Ditch your family and enjoy Disney alone

One mom's life as a swinging single rider

Some of us were able to hit the lockdown bucket list this summer and fall, finding the time or resources to do the things we dreamt of when we were home with the kids (I went to a big concert by myself last week!). My friend Erika’s big reset button was to get to Disneyland by herself. In addition to being a hardworking freelance writer and mom, she’s a big Disney person, and Disney people to me are what Disney parks are to Disney people (that is, fascinating.) But moreover, she exemplifies my belief that mothers need to get away and have their own fun sometimes, and it’s healthy for the whole family to see this. I had some questions about what it’s like to go to Disneyland, alone, in 2021.

Why did you want to go to Disney solo?  

I think one of the keys to my 18-year marriage is the fact that both my husband and I have taken vacations — including international vacations — without each other or the kids, since we first met. I feel like it’s my mission to convince as many women as possible to do this, so I hope I can convince some EW readers to try it, too. These solo vacations allow me to reconnect to who I was before I got married and had kids, they give me time to just think, and I always return home more mentally and emotionally refreshed than I ever have after a family vacation. These trips let me actually miss my family. 

This was I think at least my fourth time going to Disneyland (DL) and Disney California Adventure (DCA) without my family. (If you’re not familiar with the Anaheim parks, they’re across from each other and you can walk between them.) Some of my favorite memories from my childhood, high school, college and before I got married are from these parks. When I walk through the gates, it’s like reuniting with one of my oldest and best friends. The Disney parks are one of only 3 or 4 places on this earth that my very anxiety-ridden Type A self can fully relax and totally forget about the real world. Nobody manufactures escapism better than Disney.

That being said, while manufacturing escapism, Disney is also making BANK. These trips aren’t cheap. However, early in our relationship, my husband and I came to an agreement that we would prioritize using any disposable income on experiences over everything else. We’re also really lucky in that we’ve both worked from home for a long, long time -- there are so many expenses tied to commuting and working/eating outside the home that we simply don’t have, and that helps when it comes to budgeting for vacations.

What do you like about it enough to go without kids?

What I like about going alone is that I can do SO MUCH every single day I’m there. I usually have a big spreadsheet (yes, you read that right) of all that I want to accomplish, and I get to check everything off. I get on every ride I want to ride because I can use the “Single Rider” lines at all of the most popular attractions. And even for rides that don’t have a Single Rider line, the attendants often call out and ask if there are any single riders and then you get to skip ahead. I can also be totally flexible based on what I feel like doing, which isn’t possible with a family in tow. For example, I’ve never been into “meeting the princesses” or anything like that, but that would be a must for my daughter the next time we go. Now, I’ll enjoy watching HER meet them, but that is not something I’m going to spend time on by myself. 

And then there’s the food and drinks. If you haven’t been to a Disney park in a while, I guarantee the impression you might have in your head of “theme park food” certainly still applies in the sense that you can still find all that gross and unhealthy stuff (which, make no mistake, I still indulge in), but there are also so many great restaurants and awesome drinks across the parks and I would just never make reservations at any of those places if the kids were with us. But I love being able to take a breather and eat some really great meals and have some wine or mixed drinks while watching the crowds. I also specifically seek out each and every one of the “specialty churros” (seasonal offerings) and I have no regrets about the three pounds of churro weight I put on during my last trip.

When I’m alone and my attention doesn’t need to constantly be on my kids, I enjoy things I usually don’t: like talking to and learning about the other people in line by me. I also let loose during the music-and-fireworks extravaganzas at night. I have been working at home by myself since 2007, long before COVID times. In general, I am a hermit and an introvert. So it always confused me that I loved going to theme parks and found myself being all chatty there with strangers. Like, why does my antisocial self think there’s nothing better than being on Big Thunder Mountain with others who cheer and scream their heads off, or on a Pirates of the Caribbean boat with other mega Disney fans and having everyone start singing, “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me!”?

While I was there in July, the organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant posted about the “collective effervescence” phenomenon in his New York Times essay “There’s a Specific Kind of Joy We’ve Been Missing," and I was like “Holy shit, this explains it.” There actually is some research and science behind why the theme-park experience, and other large-crowd experiences, can make many people feel so incredibly happy.

Have your kids gone? What was it like? 

Oh yes. My son, who is 9, has gone 3 times, and my daughter, who is 6, has gone twice. And on those two trips, both my parents AND my in-laws were with us. That probably deserves its own interview!

But needless to say, the experience of going solo or with other adult friends versus going with kids is not even comparable. With kids, there WILL be meltdowns. It is unavoidable. It’s usually hot, there’s a ton of walking involved even if you have a stroller for them, there are usually long lines, and someone’s gonna get hangry. As the days progress, the exhaustion takes its toll. One time my daughter had SUCH an epic tantrum in the Finding Nemo Submarines line that multiple Disney employees came up to us and started busting out all their tricks to get her to stop and nothing worked. It still haunts me.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, you have the joy of experiencing the parks through your kids’ eyes. I mostly only care about going on the rides and eating ALL the food. And I have gone so many times that I forget how cool some of the details throughout the park really are. Watching my kids marvel at a parade, or freak out when interacting with one of their favorite characters, or be amazed by something in a ride, or be excited by the fireworks or the snow falling down on Main Street when they play “Let it Go” at the end of the night -- it makes enduring the meltdowns worth it. 

We were supposed to go to DL and DCA for Spring Break 2020, and obviously, that didn’t happen. One of the biggest things I’m looking forward to after my kids are vaccinated and I feel it’s safe to take them again is watching them inevitably LOSE THEIR MINDS over the new Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge land and its two new rides. I seriously cannot wait to see their faces.

What did you plan differently for a grownup trip vs. a kid trip? Where did you stay? What did you do at night without your family to tether you? 

For our last several trips we’ve stayed in a bare-bones (but still safe and clean!) motel right across from the park entrance to save money, minimize the time it takes to get there in the morning and, most importantly, the time it takes to get back when everyone needs to crash after a long day. I stay there alone as well. In 2016 we stayed on the property at the Grand Californian and that was awesome, but those rooms are crazy-expensive now. 

As for the difference in planning, when you go with your kids it’s just about trying to survive, minimizing meltdowns, and pacing yourself. You need to have snacks with you at all times, and one thing I learned the hard way is that you need to plan to eat more frequently than you otherwise would, and you need to build in time to just sit and rest. You need to mentally prepare your kids before you go about lines and wait times. Ideally, you would have things to entertain them while in line. You will not be eating anywhere nice (or at least we don’t with the kids). Decide what your top three or four priorities are for the day as a family, and then be happy if you get to do anything more than that. 

When we’re with the kids, we normally take a midday break to rest back at the hotel for a few hours. We also would never stay until the park closes, and we would only stay there for the fireworks a few of the nights (we last went as a family three years ago). I also learned the hard way that trying to get everyone up and ready to be there when the park opens is just not worth it. Let the kids sleep and wake up naturally if they’re tired out -- everyone will end up having a better experience.

On my own, I’m a goddamn maniac. My planning for solo trips involves making sure I have reservations for all the restaurants I want to go to over the course of my trip and putting the other stuff I want to eat at some point on my spreadsheet. I know the parks well enough that I don’t need maps and I have my favored path through the parks already down in my head. Otherwise, I’ve got my spreadsheet to just keep track of what I do, and I will be there before the park opens and I will stay until after it is technically closed. My favorite days are when I can do a full 16 hours: 8 am until midnight (usually this is only possible on Saturdays). It will be a dark day indeed when I feel too exhausted and/or old to be able to do this. But right now at age 47, I am still pulling it off 4 days in a row — and stay at the parks until closing!

Then I go back to my hotel room, shower, immediately put on my Oofos (INCREDIBLE “recovery” flip-flops everyone should own), take a few Aleve Muscle and Back Pain pills, slap IcyHot patches on my shins, put a ThermaCare hot wrap thingy around my lower back, and go to sleep. And then I will be up in 6 or so hours to do it all over again. 

Once when some friends were with me we went to Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel after the parks closed, and that was really fun. But then we regretted it early the next morning when our alarms went off.

What would you advise other witches who want to plan a Disney trip solo?

I know most people aren’t as nerdy as I am so I’m not saying you should create your own spreadsheet, BUT I would say that you should spend a little time beforehand figuring out your priorities. I have nearly as much fun planning my trips as I do actually experiencing the parks, so I follow a ton of Disneyland bloggers and influencers on Instagram who are always sharing cool tips and the latest buzz on new dishes, drinks and treats across the parks. Through that information, I start figuring out what’s on my “must do/eat” list. 

Or maybe another witch’s dream would be exactly the opposite: to have NO freaking plans and just show up and wander around and do what the spirit moves you to do. That sounds pretty great to me, too.

But either way, I would definitely recommend doing some research and making reservations at a few of the nice restaurants and giving yourself time to enjoy a wonderful meal and a delicious drink (or three). If you are a park newbie or haven’t been in a while, read up on how so much of it is through the Disneyland app now — from mobile ordering to restaurant reservations to the virtual boarding queues for some of the rides. And soon they will be debuting the new Genie/Genie+/Lightning Lanes system for those who want to minimize their time waiting in lines (it’s Disney, so rest assured you will pay for this privilege).

When you went this summer, were you thinking how glad you were you didn’t have your kids or were you hating on other people’s kids? All of the above?

Ha, no. I think the first time I ever did a solo trip there some of those thoughts crossed my mind, but now that my husband and I have an understanding that I will be going at least once per year by myself, when I’m there alone I now feel excited about what I’ll get to show or experience with the kids when we’re able to go together again. As far as other people’s kids go — and this is probably going to sound horrible — I just kind of laugh (inside) when I see someone dealing with a kid who is losing their shit or who is whining incessantly or being a brat. If I can, I get away from them as fast as possible. 

What did your kids think about you going to Disney solo? Did you touch base with them from your trip? 

I love to get on my soapbox about this! I think it is CRITICAL that kids see their moms taking time out for themselves and doing things they enjoy. I realize that when I go to Disneyland specifically it may be different communicating this to my kids than when I go someplace they don’t know or care about, but I actually think it’s that much more important that they know where I am when I’m at the parks. We cannot talk about raising girls to be “strong, independent women” and raising boys to respect girls and women without walking the walk and showing our kids that Mommy has a life separate from them and is allowed to go and have fun by herself or with her friends. It is healthy for everyone to be reminded that we are each individuals. For many professional and personal decisions I’ve had to make, I ask myself, “Would I want my kids to have my life?” And hells yes, I would want them to go have a ball at Disney — or wherever it is that brings them joy — on their own one day in the future after they are married and have kids. So I want to normalize that for them now. I also like to remind people that no one ever thinks twice if a man goes on a golf trip or a ski trip or whatever, so I don’t want my kids to consider it somehow “different” if Mom takes a trip without them.

When I tell other women about how I travel by myself and they want to try it but fear their husband wouldn’t go for it — or if they’re a single mom and aren’t sure they could make it work — I always say to do what you can to get away for one night. Find someone else with kids who wants a break as much as you do and offer to swap with them so that they’ll get a night off too. You don’t need to fly anywhere, you don’t need to stay at a hotel — stay at a friend’s and just get a change of scenery. It will do you and your kids a world of good.

So yes, I always tell my kids when I’m at DL and DCA, and I usually send my husband videos throughout the day to show them — of characters I see walking around or a snippet of a parade or just me telling them hi. And then my husband will send me back videos of them telling me about their day or things they want me to take a picture or video of. Sometimes I will do a FaceTime with them, but on my last trip, I only did that once on the last day. Again I say, it’s good to make everyone miss each other a little bit! If I was checking in constantly with them it would defeat much of the purpose of the trip.

Also, when Mommy goes to Disney alone, my kids know that There Will Be Presents when I get home.

Would you do anything differently if you go back again solo? 

I just booked my next solo trip there and will be going back in a few months. I’ll be at the parks 5 days straight for the first time. I don’t think I would choose to go back in July again because it was just too hot and I felt off my game and almost nauseous from the heat on some days. I also learned I need to book flights in and out at times where I actually have time to see other friends on those days. So I did do exactly that for my fall trip — I’ll have a half-day to roam around and meet friends for meals in Downtown Disney on both the day I land and the day I leave. I will be gone for 7 days total. IT WILL BE GLORIOUS!

How did you feel Disney/everyone there did re: COVID? 

Ugh, it was not great at the time I was there in July. But a few weeks after my trip, they reinstated the indoor mask mandate, and from what I hear they are actually enforcing it now. When I was there it was the “honor system” on indoor rides where unvaccinated people were supposed to mask up, and I only saw a few kids wearing masks throughout the day and probably less than 10% of people were overall. I am fully vaccinated and still wore a KN95 inside at some points and only ate where there’s outdoor seating (fortunately almost all restaurants there have that option). It was truly disconcerting to see so many unable-to-be-vaccinated-yet young kids maskless in crowded lines, or in a tight enclosed space like the first room of the Haunted Mansion. 

There is no way I would take my kids right now or any time soon. I’m not saying it’s impossible to do safely, but I personally would be SO stressed out about them keeping their masks on correctly and touching stuff and being by maskless people in line that it would ruin the trip for us all. So I think it will be a while before we go back as a family. When I’m there alone, I can whip my mask on quickly, I don’t touch everything in sight, I don’t rub my fingers in my eyes, and I can gauge a line or situation and decide to walk away if I want. 

I have to say I found myself SIGNIFICANTLY more chill on this last trip than I have ever been before. Normally I would be really, really determined to ride every single ride in both parks (except for the ones where you get wet or spin around — no thanks) and check absolutely everything off my list. I always used to be ON A MISSION at all times. But on my last trip, I was just so happy to be there. Because of COVID, I honestly was not sure I would ever get there again, and I think in the back of my mind I was not so sure I would get to go back anytime soon because of Delta and whatever else might still befall us. I found myself having a much more relaxing time, and the great irony was I still ended up doing everything I wanted to do across the 4 days I was there.

So I kind of went nuts doing Instagram stories and just broadcasting my craziness to the world that week. And what I found so interesting is that for some reason my videos from the parks inspired people from every single chapter of my life — both men and women, and some people I haven’t heard from in years — to direct-message me about how happy it made them to see me having so much fun, and how THEY felt like they now wanted to go to the parks with me. I think just in general everyone is so stressed and freaked out about the world right now that the most unexpected of people ended up wanting to live vicariously through my tomfoolery.

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