My Disney Top 5 - Things For Teens to do at Walt Disney World

by Chris Barry, contributing writer

Since last month, I've been counting down the best that Walt Disney World has to offer to each age group. I started with the little guys and moved on to tweens. That means it's time to tackle quite possibly the most dreaded of all age groups—teenagers. This past New Year's Eve our daughter turned 20, so she has just started to leave her teenage years behind. Our twin boys are just over the teenage hump at 16. All three have been to Disney many times as teens, so this particular countdown is very topical for me. I've also spent the last 20 years teaching at a high school and last year chaperoned about 50 teenagers on a trip to Walt Disney World, so I'd like to think that my credentials on this topic are pretty solid.

Now, I used the word "dreaded" in my introduction as a description for kids in their teenage years. Was I being too dramatic? Are teenagers really that bad? In a word, yes, and conversely, in a word—no. As far as the yes answer is concerned, a teen's reputation is well deserved. Dealing with teens can be a nightmare on any given day. They're hormonal, moody, and, quite often, not that interested in hanging around with mom and dad anymore. That can make them challenging especially when planning a family vacation. As far as the no answer is concerned, teens can be an awful lot of fun to be around. As a parent, or as their teacher for that matter, you begin to discover who they really are. Their personalities begin to emerge. Your conversations can become more real, more intense. They do start to appreciate things and notice details, they begin to take more chances in life, and are open to experience new things.

The fact of the matter is, we expect a lot from them because they're older, but the most recent scientific data points to the fact that the human brain doesn't finish maturing until around age 25. The same research states that certain centers of the brain, specifically the pre-frontal cortex which controls our ability to reason, plan out our actions and control impulses simply doesn't develop until our 20s. So, when your teen is particularly frustrating and you desperately blurt out the question, "What's wrong with you?" they should answer, "Nothing. Medically speaking my brain hasn't developed yet and I just don't think the same way you do."

If you get that response, be very impressed. They've obviously done their homework. Of course, you won't get that answer because the fact of the matter is, they don't know that their brains haven't fully matured. They are what they are and we have to be the ones to take the high road and cut them a little slack sometimes. As dreaded as they can be—and they can be pretty bad—it's also a wonderful, singular time in their life; being with them on vacation, even a Disney vacation, can still be downright magical, if you handle it right. Let's take a look at my Top 5 things for teenagers to do at Walt Disney World.

5 – New Food

I put this one low on my list because some teens can still be downright picky when it comes to their food, while others the same age start to be a little more adventurous in their dining choices. Case in point, my daughter began to try different foods as a teenager while my teenage boys are still pretty solidly entrenched in the world of chicken and French fries. When it comes to Walt Disney World, I think most people are surprised with the variety of dining choices offered to guests.

There's no way my daughter would have tried the Spicy Garlic Shrimp at Spice Road Table when she was little. Photo by Lani Teshima.

I personally watched my daughter and her friends discover new cuisine in Epcot's World Showcase, especially during our Food and Wine trips, and that's because dining at Walt Disney World isn't threatening. It's not exactly an episode of Bizarre Foods down there, but as your kids get older, they may want to branch out, and Disney offers them plenty of chances to try new things. My father-in-law is fond of saying that, "Dining out is always an adventure." Dining at Disney can definitely be a fun way to introduce your teens to new foods as their taste buds begin to mature. They can't color in their menus anymore, but that doesn't mean that dining out can't be a fun new experience for them.

4 – Disney Springs

I've stated more often than not here on MousePlanet that I've never been a fan of the whole Downtown Disney/Disney Springs experience. However, on that aforementioned trip where I chaperoned a large group of teenagers, we spent our arrival night at Disney Springs; I have to admit, it was a huge hit with all of them, which makes total sense. Now that the adult playground of Pleasure Island is no more, the entire landscape of the recently overhauled Disney Springs is open to them. It's like the coolest mall you'll ever go to.

Crowds on the West Side of Disney Springs. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.

There's plenty to see, do, and eat, and there's just a decent enough smattering of Disney to bring out the little kid that's buried beneath their faux grown-up facades while not making them feel like they're in a place that's for youngsters only. It's a great balance. They did a beautiful job with transforming Downtown Disney into Disney Springs. I watched these kids walk around with big smiles on their faces the whole night. Still not my thing, but hey, if the boys want to go walk around Disney Springs on our next trip, more power to them.

3 – World Showcase

Over the years Disney has certainly made World Showcase appealing to all ages. With the addition of Frozen and The Three Caballeros, there's plenty for the kids to see around World Showcase Lagoon. However, the beauty and details of the 11 nations represented really come to life for those old enough to appreciate what they're seeing. When my own kids were young, they walked around the countries with us, or should I say they were pushed around in their strollers. My boys loved Japan for the Pokemon section of Mitsukoshi Department Store, and my daughter always loved the toy store and trains in Germany.

Now that my boys are teenagers, there's a lot more to Japan than Pokemon. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

It wasn't until they got older and entered their teenage years that they truly began to get a sense of what was going on in this half of Epcot. Then it became a destination to them, a place they loved going to just as much as they loved going to the Magic Kingdom. They started to take their time and soak in the details, the sounds, and the food and it was a wonderful thing to watch unfold.

All of a sudden, they seemed to become young adults. My daughter got her own decent DSLR camera in high school and World Showcase became one of her favorite places to stroll around and take photos. They can enjoy it as little kids, but they really can't begin to appreciate the depth of World Showcase until they hit their teenage years. Over the last several years, we have spent more and more time walking around the countries of World Showcase and that's just fine with me.

2 – The Disney Mountains

I've seen fairly young kids tackle some peaks of the Disney mountain range. You don't have to be a teenager to experience the thrills of Big Thunder, Splash, and Space Mountain, or the newest member of the mountain range, Everest over in Animal Kingdom. More often than not though, they don't conquer all of them until they hit their teen years. My daughter eventually overcame her fear of Splash Mountain's drop when she was 13.

Just about any teenager can certainly handle the thrills of Space Mountain. Photo by Donald Fink.

That emboldened her to tackle Space Mountain and then Expedition Everest. She's still not crazy about big drops, but she's always willing to go for the thrills of Walt Disney World's biggest attractions. To a coaster guy like me, that's gold. Now Diane and I don't have to take turns riding alone while the other one watches the kids; the mountains are family time. We can all scream our heads off together.

1 – Freedom

I adore my kids and I love being at Disney with them, but the greatest thing about having teenagers at Walt Disney World is being able to separate from them once in a while. Obviously, we love being together on our trips, but not having to worry about them if they are out of our sight is a pleasure that changes the whole dynamic of your Walt Disney World experience. They can go their own way. We can go our own way. They can stay back in the parks by themselves if we want to leave. They can sleep in at the hotel if they want to and we can venture off into the parks by ourselves first thing in the morning. They all have cell phones and can reach us easily if they need to.

We have no problem with our teens hopping a Disney bus to and from the parks without us. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

By this age, they know the lay of the land and how to get around the entire resort. They've proven themselves responsible enough to leave a park on their own, hop on a Disney bus, and go back to the room if they so desire. They can eat on their own. they can swim on their own. It's a game changer for sure. The ironic thing is, despite the freedom that has become a given to them at this point, they still seem to want to spend plenty of time with us when we're down there. That's the magic of Disney at work right there I suppose. It's still pretty awesome to know that if we need space or if they need space, that isn't a concern. There's plenty of it down there for all of us. The tethers are off and that fact is deeply appreciated by both sides.

I said in my first installment of this series that there's nothing like experiencing Walt Disney World with your little ones and that will forever be true. I do miss Samantha in her princess nightgown and the boys clutching their Pooh stuffed animals as they enthusiastically ran over to hug the silly old bear himself at breakfast in the Crystal Palace. It's magic! It's produced some of the most endearing memories in our family's collective history that will never be forgotten. But designing awesome cars with my teen boys at Test Track, or walking back to the Yacht Club with Samantha and her camera that night after Illuminations ended when we had World Showcase pretty much to ourselves are just two of the many, many moments that I've been blessed to have with them in their teenage years at Walt Disney World, and I couldn't have done any of them with little kids.

The greatest thing is that the memories we've been making over the last three to six years through their teens are different and more substantial. Sure, they'll remember their days as little kids in the parks, but those memories are a lot hazier for them. They're perfectly clear for my wife and I. These recent memories they'll remember with a lot more clarity. When they were little, we were experiencing Disney through their eyes, but we were experiencing different things then they were. Now, we're building memories together that we will more than likely remember together and that's really what it's all about. So, take your teens to Disney and create new long lasting memories. They're definitely not too old for that and, for that matter, neither are you.

Next time, I'll follow up on that last thought and talk about what it's like to be adults at Walt Disney World without kids in tow. Until then, as always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below and let me hear your thoughts and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.