Oh the sweet anticipation—I am a mom with four kids aged 7 to 13. and I approach summer trips with trepidation. The end of the school year is arriving fast and summer vacations are around the corner. We save money all year and make sacrifices to ensure a summer trip is possible. We carve out precious “days off” from work and align everyone’s schedules, never an easy task given camps, events, activities, and family commitments. So the stakes are as high as the expectations.

Reality Sets In—and The Disney Pep Talk

My husband and I, first and foremost, abide by the Disney Pep Talk rule. Several years ago, we were visiting my brother’s family in California. They also have four children roughly the same age as ours so there is always lots of excitement when we get together. The night before we embarked on a Disneyland adventure, we received the equivalent of a pep talk from my brother Dan as our elated children busily planned out departure times, the order of the rides, and the foods they would eat, all in squealing, happy voices. 

Dan said, “Watch the families tomorrow. They have saved endlessly and looked forward to this trip to Disney forever. But watch, inevitably many parents get stressed and yell at their kids. And this is at Disney, which is probably the most fun place in the world.” 

From there, my husband and I started discussing a critical parenting question: “Why do kids, at times during every vacation, refuse to have fun or be fun? Or is it us and our approach?”

Sure enough, the next day in Disney, we saw children weeping in long lines with sweaty, sunburned faces. We saw disappointed parents watching children dropping or wasting their expensive food. We saw tired, writhing kids that could not be convinced to go on a certain ride with the parents yelling, “How can you not want to go on this? It’s why we are here!” We saw other parents shout, “We are on vacation in Disney. You should be having a great time and instead you’re complaining.” And, several parents were observed getting infuriated when their little one announced 45 minutes into a wait that he/she had to go the bathroom and could not hold it any longer.

So my husband and I decided to create some strategies to enjoy vacation moments because our kids, like most kids, can act ungrateful and refuse to have fun in the most wonderful places. We now have Disney Pep Talk before every vacation and use the tips below.

Seven Strategies for Traveling Families

1. Don’t expect kids to be grateful for all the sacrifices it takes to go on a trip.

They are not going to thank you profusely or act wonderfully. Instead, watch for the moment of wonder or the “pure joy” smile—it is these “moments” that make the trip happy and memorable. Photograph those moments and it is all you will remember later.

2. Leave a little give in the schedule.

Most kids are not naturally continuous “do-ers” on a vacation. If you have an agenda packed end to end with activities, the kids will start complaining and wish to stay somewhere and just hang out. Think of your kids sweating in Washington DC, hiking from monument to monument in the blistering heat and waiting in the sun at the spy museum. All good ideas but some down time is needed for them to retain their trip enthusiasm.

3. Let each person choose one event/activity and one restaurant destination during the trip.

After we select our destination (even if it is a repeat), we put out a menu of options and each child can choose one of the options or propose something else. If one child chooses swimming, we make sure we get some swimming into the vacation, whether at a hotel pool or a beach. They also get to choose one type of food that we will be sure to eat. This is a huge hit with our kids and helps us minimize complaints during the trip. Our youngest and oldest like to do very different things but each knows that their treasured turn will come.

4. Set the expectation—traveling is a nightmare.

Whether by plane or car, summer vacations are filled with other people on vacation and there are inevitable delays, traffic, and waiting. Have a plan for the long waits. Don’t expect the perfect trip; if everything goes swimmingly, then it is a bonus. Electronics may be your best friend during these moments.

5. Everyone has to bring a book.

This is a big rule and my kids now look forward to going to the bookstore to select a special book for the trip. We have a kindle and the kids love to borrow the kindle to read. I also give extra credit for creating and writing in a journal; they can write words or draw or both. I give them $1 a page for quality journal writing. It is almost certain the kids will be asked to write something about their summer when school resumes so they are getting a head start.

6. Try to pack light and smart.

This is a basic but we all continue to “overpack” and drag around things we just don’t need. So now we sit down and make a list together, then make it an event. “Okay everyone bring down three pairs of pajamas”, then “everyone go get 5 shirts and one has to have a collar,” etc. And they have to carry what they pack.

7. Electronics are awesome but you need to set some ground rules about usage.

The ipods, phones, ipads, DSs, and other devices are amazing and really help children stay distracted during the hectic travel challenges but they should not check out and not participate in the trip.

So, in summary, have the Disney Pep Talk and always take time to savor your moments of joy on the trip. Oh and make them go to the bathroom before you go anywhere. Happy travels!

Eileen Wacker, a Harvard Business School graduate, lived and worked in seven different countries, including the United States. She is the author of the new children's book, Silent Samurai and the Magnificent Rescue, the third installment of the Fujimini Adventure Series. For further information on the series, please visit Once Kids.