There are so many great experiences you can have as a family at Walt Disney World, but for every child you see with a huge grin plastered on their face, you can find another having a difficult moment. It’s a land of highs and lows, of extremes. No trip is ever going to be perfect, but a little work done beforehand can help you maximize the fun and keep the stress and fear to a minimum. I’ll cover two of the biggies: riding rides and meeting characters. Here are some ways to let your child know what to expect.
Preparing your kids for rides
If you take a quick trip around the Disney fan forums on the web, you would get the impression that there are as many opinions about whether you should take your kids on any given ride as there are people. I’m going to tell you what I think, hopefully while avoiding starting any sort of flamewar.
I think that a successful introduction for kids to rides begins long before you enter the park. Obviously, if you’re trying to plan a surprise trip, this is going to be an issue, but if your kids know about the trip in advance, there are lots of things you can do ahead of time to reduce those pangs of anxiety once you get in a line for a ride.
Some of you are going to think, “Wow, you’re saying I shouldn’t leave any of the details out as surprises for my kids.” And you know, if you think your kids might react really poorly to being surprised by some of these details, that’s exactly what I’m saying. You all know your kids, you probably have a good idea of how they’ll react to certain things. Your kids might be scared of the dark, or perhaps the dark doesn’t bother them at all but they don’t like abrupt noises or ghosts, or what have you. You’ll have a pretty good idea what might be issues for your kid that could affect their enjoyment of the vacation.
- Watch on-ride videos on YouTube. When we were preparing for our first trip to WDW, my daughter was just past three years old. She was over 40″ tall, so we knew she could ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and the other 40″ rides. I put her on my lap and we watched a few on-ride videos and we talked about what it might feel like to be on the ride ourselves. Would it be fun? Scary? Bumpy? I talked about the things we could hear other people doing, like yelling and laughing. We practiced putting our arms in the air when she could see other people on the ride doing that, and she yelled, “Whee!” a bunch of times. When the time came to ride the ride for real, she approached it pretty much the same way, and I still remember her smiling from ear to ear after it was done, just before she begged to go on it again.
- For small children, tell them Mickey (or another favorite character, maybe Phineas and Ferb?) built the rides and the scary moments are all just the character joking around. For older kids, talk about the Imagineers who design the rides and how they studied for a long time to make rides that are thrilling but still safe. My daughter watched Mickey Mouse Clubhouse around the time of our first trip, and she knew Mickey wouldn’t have a ride that would hurt her. She knew as long as she obeyed all of his rules (about keeping herself inside the ride vehicles, etc.) she would be just fine. In the middle of that first trip, while we were walking into Haunted Mansion, my husband made a “scared” face at her and she said, “It’s okay, daddy. It’s all just Mickey’s joke.” Now that she’s six, she still often explains to kids we meet in the lines who appear to be anxious about the ride about Mickey and how he would never make a ride that would hurt them.
- Buy MP3s of the ride music (there are some available in the Amazon MP3 store, like Haunted Mansion’s Grim, Grinning Ghosts and Pirates of the Caribbean’s Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me) and listen to them so the sound of the rides will be familiar.
- For rides you can’t find music or on-ride videos for (dark rides like Dinosaur are a good example of this) explain what will happen on the rides, what they’ll see, and how they might feel.
- Tell them about how you (or someone else you know, if you haven’t) have ridden the ride before and you knew you were safe while riding it. This is also a good time to talk about the rules on the rides (like keeping your body inside the ride vehicle) and the safety restraints and how they work to keep the riders safe.
During your trip
Okay, so now you’re on your vacation, and here you are, standing outside a ride you feel your kid will like if they can just get over the hump of getting themselves on the ride, or past one part they might find scary. Here’s where our old friend “distract, distract, distract” comes into play.
- Count the animals. On many rides there are some things going on that might be a little scary, but a small distraction will get your kid through that first ride. Once they’ve been on it once, the fear of the unknown is gone and they’ll likely have an easier time of it. If you know there are animals (Pirates of the Caribbean is perfect for this) then have your children count them during the ride.
- Similarly, they can watch for things of a certain color. How many yellow things or green things can they find on Haunted Mansion? Maybe that activity is just enough to get them through that first ride, and they’ll discover that the ghosts are just pretend, and are just portrayed as playing tricks and partying anyway.
- The strategic redirect. Think your kid would do just fine on The Great Movie Ride, if only they didn’t have to make it through the Aliens scene? Seat them on the far left end of the ride vehicle and have them look off to the side of the car, where there are a bunch of monitors set up with various readouts. If you can get them looking away from the two Aliens that jump out at you, they will likely miss the scares entirely.
Let’s say your kid has watched Disney shows or movies at home on your television. How big do the characters seem to them, do you think? Do they think of Handy Manny as the six inch tall cartoon character they see on the screen? Do you think they’ve even considered how big Sulley from Monster’s Inc. would be in “real life”? Even with the human “face” characters, like the Princesses, a lot of kids find themselves overwhelmed and tongue-tied when they’re faced with their first few character meet and greets.
- Give them a real-world person they know as a comparison. I recommend telling your child a few times before you go that the characters are “tall like ____” (someone you know who is tall). My husband is 6’6″, and leading up to our first trip, I told my daughter that some of the characters were “tall like daddy” and she didn’t seem surprised at the size of the largest characters when we got there. I told her that Mickey and Minnie were “about as tall as mommy” (sigh, yeah, I’m pretty short) and she didn’t seem surprised when she met them, either.
- Help them think up things to say to the characters, or questions for the characters. Talk about it before your trip, but also talk to them about it in the line while you’re waiting.
- Have something for them to do with the character. Autograph books are a classic example. If the child is holding their autograph book, they have a mission in mind once it’s their turn. They’ve probably seen other kids before them go up, get their signature, and then get a little interaction with the character. If they have a similar thing they can do to help break the ice initially, it could really help them feel more comfortable. My daughter had a kiddie camera on one of our early trips and she really liked having the characters pose for her while she took their picture before she went to them for a hug and a conversation. Anything that adds a tiny bit of structure to the event will help.
- Go up to the characters with your child if they seem a little hesitant at first. When they see you’re at ease chatting with Donald Duck, maybe they’ll see it’s not so scary.
My last piece of advice for all possible “scary” moments on your vacation? Allow them to opt out if they really seem frightened. Perhaps they will change their mind later. You know your kid, and if you really pay attention to them, you can tell if they’re really uncertain or scared or if they just need a little reassurance. Listen to your gut.