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Flying with Kids: How to Keep Them Happy on the Plane

I remember the first time we flew with our then 17-month old. I was a complete ball of nerves, and I remember being so focused on hoping he wouldn’t cry and “bother people” that I couldn’t think of anything else. As it turns out, traveling with a toddler, then pre-schooler, and now an elementary school student (cue tears) isn’t as difficult as I had anticipated. I’ve learned some things along the way, and I know plenty of us Disney Fanatics find ourselves in this same boat frequently: about to embark on some air travel (probably to Disney) and having those same concerns about keeping our children well-behaved and comfortable on the plane.

Here are some tips that you can try with your little guys. All children are different, and I’ll be the first to admit that us traveling with one child is a lot less complicated than some of you warrior parents traveling with multiple! Still, I hope some of these suggestions help de-stress your next plane trip and give everyone their best shot at a great start to a magical vacation.

Two young guests stop to take a photo at Magic Kingdom Park, July 11, 2020, at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on the first day of the theme Park’s phased reopening. (Olga Thompson, photographer)

Before You Go, Go!

Part of keeping your kids (and YOU) happy on your plane trip is not having to deal with the dreaded airplane lavatory. There is precisely ZERO room in there to assist your child, so if you can avoid it, please do. Otherwise, you may find yourself crammed up against the door as you answer many questions about where the “stuff” goes when it goes into the toilet. Try to arrive at the airport early enough to visit the restroom before you board the plane. My personal “sweet spot” for the bathroom visit is 45 minutes before the flight. It’s far enough in advance that you’ll be ready to board (usually 30 minutes prior to the flight) but not so far in advance that your kiddo has to go again.

Seating Considerations

This is a bit of a hot topic among parents, and I’m definitely not looking to debate what is the safest or “right” way to travel with your child. That said, be sure to figure out in advance what you’re comfortable with. Many parents opt to bring along their car seats on the plane because they feel it is safest. If you’re in this camp, just be sure you have everything you need for that – some folks have a special bag for it if they’re not going to use it on the plane, but plan to use it in a rental car later. Or, you may have a cart that wheels the car seat through the airport. Other parents choose to hold their infant or toddler on their lap to save money on that extra ticket- also a viable option!

Though we did not bring an actual car seat with us, we did feel that having some sort of enhanced restraint was very useful. We liked using the “Kids Fly Safe” harness, which looped over the back of our son’s seat and under the tray table of the passenger behind him (it did not impact the other passenger’s table function). We liked it not just for safety, but because the 5-point harness sent the message to our son that he was riding in a vehicle, and that “car rules” would apply. It made climbing, jumping, etc. impossible, and by extension, that no yelling, throwing objects, or being distracting was allowed. We used it for several years and felt that it was an easy to carry, comfortable, and safe option for our family.

“Kids Fly Safe” harness Credit: Kidsflysafe.com

Another consideration with seating is where you’ll position your child(ren). We used to seat our son in the middle of us, but he has since graduated to the window seat. If you’re traveling with multiple children, you may want to sort this out before you fly so there’s no arguing.

Airplane

Related: Planning and Packing for Disney 101

Activities

Novelty is Key

Regardless of what travel activities you’re going to encourage on the plane, having something new is always a bonus for keeping a little kid’s attention. You can go big – a new video game or movie download that they have not played or viewed yet – or go small. A Hotwheels car, a pack of Pokemon cards, or a random item from the Dollar Store will also be hits with kids. A new book for a kid who enjoys reading is another great choice. The point is, it doesn’t need to be anything epic. Sometimes just being new is enough to keep it interesting.

Make Sure They’re Accessible

Be sure that whatever items you bring to occupy your kids are easily accessible during your flight. Taking things in and out of the overhead compartment is not all that easy to do. Keep anything that you want to use on the flight in your personal item, which is typically stowed under the seat in front of you. Kids may also want to carry their own backpacks with activities.

Don’t Sweat the Screen Time

Don’t worry about too much screen time- this is when to use it to your advantage! If you have a long flight, a movie is a great way to occupy a few hours. Make sure you download whatever movies or shows you want ahead of time, since you may not have internet access depending on the flight!

Many families have rules surrounding the use of technology, but consider adopting a set of “family travel rules”, whether officially or just in your mindset. For instance, many of us let our kids stay up way too late on vacation; this is a good example of a travel or vacation “rule.” What good is bedtime, anyway? Similarly, your rules around technology might go right out the window (not literally, of course, because of pressurized cabins and all) when you’re embarking on a long flight.

Want to tie the screen time into building excitement for a Disney trip? Choose a Disney movie to watch, some Bluey episodes, or help your kids choose a Disney video game (like Kingdom Hearts, pictured below).


Credit: Disney

Related: Disney’s Kingdom Hearts is Coming to Nintendo Switch!

Crafts & Coloring

Toddler airplane activities might look very different from what an older child might do to stay occupied. Airplane travel with a toddler or infant is going to require a lot more wrangling and soothing than the boredom-busting that older children require.

Sometimes all you need is a coloring book or drawing paper for a child who loves art, and they’ll be happy as a clam for a long time. The concept of bringing novel items applies here, too. There’s just something about a fresh box of crayons or a new Twistables that is ultimately satisfying!

Disney Coloring Books

Coloring not motivating enough? Bring along a craft activity that isn’t messy, like pipe cleaners and Wikki Stix. These bendable pieces are fun for kids who like to fidget, but they can also bend them into fun shapes, pictures, and sculptural creations. You may even want to think outside the box and bring some window clings that your child can reposition on the airplane window. Colorforms are another great option for creative kiddos- they even come in travel packs now!

Credit: Amazon

Small Toys

Grab a few small toys that are easy to pack along- emphasis on few. We always bring more than we need, then end up buying a toy or two on the trip and realize we didn’t need anything at all. A stuffed animal or a few action figures is probably plenty for a plane ride. Activity-style toys, like an Etch-a-Sketch or magnetic drawing board, are particularly well-suited for travel.

And, as far as small toys go, they don’t get much smaller than Legos! I’ve been hesitant to bring anything like that on a trip so far just because of how small the pieces are, but if you have a responsible child who can build with Legos on the tray table and is not likely to send them flying all over your row, then a small Lego set is a brilliantly engaging activity. There’s a reason that Lego vending machines are popping up in airports! If you’re going to be brave and go the Lego route, just remember that Ziploc bags are your friend.

Lego Vending Machine at Orlando International Airport Credit: Attractions Magazine

Schoolwork & Reading

Right off the bat, I know this suggestion won’t be too popular with children. But, if you’re taking your child out of school for your travel plans, you might want to encourage him or her to do some schoolwork on the plane to get it over with. Even if it’s just a daily reading log or sight word practice, it doesn’t hurt to spend some of this “boring” plane time on the stuff that needs to get done.

If your child is an avid reader, then this idea doesn’t require a spoonful of sugar. I’ll keep coming back to the novelty approach, but picking up a new Dogman book at the bookstore before your trip or downloading a new find on the Kindle is an easy way to get a reader engaged for hours!

Credit: Amazon


Snack Time

Packing preferred snacks is always a good idea! They don’t even have to be healthy snacks- just bring something that your child reliably enjoys eating. The snacks on board your plane will vary, so relying on those isn’t a safe bet. You can either bring something from home or allow your child to choose one special treat from a shop in the airport. You may also want to take the ear-popping-inducing altitude changes into consideration and bring something your child can suck on or chew for relief. For an infant, nursing or providing a bottle should help. A toddler or young child might benefit from an applesauce pouch, and older children might prefer gum.

Snacks

Photo Credit: Amazon

Beware the Pressurized Water Bottle!

I don’t really have a firm grasp on the science, but something happens to children’s straw-cup style water bottles when a plane ascends. I’m sure it has to do with pressure build-up. If you would like to avoid spraying people around you with the contents of your child’s cup, know that the cup is going spray everywhere the moment you flip the straw open. To avoid this, try to not overfill the cup in the first place. Then, slowly twist the cup open as you would if you were trying to open a soda bottle that has been shaken. This will minimize the chance that the gentleman behind you gets sprayed with a serious stream of liquid that looks like something out of an EPCOT jumping fountain. This recommendation is based on true stories about my family sending streams of water and apple juice into the air and down onto unsuspecting passengers. Thankfully, the other passengers were kind about it!

Okay Disney Fanatics, head to our Facebook page and let’s hear your best plane travel tips for keeping your kids happy!

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About Meredith Smisek

Meredith Smisek is a kid at heart who works as an elementary school counselor. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, son, and corgi. Meredith is a DVC member who loves music, podcasts, crafting, and "talking Disney" with anyone and everyone.