Letting the Big Kids Go

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer
Advertisement

As children grow older, parents often find themselves balancing their needs for a little more independence, even on family trips to Disney theme parks. This week we asked the Parenting Panel: How do you let your children go out into the Disney theme parks without you?

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:

For the longest time, I've considered my family vacations somewhat of a whole-family event. We tend to do pretty much everything as a family and if we do split up, we do so between parents. Even though my daughter is an adult now, we pretty much still keep to those traditions. I would like to say something like it is because of safety, or we are specifically concerned for my families welfare, but it is really because I am simply selfish. I don't want to miss any time with my kids and I consider that vacation time with them sacred.


Play areas such as the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail in Disney California Adventure, might provide an entry level opportunity for children to practice independent skills on family vacations. Photo by Adrienne Krock

Then we decided to vacation with friends. While reluctant, this pretty much changed things. I needed to see that my daughter was growing up and she wanted to hang out with the son of our family friends. Now, they were both well into their teens and I trusted both of them. However, that did not mean that I did not set up some ground rules. Here are a few of the rules we set up for them so that they can enjoy the parks from their point of view:

  • Go with someone else and stay together. There is more safety in numbers and being at the parks is no exception. I am not sure I would let either one of them explore the parks alone at that age, but together was a bit more comforting.
  • Have a meeting time and place in mind if you are going to re-connect at the parks. If your kids will be hanging out at the parks later at night, it might be a good idea to set up a sort of curfew.
  • Make sure they understand how to use modes of transportation. Among the buses, Monorails, and boats, make sure they can tell you how they are going to get from point A to point B.
  • Over-communicate to let us know what’s going on. In my example, we asked them to text us every hour or so to let us know what they were doing. I know, that seems like micromanagement, but I think they enjoyed sending us selfies of where they were and the like. This included telling us when they were leaving to catch the bus. If plans changed, they needed to let us know right away. Sure, my phone sometimes beeped at me in rapid succession, but I never worried when it did.
  • Make sure your kids know how to get help. This may mean knowing how to find and talk to a cast member, where the first aid station is, and where guest relations is located. We knew that if they knew that much, they can always get assistance.
  • Don't take anything from anyone. This may seem rather paranoid while being at Disney, but it just makes for good street sense to not take anything from anyone, even if they were just trying to be magical.
  • Be safe. No running around, no goofing around (unless it was with Goofy himself), and always be a good example. In essence, I did not want them to be the subject of some sort of story on social media.
  • Enjoy themselves! Even with the rules that we put in place, we knew they would love their time roaming the parks by themselves. We got some great pictures from their adventures and a lot of fun poses when they used PhotoPass.

Keep in mind, my daughter and our friends son were at least 16 when they did this. If considering this sort of option for your son or daughter, you need to feel like they are able to handle this sort of responsibility. If you have even the slightest thought that it is a bad idea, it may be better to keep the family together.

Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock's three boys are now 17, 15 and 12. They've been visiting the Disneyland Resort since they were each just weeks old and Annual Passholders since their 3rd birthdays. Adrienne writes:

Letting my three boys go off alone in the Disney Parks took a big step of courage. I have to admit, my biggest fear has never been my children’s safety, but rather: Would my children behave responsibly without my supervision? Let’s face it: The last thing I want my children to do is to misbehave in a Disney theme park. Nope, not my kid! I worried that my children lacked the necessary maturity to behave appropriately. On the other hand, I had reasons to trust my children: All three of my boys are very familiar with Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park (DCA). I like to think my husband and I consistently and predictably discipline our sons. As such, the stakes were pretty high for them, too: If they failed to behave, they could be confident that our consequences would be swift and unpleasant. But most importantly, as a parent, I wanted to give the boys that taste of independence so that they would know how to handle themselves. Now, as teenagers, when their school groups visit Disneyland or other theme parks for field trips and performances, I have even more confidence that my sons will behave properly.

The first steps included letting the boys venture out to enjoy one or two rides at a time on their own. At DCA, this often included Silly Symphony Swings or Goofy’s Sky School. Neither attraction ranks high on my husband’s or my lists of our favorite attractions. The boys rode attractions such as these on their own while we rested on a nearby bench. We told the boys where to find us and waited for their return. As these little excursions proved successful, their geographic boundaries expanded: Instead of visiting just one ride, they ventured out to explore entire lands. Eventually, we felt confident letting them have the freedom to explore an entire park.


Covered seating areas underneath Silly Symphony Swings offer a nearby location for parents to wait for children riding the attraction above. Photo by Adrienne Krock

Our family established a few routines for when my boys venture off without us:

Set the plan before they go. Sometimes they know what specific rides they want to enjoy and then we meet up when they finish. They let us know the plan so we know about how long before they will return. I prefer this method when we travel as a family because I still want to enjoy family time together, too. This works best when my pre-teen and teenagers tour together. As my high-school-aged boys grow older and we visit with their friends, they want more freedom and I understand that. On those occasions, we more regularly set times to regroup and the teenagers enjoy a little more freedom.

Communication works two ways. The Krock boys know that when I call or text, I want them to pick up the phone or respond promptly. I only contact them when necessary or if my husband and I decide to adjust the plan. Likewise, I expect them to keep in communication with me. Sometimes rides break down, lines are so short they decide to ride a second time, or they want to spend more time in an area. The boys know to text or call to keep us updated.

Save receipts. One of the best parenting tips I ever received, long before my children were old enough to tour alone, came from MousePad member Malcon10t. At times, I give the boys spending money for snacks and treats with one caveat: They must return to me with their change and receipts. Malcon10t once posted a story about her eldest son asking a churro cart vendor to write a receipt on a napkin to prove he purchased a churro! Nowadays, even the outdoor vending carts use cash registers and can easily provide receipts. Like Malcon10t’s children, mine always bring back receipts and change!

Which leads me to my newest routine: Mom does not pay for dates. Yes, my elder boys have begun to date. Because we live local to Disneyland, this means we have opportunities to visit with our sons together with their special someones. I understand if my son wants to spend his visit with his girlfriend instead of his family, however, in that case, I do not fund their meals. That said, if he and his girlfriend want to eat with our family, I gladly pay for both meals. This plan works well for our family for now and, frankly, we could easily apply it to spending time with non-romantic friends, too.

MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry, his wife, Diane, Samantha (17), and twins Casey and Alex (14), live on Long Island and are all major Disney and Walt Disney World fans. Chris writes:

If there’s one positive aspect of the cell phone revolution—or obsession, depending upon how you look at it—it’s that our kids are much easier to keep track off and get in touch with then ever before. That said, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are safer. As it stands we have very rarely been separated from our kids in the parks of the Walt Disney World Resort, but it has happened and in my opinion, the cell phones are key to staying consistently connected. We have dealt with the advent of them wanting to go off on their own well. We’ve dealt with it well enough by sticking to some basic rules.

Simply stated it wasn’t an option until they hit their teenage years, 13 or hovering around 13 to be more precise. And even then, it wasn’t a, “See you later. Have fun!’ type of situation. There were rules, meeting places and times and if they weren’t adhered to, their newfound freedom didn’t happen again.


Benches like these in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland provide shady locations for families to meet up after time apart. Photo by Adrienne Krock

I can remember the first time my twin boys ventured off alone. It was in the Magic Kingdom Park. They were 12 at the time. We all arrived bright and early to get right on line for the newly opened Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Now my guys haven’t been bitten by the coaster bug like their dad has. Not yet at least. My daughter was a late bloomer in this department, as well, and is finally working her way up the coaster ladder, so there’s still hope. Despite the Mine Train being a pretty timid coaster, the boys had no interest. So, a deal was made. They had been to Walt Disney World many, many times at this point and were familiar with the lay of the land. Storybook Circus was relatively new to them and they hadn’t explored much of it at all. The deal was they could head over there. They had to stay in that land. They couldn’t leave. I wasn’t interested in them going anywhere that wasn’t immediately adjacent to Fantasyland. They agreed. We estimated that we would be done with the 45-minute wait and our ride in just under an hour and they should meet us right across the way in front of Winnie the Pooh in exactly 60 minutes. An hour later, there they were patiently waiting for us right on time.

They succeeded and passed their first test with flying colors. We were nervous. They had my wife’s phone with them. (Their own phones would come about a year later with their 13th birthday.) We only texted them once and they responded. So, the leash was loosened a bit for the rest of the trip, but only a little. They were allowed in a land or area adjacent to the one we were in. It was never for more than an hour. If, for any reason, they needed to deviate from that plan, they knew they had to call or text us. If we were unreachable, then the plan stuck and the decided upon meeting place and time stuck as well. The boys appreciated the freedom and responded well.

One of the key things to loosening up the reins a little bit was our boy’s familiarity with the parks. They have been holding and reading the park maps since they were little and in strollers. We encouraged that. The result is they know where things are. That’s a big comfort level in a place as huge as The Magic Kingdom or Epcot. Another key thing is their understanding that the cast members were there for them if they ran into any problems whatsoever. They have been big pin traders, so the notion of walking right up to a Disney cast member and saying something to them isn’t foreign at all. This increases our comfort level and theirs as well.

So, my few pieces of advice would be to make sure they are familiar with the lay of the land. Make it clear that the Disney cast members are their friends and it’s totally cool to walk up to them and ask for any kind of help. Keep them as adjacent to where you are as possible. Set meeting times and obvious places and don’t give them too much freedom. A little is enough. That’s worked for us for several years now. Hopefully, they won’t want to get away from you too much! After all, these trips are supposed to be about family time aren’t they?

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 DisneyGator

    My kids aren't really at the age to set on their own yet (11 and under). But...Safety is always something I think about. However, at DL, I know that everyone there spent a ton to get in, so I feel like there's a lot less bad dudes.

    Once my kids are older, they may want to go do their own thing, which I'm not too big on right now. It's called a family vacation for a reason. My hope is that when that day comes, I've done a good enough job of parenting that they don't do anything dumb. Like Pence said last night, you can't fake good kids.

  2. By bumblebeeonarose

    Quote Originally Posted by DisneyGator View Post
    However, at DL, I know that everyone there spent a ton to get in, so I feel like there's a lot less bad dudes.

    Just remember local passes can be bought for a low one time down payment and monthly installments, so it's not that expensive if you live close. And many perverted people make plenty of money.


    We've been visiting Discovery Kingdom a lot this year since we decided to skip Disneyland this year with the new baby. It's a poor replacement, but it's still a fun day. My oldest is six and keeps asking to ride rides alone, as in in her own car or row. She's searching for that independence, but I keep explaining to her that part of the fun is riding together. She's the only one tall enough to ride bigger rides with us, and she's begging to ride alone. In too much hurry to grow up...

  3. By jsilkey

    I've let the kids go off in pairs starting around age 12. Two years ago, we were at WDW. We had our 19 year old son and 12 year old son. We were exhausted, so we told the boys we were going back to the hotel to rest. That would give them the freedom to go on whatever they wanted (they tend to be willing to wait in longer lines and ride things over and over, which we don't have the patience for....).

    We ended up stopping to watch the Country Bears show before heading out. We ran into the boys on the way out. They were NOT riding rides. They were doing the treasure hunts with the pirate maps...lol!!!

  4. By rph13

    jsilkey- love that story, reminds me of the time we went to Disneyland, everyone had a night to do what they wanted, 13 year old wanted to ride Splash over and over, she ended up making friends in the line and they all rode like 6 times. After the third time the CMs told them they could just stay and not get out but the other kids had to get out and walk by the parents to check in between rides so that's what they all did! ( DH and I got bad parent awards that night we were no where near her, might have actually been in DCA!)

  5. By june1st1997

    I give DD (10) a lot of freedom (for us) at Disneyland and Cal Adv. She has her own cel phone and is a super responsible and sensible kid. There are some guidelines. 1st, she is with a friend. And not just any friend, it needs to be a friend I know is also sensible. 2nd, she must answer the phone when I call or text. 3rd, She doesn't just go of willy nilly. She tells me where they are going and we come up with a place to meet - usually at the exit of the ride. She has at times decided the wait is too long or the ride is down. If that happens, she calls and tells me where she is going next. She has also called to ask me to grab lunch and a table and she will meet me there once she and friend get off the ride.

    In 2016 we have been to DLR 12 days (over several trips), in that time I have ridden 5 rides. 4 of them just 4 days ago.

    I can't give her this freedom in the real world, but I can at Disneyland.

  6. By GusMan

    Quote Originally Posted by june1st1997 View Post
    I give DD (10) a lot of freedom (for us) at Disneyland and Cal Adv. ...
    There are some guidelines. 1st, she is with a friend. And not just any friend, it needs to be a friend I know is also sensible.

    Just wondering... is the friend at least 14 years old?
    Asking since Disneyland and WDW have a minimum age requirement (14) to be in the parks unaccompanied. (Without an adult)

  7. By june1st1997

    Quote Originally Posted by GusMan View Post
    Just wondering... is the friend at least 14 years old?
    Asking since Disneyland and WDW have a minimum age requirement (14) to be in the parks unaccompanied. (Without an adult)


    No, the friend is also 10. I'm in the park, so they are not unaccompanied. 90% of the time I am at the exit of the ride they are riding.

    Disney allows children to ride unaccompanied at 7. They cannot ride with anyone under 7, unless they are over 14.

  8. By 3Princesses1Prince

    Quote Originally Posted by june1st1997 View Post
    No, the friend is also 10. I'm in the park, so they are not unaccompanied. 90% of the time I am at the exit of the ride they are riding.

    Disney allows children to ride unaccompanied at 7. They cannot ride with anyone under 7, unless they are over 14.

    They also cannot enter a park alone unless they're over 14, but being inside the park is fine. They just can't hop without you.

  9. By GusMan

    Quote Originally Posted by june1st1997 View Post
    No, the friend is also 10. I'm in the park, so they are not unaccompanied. 90% of the time I am at the exit of the ride they are riding.

    Disney allows children to ride unaccompanied at 7. They cannot ride with anyone under 7, unless they are over 14.

    Ok, that makes more sense - thanks for clarifying.
    In the context of your other post, I interpreted your comment differently since the premise of what the panel wrote was along the lines of letting kids enjoy the parks without parents.

    I would agree, riding alone is different than being unaccompanied.

  10. By june1st1997

    Quote Originally Posted by GusMan View Post
    Ok, that makes more sense - thanks for clarifying.
    In the context of your other post, I interpreted your comment differently since the premise of what the panel wrote was along the lines of letting kids enjoy the parks without parents.

    I would agree, riding alone is different than being unaccompanied.


    Oh ya, I can see that. I let her and her friend walk to space mountain while I grab coffee on the way in or I will hang back 5 mins after snacks or lunch so she and her friend can walk to the next ride with the illusion of freedom. In DD's eyes - she is enjoying the park without a parent. She is choosing the rides, choosing when and where to eat. She is hanging with her friend not me.

    I can see how "a lot of freedom' is vague.

    There is no way in the world I would let her hop with out me. Not now and I seriously doubt it will happen at 14. More like 16.

  11. Discuss this article on MousePad.