Let the Kids Hang Out Alone at the Parks?

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer
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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?

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!

Comments

  1. By starleet

    When the kids were younger, they enjoyed going back to the hotel to relax, go to the pool, etc. As the kids got older we gave them a choice to come back with us or stay in the parks (sans cell phones). We had them meet us at the castle at a designated time later on in the day and when we would get there they were always waiting for us. They were 16 (son) and 12 (daughter). My son had selective mutism, so we had to wait until our daughter was old enough to be able to speak for them to cast members if there was a situation that arose while they were alone. They did fine and we found they had "saved" some rides for us to do together.

  2. By megzrg

    What great timing as usually for a parenting post. We are headed back to Disneyland next Saturday and not even 3 days ago my 12-year-old asked me if it would be okay if he went off alone on this trip.

    Over the last year I have been allowing him more and more freedom to venture off to get something or to shop for short periods of time by himself. He has been going to Disneyland since he was 4 and could probably tell stories and lead a group of tourist as well as any of the cast members. Also since we got him a cell phone after issues he was having walking home from school, it is much easier to keep in touch with him.

    I am still nervous to let him wander off for longer periods of time though, always with the age old quote "It's not you that I don't trust, it's the other people". I have never thought of letting him ride the rides alone.

    But, armed with his cell phone and 2 months of 7th grade behind him, it may be time for mom and dad to let go just a little bit more. It was nice to read about other parents going through the same thing and what they have learned.

  3. By 3colliers

    This past June we spent a week at DisneyWorld at the Polynesian resort and it was the first time our 13 yr old daughter expressed her desire to go off alone at a resort. We let her since it is not a large resort but she was not allowed to leave the resort grounds. She ended up meeting other kids her age staying there and hung out with them. It gave her a great sense of independence and she enjoyed it. She has never expressed an interest to go out alone in the parks. When my husband and I ride something she does not want to, we make her wait with us in line and then before we board we simply state that she does not want to ride and she goes and waits for us at the exit where they have directed her to. She is not allowed to go off alone in the parks, maybe if she had an older sibling or another friend with her we would let her. Being an only child, we can not let her wander the parkds alone......terrifying thought!

    We do cruise often and those are also times we let her go off on her own. She is generally with a group of kids from the cruise kids club and they roam around the ship having a great time......first she has to show us, from a spot we choose, how to get back to the room without our help and we feel safe with this. On a cruise, it's not like she is going to get lost and she always can find the room or her dad and I out by the pool. When we go to port, we are always together.

  4. By mkraemer

    I wish I'd made the deadline for the article, because I have quite a bit of experience with this topic! My oldest is now 24 and went with us to Disneyland regularly when he lived at home.

    We started off much like many of the other responders to this thread, with designated meeting places and limited amounts of time on his own. We often brought along a friend so he wasn't in the park by himself. I always made sure that the boys knew that Disney security is very thorough and misbehavior would not be tolerated. (Friends were informed that they would be put on the next plane home, at their parents' expense, for any shenanigans.) It worked.

    My next three kids are about one year apart, so they have gained their freedom at the park simultaneously. They are all in high school now, and have known the park intimately since infancy, so I have no worries about them. We tend to enjoy the park on the same level, but once in awhile someone will opt for a different ride, and we'll meet up fairly promptly.

    We've been to WDW several times, and pretty much the same small-amount-of-time-on-one's-own has come into play. The notable exception is when the kids have gone out on Bay Lake in the speedy little Water Mouse boats. In 2000, we stayed at the Polynesian on the equivalent of the platinum plan, so watercraft was unlimited. For my oldest son, it was heaven. I remember one day, he had a Water Mouse on the lake ALL afternoon; he would run out of gas, and the CMs would come out to refill the tank. He had a splendid time, and a pretty fierce sunburn as a badge of honor for that afternoon. On our latest trip, the younger three each had a Water Mouse out on the lake for a much more limited amount of time, just enough for the parental units and friends to sit back at the beachfront bar at the Poly with a cool frosty beverage. A good time was had by all.

    3colliers brings up another topic; Disney Cruise Line. My kids were 7 and 8 when we went on the Magic for the first time, and I let them have free run of the ship, even with the ability to check in and out of the Oceaneer Lab on their own. I mean, where were they going to go? The initial rule was that they had to stay together, and it worked pretty well. We had a dry-erase marker board on the stateroom door, and kept it updated as to everyone's location. They were busy with their own activities and schedule; we enjoyed time together on the ship and on shore. It was great. I also knew that they would behave and not cause problems onboard, so I trusted them completely. Had they been running wild, that would have been a completely different situation.

  5. By bsegel

    I really believe it is a lot more about the maturity of the child than the age. My daughter is 10 years old and I've already started giving her more freedom than a lot of other parents are willing to do with much older kids. We've been AP's since she was about 3 years old and go to Disneyland about 4 or 5 times a year. At this point my daughter knows both DL and Calif. Adventure like the back of her hand.

    I've been comfortable with giving her some space to explore on her own for awhile but her mom, not so much, it wasn't until about 3 trips ago that my daughter finally got some room to explore. The first time I let her roam around Toontown while my son and I rode a ride. She does have a cell phone and checked in via text often. She went and got her picture taken with Mickey on her own and did some shopping. On the next trip their mom was with us too and while eating lunch at the Cafe Orleans our daughter asked to go exploring, got a text a little later asking if she could go out onto the island and her mom was ok with that (nervously). This past trip I let her explore Tomorrow Land while my son and I rode Star Tours. Then Toontown again while we rode the roller coaster. Her mom is ok with her being on her own as long as it's in the same area that I'm in and I'm good with that for now.

    Now going back to my first statement that maturity really is what matters... My daughter is very bright, an excellent student, very well behaved and has wanted to go off on her own at DL for quite some time. As I said, she has a cell phone and it has gps so I can track her. She is also 3 belts away from earning her black belt in karate. Even when she is allowed to roam around the entire park I won't be comfortable with her leaving the park on her own for a while. If she wants to cross over to the other park we'll do that all together.

    There has never been a child abduction from DL, the security is great, I'm comfortable giving her some space, we'll see about my son in a few years.

  6. By 3Princesses1Prince

    Our small doses of freedom started on our WDW trip. We were there for 2 weeks and by the end of the first week we'd let my oldest (will be 10 tomorrow) walk down to the Marketplace to turn in coloring sheets for "Artist of the Day" or check to see if her picture was chosen. Our last night the movie on the beach was sent inside because of weather. I had the younger girls at the small slide so my oldest was allowed to head in to watch the movie. I agree its definitely about maturity first.

  7. By DisneyFunFamily4

    DH and I were just having this discussion at Epcot wondering when the girls would be old enough to go off on their own so we could enjoy some adult time at Food & Wine! We thought we might be comfortable with it in about 3 years when they are 11 & 14.

    Our girls are now 8 & 11, we just got DD11 a cell phone which she will not get till we see her report card on the 27th. We have let them wait in line together and go on rides without us, but we have always been close by/visible to them. they know they MUST behave inline or else. DD11 has not expressed much of an interest to go off on her own yet, I know that will change as she gets older or if she has a friend with us. We have been going to DL since she was a year old and they know DL well and they are both getting very familiar with WDW now too. At DL a few times we would stop somewhere and say ok, now you lead us to X ride and they would. They both know if mommy and daddy get lost to go to a CM and they both have our cell phone numbers memorized but both girls are still a little timid going up to CMs without one of us there to pin trade of buy something. I think I would let DD11 go off with and older friend who was responsible but DD8 tends to have a lot of “squirrel” moments.

  8. By 3Princesses1Prince

    Quote Originally Posted by DisneyFunFamily4 View Post
    but DD8 tends to have a lot of “squirrel” moments.

    This made me LOL

  9. By Malcon10t

    When my kids were younger, I believe MDM was 11 when I first let them go to the park "alone". Heir would have been 11 or 12, and Escape Artist would have been 9. MDM was in charge, and they were not allowed to exit the park (no DCA then.) They knew they had to stick together, and they had to agree on rides (fighting would cause you to have to stay with mom and watch the parade.... get the hint...) We had specific places to meet (no cell phones then) and they HAD to be on time, or they got the privilege of "staying with mom..." Only happened once, only to one child... Rule always was they HAD to be in pairs, no singles.

    Youngest didn't get the privilege of going in a group until TOT opened. I think she was 14.

    It really depends on the child. MDM was born 35. Very mature, no squirrel moments ever, heck she even put herself in charge of packing most of the time. Escape Artist was a constant squirrel, but was worked well with MDM.

  10. By houseofmouse

    When we lived in CA and went to Disneyland once or twice a year my kiddos were too small to go off on their own. When we moved to Colorado in July of 2000, they were still too young to even consider them going off on their own. Yet as they got older I offered the opportunity to my boys who are 2.5 yrs apart and not once have they taken me up on the offer. Not once! None of my kids consider spending the day at Disneyland or DCA while we are on vacation with mom or mom and dad a chore or something they don't want to do. I just don't get that mentality. We go on all the rides, we let the kids take turn picking rides and most times they all want to do the same thing. Now this summer my DD 12 1/2 and her friend who was also visiting from CO and is the same age did go off for a bit just the two of them from after lunch until about 5 pm that night. She texted me every 20 mins or so telling me where they were and what they were doing and this was her choice. I thought it was cute getting the texts from her to let me know she was still thinking about us. While DH and I enjoyed the time with just my boys, it seemed off that DD was not with us making memories this summer for DS17's last summer with us before the Air Force. I still look at pictures and think hmmm DD is not in these. She said she is not sure she will go off again or not as this said friend kinda irritated her sometimes. LOL!! DD even told me last week that being with me at DIsneyland is what makes it fun. While I don't bemoan anyone's kids going off and having fun, my sister and I did this when we lived there growing up, I think about the memories I could have been making with my parents and not just my sister. Maybe I just weird this way, who knows.

  11. By adriennek

    Quote Originally Posted by houseofmouse View Post
    Maybe I just weird this way, who knows.

    How often do you go to Disneyland?

    See, this is really how I think of WDW. We get there VERY rarely. (Yeah, only once so far.) I can't imagine not staying together as a family at WDW.

    But our plan of attack at Disneyland is very different. Sometimes we go and Doc & I are just hanging out socializing while the kids want to go do things. We go to Disneyland SO frequently that I think that really influences a different mentality for us.

  12. By bennette

    Disneyland was a godsend to us when we had foster daughters. Our older daughter was a little hesitant to do ride the more intense rides initially and very happy to hang out with an adult. Over time she became more confident about visiting without us there (she was in her late teens and all her friends were long time AP holders).

    Due to state regulations and her individual circumstances, our younger daughter was almost never allowed to be away from an adult before she was fifteen. As in NEVER EVER. Unlike parents who worry about letting go, we worried that having no private time was overly restrictive and frankly unhealthy for an energetic and outgoing young lady. Because of the security protocols at Disneyland, she was allowed to spend time with her friends there like any normal teenager and we took advantage of the opportunity often. She couldn't leave the park without us or cross the esplanade; we also met up regularly. It provided all of us with some important "breathing" time and let us better appreciate the time we spent in the parks together.

    I felt very lucky we had a place like that to take advantage of; not everyone does.

  13. By houseofmouse

    Quote Originally Posted by adriennek View Post
    How often do you go to Disneyland?

    See, this is really how I think of WDW. We get there VERY rarely. (Yeah, only once so far.) I can't imagine not staying together as a family at WDW.

    But our plan of attack at Disneyland is very different. Sometimes we go and Doc & I are just hanging out socializing while the kids want to go do things. We go to Disneyland SO frequently that I think that really influences a different mentality for us.

    Well since we live in Colorado we usually go to visit my parents for about 3 weeks each summer, except next summer when we are going to WDW. We spend somewhere between 3-5 days at Disneyland anywhere in that 3 week period. We all had passes until this year when just DD and I did and hers expired in at the end of our trip. The boys and hubby just used hoppers this year. I guess if we lived there and went all the time the kids would be more comfortable going off alone and the story may be different.

  14. By Malcon10t

    Quote Originally Posted by houseofmouse View Post
    The boys and hubby just used hoppers this year. I guess if we lived there and went all the time the kids would be more comfortable going off alone and the story may be different.

    I think this is a big difference. For us, it was not unusual for us to go 3x a year when the kids were younger. (We had trips we had to make to LA, so we usually added a Disneyland day, then a week in the summer and either Thanksgiving or Chritsmas...) So, when they were mature enough to go on their own, they enjoyed the freedom. We still spent time as a family, but the older 3 HATED breaking away from rides to watch the band play, watch a parade, see a show, etc... Youngest LOVED those things. So, we would break up so she and I would do her type of things, and the older kids could ride Space and Indy over and over. (Youngest had a major aversion to the fast rides until she was 15 or so.) This way everyone was happy.

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