Disneyland Redux: Traveling in Italy with Younger Ones

April 17, 2024 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

No fears! My three-year-old niece strides across a piazza in Italy with no worries about strangers. (Her parents were nearby). Photo credit: Doug Kline

All Things Italy April 2024

Hello, friends and fellow Italy lovers. And welcome, new subscribers! 

I trust April is off to a good start for you. I also trust that many of you don’t recall my promise last month for this month’s topic. “Disneyland Redux” may jiggle your memory a bit. I’m not revisiting unrealistic tourist sites (last month’s topic)—but rather exploring family getaways.  

Why take those trips to Italy with little ones—or teenagers—in tow? Is it really worth it? And those parents on the overnight flight, bouncing the screaming infant in their arms—what were they thinking?? What ever made them think this trip would be a good idea? 

To get some answers, I reached out to a few friends and family to see how their thoughts might extend my own. This month I share some of their words with you. 

(If you’re not interested in this topic, scroll down to the close, where I refer to a 19th-Century American woman in Italy with a teaser for May’s issue). 

Before their words, I share some memories of my own.  I grew up in Little Rock with a father who believed firmly in seeing Arkansas first. After all, as “the Land of Opportunity” (only later to become “The Natural State”), Arkansas offered plenty of state and national parks, water for staying cool in humid summers, trails for hiking, cabins for cushy camping. There were a few fancier vacations, when we piled into the woody wagon and drove to Denver, or San Antonio, or New Orleans, or St. Petersburg. Airplane travel for our large family was not feasible for my frugal father.  

Understand, then, the proverbial vicarious experiences I had when I began studying nineteenth century literature, with characters and authors who traveled to Europe (or lived there) for extended periods. This study offered me more than time travel. It introduced me to the leisure worlds of the wealthy. Edith Wharton and Henry James, as I mentioned last month, wrote many famous fictions based on their expat experiences. (Wharton first lived abroad for several years before the age of ten, and James was abroad for most of his first two years and then again for his early adolescence). In the process they created some memorable kids, in The Children (1928) and Daisy Miller (1878), especially.  

Wharton’s children in the novel with that title are part of the blended Wheater. The seven siblings are overseen largely by the oldest, a fifteen-year-old female, while the parents are occupied with their own interests among expat circles in the Swiss Alps, on the Venetian Lido, and in other ports of call like Palermo, Sicily. In James’s novella, Randolph Miller, a bratty “urchin” of “nine or ten,” almost steals the opening scene from his older sister Daisy.

Wielding his hiking stick like a lance on a luxurious Swiss hotel’s outdoor terrace, Randolph loudly demands lumps of sugar from another guest’s tea table. And he tucks a few lumps in his pocket for a later snack. Randolph, like Wharton’s Wheaters, seems beyond parental supervision. To me as a reader and traveler now, they all seem somehow both strange and oddly normal fixtures in this resort of the wealthy and privileged. 

These characters, scenes, and my own travels abroad with children between 2004 and 2009 (when my two sons were young) grounded the questions I asked friends and family I interviewed for this month’s All Things Italy. I hope you’ll enjoy some of their thoughts about why they traveled abroad with families and what did and did not work well for them.  

Parents’ interests often differ drastically from their childrens’. Here’s a mom’s view of Florence’s Arno River and Ponte Vecchio (above), and her sons’ preferred perspective (below). Photo: Dr. Marguerite Langille-Hoppe

Why the Extra Effort? 

Most everyone I spoke with shared that they took children along for educational purposes. They wanted their offspring to know of life beyond their local cultures—whether urban, suburban, rural, or smaller city life in the US. As Dr. Marguerite Langille-Hoppe, expressed it, she wanted her two sons to see “new paradigms and perspectives” as well as how “place creates identity.”  A clinical psychologist, she has relocated several times with her family due to her husband’s career as a minister. Each locale, she explained, has been in a rather culturally homogenous, smaller city: first Missouri, then Oklahoma, now Colorado, and soon to be Utah.  

For many parents like Langille-Hoppe, these educational experiences of travel justify time out of the traditional classroom. Langille-Hoppe’s sons missed some school for their first trip abroad in 2023. “We were bad parents!” she joked, before adding that, in fact, the timing of the shoulder-season trip made it possible for them financially and that it positively influenced her sons’ learning.  

Teen brothers in a Venetian gondola Photo: Dr. Marguerite Langille-Hoppe

Another friend who traveled abroad with her son when he was six and eight worried a bit about taking him out of school. She soon realized that the activities with music, art, and history he had while abroad were worth it. Now a young adult, he still talks about the concerts, galleries, and historic sites. And he has continued his international travel experiences. 

The trip “unlocked everything” for the Langille-Hoppe boys, their mother reported. Before the trip they studied some languages, which they then used in small bits. (They also realized how much language they didn’t know.) And they learned to use public transportation. After their time in France, the younger son went deep into research on Napoleon. The older son began looking for ways to study abroad. He’s headed to Sweden on a high school Rotary scholarship for the coming academic year. 

As Langille-Hoppe summed up what her sons gained: they understand better how “to navigate the world.” She used this phrase in a metaphorical as much as a literal sense. The travels helped them learn that when they face a challenge in the future, with some work, “they can figure it out.” 

BC Travel  

Langille-Hoppe also shared, however, that she and her husband loved to travel in their years before children (BC, to many of us). When the first child arrived, they determined not to let parenting keep them from what they love. So vacations to various spots within the US have been a part of her kids’ lives  “since before they could walk.” 

Similarly, Doug Kline (my brother-in-law) and his wife (my sister), had both lived and traveled abroad as students and early career professionals. Having four children put their international travels on hold for a while, but by the time their youngest was three and could pull her own roller bag, they were ready to go.  

There were some surprises, however. What they didn’t expect was that the nimble and mobile little one would have to be corralled. While preparing to depart from New York’s busy JFK airport, they were stressed to learn at the last minute that they were in the wrong terminal. At that point, though, the three-year-old had discovered she was the center of attention. Laughter from strangers, entertained by her running wildly with suitcase. For her, it became a fun game of chase. For her frazzled parents with three other offspring—not so much!  

There can be other stressful surprises in traveling with little ones, of course. Imagine arriving in Venice with a two-year-old, an eight-month-old, and a stroller—only to face head-on and arms-full the staircases that cross every canal. That’s exactly what Mac Madden (my cousin) and his wife Susie faced, back in the days when the internet didn’t provide as many travel tips (and photos) as it does now. They had absolutely no idea that Venice was full of steps.  

Imagine arriving in Venice with a two-year-old, an eight-month-old, and a stroller—only to face head-on and arms-full the staircases that cross every canal. . . . They had absolutely no idea that Venice was full of steps.  

Madden confessed that they were thinking more of themselves than their two daughters when they took their two-week trip to Italy. He had a medical residency in Scotland. Since his family had already crossed the Atlantic, and he and his wife each had fond memories of their college travels, the couple couldn’t resist a vacation jaunt to the continent. But these wise parents adjusted quickly to thinking about their young children’s needs.   

Can the little ones be carried where the strollers won’t roll? Note the diaper bag in the lower right corner. Mac and Susie Madden opted for a rental car when staying in Tuscany’s Porciano when their daughters were very young. Photo credit: Mac Madden

Although they visited a few famous galleries with their stroller, they found parks and picnicked a lot. They scaled back on excursions. “Try not to pack too much in”–they advised to any parents of young children.  And, they added, being well-rested and well-fed is important to parents and children alike.   

Taking time for respite on a hotel balcony. Everyone needs rest. Photo credit: Doug Kline

Some might advise that waiting for children to be older is a better approach. Not only can they manage their own luggage—they also can get involved in the planning, the language study, and on-the-ground input, as Langille-Hoppe’s sons did. The older ones can even help with the younger ones. Kline shared that on their last trip to Italy as a family, their oldest son was nineteen, certified and experienced as an EMT and a lifeguard. They felt comfortable leaving the younger ones with him, when the parents wanted an adult excursion to a winery or evening out.  

The Elephant in the Room: Expense  

No doubt—travel abroad with children takes time and money. It demands more time off work than a weekend getaway or a local vacation. And the international airfare often is significantly more than an in-country flight (or travel by car). Then there are expenses of ground transportation, site entrance fees, tour guides, and the like. As Langille-Hoppe expressed, she had been “intimidated” for years by international travel she considered “extravagant.” But with some exploration, she began to realize that she had been “perceiving that it [international travel] is less attainable than it is.”

In fact, she discovered two years ago that her family could take an international trip for not much more than they had paid to visit Disneyland. In 2023 and 2024 when they traveled to Italy, the hotels and the food costs were lower or the same as what she was paying in the US. And the quality is better in Italy, in her opinion.  

As for time off work, Langille-Hoppe sets her own work scheduled as a self-employed therapist. Her husband banked all his vacation time for the year, so that they would have a longer experience abroad. But shorter spring and fall break trips have become rather common, as her experiences and Kline’s demonstrate. Even if shorter trips are not ideal, they allow a taste of other cultures. For many, these are the beginnings of more frequent and longer experiences.  

A Redux? 

When asked whether they would take their trips again—all these folks answered with a hearty, “yes.”  

Would they do anything differently? A common response was “no regrets,” or that they wish they had been able to do more. As Kline offered about international travel with his children, “We wanted them to understand what else was out there in this big world of ours. . . . to see, firsthand, how others lived in different places. These trips,” he concluded, “did that.” 

“We wanted them to understand what else was out there in this big world of ours. . . . to see, firsthand, how others lived in different places. These trips did that.” 

What about you? Have you had family travel experiences that offer insight? Or even a laugh? I would love to know how these reminiscences trigger your own memories—and maybe some other readers would, as well. Perhaps you’re considering a family trip yourself (maybe your adult offspring are thinking about traveling with your grandchildren). Or, maybe you’re annoyed by all those people traveling with the Randolph Millers of the world, the loud children on the international flights. How do these words resonate for you? As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, either in the comments (better for everyone!) or, if you’re shy, in a direct message.  

Next Month: A 19th-Century Expat Art Patron

If this month’s topic hasn’t been for you, perhaps May’s All Things Italy will be. Then I’ll be exploring the art patronage of a Philadelphia woman who lived in Tuscany during her latter years. Laura Towne Merrick became an expat in Italy in the early 1880s—after a first trip a decade earlier. Like many others, she fell in love with the culture, the language, and the people and soon made plans to return to Italy, where she lived until her death.  

Want to know more but don’t want to wait until next month? 

Take a look at this recently published essay I wrote in collaboration with Stefania Corsini, of Tuscany, and Caterina Pierre, of New York. It appeared in the spring issue of Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide.  

I look forward to giving you a summary version of it (and some additional photos that aren’t in the article) in May.

A Maggio (until May), keep reading and dreaming of Italy!

Etta Madden