Riding Independently: How Old Should Children Be?

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer

Inspired by the long lines this summer and Independence Day in the United States, this week we asked the Parenting Panel: How would you handle letting children ride by themselves? How do you decide when it's time?

Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock’s three boys are now 13, 11, and 8. They’ve been visiting the Disneyland Resort since they were each just weeks old and Annual Passholders since their 3rd birthdays. Adrienne writes:

Why would a parent ever send a child on a ride alone?

This problem probably comes up more often when just one parent is at the parks with children. We have had this issue a few times for a variety of reasons. First of all, my three children span an age range across almost six years. For a few years, my elder two children were tall enough to ride attractions that my youngest could not. When we went to Disneyland parks alone, if they wanted to ride those rides, they would have to ride alone. Often times, I simply had a rule that if I was alone, the older two could only ride attractions that we could all ride together. Sometimes I wanted to let the older boys have a treat to ride anyway.

Besides the height issues, frankly, I do not enjoy every ride. I have ridden California Screamin’, the roller coaster at Disney California Adventure, a few times. Each time, I walk off that ride thinking: I never need to do that again. But California Screamin’ is one of my children’s favorite rides.

How do you know when children can handle riding an attraction alone?

My first rule of thumb is to know your children. Like many families, my children are very different. One of my children has a very even temper, is a natural leader among his peers and displays a high level of maturity. I know I can depend on him to avoid impulsive “naughty” behaviors much more than his brothers would or could at the same or even at an older age. At the point that my two eldest were about 9 and 11-and-a-half years old, I felt they could handle riding an attraction together without me.

From watching their behavior when we rode together, I knew the boys understood how to behave properly on attractions, but we all know that children are more likely to misbehave when we are unavailable to remind them. Before I let the boys ride alone, I laid down the law. No parent is perfect, but I strive to be consistent in my parenting so that when I say “or else,” my boys believe that “or else” will happen.

The first several times I allowed them to ride alone, I reminded them there would be severe consequences if they misbehaved and a cast member had to come talk to me. The last thing I say to my children whenever I bring up consequences, while looking them directly in the eye, is always: “Do you believe me that this will happen?” Consequences mean nothing if the children do not believe they will actually happen. Because I knew that my children trusted my promise to respond appropriate to misbehavior, I trusted them to ride alone. I also reminded them that if they followed my expectations, they would be allowed to ride alone again in the future.

We started off with rides with open queues. If I could see the boys from outside the queues, then I could monitor their behavior from a distance. California Screamin’ with its outdoor queue is a ride I can comfortably monitor from a distance. Another ride I avoid, Space Mountain, has a largely indoor queue. Several outdoor queues at the Disney parks offer opportunities for testing the waters of independence. If the boys wanted to ride Space Mountain alone, I would prefer to stand in line with them and excuse myself at an exit.

Today my children are 8, 11, and 13 years old. I would feel comfortable sending older children through a single-rider line alone, but for different reasons. My 13-year old might not handle the responsibility at 11, but today he reasonably controls impulses and, more importantly, he appreciates handling responsibilities. In some ways, I trust him more when he is alone than when he has a buddy who he might want to impress or a brother he might want to bully. My 11-year-old is my model citizen. He appreciates time alone and would feel confident even alone in line. I would easily send them through a Single Rider Line. They could stand in line together, but at the head of the Single Rider lines, as the name implies, they need to be prepared to be sent through on different ride vehicles.

We will soon be letting our older boys go off for extended periods without us. The primary reason we have not? They have yet to ask. So far our kids still enjoy hanging out with mom and dad at the Disney parks. Sometimes we move too slow for them so we let them go ahead and we meet them at a ride exit. Having a phone for our sons to carry helps, too. My eldest has his own phone but if he leaves it at home and I am with another adult with a phone, and can send my phone with the boys so they still have a way to communicate with us if they need it.

I would not yet send my 8-year-old alone with his brothers for extended times. His maturity level lends itself too much to impatient outbursts. It would be inappropriate for me to expect his brothers to handle him. That said, I confess that I enjoy sending all three of my boys together on rides from time to time, while we wait nearby. The boys actually like to ride Goofy’s Sky School at Disney California Adventure, without their parents. The adults in our group take a seat and relax near the attraction and the boys know where to find us when they finish. They enjoy the feeling of independence—even for a short time.

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:

I have to admit… there isn’t a ride that I will pass up at Walt Disney World. (Well, there is one—but that is for a different column.) And the good news is that my daughter is pretty much the same way. Therefore, I always have a ride companion. Sounds perfect, right? Well, I know there will be a time where our traveling group will want to do different things at different times. I mean, it’s starting to happen now with my son getting older. He wants to do one thing, while others want to do something else. Add into the wait time factor, and sometimes you have to make decisions regarding letting the kids ride something by themselves.

For my family, I think my daughter was in her tween years before we let her ride something on her own. My wife and I were tending to our toddler son at the time and we thought it would be OK for our oldest to give Space Mountain a shot on her own. After all, we were nearby, she had a cell phone with her, and she is a rather mature and well-behaved girl. That still made us a little nervous, but she enjoyed her first solo ride. And while she saw it as a step toward independence, the truth be told, it was a calculated move by her mother and me.

As time went on, we decided that we would let her do some things on her own when the situation came up. We came up with some guidelines:

  • As parents, we would always be in the general area so that, if something did happen, we would not be scrambling across the park.
  • We had a designated meeting spot. This was not a “meet us around this area” but a specific spot so that there was no confusion. She was to meet us there right after the ride regardless.
  • If there was a major ride delay—calling or texting was mandatory. After all, delays do happen and setting some expectations really do help calm nerves and let you know if you have time to grab a Mickey Premium Ice Cream Bar while you wait.
  • We taught our daughter that while being friendly with those in line is acceptable; giving out personal information is not. This includes specifics as to where you are staying or where you plan to be later. It seems a little anti-social, but you can still be friendly without sacrificing personal security.
  • We discussed with her that if anything goes awry—find a cast member and explain the situation. Always a safe bet if the solo child has any questions or concerns.

My son, being nearly 10 years my daughter’s junior, loves to do attractions with his big sister. And I think it is because of the age difference, we don’t have any issue with him doing so. I think the main thing to remember is that if you have two younger siblings in line without a parent, you need to feel comfortable about their ability to deal with other people. This includes the concept of personal security to protect themselves as well as knowing how to act in a line, showing other guests courtesy and respect. When in doubt, have them ride something together where you can clearly watch their actions as they move through the queue. Give them praise or constructive comments as to their behavior when they return so they know how they did. And, of course, if there is any question about their behavior, then it may be better for them to be escorted until you fell fully comfortable with how they act.

I hate to seem judgmental in a way, but I think using bad behavior from other young, unsupervised guests is a great way to explain on how not to act in line. Witnessing things such as line cutting, spitting, foul language and general guest disruption are behaviors to point out—but do so in a way where to not draw attention to yourselves. Even explaining such after an attraction will get your point across. Sometimes even examples of bad behavior can be a tool as to what not to do.

Overall, the parents need to be comfortable with allowing their kids some extra independence. Disney is sure a safe spot to do so, as long as it is understood that it is a not a place to simply let your guard down. Creating some simple guidelines can allow your children to do something they want to do as the parents enjoy the park without the kids, if even for just a moment.

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 email. Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!



  1. By Toocherie

    Although I don't have kids, the idea that someone should have access to a cell phone resonated with me. A few years ago my college roommate and her daughter (then about 10) went on Grizzly River Rapids at Disneyland--it's not a ride I generally enjoy, so I sat it out. After a while, I wondered where they were. Unfortunately, my friend had left her backpack--containing her cell phone--with me. About 45 minutes later I heard from someone else--who was also waiting on their party on the ride--that the ride had broken down, and the river was being drained so the guests on the rafts could walk out. Another 45 minutes later and they finally came out (not from the exit, by the way). So an hour and a half I could have been doing something else, but was afraid of missing them. I coulda had that Mickey Bar! My advice is that if you split up each group should have access to at least one cell phone so you can call or text if something goes awry--no matter how old everyone is. Back to our regular programming.

  2. By amyuilani

    I don't have children of my own either, but I have been to Disneyland several times with my younger cousins (at all stages of their adolescence; they are now adults), as well as my friends' children, many of whom are old enough to go on rides on their own. Since cell phone use was not totally rampant when my cousins were younger, I remembered quizzing them each time on what to do if they got separated, how to identify a CM, where the lost children's center is, etc. It wasn't until they had that information down that I let them wander off alone. This made me a little weary when they became teenagers and had some of their friends joining us in the park for the day. They didn't mind me being there, but I knew they wanted friend time and wanted to go off on their own as they desired. I started by letting them get ahead in line and then being about 20 people back so I could still keep an eye on them. Once I knew they were all going to behave, I was okay. I agree that it depends on how well you know your own children. I also completely agree that children need to believe that there will be undesirable consequences to their actions should they misbehave.

  3. By Jimbo996

    Disney theme parks are so large that I don't recommend kids go on their own. I had my own bad experiences as a kid when I got lost. These days, the price to pay for lost kids are much too high to risk (kidnappings, etc). Another thing, many rides have elaborate queues with exits that are far away. There are too many ways for kids to get lost. If the kids want to ride alone, let the kid sit alone, but you sit on the same car. Or follow in the next car. Always be in the same queue.

  4. By Drince88

    I have to agree with one of Adrienne's first points, Jimbo -- Know your own kids.
    Her boys, who literally have been going to Disneyland since before birth (she left that part out) have a familiarity with the parks that many adults don't have. Would they be given the same 'freedoms' at WDW (where they've visited once)? If I had to guess, I'd say no -- but they also probably didn't want to, either. Heck, I get turned around forgetting which park I'm in in the MK and Disneyland! (I've looked for the restrooms at the exit of Splash Mountain in Disneyland -- the nearest ones are at the lower level of Hungry Bear. My sister and I were leading 3 of our nephews to Pecos Bills in Disneyland for lunch --- We would have had a long walk (about 3000 miles) to get to lunch!)

    And one of my great grandfather's had a saying: One boy is a boy. Two boys is half a boy. Three boys is no boy at all. In that, you get 3 boys together, most reason and responsible behavior escapes them. Which is why I like amyuilani's mention of doing things with a slightly tighter supervision when other teens were added to the mix. She knew HER nephews, but wasn't sure how the introduction of others would affect their behavior and decision making.

  5. By Jimbo996

    "Know your own kids" is great advice. Now, its time to worry about others' intentions. Or better yet to anticipate when things might go wrong and take the necessary precautions. Certainly, if my kid is a totally absented minded with ADD, then I will be hard on her tail, but what if she is just a normal, well-adjusted smart kid. She is still a kid who is expected to obey authority. If an stranger approaches, she will be misled. Adults are the wild card in this scenario as well as other teenager bullies. My mantra: Your Kid, Everyone's Risk.

  6. By LtPowers

    Fearfully is no way to raise a child. Kidnappings almost never happen, especially so at a Disney park. There just isn't anyone out there waiting for a random unattended child to walk by so they can grab 'em. And raising kids as if there is is damaging, both to the parents and to the kids.

    Children need to learn independence. It is a biological imperative. There is absolutely zero reason why the average well-adjusted 10-year-old shouldn't be able to go on a ride alone. And a 13-year-old should be able to go anywhere in the park alone. There may be edge cases where a particular child isn't ready at those ages, but the majority should be, if they're not being raised in a culture of fear.

    Remember: there is less crime today than there was forty years ago. Your kids are safe.

    Powers &8^]

  7. By kiminil

    Jimbo -- I'm afraid that my parenting style would probably give you a heart attack. The last time we were at WDW, my then 11 year old son was our self-appointed "runner." He was the one who would gather up all of our park tickets and head off to the Fastpass machines. He had his cell phone with him and after he got everyone's Fastpasses, he'd call to find out where we were and he'd make his way back to meet us. Of course, he'd already had 6 trips to WDW under his belt and he can find his way around better than I can. He's also a very mature and responsible child. His sister, on the hand, even now that she's 13, I'd probably keep her close by because she tends to be more easily distracted. I agree with those people who say you can't look for kidnappers around every corner -- the truth is a child is much more likely to be kidnapped or abused by someone the child knows rather than a complete stranger. Not that it can't happen, but it is not a common occurrence.

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