhere in the distance.
We had planned to stay with friends in Florida and do a day at Disney. I imagined coming back to Vermont and writing a brilliant blog post about how to vacation with a toddler.
We got up at 3:30am on the morning of the 5th, bundled Ellie in a blanket, and took her out to the car. She appeared to go right back to sleep once she was buckled in her carseat, but about half-way to the Burlington airport, a little voice spoke up from the back seat with a string of questions, “Are we going to Florida? Where are we? Is it snowing? Can planes fly to the moon?” I answered best I could.
While waiting in line for our boarding passes, Ellie piped up again — “Hey, that’s Sarah!” (her day care teacher, she thinks she sees her everywhere). “That’s nice, dear,” I said, trying to access our flight schedule on my phone. I looked up to see that, it was her day care teacher — headed to Texas on the same early-morning connecting flight to Detroit. We chatted a bit, and I felt that familiar feeling I got when I pick up my child at day care — you know, that feeling of responsibility, respect. Sarah is an expert at caring for my child, and Ellie loves her. I kind of feel like I should prove my mothering skills are up to par… or at least not scream at my kid in the airport. But Ellie was an angel, and she patiently waited in line to go through security check with about 25 other people, including Sarah, who she giggled and waved at.
Then, when it was our turn to approach security, something happened. A shift in energy.
I don’t know if it was the serious look on the face of the woman checking IDs, the whirring sound of the security conveyor belt, or the anticipation of getting on a plane for the first time, but my sweet, little toddler… took off like a terrorist. She darted under 4 rows of security lines and was gone. I took one look at Mark, gasped, and went after her. As an almost-6-foot-tall woman, I wasn’t nearly as graceful or fast as my toddler, crawling to her, while Mark, still in line, faced the stern face of the guard, as he tried to explain where his other two travel-companions were. Sarah, God bless her soul, pretended not to notice.
I tried to reason with my toddler in a loud whisper: “ELLIE!! WE CANNOT DO THIS RIGHT NOW. WE HAVE TO GO. THIS IS IMPORTANT.” She struggled away from me, strong enough to fight me picking her up. I became more desperate, “WE WON’T BE ABLE TO SWIM IN A POOL OR SEE PRINCESSES.” And even more desperate, “THAT’S A POLICEWOMAN. WE WILL BE ARRESTED. DADDY WILL GO TO JAIL!”
Daddy getting in trouble seemed to be the trigger. She allowed me to carry her back to security, where she charmed all the personnel by dancing through the metal-detector.
Once on the plane, she closed the window, refused to look out, and played with her tray table, putting it up and down repeatedly while kicking the back of the seat in front of her, the entire time we were taxiing. I glared at my husband. “What is this?” I whispered.
I’ve never not had control over my toddler…
I mean, sure, typical toddler moments…I expect a certain amount of wild behavior and allow it. You only get to be a kid once, but since when could I not reason with my kid? Since when could I not even pick her up to make her do what I needed her to do? Moms with more experience would laugh knowingly — new situation, new experiences, all of a sudden having mom’s and dad’s complete attention. It’s kind of a recipe for toddler terror. But it was new to me, and I was in shock.
After I convinced her to watch out the window as we soared into the air, she settled into her seat and sang “Let It Go” at the top of her lungs. We were Florida-bound, had made it to the last link in the chain on her countdown-to-vacation calendar.
Life was good!
Ten minutes later, we were out of snacks, she had colored on the side of the plane, was trying to kick out the window, all while screaming, “GET ME OUT OF HERE!!”
I was shaking, holding onto my seat, and staring at Mark in absolute fear and desperation. I tried to calm her down, but nothing worked. Finally, he handed over his phone with a hair-salon app on it, and silence. She played with that app any time we had to wait anywhere.
And there was a lot of waiting.
We waited for 2 hours to see Anna and Elsa at Disney, but Ellie was determined to wait it out. Finally, when Elsa approached her and said, “Hello, little snowflake!” Ellie screamed like she was being murdered, dropped to the floor, smacked her head on the tile, and kicked her feet. Eventually, I had to toss her over my shoulder and insist that she at least get a photo. She refused to say anything to the princesses, but she offered to shyly show them the picture of them on her shirt — like, “I’m with you girls. I feel ya. I just don’t want to talk to or look at you. Ever.”
My two-year-old is very tall for her age, so they put her in the driver’s seat of a racecar at the Tomorrow Land Speedway. I had to control the gas and help steer from the passenger seat, while she screamed, “Let ME drive!!” Mark was driving behind us and got rear-ended when we stopped suddenly. I held back tears as I imagined my little Ellie, all grown up, learning to drive.
We literally RAN through the Swiss Family Robinson tree house, knocking over other kids in our path. We stormed the Disney castle.
By 9am, we were completely exhausted. Ellie was just getting started. She hugged Pluto, slurped spaghetti at Tony’s Restaurant, ate 2 bags of popcorn, drank 3 bottles of water, and refused to use the potty. Everywhere we went, they called her “Princess,” and she responded with a royal nod and curtsy.
Dinner at Cinderella’s Royal Table was out, because they were completely booked months in advance, so we ate at a nice restaurant at the Grand Floridian. It was fancier than we realized, with dress code and wine suggestions. The woman who sat us kindly suggested that we “leave our Frozen balloon in the lobby,” and I soon noticed that we were the only guests wearing shorts and a sundress, with a toddler in tow. Still, they treated us like royalty, and we reminisced of our honeymoon when we actually used to eat at restaurants like this. Ellie was brought a kid-friendly cheese platter, a coloring book, and crayons. Have I mentioned that she’s an awesome artist? She can draw people and suns now!
Mark and I gazed lovingly into each others’ eyes and praised ourselves for surviving this day with a toddler. I turned my loving gaze to my daughter, but my eyes landed first on a big, beautiful, blue sunshine… that she had drawn on the pure-white linen tablecloth. It was the size of my face. “Oh no,” I uttered, and quickly put my napkin over it as the waiter came to take our drink order. Ellie continued to color on the tablecloth on the other side of her plate — a potato-shaped girl with wobbly circles for eyes. Ahem.
The waiter returned with a kid-size cheese plate appetizer for Ellie, and I confessed to the Picasso-esque art we had added to the restaurant’s decor. He laughed it off and said not to worry about it. He praised my little “princess” for being so, super cute and such a good little artist. We all smiled gaily at the little darling.
She was frowning, eyebrows furrowed, bottom lip stuck out. She slammed her napkin on the table and announced:
“THIS CHEESE SMELLS TERRIBLE.”
We insisted that it was fine, planned to add that quotation to our family crest, and we did all those things you’re supposed to do as parents — encouraged kindness, patience, gentleness. We had beautiful moments too, like when the piano player at the Grand Floridian played, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and Ellie ran and danced through the halls of the lobby, singing it at the top of her lungs.
We were sore, tired, cranky, bored with waiting in line, dreading the walk back to the car, but there were magical moments too. This is daily life with a kid, and I suppose I should have expected that this would be vacation with a kid, too — a weird kind of wonderful.
So, my Top 10 tips for surviving vacation with your toddler:
- Approach it with a sense of humor.
- Approach it with a sense of not caring about anything.
- Allow yourself a reasonable amount of alcohol and/or comfort food.
- Rent a stroller at any theme park. Your toddler probably won’t use it, but you may need to be wheeled out.
- Get the Toca Hair Salon 2 app (totally worth the $2.99, I promise).
- Bring one, non-perishable snack to have with you at all times (cheddar goldfish) — you can get water anywhere.
- Use a sticker over the scary auto-flush toilet sensors.
- Wear capris — you will be doing a lot of running. My thighs tried to fly away in protest.
- Allow your child to do things you normally wouldn’t allow — we ate donuts in the morning and watched TV at bedtime.
- Be okay with changing plans — we only did about 3 things on our original to-do list!
In other words… just survive! For more of my vacation pics from Florida, Disney, and Universal (Harry Potter World!), check out my Instagram feed @UrMomIsStrange.