Time Out! When the Kids Misbehave on Vacation

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer
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The Disney parks may be the Happiest and Most Magical Places on Earth, but pixie dust only goes so far. Sometimes our children misbehave, even on Disney vacations. This week, we asked the Parenting Panel: What tips and strategies do you have for managing discipline and behavior issues on Disney vacations?

MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry, his wife, Diane, Samantha (15), and twins Casey and Alex (12), live on Long Island and are all major Disney and Walt Disney World fans. Chris writes:

How could you possibly misbehave on a trip to the Walt Disney World Resort? Nothing but smiling faces all around, all the time, correct? There is actually some truth in a statement like that. My Disney veteran friends always say things like, "I wish they could bottle whatever happy gas they're pumping into the air down there." There is something in the air that puts smiles on everyone's faces, especially the young ones. But, as we all know, young ones have meltdowns. Actually, old ones have meltdowns, too, but we're focusing on the kids in this article, aren't we?


Sometimes, the most Magical Place on Earth, isn't. Kevin and Adrienne Krock's youngest son expresses his displeasure in this photo from their October 2009 vacation to Walt Disney World. Photo by Adrienne Krock.

Personally, we've never had outright misbehaving on our Disney trips. Our kids have a pretty solid track record with behavior, especially when we're in Walt Disney World. What we have had, on occasion, is just a natural reaction to the heat, the lines, the exhaustion, and the overstimulation that needs to be kept in check when you're on a Disney vacation. More often than not, that is our fault. As you get used to the Walt Disney World experience, you need to start paying attention the schedule and heed the warnings that your kids might be giving off. When it's time to leave and go back and rest or swim, do so quickly and you'll reap the benefits.

That isn't to say that twin boys won't misbehave or fight. They pretty much always will. Even surrounded by the magic that they enjoy so much, they will inevitably pick on each other, steal each other's fries, or breathe on each other and start a problem. The beauty of being on vacation in Walt Disney World is you have two big things going for you to help with behavior.

The first is that a place like Walt Disney World is the ultimate dangling carrot. Next time they start acting up, say this next line in your best "I can't believe how much I sound like my parents" voice. "We're here…in Walt Disney World…keep it up…and it'll all be over for you guys! I'll bring you straight home if you don't cut it out!" You threaten to take away the built-in fun that surrounds you and you'll be surprised how much of a deterrent it is. Just be ready, to either head to the exits or, at the very least, bluff, and start to head toward the exits, and you should keep them in check.

The second thing is that there are an infinite number of distractions at your fingertips. The possibilities are endless to diffuse a situation by simply changing scenery. Go get a snack. Get out of the heat into an air-conditioned shop or attraction. Go meet some characters. Check out the aquariums at The Living Seas With Nemo and Friends in Epcot. "Distract and diffuse" should be your mantra.

If you've got squabbling siblings, separate them. Sometimes, especially with the twins, we have found that they are individually screaming to do their own thing and they don't know how to vocalize it. They're trapped in the same stroller, in the same hotel room, on all the rides with each other when what they are really craving is some alone, special, individual time. This has worked wonders to change their behavior on many occasions.

The real trick is, as it usually is with kids, is to be alert to their needs and to make sure you're one step ahead of them. Be smart and be adaptive in a Disney park and you can avoid bad behavior pretty easily.

Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock's three boys are now 17, 14, and 11. They've been visiting the Disneyland Resort since they were each just weeks old and Annual Passholders since their 3rd birthdays. Adrienne writes:

I cringe anytime I hear a parent say: "If you don't stop, we're leaving right now!" We all know that most of the time, that family is not going anywhere. The parents know it, and the kids know it. I really dislike empty threats.

One time, before we had children, we overheard some parents desperately negotiating with their children as we all exited Space Mountain. Mom told her children, "This place is filled with priests. They're undercover, so they're not wearing their priest clothes and you can't tell who they are. But they're here and they're watching how you're behaving."

I once told this story when we were attending church on vacation in the mountains. A group of priests in their vacation clothes came to us greatly amused because they had visited the same services, "under cover." So, while I suppose this could happen at the Disney theme parks, I still would not recommend or use this method of discipline.

Here are some of my basic strategies for managing the kids at Disney parks:

Ask yourself, "How important is it?" Sometimes I find myself being far too picky about my children's behavior, especially in public. I have to remind myself to channel my inner-Elsa and "let it go!" My youngest tests me most, especially in this regard. I refer to him as "Captain Stubborn." Many times he simply refuses to cooperate. Most notably, if he chooses to not smile for the camera, he simply will not smile for the camera. During our trip to Walt Disney World, on several occasions, I gave up the fight. Captain Stubborn stood in the photos. He did not look at the camera for several of the photos, but he stood in the photos. Looking back six years later, we have more pictures with him facing forward and smiling than not. But at the time it sure felt overwhelming. Now we have a story to tell: Remember when he was little and he would refuse to take pictures?

Pay attention to your child's primary needs. Is your child too hot? Too cold? Too hungry? Too tired? Try to prevent the problem before it exists. Two of my children react poorly to low-blood-sugar levels. I often carry baggies of almonds, cashews and dried cranberries on trips and outings. We refer to this as "Good Mood Food." Keeping the children from becoming too hungry helps mitigate poor behavior. Likewise, I try to make sure that we have sufficient jackets in cool weather and lightweight clothing in warm weather.

Managing tired kids can be trickier. I used strollers when they were too young to last for long days or long distances. Strollers also gave them a place to nap. We still take breaks from time to time, just to relax. If we plan to stay late into the evening, we might start our day later to carry us through.


Two of the Krock boys clearly enjoy posing with Rafiki more than their youngest brother, during their October 2009 visit to Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom Park. Their family shares many memories like this one, with their youngest expressing his stubborn streak, and refusing to look at the camera. Photo by Adrienne Krock

Pay attention to Mom and Dad's needs. We need to take care of our own needs, too, in order to manage our own fuses. We need to make sure we regularly eat and hydrate ourselves. Parents might need to take breaks, too. At the very least, we should go into our trips with managed expectations. Sometimes expecting too much from our trips can increase our own anxiety and leads to impatience with our little ones. Keeping ourselves in check, we can be more aware of their needs and patient, too.

Have a plan in place before you go. Rather than find ourselves looking for a spur-of-the-moment strategy, we put plans in place to address behavior problems before they occurred. One of my favorite consequences is to have a time-out option in the parks. On one visit, we took away some ride opportunities from our eldest son. He sat off three rides while his brothers and the rest of our group enjoyed those rides. One parent sat out with him for each of the rides. From that point on, anytime we dealt with his behavior, on any trip to a park, we reminded him that we would give him a ride time out. On a rare occasion, he missed "the next ride". One family friend quietly skewed the odds in his favor. One time we took away "the next ride" and she made sure it was not one of his favorite rides; there was no need to be cruel. Mostly, we only had to remind him of the consequence to turn his behavior around. Because he knew, for certain, that we would follow through, he knew that we meant what we said, he turned his behavior around and made the better choice.

And isn't the point of discipline to help ourselves and children make better choices in the end?

Chris Salata, also known as GusMan, is a Disney-inspired author and photographer, and loves to help people get the most out of their Disney vacation. Chris writes:

I would like to say that vacationing at Disney theme parks will always be a magic-filled trip for children. However, I wouldn't telling it like it is. Any returning guest can tell you stories where they saw kids of all ages simply not acting in a manner that would be considered proper. Granted, we don't know of the situation causing the behavior, but we all recognize that something is wrong and it is up to the parents to rectify the situation.

I recommend including kids when planning the trip as a way to help make them a part of the process. This also can extend to setting expectations when it comes to behavior as well. After all, you know your child best and chances are the best time to talk about these things is when they can absorb the information before the trip. This could be a time to explain what is expected at meal times, waiting in line, or simply going from place to place in a very crowded area. After all, this is not just about behavior but also about safety.

I learned from some mistakes that the best way to address bad behavior is to try to bring it to the forefront in the calmest manner possible with an explanation attached. To elaborate—the parks are filled with stimuli and the sense of calmness may help convey the message. In some cases, I needed to explain to my son or daughter as to why they should not do something, so they could learn the right way to act at the parks. Obviously, there are times where a command voice gets better attention in an urgent situation, such as dangerously swinging on a chain or leaning over a rail too far, but hopefully those are less frequent examples.


Katie pouts during one of her family's Disney vacations. Taking time to figure out why may take time away from the parks, but may be worth the investment to turn her frown upside down. Photo by Elizabeth Baldwin

If an issue comes up, try to find out what is going through your child's mind. This may mean that you have to take a bit of a time out aside from the action, but you may find out more information if they are even a few steps away. You may get some feedback regarding an attraction, or how they feel physically, or discover if they are tired a lot easier. From there, you can help find a common solution that will help curb the situation while allowing the fun to continue.

Of course, when it comes to addressing bad behavior, I would like to think that avoidance is the best course of action. You may recognize certain warning signs that your child may be getting tired, and the crankiness or bad decisions will follow. It then may be time to take a break from the parks and enjoy the pool area at the resort instead. Sometimes all you need is to step away for a few moments and enjoy a change of scenery. My son used to get really antsy mid-day and, after a few small meltdowns, we realized that all he needed was a bit of quiet time. I think after realizing his needs, we never had another issue. We all have come to appreciate those mid-day breaks.

Going to the parks with young children can be a learning experience for everyone. As adults, we get swept up in all the magic so much that we sometimes forget to be parents. For kids, their excitement level goes through the roof and they may still need some guidance. Regardless, some thinking and planning ahead can really contribute toward many magical memories, even if there are a few disciplinary actions during your trip.

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 danyoung

    I always preface comments like this with the statement that I've never been married and have no children, so of course I know all about how to raise them properly! Some well thought out strategies in this article. The one thing I just can't stand is a parent whose child is having a (usually LOUD) meltdown, and the parent's strategy is to just ignore it. I had a dinner in the Coral Reef ruined a few years back by a 4 year old girl who had had enough, slumped down to the floor under the table, and screamed at the top of her lungs non-stop for 20 minutes! I didn't have even a small bad thought about the girl, but I wanted to strangle the parents, who were laughing and chatting and just going on like nothing was happening. Judging from the nasty looks from the other patrons, I wasn't the only one with killing on my mind!!!

  2. By Mermaid

    I love the reminder to keep Mom and Dad hydrated, fed, rested, expectations managed etc. My kids (LOUDLY knock on wood) haven't had major behavior issues/meltdowns at the parks (yet?). But, one mini-meltdown happened because at rope drop we were doing the Dumbo dash. My then 2 year old son wanted to ride the Carousel. Well.... I was adamant we would ride Dumbo because there was NO line and that is why we were rope dropping, gosh darn it! I had to drag him away with the promise of riding it next. He pouted and fussed a bit.... but he is not a tantrumer and recovers quickly, so it wasn't a huge thing. But, really..... I should have just rode the carousel first and not chosen that battle to fight in! But.... after Dumbo.... there was still no line for the carousel and we were the first ones on

  3. By GusMan

    Quote Originally Posted by Mermaid View Post
    I love the reminder to keep Mom and Dad hydrated, fed, rested, expectations managed etc.

    This is more important that you would know.
    I mean, if the parents dont feel up to speed, then anything can be a trigger. Parents need rest stops, bathroom breaks, drinks and snacks to keep up the pace as well.

    And if it is not to deal with the kids... its to deal with the crowds.

  4. By missm

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    I always preface comments like this with the statement that I've never been married and have no children, so of course I know all about how to raise them properly! Some well thought out strategies in this article. The one thing I just can't stand is a parent whose child is having a (usually LOUD) meltdown, and the parent's strategy is to just ignore it. I had a dinner in the Coral Reef ruined a few years back by a 4 year old girl who had had enough, slumped down to the floor under the table, and screamed at the top of her lungs non-stop for 20 minutes! I didn't have even a small bad thought about the girl, but I wanted to strangle the parents, who were laughing and chatting and just going on like nothing was happening. Judging from the nasty looks from the other patrons, I wasn't the only one with killing on my mind!!!

    I don't understand how those parents could have ignored that. We are very lucky with Kiki, she is typically very well behaved in restaurants. That being said, when she isn't so well behaved I get this hot, uncomfortable, sweaty feeling and have to get her out of there. We take some time outside to figure out why she is acting up and then she has the option to change her attitude or we go home. Period. End of story. Does it suck to have to leave? Yep. But as Adrienne said in the article, empty threats are pointless. I think she may have said it in a nicer way though.

    Kiki has only been to DL twice in her 3 years but we were on her normal schedule for the most part and planned huge breaks during the day, every day. We left the parks at about noon or one and spent about three hours at the hotel resting and swimming and really just winding down. I also made reservations for almost all of our meals so we didn't have to wait for tables. That combined with snacks and lots of water really helped out.

    So for us following a schedule and not getting caught up in the "we're at Disneyland so there are no rules" mentality really helped us have the best time.

  5. By GusMan

    Quote Originally Posted by missm View Post
    ...but we were on her normal schedule for the most part and planned huge breaks during the day, every day. We left the parks at about noon or one and spent about three hours at the hotel resting and swimming and really just winding down.

    I think the value of breaks during the day is very underrated. I know that for some, going to Disney is a once in a lifetime thing. That translates into wanting to park storm from rope drop till park close. While think many of us have done that, Im willing to bet that doing so caused a problem or two. Especially during the hottest months of the year.

    In essence, I think breaks are the unsung heroes of the Disney veteran.

  6. By danyoung

    Quote Originally Posted by GusMan View Post
    I mean, if the parents dont feel up to speed, then anything can be a trigger. Parents need rest stops, bathroom breaks, drinks and snacks to keep up the pace as well.

    And you wonder why I park storm solo . . . . .

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