Meeting characters has always been one of my favorite parts about Disney vacations. My husband and I booked breakfast at Chef Mickey’s and waited in line for meet and greets long before having children.
Taking our children to meet characters for the first time was arguably the aspect of our last 2 family vacations we were most looking forward to. Yet before both our daughter and then our son’s first Disney vacation (especially our son’s because he was younger), we worried that, far from the magical reaction we envisioned, they might be afraid of the characters.
Young children, children, and adults with special needs, or children who simply have no idea why there’s a giant mouse waving and walking toward them might easily get overwhelmed and become frightened during a character meet and greet.
My little guy has loved “Gickey” since before he turned one. He fell in love with a stuffed Mickey that belongs to my husband (a life-long Mickey fan) and we never leave home without him.
We couldn’t wait until he got to meet Mickey at Disney and wanted that moment to be magical, so we did some preparing ahead of time.
Below are 5 strategies you can use both before and during your Disney vacation to help prevent your own child from developing a fear of characters:
1. Watch Vlogs and YouTube videos
Thanks to amazing resources like The Dis Unplugged, you can show your children videos of the characters before your vacation. This gives them an opportunity to see the characters move as well as interact with people, which will also hopefully give them an understanding of their size. Watching these videos on your TV rather than phone or tablet may better illustrate the characters’ size.
A word of caution: Though the gang from the Dis Unplugged doesn’t cry during videos of character dining experiences and meet and greets, you may stumble across videos with children where the character meet and greet didn’t go so well. Be sure to pre-watch any video you want to share with your child because showing them videos of other children who are frightened or crying isn’t going to help your cause!
If you have photos and videos of yourself or older siblings with characters, share these also. We watched both YouTube videos and our own character videos as well as looked at scrapbooks of previous Disney vacations. We made sure to point out our older daughter standing with “BIG Mickey.”
Videos are also helpful to show kids when the characters look a little different than they may expect. We watched this DIS Unplugged video of character dining at Tusker House because we wanted to be sure our little guy would recognize Mickey in his safari outfit. If you suspect your kiddo may be timid about meeting characters, you may want to stick to meet and greets where the characters are wearing their traditional clothing and look more like your child expects them to.
Because our son was under 2 at the time of our visit, videos and pictures were the best way for us to “explain” to him what the character meet and greets would be like. If you have older children who will be meeting characters for the first time, you can give a little more of an explanation.
2. Explain the Character Routine
As an adult, even if you’re a first time visitor to Disney, you likely have a general idea of how a character meet and greet works. You say hello to the character, get autographs, take pictures, have a laugh or two, then leave. On the other hand, a child may not understand what’s about to happen when you shoo them ahead of you to meet Mickey.
This wonderful piece of advice came from my neighbor. Prior to their last family vacation, she showed videos of character greetings to her youngest like we just talked about, but she also explained that “You say ‘hi,’ give hugs, take a picture, then come right back to Mommy and Daddy.”
Giving your child a similar explanation of how a character greeting works can be really helpful. This lets your child know that you aren’t leaving them with the character, the character isn’t going to take them anywhere, they’re just going to say hello to the character then go right back with you. Removing the unknown from a character greeting by explaining exactly what’s going to happen can help your kiddo focus instead on how excited they are to meet their favorite characters.
3. Do a Character Dining Experience
This was the strategy we banked on for our little guy’s first Disney vacation. He was under 2 at the time, and the way to his heart was definitely through food, so we figured pairing the experience of meeting characters with eating might help squash any fears.
Planning a character dining as a first character experience has a number of advantages. First, the routine of eating at a restaurant is very likely something your child has experienced and is comfortable with, which can remove fear around not knowing what to expect.
Second, your child will likely have the opportunity to see the characters walking around the restaurant and interacting with other tables before they arrive at your table, giving them an opportunity to get comfortable what’s about to happen.
And while it’s true that many character meet and greets in the parks allow you to see the experience of others ahead of you in line, several of the indoor greetings do not. For example, Epcot’s Character Spot has guests wait in a corridor and you can’t see the characters until you round the final corner. This may give apprehensive kiddos little time to stand back and observe others ahead of them.
4. Get Autographs
I can’t speak for your children, but I can confidently say that social skills are not an area of strength for my young kiddos. I give them frequent reminders to greet others and have to help them with many conversations. It’s just part of being a kid. So it comes as no surprise that our kiddos may not know how to interact with the larger than life versions of their favorite Disney characters. This can cause uneasiness.
Enter the autograph book. When my kiddos approached a character with an autograph book, it gave them an easy way to start interacting. My daughter would either ask the character to sign, or the character would point to the book and “ask” if she wanted him to sign. Characters often sign at the beginning of the interaction, giving your child time to warm up. We found this to be true both during character dining experiences as well as typical meet and greets.
If you have a child who’s a little anxious about meeting characters, the autograph book is also a nice distraction during the wait. You can look at past autographs and talk about what this character’s signature might look like, you can choose which color marker you’d like the character to sign with, and, when it is your child’s turn, having the book gives them something to hold during the interaction.
5. Trust the Characters
Last but perhaps most important, trust that the characters are experienced and can tell when a child is (or might become) apprehensive. Our son’s first character greeting experience was the character breakfast at Crystal Palace with Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet.
Though he was familiar with Pooh and Tigger from stuffed animals in his room, he had never seen Eeyore and Piglet, and Eeyore was the first character that arrived at our table. Seeing our little guy in the high chair, Eeyore was able to tell that this was likely a new experience for him.
After hugging our daughter, Eeyore bent down a few feet from the high chair and offered our son his hand. Once he saw that our son was receptive, he then got a little closer and interacted with him more playfully.
Thanks to Eeyore’s cautious approach, the stage was set for a magical week of character greetings. We found that all the characters gave our little guy the opportunity to warm up by giving a high five or extending their hands before getting closer. Before the end of that first character meal at Crystal Palace, our son had clearly caught on to the fun of meeting Disney characters.
My hope is that these 5 tips help you create pixie perfect memories of your own with your child’s favorite Disney characters.
Kristen is a special education teacher, Behavior Analyst, mother of 2, and blogger. She has had the opportunity to experience Disney as a child, as part of a couple, with a group, as an expectant mom, and now as a family. Kristen enjoys sharing her experiences to help others make their own magical memories.