Walt Disney World is usually crowded, chaotic and unpredictable, but is also a great laboratory for teaching your pre-teen or teen to become more independent. One way to do this is to encourage more exchanges with adults through pin trading and making purchases without hovering.
One of the most difficult lines to cross is to allow your pre-teen or teen to go off on his own or with a sibling. Controlling your child's first tastes of independence can help build confidence, both for you and your child. This article presents three ideas for splitting up from your kids in increasing degrees of difficulty: picking up a Fastpass ticket, enjoying a resort arcade or shop, and spending solo time at a park.
Picking up a Fastpass ticket
I had a lump in my throat the first time my child zipped off on his own to pick up Fastpass tickets for our next ride. Not because of his newfound independence, but because I feared I was also waving good-bye to my Annual Pass.
Picking up a Fastpass ticket can be a great early test in splitting with your pre-teen. It requires some navigation skills and responsibility, but the time apart is generally short, and there are usually no worries about being out of cell phone or walkie talkie range because most Fastpass ticket stations are outdoors (Soarin', at Epcot, is an exception).
The downside is that you are entrusting your pre-teen with your family's admission media, so I suggest sending a second child along if possible. Emphasize not putting anything on top of the Fastpass machines, which is a common way to leave passes behind, and to place all tickets in a safe place before leaving the Fastpass kiosks. Those young legs save wear and tear on us older folks, so sending your child for Fastpass tickets is a win-win once they are responsible enough for this task.
Resort arcades and shops
Each value and moderate resort on Walt Disney World property contains a primary facility usually housing the main lobby, food court or other counter service options, retail store, and arcade. Once you have become familiar with your resort, this can be a terrific place to allow your child to enjoy time on his own. While you are catching up on the news or leisurely finishing a cup of coffee, your child can enjoy 20-30 minutes in the arcade or browse through the store. However, since these areas are open to the public, always establish boundaries and a meeting place and time, and remind your child to be aware of surroundings. If he notices someone watching him or feels creepy about someone in the area, he should follow his instincts and return to you immediately.
Deluxe resorts also have game rooms and nicer shops, but are usually less centrally located. This can still be an option for your pre-teen in the right circumstances—you will need to figure this out based on your child, his familiarity with the resort and level of maturity, as well as your proximity. For a great rest break on a day at Magic Kingdom, the resorts along the monorail—Contemporary, Polynesian and Grand Floridian—each have relatively large arcades and several shops. Leave the park as a family to one of these resorts and while Mom and Dad enjoy a cold drink by the pool or in the lobby, your child can play a few games in the arcade or wander a store or two.
After my children have passed their first tests of independence, my favorite park to allow them to shed their parents is Epcot. I love the daily entertainment around the World Showcase, and while my kids will tolerate one afternoon or evening of shows, if we have a second day at Epcot they are not at all interested in hearing the Voices of Liberty (America), Off Kilter (Canada) or the World Showcase Players (United Kingdom) again. So I send them off to the game area at Mission: SPACE or Spaceship Earth, or to a specific ride or pavilion while I enjoy the entertainment. The meeting time may be an hour or longer away, so check-ins by phone or walkie talkie become important, with the understanding that checking in may be impossible in the middle of a show or on a ride. Especially when opening more of the world to them, it's worth the eye rolls to remind them of rules and expectations for behavior, boundaries, meeting logistics, and emergencies.
Things to Remember
You as the parent know your child best, and are in the best position to decide when and where to allow your child independence. I have always felt very safe in Walt Disney World as a solo parent; in fact much safer than at my local mall. But I avoid splitting from my pre-teens or younger at Downtown Disney, which is completely open to the general public, as well as any pool area for safety reasons. I have not yet allowed my kids to ride Disney transportation alone or with a sibling because nothing stops non-ticketed travelers from also riding. Always ensure your child knows the location and time to meet or to make contact, and always have a Plan B. In other words, talk about what to do if one of you doesn't make it to the meeting spot on time. How long do you wait? What if the call doesn't go through? Who should they go to for help?
I encourage you to review the Parenting Panel's information on letting kids ride independently or hang out on their own in the parks for additional dos and don'ts of splitting from your kids. The best memories from vacation are always the time we spend together, and I am pleased that my kids, ages 12, 11 and 10, still actually like to hang out with me. This doesn't preclude allowing your pre-teens and teens some space to explore and create their own memories. There is no "one size fits all" answer for when and where that should be, but Walt Disney World can provide an abundance of opportunity.