Teens at Disney World: Not the Impossible Dream

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Let teens do some shopping on their own

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.

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Posted on January 24, 2012

9 Responses to “Teens at Disney World: Not the Impossible Dream”

  • We did this in December with our twin boys (also have 2 other kids) that were 11 (just a bit short of teenagers) where we let them go on their own in the same park we were in (for a few hours up to about 4 hours). They had a cell phone. After a few stumbles and learning experiences, it worked out well and by the end of the week there, we let them do a quick service meal on their own. They got to choose what they wanted to do, what rides to ride and what to eat (a few snacks and a quick service meal or two). Interestingly enough, they went to some things that were surprising like Indiana Jones when at DHS and rode space mountain 11 times in one day. (Glad I wasn’t there to fight with them on that as I wouldn’t want to ride that many times or wait for them).

    In the end, it worked out great as they got some freedom and the other 4 of us had more fun without arguing about rides and food and the general sibling fighting. I am sure as they get a bit older we will allow more freedom like being at a different park but for their age and responsibility level, we found it to be good to start a bit smaller.

  • As someone who has gone as a teenager with parents, I can confirm that if the teenager is at all interested in going then it will be a worthwhile experience. Teenagers appreciate the magic, but are easier to handle in the parks then small children, and can even be as excited and grateful to be going as the younger kids would be. Just keep the teenager involved in the planning, and try to strike balances between what they want and what others want, and take advantage of their want for independence for when you need a break. Also they will be more open to trying more things that you might be interested in, like more exotic food, a cirque show, or even a tour that is only for 16 and up.

  • We just spent 5 days at the park with our 19 yr old and he was like a giddy little kind again. He got up early every day without complaining (one of my biggest worries before the trip). He even would grab my hand as we walked through the park which I’m sure was only because he would never see those any of the people again. Complete joy.

  • We started going to the parks regularly when my kids were 8, 11, and 12. Fast forward 10 years and any time I mention a trip to Disney they all want to go. Granted the 22 year old is now a college graduate with a full time job, the 21 year old is deployed to Kuwait with his National Guard unit, and the 18 year old is a college freshman with a part time job. If they could, they would drop everything and head to Disney with me. But in the last 10 years we have made it fun for them. Allowing them alone time, teen time, guy time, Mom and daughter time and every mix-match in between. As the other posters mentioned, we did it gradually as they were old and mature enough to handle it.

  • I grew up on WDW, but the trip when I was 16 and my brother was 20 stands out as really special. The freedom of being older in the parks gave us the opportunity to bond & learn about each other without the distractions of the “real” world… and he spun me on the tea cups like only a 6’5 mountian of a guy could! Awesome memories.
    Fast forward, and now my almost 17yo also loves WDW trips. She likes to be involved in the planning re: hotel, meals& park time. Top on the list last yr was EMH until 3am, so we did it and had a blast! She’s not a big risk taker and didn’t want to be alone (neither did I at 16) but she enjoyed wandering off when shopping, took her sis (10) to do some Kim Possible adventures, and they had a “monorail adventure” one afternoon where they shopped & ate at each of the stops. One night she didn’t feel like our res. in Kona Cafe so she asked if she and her sister could just get Capt’n Cooks and go back to the room to watch a movie and veg… they were happy& it was heaven for Mom & Dad! This year at 17 & 11 they’re planning a more elaborate “sisters night” for our summer trip and have been negotiating options and limitations.
    I guess because I’ve had such good experiences as & with a teenager at WDW it amazes me that anyone would have a second thought about it!

  • Next January, I am taking my teenage sisters to WDW for their first time without my parents. This is all extremely valuable advice. Thank you!

  • One of my favorite trips to Disney was when I was 14 and my brother was 16. I think we both inherently knew it would be one of the last ‘free ride’ vacations we’d get. And we had a blast. We could stay in the parks all day, which is something my parents are really too old to do anymore, plus we have little ones. It was really a sweet spot in time that I hope to replicate with my kids.

  • by Disneydreaming on December 28, 2012, at 3:33 pm EDT

    I am a teenager and love disney world! One of my favorite parts is to plan the vacation! Make sure you treat your teen like a teen when at Disney and don’t assume your 16 year old wants to wear a princess crown. What I have found is when we are in Disney my sisters and I become kids again. Don’t hesitate to book your Disney vacation because your 14 year old might not like it. My fondest memories of my family are at Disney world.

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