Initial disclaimer: This is not a post sponsored by Disney World. My mother is Disney-obsessed. We went to Disney World on a yearly basis growing up, but none of us has visited in over 15 years. For my mom's birthday, she requested a multi-generational family trip there, and I was curious to see how eco-friendly the theme park could be. Surprisingly, very. I’m not ignoring the huge amounts of stuff produced for and sold there, nor do I pretend that anywhere is naturally that green and perfect looking all year round. But, Disney World is a magical place for kids, and the corporation has continued to make important environmental strides. In my opinion, traveling as an eco-friendly family doesn't always mean camping next to a stream in the middle of nowhere. Odds are, you will end up at Disney at some point in your child's life, so read on for 6 ways to stay green while playing and staying at Disney World.
I initially worried that we would be wandering around searching for a healthy salad or at least some alternative to French fries. The dining options at many sit-down restaurants in Disney were a welcome surprise. Disney is extremely sensitive to allergies, sensitivities, and food preferences and, if you make reservations in advance, they will craft a meal for you around your specifications. Several of the restaurants even had a vegan menu! The seafood is noted as being sustainable, and there are numerous veggie options (even on the kids menus). Babycakes, the wildly popular, vegan and gluten-free bakery, has a little outpost in downtown Disney, and they have a partnership so that they can deliver a cake for birthdays or other celebrations to any of the dining establishments within Disney.
One recommendation: pack plenty of healthy snacks! The parks generally have frozen fruit bars or hummus with carrots, but there are also a lot of ice cream sundaes, cupcakes, and other sugary sweets to tempt your child. It might be easier (and much less expensive) to just skip the food stands and pack your own goodies. We witnessed a lot of families snacking on food obviously brought in from outside and Disney allows small coolers in several of the parks.
Getting around Disney can also be green. Kids love riding the monorail. There are also buses that go regularly between the parks and hotels that are not situated on the monorail. And you can, of course, walk between several locations. We stayed at a part of the Contemporary and could easily walk to the Magic Kingdom. Instead of renting a car to get from the Orlando airport to Disney, we also took a Disney-affilated bus, which seemed like a very popular option and has reduced the need for private vehicles.
We went with several extended family members and stayed in a suite, complete with kitchen. This was a great option that allowed us to keep fruit, our reusable water bottles, and other snacks at the ready so that we didn’t have to buy quite as much food. Our room was also equipped with a recycling container situated right next to the trash can. Of course, we followed all of our traditional “rules” for staying green, such as turning the air conditioning and lights off while were gone.
Disney has a policy that they only change linens once every 4 days, and they also had several signs posted in prominent places about how to be eco-friendly and how to conserve resources. One quibble – their body care products such as shampoo were not especially green and contained ingredients such as parabens. We brought our own toiletries, but changing what Disney provides would have a huge impact. Consider that they have several little bottles (often refreshed daily) in every one of Disney’s 25,000 plus hotel rooms. A switch to a more eco-friendly brand and using dispensers instead of individual bottles would be a welcome change.
Yes, there is a LOT for sale. In all honesty, I can’t say that I spent a lot of time looking at the products sold in the many, many Disney stores. I was (literally) running after my 18-month old and my almost 4 year old, and they were much more interested in meerkats than in merchandise. They did each take home a stuffed lovey, courtesy of Grandma, but other than that, we bought zilch. From what I did see, there were plenty of plastics and non-organic plush toys, but I did take note of the fact that there were some fairly-traded items, particularly in the Africa section at the Animal Kingdom. Moving to more sustainably made and ethically traded merchandise would be a huge step for Disney, and I hope they begin to move in that direction. The merchandise bags are all made of 100% recycled content.
My kids are not particularly obsessed with any Disney characters, so the stores were not a huge draw for them. There are so many attractions and things to do in Disney that it shouldn’t be too hard to keep kids focused on the experiences they are having instead of the “stuff” they want from the stores.
Those perfectly manicured grounds are green in more ways than one! From this helpful site, I learned that Disney takes advantage of reclaimed water for irrigation purposes, uses LED fixtures in the vast majority of its lights, and that they turn the waste from all their animals into compost! I was impressed that recycling receptacles were placed alongside trash cans throughout the parks, making it easier for people to recycle.
Disney’s corporate citizenship website and goals are impressive (although only a true insider would get the real picture on how effectively they was followed). Included among its recent environmental goals was moving towards 100% of the paper used for packaging and products to be from certified forests or of known source origin and that the paper would contain recycled content. They are also developing a company wide policy to expand that goal to all Disney-licensed products and any packaging that has Disney characters. Get an idea of how they are doing regarding numerous issues including child labor here.
All the Rest
Among the other things I noted during our stay: Disney has a reusable mugs program where people buy a certain type of plastic mug and simply refill it throughout their stay. There are obvious issues with this (including the fact likely many of those mugs hold soda instead of tap water and that the mugs are plastic), but this popular option at least prevents less paper cup usage. All the Disney hotels are members of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Florida Green Lodging Program, which sets industry standards and completes audits for properties striving to be green. And about a third of Disney property has been designated as a wildlife conservation area with additional conservation outreach programs including grants to organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Jane Goodall Institute.
Admittedly, Disney is not perfect, and there are several areas in which they could make enormous strides and use their plentiful resources to make an even bigger difference. I would argue that vacations in general cause us to look at our green values and find the best way to negotiate them while allowing our kids and ourselves to indulge in some family time, fun, and new experiences. So point out the solar panels in Epcot, have an in-depth discussion about animals living in captivity or about the need for conservation and preservation while at the Animal Kingdom, and enjoy being a kid again!
Lead image © flickr user serena_in_virginia