Let’s face it, we’re all a bit squeamish about something. Some people are afraid of heights, or snakes, or spiders, or in my case, tropical fish (really, you can stop laughing now). As an adult, a trip to Walt Disney World can provide a gentle means for you to push the boundaries of your discomfort in a safe, friendly environment. For example, an adult with a fear of heights might try Soarin’, an attraction which gives riders the illusion of being much higher in the air than they actually are. For me, each time I dine at Epcot’s Coral Reef, I chip away at my fish phobia.
A grown-up will likely be aware of the intensity of his fears, and be able to assess the situation, articulate his concerns, and regulate his environment. I’m petrified of spiders. I’ve heard there are spiders in It’s Tough to Be a Bug. This makes me uneasy. I’ll sit this one out, you can visit it without me. However, a child might not possess any of these skills. It’s up to the parent or adult caregiver to make sure that a wonderful day in the parks doesn’t become the stuff of nightmares.
I’m going to briefly bore you with two family anecdotes to tell you what I mean, and then I’ll talk about some strategies to deal with fearful children at the Disney parks.
- At the time of my only childhood visit to Walt Disney World, I was ten years old and my sister was five. The crowd was headed toward Space Mountain, so my family headed toward Space Mountain, not really knowing what it was. My sister, who was afraid of the dark, emerged from the ride a shattered mess of tears. She subsequently screamed at the start of any ride for the duration of our trip, even ones as innocuous as it’s a small world.
- When my daughter Louisa was six, we took her on the Maelstrom at the Norway pavilion at Epcot. While I had been on this ride before, it had been several years since I had done so. I remembered it as a fairly gentle attraction, with a troll that might be scary for a second, but no big deal. I told Louisa it was going to be fine and made her go on the ride, despite her protests and look of unease. Lou was visibly shaken after her troll encounter, non-communicative and fighting tears, but the rest of our trip continued uneventfully. A few months later, my girls needed new shoes. I told them we were going shopping at Nordstroms. Louisa, who is was a little fashionista and normally enjoyed shopping, was apoplectic. “No mommy, no Nordstroms, no Nordstroms.” After much calming and cajoling, we were able to uncover that she thought Nordstroms was like the similar-sounding Maelstrom and that trolls might pop out at her from behind the Ugg display.
WHAT WENT WRONG
As these stories illustrate, a little bit of planning could have gone a long way toward preventing meltdown. Here are some classic mistakes that my family made:
- Not pre-evaluating the child’s fears.
- Not investigating the contents of the attraction prior to boarding.
- Not giving the child the skills/tools to cope with new experiences.
- Starting the trip with the most challenging attraction.
- Not being honest with the child about the ride’s potential trouble spots.
- Not listening to the child’s needs.
- Not being realistic about what your child can handle.
- Not following up after a frightful experience.
HOW TO DO IT RIGHT
The first step in undertaking any new experience with a child is to honestly assess his or her strengths and weaknesses for clues about how the upcoming event might impact them. For example, if he’s afraid of the dark at home, this is a good indication that he might be fearful in dark attractions. If she’s shy about meeting strangers, this might tell you that interacting with Cinderella could be troublesome. Or if loud noises are a challenge at home, then this could mean that fireworks may prove difficult. Also bear in mind that the heat and constant activity at Walt Disney World may mean overtired kids (and adults) with lower-than-normal coping skills.
With any new attraction, you owe it to yourself and your child to do your research to make sure you’re not subjecting them to something intensely fear-provoking. Luckily there is plenty of information out there to help. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids lists potential fright levels at the top of every attraction description. There are countless guest videos on YouTube where you can see the ride features in advance. Cast members at the attraction can provide detailed information. If you child has a particularly fragile constitution, it may be worth asking pointed questions of the staff at even the most innocuous of attractions. I’ve witnessed child guest meltdowns at even the gentle Peter Pan (big crocodile) and Tiki Room (simulated thunderstorm).
You can prepare your child for theme park challenges in ways both physical and mental. Something as easy as earplugs to muffle loud booms or advance warning to close your eyes before the troll appears can go a long way toward easing discomfort with an attraction. For a larger issue such as fear of meeting characters or fear of roller coasters in general, a longer term plan of desensitization may be in order. Take baby steps toward your goal. Practice in similar situations at home. For example, for a fear of characters, first try having your child talk to “friendly strangers” such as a clerk in a local store. Then seek out local costumed characters, perhaps the high school mascot or the entertainment at a birthday party.
For roller coaster novices, it often works best to start with the tamer versions of the genre. Begin with the familiar Test Track or the out-in-the-open Big Thunder Mountain before attempting Space Mountain in the dark or the backwards Expedition Everest. Even in the child-friendly Fantasyland section of the Magic Kingdom, a particularly high-strung youngster might need to work up from the totally tame Small World to merely tame Winnie the Pooh (bolder colors and quicker turns).
If you are expecting a ride to pose an issue, don’t try to pull a fast one on your child. Lying about whether a ride will be scary/dark/loud may get your child on that particular ride, but it will also undermine your trustworthiness as a source of information, perhaps making the transition to other rides more troublesome.
Being honest with a child may sometimes result in that child declaring that he or she is not ready for that ride. Try to take the child’s needs seriously, perhaps bypassing the attraction until the next trip . There are countless things to do at Walt Disney World. Is it really worth enduring the tears and screams of your frightened child just for a trip on Space Mountain? Perhaps a spin on the teacups or a dip in your resort’s pool would be a better source of happy memories. Similarly, as the parent it is your job to realistically evaluate what your child can handle, even if he can’t express his needs himself. If the mild darkness of Pirates of the Caribbean was problematic, then the Haunted Mansion might not be on your to-do list for this trip.
If despite your best efforts, your child does become frightened on a ride, don’t forget to follow up later. This may mean using your experience to inform future attraction choices, giving your child some extra hugs and attention at bedtime, admitting your mistake, or asking the child for additional feedback about the experience.
With all the incredible experiences available at any Disney park, there’s no need to have fear become a factor in your vacation.
So what have you learned about child (or adult) fright issues in the parks? Are there any attractions that seem tame to most but threw your child out of whack? Do you have any good coping strategies? Let us know in the comments.