For the last several years I had planned to take my daughter on a surprise mommy-daughter trip to DisneyWorld and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for her 10th birthday.
When it comes to travel, I am a meticulous planner by nature. But just a few months before she turned nine, our life was in all sorts of upheaval. And all of the sudden, at the end of September I was unexpectedly whisked straight from my annual visit at my doctor to the breast-cancer clinic a few doors down, wrapped in a paper robe and awaiting all sorts of tests.
I had just returned home from Seattle, where I had been working the Susan G. Komen 3-Day. To say I was emotionally fragile would be a bit of an understatement.
In the third waiting room, a very kind woman patted my arm and told me that the treatment really wasn’t that bad. “Thanks, but I don’t know anything yet,” I replied optimistically. And then they sent me home to wait.
I am not a person who waits well. In fact, I am the exact opposite of that. I looked at my fall calendar, filled to the brim with work travel, wondering where I would work in doctor appointments. I had to be in Nashville the week before Scarlette’s birthday and New York immediately after. So what I did was, I pulled out my cell phone, called one of my good friends who is a travel agent and said, “I need you to book me a trip to Disney on Scarlette’s birthday in six weeks.”
Because apparently, this is how I react to scary situations. Just very rationally and calmly and not at all impulsively.
I threw out all of my plans for a perfect 10th birthday trip and instead began planning a whirlwind, three-day adventure – completely unbeknownst to my daughter.
And on the morning of her 9th birthday, I woke her up at 4 a.m. with two suitcases in hand and said “Happy Birthday! SURPRISE WE’RE GOING TO DISNEY WORLD!” *
Y’all, her reaction was one of my favorite moments in the entire decade that I’ve been a mother.** Then we hopped in the car, headed to the airport, flew to Florida, and made it to Disney World just in time for the parade!
I’ve spent countless hours planning the perfectly-mapped out Disney trip complete with comfort items (see here and here) but after embarking on this spontaneous trip, I thought I’d share some photos from our two-day adventure, as well as some helpful tips and what I found to be the absolutely essential items for the best experience – like the $15 item that will make your trip MAGICAL.
Note: some links are affiliates.
Mommy & Me Matching DisneyBounding Ideas
Scarlette and I are no strangers to DisneyBounding – but because I kept this trip a secret from her, I also had to prepare our matching mommy-daughter DisneyBounding outfits in secret. I pretended I wanted her ideas for matching outfits for Halloween, and after she picked Pooh and Piglet + Rapunzel and Flynn Rider, I started scouring our closets for pieces we already owned that might work and browsing places like ThredUp to score some secondhand items.
This was one of my favorite parts of the trip – I’m so glad that she was into it. I packed regular outfits just in case but was secretly super pleased that she wanted to dress up with me.
I also recommend buying your Mickey Ears outside of the park. I snagged these rose-gold Mickey Ears off Amazon for pennies compared to what they sell for inside the park. Plus, Scarlette enjoyed wearing them through the airport and on the plane, mostly because it gave her extra cred in all of the conversations she struck up with random strangers to tell them that she was on her way to Disney World! For her birthday! Which was today!
The Perfect Bag for Disney World Theme Parks
Knowing that we only had a short time to spend at the parks, and knowing that my 9-year-old would not need to return to our hotel room for a break on account of how her energy levels are immeasurable, I opted to pack everything we needed for an entire day in a single bag.
My absolute favorite theme park bag is the Waterfly Sling Crossbody Backpack. I use this bag all the time, from hiking to work travel. It’s comfortable, waterproof, can hold a ton of stuff including a full-size thermos, and it fits easily on all of the theme park rides.
My favorite feature of this bag is that the phone case is located on the strap that sits across the front of your chest, so it’s easy to access for quick photo opps – and has an extra hook for your sunglasses. Because we went to Disney World in early November, I packed us each a jacket and beanie, ponchos, camelback thermos, a small first aid kit and my wallet and it all fit perfectly with room to spare – and was still lightweight.
The $6 Must-Have Item That Will Make Your Trip To Disney World Magical
The only other thing I really cared about was having some really wonderful photos of the trip. It’s been close to a decade since I was making a career out of being a professional scrapbooker (shout out 2Peas & SISters!) but I’m still just a girl, standing in a crowded theme park, silently asking people to move out of the way so I can get the best shot.
Only this trip was put together on a budget and so I did not spring for the PhotoPass that Disney World offers. Instead, I spent
$15 $6 on this eBook that shares all the best (and less-popular but super scenic) spots to get great photos at Disney World – as well as tips on how to frame the shot. It was worth every penny. It’s typically $15 but my referral link will make it $6. Buy this before you go to Disney World if iconic photos are important to you. It will not disappoint.
Where To Stay At Disney World
On my last two trips to Disney World (one for my honeymoon fifteen years ago!) we stayed at moderate resorts – the Wilderness Lodge and a cabin in Fort Wilderness.
This time I opted to stay at Pop Century and I was worried that it might not live up to my Disney expectations but it was the BEST. The travel time to the parks was very fast, Scarlette loved the theming, and honestly, I thought the room was almost as nice as the moderate resorts. I definitely recommend it.
Lunch at Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World
One of the other fun moments on the trip was that my parents surprised us with lunch inside Cinderella’s Castle!
Don’t ask me how my travel agent managed to score us reservations at one of the hardest-to-reserve restaurants in Disney with less than a month’s notice. She is magic and if you are ever planning a trip you should use her (she plans Disney trips for free – see here!) Anyhow, lunch inside Cinderella’s castle is absolutely worth the splurge. The food is fantastic and the ambiance is unmatched. Totally confirmed all my suspicions that I was actually meant to be a princess. Too bad Prince William never got that memo.
And I’m not saying that doing Disney World is better with peach bellinis but I’m not saying it’s not either. I may or may not have appreciated the liquid courage on account of how I am deathly afraid of roller coasters and Scarlette had a goal for us to ride every single ride in the park. It’s true that we accomplished it (and I added 30,000 steps a day to my fitbit) but it’s also true that of the two of us, I was the one screaming.
I will never regret doing this. I’m especially glad that we went a year earlier than planned, as we would have had to cancel the trip this year during COVID. And I am so thankful to everyone in my life that swooped in and helped me stitch this together.
Six months after this trip I had my final visit to the specialist and got the all-clear from all of my doctors. I have to do a yearly ultrasound now but that’s incredibly manageable in light of what I thought we were facing. I’m grateful that those few months of uncertainty created this silver lining because I am so very thankful for the memories I made with my girl on this trip. It truly was magical.
*My Grammarly pop-up is telling me that this sentence is “too forceful” and so I feel as though I have accurately captured JUST HOW ENTHUSIASTIC I WAS about springing this surprise on Scarlette a zero dark thirty on her birthday.
** You can watch the video of her reaction on my insta highlight reel here