Disney theme parks and resorts offer plenty of opportunities to meet celebrities up close and personal, everyday. From the big cheese himself, Mickey Mouse, to the stars of their beloved motion pictures, characters fill the parks to meet their public. But not every guest loves meeting the characters. This week, we asked the Parenting Panel: What do you do to help your children get over character anxiety?
Jen, also known as *Nala*, is an engineer, a Disney fan, and a MouseAdventure fanatic. She lives in Southern California with her husband and two future MouseAdventurers, ages 1 and 3. Jen writes:
My son, now 3, was 9 months old when he first met a Disney character. We were at Epcot and I was sharing a snack with my son in the stroller, when I noticed Stitch just hanging out nearby. I slowly brought the stroller over to say hi. Stitch started waving at my son, who looked back at him with a slightly skeptical face. Stitch came a little closer, and a little closer. All of a sudden, my son decided Stitch was too close for comfort and started crying. Stitch backed away, and my son calmed down. We decided not to try to meet any other characters on that trip.
When my son was almost 2, we took a trip to the Disneyland Resort. By this time he knew the names of many of the Disney characters and said that he wanted to meet them. At one photo location we were told that Mickey Mouse would be out in a few minutes. My son was very excited at the idea of meeting Mickey, but as Mickey got closer he started to back away and hide behind me. I think he wasn't prepared for how big the characters would be. Though Mickey, the photographer, and I all tried to encourage him to go up and say hi, he wanted none of it, and eventually our turn was over.
On our next trip to Disneyland, my son was almost 2 1/2 years old. By this time we knew enough to tell him in advance that the characters would be "big like Daddy." Still, he was skeptical. We happened upon Chip and Dale at Big Thunder Ranch and they were absolutely wonderful. Dale knelt down to my son's level and let him approach him at his own pace. He eventually decided Dale was OK, and, as the characters were leaving, Chip took my son's hand and they walked most of the way to the exit together. After that, the character fear was gone.
All of this is a long way to say that my strategy for dealing with character anxiety is simply to wait it out. As much as I want that cute character photo, in my opinion there is nothing cute or fun about making a small child wait in line for a long time only to cry throughout the whole experience. I'll encourage my kids and let them know that the characters are nice, but if they aren't up to it, that's the end of it for that day. I realize that it might be different if a family is on a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Since my son got over his character fear, and my daughter. at just older than 1 year has not yet shown any anxiety at meeting them, I have been blown away by the way the Disney characters have interacted with my kids. My son has bounced with Tigger, high-fived Buzz Lightyear, and hugged Mickey Mouse. My daughter has danced with Daisy Duck and Clarabelle Cow and crawled with Pluto. The characters interact with hundreds of kids every day, kids who may be tired or scared or cranky, yet they welcome every single kid and make that kid feel special. It's just one more way that Disney can be truly magical.
MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry, his wife Diane, 14-year-old Samantha, and twin 10-year-olds, Casey and Alex, live on Long Island and are all major Disney and Walt Disney World fans. Chris writes:
It’s hard to gauge a child’s possible response to meeting the Disney characters in the parks. Don’t you wish you can see what a 7-foot tall mouse or duck looks like from their perspective? The first time we were at the Walt Disney World Resort with my daughter, she was about 4 ½ years old and her character experience was perfectly magical right from the start. That entire trip, from the first moment we entered the Magic Kingdom, she ran right up to the characters without any hesitation. She didn’t even have a problem with villains like Jafar and Judge Frollo or characters that she wasn’t all that familiar with, such as Brer Bear or Friar Tuck. They were all her friends and she loved meeting them, getting their autographs and taking pictures with them.
Our twin sons, however, were very young, having just turned 4 a week or so prior to their first foray into the Magic Kingdom. We took things exactly the same way that we did with my daughter. We talked up the characters ahead of time. We watched a few videos. We tried to get them ready for what they were going to experience. Thankfully, it wasn’t a total disaster, but it was different. They were a bit more hesitant. At first, they hid behind our legs when meeting characters, even the ones that could talk to them and try to coax them out. Maybe it was their age. Maybe it’s just who they were, but it was a bit different. Once again, it’s hard to gauge a child’s reaction to something like a cartoon character come to life. They were never frightened, just much more shy and timid around them than their older sister ever was.
The best way to break that ice is by booking a character meal. Both of the trips I spoke of above were in August. As you could imagine, Orlando was melting us with bright sun and high humidity. The notion of waiting in line for character meet and greets in the heat really shouldn’t be so high on your list, especially if you think your child might show some trepidation. Better to ease them into it indoors. Both of our kids' first character interactions took place at A Buffet With Character at The Magic Kingdom’s Crystal Palace with Winnie the Pooh and his friends. It was air-conditioned. It was relaxed. The characters took their time. They do the whole parade around the restaurant. My cautious sons got to see how much fun all the other kids were having and it made them feel more at ease. Plus, the staggered visits as they watched the characters make their way around the room kept giving them something to look forward to.
The best tip we ever got regarding booking a character breakfast was on that first trip with my daughter and it has been our mantra ever since. Book the latest possible reservation that you can, around 10:30 a.m. or 10:45 a.m. We have always found that the restaurant is much less crowded, because they are getting ready for the transition to lunch and people are conditioned to eating breakfast earlier. Despite this transition period, we have never felt rushed. The characters will get to spend even more time with you.
This past summer, I tried it with my sons at 1900 Park Faire at The Grand Floridian. We booked a 10:40 a.m. breakfast and, by the time we were almost finished eating, it was just our table and one other in the whole restaurant. The characters were all over us. We got to take pictures with multiple characters at once. That doesn’t happen during the busier times. Consider that tip if you’re trying to introduce your young kids to the Disney characters for the first time. It’s a great way to get them used to it. It’s never failed us.
Elizabeth, who posts on our MousePad message board as eabaldwin, has been a Disneyland Annual Passholder since 2010. She and her husband have two daughters, ages 1 year and 3 years. Elizabeth writes:
Our 1 year old, Josie, is currently going through the phase of being afraid of strangers. Because it is a normal stage of development for babies, we don’t force meeting characters. For us, the keys are patience, repetition, and just waiting out the phase. We don’t avoid seeing characters, and now with having an older child who loves to see many characters and princesses, it would be more difficult to avoid them. We also don’t force the kids to interact with characters. With Katie (who is 3), we just kept going to visit Mickey and when she was ready, she willingly went up to give him a hug. Now, we have to drag her away and make her leave. She loves all characters, except Sulley.
We were just at the Disneyland Resort last weekend, and I wasn’t sure how Josie was going to react. She loves Mickey Mouse right now. She gets very excited when she sees pictures of him and signs “mouse.” So, I thought that she might be willing to see him and maybe I could get her to give him a high five. She did get closer to him than she got to Minnie, Cinderella, Tiana, Belle, and Pluto, whom we had all seen throughout the day. But when I got too close, she started to cry. I just backed off and pointed out that Katie was giving Mickey hugs and Mickey was so nice and giving her hug,s too. I thought that seeing princesses would be easier, since they don’t have the big heads, but she was just as afraid of them. I’m sure that as she sees her sister giving hugs to characters, Josie will want to interact with them, too.
I understand that we are fortunate enough to be Annual Passholders, so we can expose our children to them slowly over time. My advice for people who are going to Disneyland or Walt Disney World for a vacation would be to not force your child/children to interact with the characters. If you are there for limited a period of time, try to see your child’s favorite character (if he/she has one) throughout your visit. Instead of trying to see every character, limit visits to your child’s favorite and maybe one or two others. Keep the visits short and positive. Point out how nice the character is to the other children. If you really want a photo with the character, try to see if the PhotoPass photographer can work with you to distract your child and sneak the character in at the last minute. We had one do this with Mickey for us so we could get a Christmas card photo when our oldest was about 9 months old. Ultimately, you know your child best and will know how to help ease him/her into visits with characters.
Also keep in mind that while we may associate characters with a visit to Disneyland or Walt Disney World, it isn’t necessary for young children. There are plenty of other activities to entertain our children in the parks.
Chris, also known as GusMan, is always planning his next family trip to the Walt Disney World Resort and loves to help others plan their trips, as well sharing his experiences. Chris writes:
For me, even as an adult, one of the first things I like to do when I first arrive at the Magic Kingdom is to get my picture taken with Mickey. For some reason, it seems like it is the logical thing to do. I think of it as my celebratory picture after a very long drive and it marks that our vacation can begin. However, I have seen how meeting characters might not be everyone’s big draw. After all, its easy to interact with a face character who looks like a “real person,” but a child may see a friendly masked character as someone who they may not want to meet.
Being that family photos and autograph sessions with the characters are something of a family vacation rite of passage, how do you introduce the kids to the characters without them going into a panic? There is no one answer for this as every child is different. Here are some thoughts that come from personal experience and observation:
- Plan before the trip. See if the kids are interested in certain characters, if any characters at all. If they seem nervous about it, ask them why. Maybe show a Disney planning DVD or certain YouTube videos, which usually always shows types of character interaction, and ask if they would like to meet their favorite character after watching a video or two.
- Take note if the characters in question are more the “face” characters, such as one of the princesses, or a fully costumed character, such as Mickey, Donald or Goofy. The big difference here is the obvious ability for the character to communicate. Sometimes when the characters are able to talk and interact, the child feels more comfortable versus characters that rely on a cast member to communicate for them.
- Follow the child’s lead. If your child has never seen a character up close, and they seem hesitant, feel free to provide a moment of gentle encouragement. However, if after that brief moment the child still balks, then it is better to bypass the experience. This is especially the case if the child is younger and may not be able to verbalize their apprehension.
- Time of day can make a difference. I know that my kids are the most excited during the morning hours when they are still fresh. As the day goes on, especially if during the warmer summer months, they were less apt to want to meet characters. With this in mind, if you had an earlier character meet attempt fail during the afternoon, see if the morning works. Try a morning when you are not planning on rushing any attraction lines.
- Feel free to let siblings enjoy the characters. Sometimes that will show younger siblings that the characters are friendly and want to meet them too. Family pictures are great. However, if you get some resistance from one of your children, do let the others get into the shot. It’s better than having the photo opportunity missed or one child sticking their tongue out at the camera in defiance.
As adults, we welcome the constant stimuli that surround you at the parks. For children, it can sometimes be a little overwhelming. It can take a bit to process being able to meet some of the characters that they have only seen in the movies. After a while, most kids open up to the idea and soon you will be wondering where you left the autograph book, as well as if you brought a big enough memory stick for all the photos.
It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!
Visit the Parenting in the Parks forum on our MousePad discussion board, and share your opinions about this topic or many others, or send your suggestions via e-mail. Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!