How not to go broke or kill the kids on a plane

By Mir
October 10, 2006

Good morning! I’ll confess to taking an advice query out of order, today, because I found a relevant deal and so feel the need to answer right now. Those of you waiting on answers—fret not, my darlings. All things shall be answered in good time, I promise.

The very pretty Danielle writes:

Mrs. WISE WISE MIR! I need your help.

We are planning to go to Disney World with our 3 year old girl. There will be another family with us who has a 3 year old girl and some older boys. The plane ride will be a long one, about 8 hours or so. I was going to buy some of those great puzzles for the trip but is there anything else I can bring to keep her busy on the plane ride. A few things that won’t cut into our vacation funding too much?

Thanks Danielle

PS any good ideas on planning a trip to Disney World. We are just getting these plans together.

Let me start out by addressing the last bit first; I know nothing about travelling to Disney, but my excrutiatingly pretty friend Chris wrote an entire series on just this topic, and she has seven children and is my hero. Read her suggestions here, here, here and here.

Now. Let’s talk about the plane ride.

First of all, if you take those heavy wooden puzzles on the plane with you I will personally show up at the airport and smack you upside the head with them. No, no, a thousand times no. They are too big and too heavy. What you want is one magical backpack filled with treasures to entertain the kids. Less is more, in this case… or at the very least, smaller is better.

The other key to remember is that you want stuff that is novel. Whatever you end up buying for this trip? You hide until you’re underway.

(Many a great travel toy has been ruined by the overe-ager parent who let Junior play with it beforehand, only to be shocked when met with “I don’t want THAT” once cruising at 30,000 feet.)

My very favorite travel entertainment for small children is usually rather pricey, but today is your lucky day. If you haven’t acquainted yourself with the joy that is Crayola Color Wonder, prepare to be amazed. Little kids love to “do art,” but the resultant mess can make even the most patient mother’s eyelid start twitching. Certainly you can’t be letting your preschooler loose with markers or paint on a plane, right? Wrong. Because Color Wonder only works on the “magic paper,” it is ideal for travelling. No mess. And right now, it not only ships for free from Toys ‘R’ Us, the finger painting sets are on big sale.

Buy it. Love it.

Next: Go to your local Dollar Store. By spending as little as $5 I wager you can find enough to entertain your daughter. Buy large beads for stringing. Buy little plastic animals that can go on a wild adventure on the tray table. Buy a “busy book” or two (fabric books with moving parts, zippers, etc.). Buy one of those giant packages of stickers and a pad of paper. (If you, like me, never let your child just sit down and randomly slap a zillion stickers all over the place, being allowed to do so will be a little slice of nirvana for her.) Buy a cheap set of stacking cups. And of course, bring a few new books to read to her, too.

Here’s one more suggestion, though it will cost more unless you can find one at a yard sale or otherwise used: Consider a ViewMaster. This toy that was a staple of our childhoods is somewhat archaic in today’s Gameboy culture, but I found that my children loved them beyond all reason when I sprung one on them on a trip. I picked one up with about a hundred reels at my local consignment store, and only recently passed it on to a friend who was about to go on a long trip with her little one.

By now you should have plenty on hand to entertain the wee ones. The older boys will probably be easier to occupy; they can bring books, handheld games, portable music, etc. But here’s another rule I maintain that pleases kids of all ages:

Although I am somewhat militant about healthy food in everyday life, trips are a free zone so far as snacks are concerned. We have candy. Really good candy. Not so much that they’ll get sick or anything, but it reinforces the “we’re on a fabulous adventure” and specialness of the trip. Throw the nutrition rules out the window and pack the goodies the kids will love. (Chewing gum is great for helping little ears pop, too.)

Best of luck and have a wonderful time!


  1. OMG Mir THANKS! I can’t believe you already answered my questions. You rock girl.
    I am a step ahead of you! I know I am just as surprised as you are! I already printed EVERYTHING out on Chris’s Website and made notes of what will help us. Thanks for the reference.

    The color wonder is a great idea, but she already has seen those like you said. The stickers with a pad of paper…Brilliant idea! I will for sure hit up the dollar stores also….They are on every block here.

  2. You’d be insane to go on a plane with a 3 yr old without a portable dvd player and at least 6 movies (take disney movies to prep for the character experience). Trust me. If you need to go out and buy one, do it. It’s a small price to pay for your continued sanity.

  3. I hate to be a party pooper, but I’m not sure the TSA folks will let you take the Color Wonder paint on the plane. In some airports, they’re still being persnicketty about what”liquids” you can carry on. And unfortunately, it seems to vary from airport to airport.

    Go with the Dollar Store toys. They’re the best.

  4. Get a couple of huge Disney sticker books (look on Amazon – there’s one just about Disneyworld, with stickers of things at Epcot, Animal Kingdom, etc.). Save one or both for the plane ride back — she’ll look at all the characters and places that she’s been to over the week and will be excited.

    Make sure you save some new toys/amusements for the trip back. The trip back from Disneyworld is crankier because you’re leaving all the fun stuff, so new amusements for the trip are key.

    There are also those “magic pen” books that are cheap – you put the pen over the blank page, and the “invisible ink” reveals a picture. They have Disney-related ones of these as well. There are big-kid versions of these, but preschool versions exist.

    Finger puppets are quiet, lightweight, and great for pretend play on the plane and in the hotel (when I flew with a preschooler, it was all about finding the non-electronic toys, so we wouldn’t be emitting beeps and blips). So are tiny plastic/foam/rubber cars and creatures, the kind that are the size of eraser toppers.

    Don’t show her all the toys at once and let her pick – instead, pull out new toys when she starts to get bored and fussy with the old ones.

  5. I always hit the dollar store before a plane trip. Avoid balls or cars, etc. that you will forever be retrieving from under seats. While you are there, I would suggest picking up some lollipops or Lifesavers for her lil’ ears during takeoff and landings. My son won’t chew gum without swallowing it, so we go that route.

    My main recommendation for Disney with a 3 year old: Stroller. You can haul your/her gear underneath it AND you can utilize the Baby Pass (just ask the Fast Pass attendants…it works like Fast Pass for those who have to wait with the stroller and kid). Magic in the Magic Kingdom!!!

  6. Mir is amazing with the airplane information. I have a 3 year old too and we pack a rolling backpack just for him. It was CHEAP from Target (looks like a car, so people notice it in the airport); he pulls it himself; and we travel without a stroller — this is key, since I don’t travel without my car seat and frankly, I can only be pack-wife with so much stuff.
    I can throw my two cents in for the Disney part too. One of the best money saving things you can do is buy a package!! There is one that even includes your meals which works out to be an amazing deal — unless you have some insane idea about LEAVING Disney World and visiting OTHER places in Orlando. Naw, I didn’t think so. Anyway, with a hotel, ticket, meal package you can save about the most you can save on Disney.
    Oh, and before you decide to show up at the gate and buy tickets — call your travel agent (or me, if you don’t have one) — advanced tickets can save you money.

  7. The good things about staying in a Disney hotel:

    -you get the “Extra Magic Hour”, which means you get in to a particular park one hour early each morning (e.g. Magic Kingdom on Wed., say, MGM on Thurs., etc.). This lets you ride the most popular and/or slow-loading rides (can you say DUMBO?) first, before a megaton of people arrive at the park, creating horrendous lines. It’s a wonderful thing.

    -it’s much easier and quicker to scoot back to your hotel midday for a break in the pool, at the time of day that the parks get hugely overcrowded

    -there’s transportation from the hotels to the parks, if you don’t want to rent a car (convenience varies depending which park)

    -the Disney theming in the hotels really excites the kids, and the hotels all have various extras

  8. Forgot to add — I highly recommend looking at and for excellent Disney tips.

    For example: has a list of things to do in the park that don’t cost extra money. has a list of overlooked attractions at the Magic Kingdom (kind of like Easter Eggs on DVDs – things you’d never know about unless you’ve been told and are looking for them)

  9. my favorite airplane toy is the Magnadoodle. Also lift-the-flap books, and little plastic animals. We once managed a whole plane ride with little plastic sesame street figures.

  10. For Disney (after reading the fabulous information Mir linked to), grab the Unofficial Guide to Disney (or to save more money, get it at your local library), they have a great collection of ideas on how to plan out your days, and planning appears (from what I am told, we are going ourselves next spring) to be a key.

    I will however advise against (at least purchasing… grabbing it at your library may be fine), “Disney on a Dime” as much of the information while fascinating from a “how cheap can you get” perspective, is close to useless in providing “practical” information that you can not find elsewhere (such as online sites, the Unofficial Guide, asking for tips from the pretty Ms. Mir, etc).

    I also plan on using the advise Kim gave above, and get a portable DVD player for the trip. (Although for us, one… maybe two DVDs is all we will need for the flight).

  11. I’ll second the Unofficial Guide to Disney. I think that they update it every year or two. We used it years and years ago (What? I’m not OLD. I was a teeneager!) and it was well-worth the purchase price.

  12. We JUST came back from Disneyworld so I feel like a total expert (don’t worry, it will fade). We, too, had planned to buy the dining plan but for this year is August and September it was FREE. FREE!! I don’t know how close Danielle is to going but I think going on an off season (especially with a 3 year old where school isn’t an issue) is well worth it. The rates are cheaper and you get more bang for your buck if you aren’t standing in long lines for half of your trip. September was great for us.

    As far as the plane ride, we took Jet Blue with their little seat back TV’s. Awesome. And their prices were not bad at all (in fact, they went down after I booked and I was given a credit that I could transfer to my parents because I’m sure as heck not going anyplace for a while!).

    I live in New England (maybe Danille does too?). Christmas tree Shops were a great place for cheapie toys. Also the $1 bin at Target. My kids fave – a shell game. Whatever! For a dollar, even if it doesn’t fly, toss it. We also had magnetic boards (not heavy and probably only about 5 x 7). I might suggest this or colorforms over stickers because you can reuse them.

    Lastly, for my 3 year old, beads would have been a distaster (especially in the event of turbulence – we never would have kept our hands on them) and color wonder – just to warn the uninitiated – actually did come out on my kids clothes (and my bedspread – good grief!) but not until they were laundered. Crayola was very good about offering to replace the damaged things and maybe things have changed in the past couple of years but wanted to warn anyway.

    Candy – always a good thing 😉

  13. For little ones, the hotels are almost all you need at Disney World to be honest. Each hotel has a theme and lots of cool stuff to see. And there are lots of hotels. We are going in April (with a cheap SW fare of course) and will probably just visit the various hotels, do character breakfasts, etc. and then hit Sea World one day. Disney World is so expensive and can be really overwhelming for little ones. I plan to wait until they are old enough to really remember before we take them to the actual park. But if you are up to it, do it. This is just my humble opinion.

  14. Mir had some excellent suggestions — my kids love their viewmasters, magnadoodles and etch-a-sketches. We discovered the magic of flap books when our oldest was 3, and they can keep my kids occupied for literally hours on car/plane trips. We finally caved and brought a portable dvd player on a trip to CA this year (5 hours with 3 kids) but they did just as well without it. My advice is, if you do bring one, don’t abandon the other toys, just in case it doesn’t work (our battery died mid-movie). And maybe bring it out after a while, not immediately. I’ve found that just the novelty of getting on the plane and getting up into the air will keep them entertained for the first hour or so.

    About WDW — we’ve been numerous times and used to work there before kids — if you can at all manage it, I’d stay on property. And the packages are cheaper this year. And definitely go in the off season if possible. But then, I’m spoiled and I hate crowds. The rates are lower, the lines are shorter, and yes, the park hours are shorter, but do you really want to keep your 3-year-old out til midnight every night anyway? Good luck, and have a great trip!!!

  15. my 3-year-old girl is FASCINATED with magnet sets – like paper dolls only magnets. she just got a disney princess magnet-dress-up set and she will play with it forever. we bring the small magnet sets to church for good, clean, quiet fun when we need to stop the squirming in the pews.

  16. Mir – THANKS for the recent ToysRUs deals! I’m so glad to have them. With a rash of recent birthday parties, they’ve been a great help!

  17. I’ll second the travel Magnadoodle idea. We’ve had one for years and both my kids love LOVE it. It comes on every trip with us.

  18. oh Mir. i’m going to Disney (with the boyfriend…for my 25th birthday :P) on saturday. the links your readers provided are awesome. (also, i email the boy a link for the Cinderella wonder paper, for me. haha. greasy goodness)

  19. I also used a bunch of easy/cheap crafts from the craft store- soft plastic frames that you stick shapes/stickers/things on, plastic netting for crewel work with bright embroidery floss and a plastic “needle” (she can just make a bunch of X’s or whatever). Also- try putting each little thing in a separate brown lunchbag that is stapled closed. She gets to open a new bag every hour or so. That way each is a surprise and new to her. (Have a few in reserve, too.)

  20. Most of the hotel front desks can give you a “hidden mickeys” sheet. Great for a rainy day in the hotel, searching for the hidden mickeys.

  21. Susan – For Christmas this year we were thinking of buy one of those portable dvd player for in the car…but now I am even more into buying one for the trip. Good idea thanks.

    Genevieve – Oh my, I didn’t even think of on the way home stuff. THANK YOU…ok for sure I will hide some of the goodies for the way home.
    (Don’t show her all the toys at once and let her pick – instead, pull out new toys when she starts to get bored and fussy with the old ones.) This one might be a little hard…she likes to look through the back pack or carry on herself…she is in the I DO stage…
    Andrea – My Daughter also swallows gum I will remember that with the lollipops…and yes we are bringing a stroller…I didn’t know about the Baby Pass…cool!
    Patricia – where should I go for a package? 2 families are going together – so a total of 7 people. We wanted to get a rental house instead of a hotel. My work also gives me a discount buy 3 days of tickets get the 4th free,…ok you need to e-mail me and help me out. Yes we do plan on doing other stuff than just D world. Like SHOPPING I’ve heard the outlet malls there are great! We aren’t going until Feb 2007, so we are getting everything ready to go.
    Em – Yep we are going in Feb 2007…..soon, so we are looking into stuff now.
    Nope not in New England
    Chris – I like the brown paper bag idea…thanks

    Thanks for all the help everyone…wow so much on this subject…it’s kind of overwhelming. My Daughter Loves all the princesses so I can’t wait to see her eyes light up. Keep the info coming!

  22. Danielle

    (Apologies for hijacking the comment section). I noticed you said you are bringing a stroller. FYI, it may or may not work for you, we rented one there. I believe it was $79 for 5 days – but a double stroller, the single was less. You pick one up at the enterance to the park, if you switch parks mid day, you drop it off and pick up another one at the next park (no hauling your own everywhere). There was also plenty of room on it to carry the rest of the garbage we were hauling – backpack, camera, water, etc.

    Oh – WATER!! This was the best piece of advice I got about going to Disney so listen up;-). If you go to Staples website and sign up for their rewards program (free), you get free shipping. We had 2 cases of water shipped to us at the hotel. Hello – $13 for 48 bottles of water vs $2 PER bottle in the park. Good thing, too, because as it turns out, Florida is H-O-T.

    People have warned me that my 3 year old wouldn’t remember the trip, etc. but the flip side of that is he believed 100% in the characters. To him, there weren’t people in the suits. Chip and Dale were really there, really hugging him. He saw the Incredibles and flashed his muscles right along with them. Total magic that *I* will remember.

  23. Just a little caution about wrapping all your plane treats and activities. I made cute little ‘presents’ with all of our goodies to help use up more time and make it more fun. We got pulled out for the security check and they opened each little package. I begged that they do it where the kids couldn’t see what the stuff was but no deal. Chris’s brown bag idea folded, not tied or stapled shut would be the best way to go.

  24. As far as airplane travel with younguns, I’m amazed that no one has mentioned the wonder that is Wikki Stix!

    They are simply amazing, mavelous, mess-free, fascinating and PERFECT for tray table play! My 2 and 4 year olds both adore them!

    The only downside is the very real possibility that you will be tempted to steal them from the kids so you can play with them yourself. Which will lead to much crying (yours and theirs) Seriously. Ask me how I know.

    Solution? Buy extra! 🙂

  25. Em – thanks for the water tip…but if we don’t bring our own stoller we can’t take the rented one out of the park right? I don’t want to walk all the way through the parking lot with all the kids and goodies in hand…ummm now I am torn on what to do.

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