Who’s Afraid of Walt Disney World?

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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.

Those with a fear of heights should avoid Characters in Flight at Downtown Disney.

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.
  • With a fear of fire, you may want to skip the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular.

  • 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.

If there's a fear of loud noises, the fireworks could be trouble.

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).

Test track is milder thrill ride. Good for testing roller coaster tolerance.

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.

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Posted on July 14, 2011

10 Responses to “Who’s Afraid of Walt Disney World?”

  • We were caught by surprise this year. When my daughter was 4 (almost 5) she loved everything she rode and was only limited by height requirements. This time she was 6. I guess somewhere she developed some fears? Many rides that she loved before left her in tears. We felt bad when people were staring at her coming off Splash Mountain – she had ridden it multiple times in a row the time before and said it was her favorite ride! So my suggestion would be to reassess each time if you don’t go multiple times per year.

  • Our son has some mild disabilities, which include sensory challenges, OCD, anxiety, and ADHD. So, as much as we wanted to take him to WDW when he was really young, we waited until his 8th birthday. I spent months researching all the attractions, watching YouTube videos and talking with him about the characters. When we finally got there, we made sure to get a Guest Assistance Card and talked with cast members at almost every attraction. We took our lead from our son and we skipped: all fireworks, Fantasmic, Space Mountain, Expedition Everest, Tower of Terror and Rockin Rollercoaster. He tried everything else. We did get seats near exits at all shows, and he got very anxious at Festival of the Lion King (he is very frightened by the Rafiki face makeup). But it was great first experience! He even had a Magical Moment – he was Cruise Director at Small World! Today, at 11, he is proud to say that he has ridden all the thrill rides, loves Fantasmic, and can’t wait for our next visit next month. He wants to be a cast member someday. WDW has been very therapeutic for him in facing his fears. He knows I carry earplugs and a penlight just in case he gets scared, but we haven’t used it in years!! Remember you are there to ALL have a good time, and if the kid says NO, use the child swap or skip the ride. Next time, they might be willing to try something new!

    • Similarly, my niece has some challenges and we used ear defenders so she could enjoy the fireworks which would otherwise be a sensory overload for her. On our first trip with her, when she was 4, we quickly learned what wasn’t working for her (dark and noise) and adapted accordingly.

      • Congratulations for taking the time to realize that children have fears and that in kids 3, 4, 5, sensory overload is a common problem. Good for you, being ahead of the game~!

  • Great advice, especially for those of us with young kids! Quick tip on Maelstrom: We weren’t going to ride it with our 2.5 year old son, out of concern that he might be afraid of the dark or of the troll (it had been a number of years since I last rode it and couldn’t quite remember the ride). However, we asked a cast member what she thought, and she said it shouldn’t be too scary. However, she informed us that the cast member operating the boat launch keeps a flashlight that you can borrow in case your child gets scared of the dark. We took the flashlight along with us (and used it) and our son didn’t seem to get scared. In fact, we rode Maelstrom again the next day. Our son also enjoyed the Norway film (despite its need for a bit of an update…).

  • Great information. My 7 year old’s favorite ride is Dinosaur at the Animal Kingdom. It’s dark and loud…..doesn’t scare him or his 2 sisters but it scares me! We rode it 7 times this past vacation and I have never opened my eyes for the entire ride!! :)

  • Great post – we took our then 3 year old thinking that she would love the Pooh ride. Unfortunately we went to Mickey’s Philharmagic first. The lights went off, and Donald started throwing instruments and that was it – she was screaming. We went on Pooh next and she screamed the whole time. After that we stayed in well lit, quieter places. In fact, before the trip we didn’t plan any character meals thinking that she would be afraid of the characters. We ended up spending most of our time visiting the wonderful characters. In the trips we’ve made since we’ve allowed her to try new rides at her own pace. We give her as much information as we can and let her decide when she’s ready – and we’ve never felt like we “missed out” on anything in the parks.

  • My kids are frightened of the characters, they want nothing to do with them. Sad for me as I would love to take pics of my kids with them, but finally realized that it’s a big time saver. I don’t have to wait in lines for autographs and pictures.

  • What a wonderful article! Thank you! I think sometime parents of one child don’t fully understand a child’s fears – they will learn. Kids have all kinds of fear -heights, the dark, the water, etc. This is NORMAL. My daughter doesn’t like to admit her son has a fear of anything -she fears this will make her look bad as a parent I guess. He’s four and afraid of the dark – NORMAL! They have never established nap times saying he wasn’t a sleeper so he’s never taken naps unless they’re in the car going somewhere. This poor child is overly tired most of the time and sleeping in the car isn’t the answer. Now sleeping issues at night have developed and I’m not surprised. He’s exhausted. They also have given him his own I Pad and have downloaded all kinds of stimulating “educational” activities including a lot of fairy tales. Many of these are frightening – years ago we only had books; today it’s lights, camera, music and action. I’ve been slightly scared by a few of these myself. No naps plus over-stimulation are creating havoc with this little one.