Many parents have fantasies of taking their little ones to Disney World—skipping gaily though the Magic Kingdom with their daughter dressed enchantingly as Princess Jasmine; clicking away as their son poses for snapshots at the entrance to the Magic Kingdom.
Fewer parents have fantasies of going to Disney World with their moody 16-year-olds. This, however, is a mistake. (Just wait…) Disney World is actually fantastic for older kids, especially teenagers. With a little planning, both you–and they–can have a terrific time–even if your son refuses to pose for that picture beside the entrance to Splash Mountain.
Note: The following suggestions rely on your comfort level and your teen’s age–not vice versa.
Give him free time
It’s entirely possible that when your husband/four-year-old/great Aunt Mollie wants to ride the spinning teacups for the 12th time, your teen will politely (or not so politely) decline. In fact, he has made it clear that he would much rather hang out in the room for a while and watch the Final Four basketball games and then meet you later. If you both have cell phones, this is a great opportunity to arrange a meeting time and place. If your hotel is on the monorail, so much the better. Arranging a meeting time and place just relies on careful planning and your descriptive powers. For instance, do not say, as others have undoubtedly done before you, “I’ll meet you at the Information Desk in the Magic Kingdom.” That’s kind of like saying, “I’ll meet you in France.” Far better to say, “I will meet you in front of the bottom step that leads directly to the entrance of the Crystal Palace at exactly 3:01 pm.” Your teen will be happy you trusted him; you will be happy you were specific. Arrange check-in points ahead of time: Tell him to text when he gets on the monorail, when he enters the Park, etc. This will give him some free time and not make him feel like he’s merely tagging along every second. Make sure he has some free time every day. Remind him of the adage, ”With freedom comes responsibility.” The more he acts responsibly, the more you’ll trust him.
Give her real responsibility; let her make decisions
Kids and teens know when you are giving them fake jobs or tasks to do. If you’re giving her responsibility, then really do it. For example, put her in charge of all the gifts you buy for friends and family back home. Arrange a budget, have a preliminary discussion, and tell her to check in when she wants your advice–but LET HER FOLLOW THROUGH ON HER OWN.
Following through, by the way, does not mean shadowing her as she looks at Mickey Mouse cups in Downtown Disney and whispering, “I hear Cousin Frank likes Donald Duck…” In the same spirit, if you ask her to get some information from the concierge or make a reservation for a show, do not lurk nearby while she’s at the front desk or “happen” to be standing right there while she’s attempting to book last minute tickets for four.
Accept that they will say no sometimes
This is one of the hardest parts for parents. You want those bright-eyed toddlers squealing in wonder; they want to IM their friends or play arcade games. Know when to push and when to say no. As my mother says, choose your battles. Is it more important for your teens come to dinner at Boma or breakfast at ‘Ohana? Can you bear for them to give up one meal with you? If they want to hang out by the pool when the rest of you go to Downtown Disney, will they meet you you for a movie that evening? Compromise, people. Remember: As in Disney World, so in life.
Initiate the Offer
Don’t always wait for them to come to you; show your teens you trust them by reaching out on your own. (Hint: This also allows you to retain some control over the situation.) For instance, were you to say, “I know you might want to sleep late tomorrow. Why don’t you meet us for lunch at Sunshine Seasons? Just stay in touch, OK?” you will probably be met with a look of both surprise and gratitude.
Or maybe not. You can never tell with teens. But at least you made the effort, and have shown you understand their need for independence.
Remember that they’re teenagers.
As if you could forget. But that means that they may not always (or ever) go along with your fantasy of the perfect family vacation. You–and they–may have to settle for moments, which is actually not that bad.
Because Disney World, paradoxically, is a great place to let them to do a little growing up.