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 fornot 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 carouselwhy 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
Now let me introduce you to the anxiety 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
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
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 anxietyor 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 horseon the inside,
with me standing next to herthe 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
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
anxietyanother technique suggested by the bookin 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.
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 itsometimes 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.