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Adrienne Krock, editor

Fighting the Anxiety Dragon at Disneyland

Helping children overcome their anxieties of going on certain attractions

Tuesday, June 14, 2005
by Lisa Perkis, staff writer

First, a disclaimer: I'm not a child psychologist or therapist. I'm just a parent who loves to take her two daughters to Disneyland. We have held annual passes for about eight years and my kids have grown up visiting the park many, many times. Around four years ago we ran into a challenge with my youngest daughter visiting Disneyland. In dealing with the matter successfully after some trial and error, I've realized that other parents might benefit from hearing about our struggles and how we approached a positive solution for them.

My youngest daughter Charlotte has visited Disneyland since she was two weeks old. Her very favorite attractions are ones that do not have a lot of movement associated with them, like Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and Golden Dreams and the Animation Building in Disney's California Adventure park. She also likes rides that are close to the ground, such as Casey Jr. Circus Train, and the Storybook Land Canal Boats. I did not think this was unusual, because she is a cautious child and likes things to be predictable and safe. Charlotte knows exactly what to expect when she visits these attractions, and nothing ever throws her off balance or “makes her stomach tickle.“ My husband and I never pushed her to try any rides she expressed a dislike for—not even typical attractions that most little children look forward to, like Dumbo or Gadget's Go-Coaster. We were sure she would decide to try new rides in her own time as she grew older, and we thought it was unkind to force her to try new experiences before she was ready.

Even at a year old, Charlotte had serious reservations about Dumbo. Photo by Ed Perkis

When Charlotte was around 4 years old, she had her fist panic attack at the Resort, on King Triton's Carousel. Even though her aunt was standing right next to her, Charlotte's heart started pounding, her hands shook, and she was crying and calling out for help. Even though her aunt tried to calm her fears, Charlotte did not relax until they had exited the ride and walked far away from it. Char told her aunt repeatedly she would never go on that ride ever again.

After the first panic attack, Charlotte became more stubborn than ever about trying any attractions apart from her standard, safe favorites. And as Charlotte got older and renewed her annual pass year after year, her repertoire of attractions did not grow much larger. I started to get a bit frustrated with her. I would argue and plead with her: “Everyone likes to go on Dumbo/Flick's Flyers/Gadget's Go-Coaster, why don't you just try it? It's really fun! Nothing will happen to you, I promise. Look at all the babies having fun on the carousel—why would you just try it?” Normally, Charlotte was a very compliant child, but during these conversations she would get very agitated and stubborn: “No, you can't make me, I'm not going on that ride. No!” I would back down from the confrontation because I did not want to ruin the day and, frankly, it was embarrassing to be seen dragging a terrified child onto an attraction. What kind of horrible mother would force a child to ride something she was clearly terrified over?

The Carousel Death Grip. Photo by Lisa Perkis

Disneyland was not the only place Charlotte was experiencing anxiety. Instead of embracing change of routine as an adventure, she would try to find ways of avoiding the unknown or any kind of change. I was becoming worried about her but didn't know what to do to help.

Then one day, a parent at school recommended a book that changed everything. The book helped me understand what Charlotte was going through and gave me ideas on how to open up her world to new experiences. The book that changed the way our family looks at “scary problems” is called The Anxiety Cure for Kids by Elizabeth DuPont Spencer, Robert DuPont and Caroline DuPont. Using ideas from this book, we were able to slowly help Charlotte face down the anxiety that had held her hostage for several years.

Now let me introduce you to the anxiety dragon.

The Dragon

In The Anxiety Cure for Kids, anxiety is referred to as a dragon. The dragon can seem very scary and real, but cannot do any harm to a child. The beginning of the book includes a preface for the child to read with the parent. I read it first before showing it to Charlotte, and one section stood out to both of us:

Feeling scared doesn't have to limit what you do with your life. You can do everything you want to do, even if you feel scared. The dragon can't really harm you. It can't make you sick. It wants you to think it can, but it doesn't have that power. You can learn to tame the dragon with help from the wizard you have in your own head. (p. xiv)

After reading the introduction to the book to Charlotte, we talked about how we were going to fight the “dragon” that was keeping her afraid from trying new things at Disneyland and other places. She agreed to try, which was an important first step. Using the book as a starting point, we came up with several concrete actions to take each time we visited the park. The important thing was to understand the key to taming the dragon; to practice the very things that she was afraid of. Running away from the fear just makes the dragon get bigger and stronger. Facing the fear shrinks the dragon down to size. The Haunted Mansion gets more and more ominous if a child never sees the inside. Avoidance always lowers self-confidence.

Below are some techniques that helped Charlotte fight her dragon. Keep in mind these ideas were used over many visits to Disneyland. If you have only one chance a year to visit the park these will not be as effective; it also depends on your child's personality as to how quickly the approaches work.

The difference between anxiety and fear

A few important distinctions are made by The Anxiety Cure for Kids. One of the most important is the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is what you feel when you experience a real danger or threat. If a child sees a dog barreling towards her growling with its teeth bared, she will feel fear. If a child is afraid to be near any dog, or even go to a house where there might be a dog; that is anxiety. Fear is when the danger is real, and anxiety is when the danger “might be.” So, unless the elephant car on Dumbo is dangling by one cable, a child who is afraid to ride the attraction is experiencing anxiety—or a fear that something bad will happen on that ride. It does not matter if hundreds of thousands of guests have enjoyed Dumbo; the child is certain she will fly off the edge or fall out of the vehicle.

Some children respond very drastically to anxiety; their hearts will race, some will experience nausea or complain of a headache, others will cry loudly. These are real feelings, not just something the child is making up to get out of riding a certain attraction. This is where parents come to a crossroads: Do they belittle a child's feelings by telling them they are “making it up” and threaten, “I'll never take you to Disneyland again if you don't get on this ride right now!” Or do they soothe the child by telling them, “don't worry, you will never, ever have to ride that scary, scary ride.” In fact, both approaches fail to help the child fight and conquer the anxiety they feel.

Charting success and taking small steps

I asked Charlotte to pick three attractions she wanted to “work” on. She went away for a while and came back with a chart she had made all by herself. She had drawn little ride vehicles that could move up the chart each time she rode an attraction. The first three she had chosen were the King Arthur Carrousel, Big Thunder Mountain, and Dumbo. She did not feel ready to ride any of those attractions, but agreed to start thinking about them. That was the first step to facing her fear.

Charlotte drew the Carousel, Big Thunder, and Dumbo's ride vehicles to move up the chart each time she practiced them. Photo by Lisa Perkis.

Small steps increased her self confidence. Even though it seemed a little thing, going through the Big Thunder queue and walking though a train car straight out to the exit was a big deal to her. Another small step she took was riding on the bench seat of the Carousel while I sat beside her. She knew the chart could not be raised until she got on the horse or in the elephant or on the train. After several visits with the small goals met with little or no anxiety, we were ready to try the next step.

Rewards and distraction

You may call them bribes and you might be right, but I thought of them as rewards for all her hard work. I let her know that when her little ride vehicles made it to the top of the chart, she could pick a charm for her bracelet or a pin for her lanyard. This sparked her interest, and she agreed to try sitting on a carousel horse—on the inside, with me standing next to her—the next trip. As the gates opened to the Carousel, Char said she had changed her mind and started to panic. At that moment I made the choice to help her continue with what we had agreed on and told her firmly, “You are going to ride the horse and you will be safe. You are bigger than the dragon.”

I helped her on the horse and strapped the belt around her. She was shaking and crying, but I held on to her and kept reassuring her I would hold her the whole time and that she could fight this and win. Once she was on the horse I used distraction as suggested by the book to take the focus off the feelings of anxiety. “Which horse do you think will win the race; your horse or the one next to you?” Look at the beautiful painting on the side of the carousel; what's the name of that fairy there?” Char was still very worried, but started to think about my questions and forget the fearful feelings. By the end of the short ride she was still a bit shaky but smiling. “I did it!” Her self-confidence skyrocketed.

Once the carousel was under control, it was time to move on to the other attractions on her chart. Now that her self-esteem had grown, getting her to try Dumbo was a little easier than the first ride on the carousel. The distraction technique was letting her hold the wooden feather used in the queue and asking her which color Dumbo she might like to ride in. The small step was allowing her to control the height lever, which she kept on the lowest setting the entire time for several visits. Since she was in control of the height level, she felt more control over the attraction itself, and pretty soon was raising the lever to go higher and enjoying herself.

Fighting off the anxiety and finally enjoying Dumbo for the first time. Photo by Lisa Perkis

Monitoring anxiety and practice, practice, practice

Now we were ready to tackle a few “big” attractions: Big Thunder and Haunted Mansion. For these rides we tried using a scale to rate her anxiety—another technique suggested by the book—in addition to the other things we were already using. I explained to her ahead of time that she could let me know how she was feeling by giving me a number. Zero would be no anxiety, and 10 would be the worst anxiety she had ever experienced. Du Pont explains:

This language improves communication immensely, especially in tough moments. Without the language of anxiety rating, a kid has to show you know bad a situation is by being loud, crying, or otherwise demonstrating distress. With this 0-10 scale, a child can immediately convey his/her feelings. (p.49)

Keeping her anxiety level at four, Charlotte prepares to stare down her dragon in the Haunted Mansion queue. Photo by Lisa Perkis

Eventually this technique worked very well with Charlotte, but it took a few attempts. At first, when I would ask her what her anxiety level was while we were waiting in the Haunted Mansion queue, she would reply sarcastically “21.” I would answer “No, Tower of Terror is 21, so what number are you feeling right now?” Finally, she took an honest look at what she was feeling, and told me “I'm at a 4, and I won't let it go above 6.” She then rode the attraction with no panic attacks and had another boost to her self-confidence.

Charlotte's victory dance at the exit. Photo by Lisa Perkis

It seems that each time she conquers an attraction, the dragon loses more of his hold on her. An important part of keeping the dragon neutralized is practice. Even though Dumbo and the carousel do not cause as much panic as they used to, we still head over to Fantasyland and ride them. As we are exiting we talk about how she felt during the ride and take time to praise her for facing her fears. We also remind her how far she has come, so she can see her own growth.

A word about anger

Before we had a game plan to deal with Charlotte's panic attacks and anxiety, I was guilty of becoming angry with her for refusing to try various rides. When her anxiety was at its worst I can recall with shame times I tried to bully her onto an attraction, leaving her in tears and me very nearly the same way.

Worried but still game, Charlotte prepares to board Big Thunder. Photo by Lisa Perkis

While it's normal to feel frustrated at times, I now try to remember that the feelings she is expressing are not “made up” to cause disruption. Angry parents can only make the fear and anxiety worse. The key is to plan things out before heading to the park, then following through, no matter how small the steps may be in the beginning. During the Haunted Mansion Holiday makeover, the Christmas Scarols played in the queue were very frightening to Charlotte, so we sat along the brink wall outside the attraction and listened to the music until her anxiety subsided and she was distracted by other things. Sitting outside an attraction was a very small step, but she was heading towards the dragon instead of running away. I was able to encourage her and plan for the next visit instead of berating her for not trying the ride. The Anxiety Cure also suggests a child journal their thoughts and progress, so if the anxiety comes back in different forms, a child can go back and see old patterns and ways they fought the dragon in the past.

Each time she “practices” Big Thunder, her confidence grows. Photo by Lisa Perkis

A Long Process

We haven't seen the last of the dragon. He comes back in some form every time we visit the park. However, Charlotte and I know the steps to take to fight him and every time she does, she grows in confidence. The other day she told her 3-year-old niece, who was afraid to go down a water slide, “You can do it—sometimes you just have to jump into your fears!” I was so proud of her; she is making a battle plan of her own that will help her for the rest of her life.

Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Lisa here.


Lisa Perkis is a mom to two girls who also love Disneyland and have been annual passholders since they could toddle onto Peter Pan. Lisa has a degree in English literature, which naturally led to a career in early childhood education. She lives with her husband and children down the street from her girlhood home in North San Diego County.

You can contact Lisa here.


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