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As our children grow older, many of them want to try out their independence at the Disney theme parks. They might want to sit out a ride or explore on their own. Some of us may even look forward to the new-found freedom of having another gopher to help run errands around the parks. This week we asked the Parenting Panel: When are your children old enough to spend time in the parks alone? How do you know and how do you prepare them to do so?


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MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry, his wife Diane, 11-year-old Samantha, and twin 8-year-olds, Casey and Alex, live on Long Island and are all major Disney and Walt Disney World fans. Chris writes:

I once read a wonderful article somewhere about a parent who let his young child go to the bathroom for the first time alone in a public place. That public place was the mother of all public places, the Magic Kingdom. I think the child was around 6 or 7. As he waited outside the restrooms the author ran through his feelings about his little boy growing up. His melancholy soon turned to panic as his boy took longer and longer in the Fantasyland bathroom. Was there another exit? Was he hurt or sick and too afraid to say anything. Did someone put a wig on him and march him right out the exit? Eventually his son came out safe and proud of his brave new venture. As a parent, I sympathized with him as my daughter had also begun showing signs of her growing independence. The day comes for all of us, but it doesn’t mean we have to like it.

Now that my daughter is 12, we have many things to consider when we’re all at the Walt Disney World Resort together. One of them is when and where she can go off on her own. The first time we ever split from her was last summer when she was 11. She’s not a fan of the drop on Splash Mountain. Her younger brothers, 8 at the time, were itching to go with Mommy and Daddy. I thought she would be fine alone for the 25-30 minutes or so that we would be in line and on the ride. Instead of waiting out in the hot sun, she wanted to head to the pin-trading shop in Frontierland. Since the parade would start soon after, she would shop for pins and then wait on the porch for us and watch the parade. We were all fine with this idea and we met up with her after our plunge. But, I have to say, it was tough to turn our backs on her at 2:45 p.m. on a busy summer day in the Magic Kingdom. We weren’t really at ease until we spotted her on that porch.

This past summer, Samantha helped us out many times in the parks. One of her brothers is a little braver than the other. Now a preteen, and equipped with her first cell phone, she would take the timid one over to "it's a small world," while my wife and I took the braver one on the Haunted Mansion. We did this kind of thing quite a few times and it always worked out fine. That uneasy feeling was never there. Samantha is a very responsible kid. She was reachable and was always back right on time and where we agreed.

That said, my wife and I both decided we still weren’t ready to let her hop the monorail from Disney's Polynesian Resort and head off to the Magic Kingdom alone. To be fair, she never asked. But we talked about it in anticipation and decided…no, not yet. She is very responsible and knows the Magic Kingdom like the back of her hand. But, in our eyes, there are just too many variables and too many people in a situation like that. Next time, when she’s 13, and has a little more middle school behind her, we’ll consider it…maybe. My guess is, she won’t want to go off alone anytime soon. It’s just not her style.

My best advice, as always in this column, is to know your child. Don’t give them too much freedom if they’re not ready for it. There’s no rush. I’m not a huge supporter of kids and cell phones, but Samantha walks to school and it seemed perfectly acceptable for her to have one for just that reason. That said, her going off in the parks alone with a reachable cell phone in her pocket puts us more at ease. Plus, we talk up safety rules to her. She knows what to do and where to go for help. She’s a big pin trader; so walking up to a cast member to talk to him or her has never been a problem. If she ever needs help, she won’t be afraid to ask. As long as we know where she is and how she’ll react to a situation, we’ll be comfortable with her on her own…hopefully…she is still my little girl.

Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock’s three boys are now 13, 10, and 7. They’ve been visiting Disneyland since they were each just weeks old and Annual Passholders since their 3rd birthdays. Adrienne writes:

For my family, we have no black-and-white age for letting our kids have independent time at the parks. Each of my children are so different—I would gladly allow one of my sons to have park independence at a much earlier age than another, based on their personalities.

My older two are currently 13 and 10. For a couple of years now, I have been willing to let my oldest go get FastPasses and immediately return to me; my 10-year-old is really able to do this, too. On occasion I have let them go off to run errands like this together, but they come back to me immediately after they finish them. There are a few rides that I do not like, but I will let the boys ride without me, when I can stand-by and watch them in the queues from a distance. I feel comfortable with this because my sons have all been visiting Disneyland since infancy. They know how to sit properly on the rides. They also have a relatively healthy fear of their mother to remind them that should they misbehave and require a cast member escort to return to me, their lives as they know it would be over.

In playground areas, such as Tom Sawyer's Island at Disneyland or Redwood Creek Challenge Trail at Disney California Adventure Park, I will gladly let them all, including the 7-year-old, run around while I rest on a bench. They know to check-in with me regularly and they also know that when I say to leave, they must return immediately so we can leave.

But I am still working on the concept of letting them actually leave my visual sight or immediate area. The age of the cell phone does make that much easier for me to accept. I will make sure they have a phone with them at all times and they will know that they will return calls or text messages promptly (within reason—I know that some queues will have nasty reception). One of my sons still needs to work on his impulse control, and, like many siblings, they squabble and get into power-struggles with each other. At the same time, I know that the idea of getting some independence at the parks could be a real motivator for the boys to get along. As they can handle individual rides, I am moving to short test-runs before I let them venture off alone for any length of time. At this age, I know that they will need to stay in the same park as I am, even in Anaheim where the parks are so very close together. Between construction walls at Disney California Adventure Park and potential parade crowd issues and lines at the gates, I wouldn't feel comfortable if I had to cross the Esplanade to get to the other park if I needed them. With all that said, let's face it: I know that once my baby is old enough to go off with his brothers, I will be much more relaxed and ready to handle the separation! It seems a lot harder to let the first one go, doesn't it?

One of my favorite tips for independence comes from a friend I met on the MousePad message boards, Malcon10t. I have stolen several great parenting tips from her, but her best tip is for handling food money. When she let her teenagers have free time in the parks, she gave them money to purchase food with one condition: They had to turn in their receipts to prove that they had used the money for food, before they could get money for more food. They quickly learned that all food locations could give them receipts. When an Outdoor Vending Cart did not have a cash register for receipts, her children asked the cast member to write it on a napkin for them. What a great way to teach problem solving skills, right?.

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:

Every once in a while, I get involved in a conversation regarding this topic and I find it interesting to hear the wide spectrum of opinions on what people will let their kids do on their own. To be honest, I consider myself a rather conservative parent when it comes to what I will allow my kids to do on their own, but as they get older, I also find that Walt Disney World Resort (WDW) is a great place to test some of their responsibility skills.

For my family, I don’t recall letting my oldest do anything by herself until she was at least 15 years old. Even then, it was small things, such as doing something different in the same park, most likely in the same part of the park where I was. It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but my thought was that WDW was probably much safer than having her walk the city streets alone.

The following year, we vacationed with some friends who had a son around the same age. I knew he was a nice young man, so we did allow them to go to the parks together, as long as they stayed in contact with us on a regular basis. It was fun getting text messages from them while they were in line for different attractions, and it did put us at ease. After all, WDW is a big place with a high concentration of people. And while it sure seems like the safest place in the world, things can—and do—happen that can spoil a vacation. During that same trip, she also connected with some friends from school who happened to be vacationing at the same time. She was showing us that she could handle the crowds on her own.

Here are some of the ideas that we thought to ourselves when trying to decide when it was OK for our daughter to go out on her own:

  • Start off small. see if they can handle themselves properly by letting them do a ride by themselves or possibly let them do some shopping on their own. This may be a good indicator as how they can handle themselves without parental supervision.
  • Can the child follow directions properly and know general rules of good behavior? I know that we would all like to think our child behaves well, but this is a case where not doing so can cause a serious disruption to others and possibly get them into some serious trouble. Its best to err on the side of caution.
  • Can the child communicate with adults well? This may seem like a silly question, but if your child cant go up to an adult cast member and ask for directions or assistance for one reason or another, it could become a big issue.
  • How will they communicate? This is a case where a good cell phone is a must. Put down some simple ground rules as to when and how they need to check in with the parents.
  • Do they know how to get from point A to point B? Disney transportation is rather simple to use, but do the kids know how to use it well? This is easily tested by letting them guide the parents from place to place using the transportation system, possibly testing them by having them interact with a transportation cast member, as well.
  • Set a curfew. Maybe you don’t call it a curfew while on vacation, but you should make sure that they know the approximate time that they should be back at the resort hotel. Parents need to be flexible on the time a bit, mainly because crowds and transportation times can impact arrival times.

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!



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(Send an email to Adrienne Krock)

Adrienne gathered experience taking children to amusement parks when she worked as a day camp counselor and director. She was an elementary school teacher before she started her favorite job: being mom to her three boys. Adrienne, Matthew, Spencer, and Colin visit Disneyland frequently, usually with Dad, Kevin.