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.
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.
There comes a time in every Walt Disney World vacation when you find that not all members of your group want to do exactly the same thing. Maybe Mom wants to shop while the kids want more time on the rides. Maybe little brother wants another turn on the Teacups, while big sister wants to cool off on Splash Mountain. Maybe Dad wants to go for a swim, while big brother wants to sleep in at the hotel. Many of these situations involve parents and children with differing vacation wants and needs. Would everyone have a better time if kids and parents spent some time apart?
Kids and parents may have different attraction priorities
When children are small, splitting up is not an option; you know can’t send a four-year-old to explore Tomorrowland on his own. And when you’ve got high school seniors, you may be grateful that they want to conquer the Tower of Terror without you. But what do you do in the intermediate years? How do you know when it’s OK to give your child some time alone at your hotel or in the theme parks?
Is there an official policy?
Over the past five years, I’ve asked at least a dozen Disney cast members in various positions whether there is a policy about what age is acceptable to allow children alone in the hotels or parks. I’ve never gotten a firm answer. While there may be no publicly released policy, there is information from which you can infer the party-line point of view: the on-site childcare centers will accept children only until age twelve. After that, families have to answer the evening supervision question on their own.
Currently, there is no age-of-required-supervision given on the official Walt Disney World website. However, I did find reference on several older Disney-related discussion board threads to a statement on the 2004 version of WDW Annual Passholder site which stated, “Persons under the age of 10 years must be accompanied by a person over the age of 21 years while attending Walt Disney World® Water parks and the DisneyQuest® Indoor Interactive Theme Park. Persons under the age of 7 years must be accompanied by a person over the age of 21 years when attending the Magic Kingdom® Park, Epcot®, Disney-MGM Studios or Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park.” The implication here was that you could send your eight-year-old to the Magic Kingdom alone.
As for what the law allows, I have found that Florida has no legally mandated age for leaving a child unsupervised at home or elsewhere. (I’m not a lawyer. If you need more information, please consult a professional attorney.) But just because it may be technically acceptable to leave your child alone in a hotel or theme park, that doesn’t mean this makes sense for your personal situation. As with most parenting decisions, this really boils down to a judgment call.
Factors to Consider
When deciding whether to give your child time alone at Walt Disney World, there are a number of questions to ask yourself:
The answers to these and a multitude of related questions will influence your decision on whether to allow your child some time alone at Walt Disney World. For some families, a child as young as seven or eight might be ready to go on a ride alone. For other families, a 16 or 17 year old might still need watchful attention at all times.
Practice Makes Perfect
In between constant supervision and a totally solo trip to the parks, there are a number of intermediate steps on the road to a child’s independence at Walt Disney World. Here are some milestones along the way:
Each of these steps gives a different degree of freedom that may feel more or less comfortable given your unique situation. You can use them as building blocks on the road to theme park independence. At each step, stop and assess how comfortable both you and your child are with more separation. If there is any anxiety, then take a step back or wait until your next trip before trying again.
In every case, be sure to discuss contingency planning with your child. For example, several of the restrooms at Walt Disney World have multiple entrances. Would your seven-year-old know what to do if she accidentally chose the wrong one to leave through? If a ride breaks down and someone is delayed or a cell phone battery fails, do you have a fail safe meeting time and place? A few minutes of advance planning can go a long way to making sure everyone has a positive experience.
What have I done?
While each family is different, I personally started letting my daughters go alone into a restroom or onto a ride when they were about eight years old. We’ve gone through several of the steps above and are now at the stage where my 11-year-old twins have stayed alone in our hotel room while I went to the resort’s quick service restaurant for a few minutes. Our 14-year-old has been allowed to explore Epcot alone for a few hours during the day. We have also allowed her to leave the Magic Kingdom and take the monorail on her own back to our room at the Contemporary, texting us all the way. Other families might consider our timetable to be too restrictive or too permissive. Tell me what works for you…
UPDATE March 2013: Disney has changed its policy on allowing unaccompanied children in the parks.