Over the last couple of months, I have talked a lot about prepping your children for your travels. This time we are turning the tables and focusing on how to manage your expectations as the parent. What do you do when your children don’t respond to The Happiest Place on Earth with the enthusiasm you had anticipated?
If you have not made a habit of traveling in the past, a Disney or Universal vacation will expose you to many new sensations all at once. This article is a quick rundown of five unexpected fears your children may develop in theme parks and how to navigate the disappointment of your vacation not going to plan.
It’s easy to take the simple things, like using the restroom, for granted. When you stop and think about it, the stalls can be a hectic place. You’ve got the spaces between the doors being uncomfortably too wide and the self-conscious feeling you get when people are noisily interacting close by or worse still, making no other sounds at all. It is instinctive when we are vulnerable, in this case with one’s pants down, to be extra alert and aware of the things happening around you. The one thing you don’t expect is an attack from below.
We have all had that disconcerting experience of the toilet flushing before we are finished getting the job done. That cold rush of water shooting around from below is enough to make anyone jump the first time you experience it. It’s like hearing the music fade in at the Oscar’s telling you it’s time to get off the stage, except in the form of cold water unexpectedly blasting around your exposed nether-regions. So what happens when you visit a theme park, like Disney, and your child becomes hysterically terrified of entering a stall after their first aggressive flush incident?
Her first few trips to Disney, my niece would do anything to avoid the restrooms. Her little legs and small body caused the automatic flush mechanism to trigger prematurely over and over, scaring her more intensely each time. It was hard to watch as my beautifully fearless little niece was stopped in her tracks whenever it came time to visit the restrooms.
So what can you do to avoid this happening or save your day when it already has?
- Pre-empt the flush: Set it off on purpose before they sit down so they can see what happens and when.
- Cover the sensor: If there is a motion sensor you can see, try covering it with your hand to stop the flush from going off as they move.
- Make it a game: If your child responds to games, try turning the experience into a test of how quickly you can get the job done before the timer goes off!
- Sit Back: If your child insists on being alone in the stall, try to encourage them to sit back, so their body is closer to the sensor. That way it is less likely to go off if they wriggle around.
Other people have these amazing photos of memories captured at the most magical moment. Other people have that photo of when their child threw their arms around Minnie Mouse and turned to the camera for that eyes-closed, angelic smile that commercials are made of.
Other people suck.
The first time my son met a character he was almost two years old and boy, did he scream bloody murder when he realized “we’re next, Buddy” meant the impending doom of meeting Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. People looked from all directions, expecting to see a small child being kidnapped or something similarly suited to the sounds that came out of him. Our photo was taken with my daughter lovingly nestled on one side of Cookie Monster and my son being wheeled out of frame in his stroller, grasping at anything around him to speed up the process.
The whole character experience doesn’t always go to plan. In fact, this is one of the first opportunities you have for disappointment. Some children stare longingly into their hero’s eyes for that photo moment, and others wonder what is behind those eyes and try to poke them. It’s a mixed bag of outcomes, so the best way to cope is to lower expectations and find the humor in their reactions.
My children now take the most fantastic character photos. Ever since my son, the same one mentioned above, spontaneously kissed the hand of a Disney Princess and made her swoon at the age of 3, he caught on to how the whole process works. I guess all those princess movies his older sister made him watch paid off.
How can you get started on the right foot?
- Start with a Character Meet and Greet with a human character. We all want that perfect photo with Mickey, but it might be a smart idea to start with a character that has a normal person’s face to get that sense of familiarity. Princesses often make a good starting point, as are fairies or Peter Pan if you can catch him roaming. One exception is when visiting Disneyland, keep an eye out for the Cars characters as they can be a bit of fun without seeming too intimidating.
- Be in the moment. Leave the photos to the experts and enjoy the moment with your child. If you pull away to get the perfect shot, sometimes that is all they need to feel as though something is off. Stay in the frame and give that character a big hug.
- Don’t spring it on them. Ask your kids if they want to go and meet a character. Just because you want them to, doesn’t mean they do. Some kids may balk at the last second, but many will know well in advance what they do, and don’t, want to do. If your children aren’t old enough or able to easily communicate how they feel, use their body language as a guide.
You watched the promo video, didn’t you? It’s okay, most of us did as well. It’s the one where the beautifully diverse family watches the fireworks together. Six-year-old daughter perched high on Dad’s shoulders, pointing and smiling without a care (or another guest) in sight. The reality is that once you have waited for an hour and been packed in like sardines on Main Street, U.S.A., that first big boom can often be the last straw. For many children, the first time they hear the highly anticipated sound of the fireworks it can trigger an overwhelmed meltdown rather than the picturesque pinnacle of your vacation. If the fireworks go pop, and so does your child’s ability to cope, you are in good company.
I know the feeling when you want that moment, the one that video showed you, in all its glory. The one where you look at your child and watch their face light up with excitement and wonder. So when the lights dim, and you look at those little eyes only to see them well up with tears and cover their ears, it can feel heartbreaking. Don’t worry — you’ve got this.
Looking for a few ideas to avoid the fireworks blues? Here you go:
- Stand back. Fireworks are a show to look up to, literally. So if you have not encountered a fireworks display with your kids before, stand further away from the crowds. Give them space to not feel so smooshed into the other people. The less restricted they are while waiting, the less intense the experience might feel.
- If you can, let them stand. Being on Dad’s shoulders might be what they begged for all day, though when surrounded by a crowd in the dark, they might feel more exposed. Until you know how they will feel, try putting them on your back or watching from somewhere they can stand up. If you let them feel in control of their body, it might just be enough to encourage that sense of confidence in the external stimulation. Side Note: When putting kids on your shoulders, consider those around you and try to have your back to a wall, so you aren’t blocking anyone’s view.
- Don’t exhaust them. The best outcomes for a first night-time experience with younger children come when they are not already tired from a full day of action. Take a break and give them a nap. A refreshed child can process new stimulation much more efficiently than an exhausted little one that has already had enough of everything. Think about watching the fireworks from a nearby hotel or restaurant, so you aren’t using a park day on it. This also makes it easier to walk away if things aren’t going the way you hoped.
Even though your children may be unbothered in a high rise building or on a plane, the sudden feeling of exposure on an attraction at high speed or elevation might still be more exhilarating than they were prepared for. While many of the rides that incorporate considerable height are targeted at older children or adults, there is still the potential to pop out at the top of Splash Mountain and spiral down into the briar patch of doubt and anxiety. You don’t always know your child is afraid of heights until it is too late.
When I was a kid, a friend of mine would not even consider going on the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios. His uncontrollable fear of heights had fixated on that one last drop at the end leaving him paralyzed at the idea of climbing on board. Although not a very high or exposed ride, that one visible part at the end was enough to turn the rest of the day upside down as his anxiety escalated to the point where he barely wanted to ride any of the attractions at all.
How can you prepare for a fear of heights and what can you try if it turns out your child isn’t a fan?
- Start small. If you have never been in a situation where a fear of heights may have been evident, start with smaller, outdoor attractions where you can see what is coming next. Dumbo is a good one as it allows your child to control the height and gives them a sense of power.
- Don’t force it. Even though you may feel compelled to prove to your child that they are safe by encouraging them to give it a try, it probably won’t end well. In a more controllable environment, this approach may be more successful; however, in high-end theme parks, the anxious wait in line could be all it takes to freak them out for the whole day.
- Walk away. Standing in front of an attraction that is giving your child the willies might be a big mistake. Take them away from the area to talk about it or even go on another ride at the same time. Staying to watch how the attraction works or to see how happy other people are when they come off probably won’t alleviate their concerns. A change of scenery may be enough to allow you to come back later and give it a try.
Even some of the more tame, family-oriented rides can add a hefty dose of apprehension when you zip away into the dark. One can admit that some of the more classic Disney dark rides like Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride or Pinocchio’s Daring Journey are a little creepier than a first-timer may expect. If you are taking a break to eat or relax nearby, you will often see a handful of distraught children coming off with tear-stained cheeks and quickened sobs. In these rides, the dark brings an added element of trepidation to what feels like a more sinister spin on the classic story.
The familiar confines of a dimly lit bedroom may not have your child up in arms at home, but how do you feel when you board your first Disney dark ride and find your child doesn’t cope? Let’s break it down:
- Start with newer attractions. With much younger children, begin with a dark ride that doesn’t have that additional lashing of old-school evil, like The Little Mermaid (Disneyland California Adventure & Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom), The Seas with Nemo and Friends (Epcot), Monster’s, Inc. Mike and Sully to the Rescue! (Disneyland California Adventure), or even Toy Story Mania (Disneyland California Adventure & Walt Disney World Hollywood Studios).
- Stay Calm. If your youngster comes out in tears, don’t worry, this is not indicative of how they will enjoy the rest of your vacation. It could be the dark in general that has made them uncomfortable, or it could be the tone of the ride itself. Even I still cringe in the whale scene of the Pinnochio ride. Have a quick talk to figure out the specific cause and then move on. This may be a good time for a churro and making a bit of fun of the situation. I used to make impressions of the Evil Queen’s laugh in Snow Whites’ Scary Adventures before we got on the ride in hopes it would ease the nerves for my youngest child. That was all well and good until they can be heard from miles away laughing during the old witch transformation scene yelling, “Look, Mummy, it’s you!”
- Change the plan. If you are planning on rounding out the afternoon with all the rides in Fantasyland when your child gets the dark ride blues, change it up. Try to brush it off and find a change of scenery. This can help calm the nerves while not giving the issue too much attention.
Sometimes the best discoveries stem from an unexpected change in plans. You might come across a fantastic restaurant you wouldn’t have tried, a hidden treasure or perhaps a bonding moment shared between the people in your group. Being introduced to your child’s new worst fear on your family vacation isn’t ideal, but the outcome will be based on how you react to it.
What reactions have you come across in theme parks that were not anticipated? How did you find a way to deal with them? Share your stories in the comments below and you might find that you help some unsuspecting reader with a similar experience in their future.
Zoë Wood is a travel writer from Sydney, Australia. Since her first visit to Disneyland at the age of 6, she has spent her years frequently visiting Disney Parks and traveling around the world.
Join Zoë as she lets you in on all the tips, tricks, anecdotes, and embarrassments that arise from her family adventures.