Attraction Fears, Children, and Parents: What to Do?

by Lisa Perkis, staff writer

Welcome to another MousePlanet Parenting Panel. This week's topic is near and dear to my heart, having faced it with my own kids over the years. My youngest daughter, Charlotte, has struggled with anxiety, especially at Happiest Place on Earth. At times, it seemed more like the Most Stressful Place on Earth—for her, and for mom and dad. Trying new attractions—even the most innocuous—would turn our placid, happy-go-lucky child into a shaking, defiant ball of anxiety. It was the fear of the unknown that usually flipped the switch, and every time I visit the Parks I see other parents dealing with the same situations.

So this week I asked some MousePlanet parents: What techniques and strategies have you used to conquer attraction fears?

MousePlanet columnist, editor and podcast co-host Mark Goldhaber and his wife are raising their 11-year-old son, who is best known as The Kid on the MouseStation Podcast. The Kid has been to Walt Disney World 10 times—starting on his first birthday—and to Disneyland twice.

The Kid has moderate persistent asthma. In addition, when he was younger he was timid about many things, especially the unknown. He would get frightened right before trying something new, even if he was looking forward to it. In one notable case, when he was 4, he had been talking about riding The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh for weeks before our trip to Walt Disney World. However, as soon as we were getting ready to get in line, he became terrified. We got into the FastPass line anyway, knowing from experience that if we didn't get him on that first ride, he wouldn't ride anything the entire trip. He had said that he was afraid that the ride would be too dark, so we gave him a small flashlight to shine whenever he got scared, and told him that if he shined it at the heffalumps and woozles, they would run away. Unfortunately, he got himself so worked up by the time we were nearing the loading area that he triggered an asthma attack.

We ended up going through the queue chains, rushing him out through the exit and store—to foul looks from the people there—and getting him to our stroller (and his medications bag) to give him an asthma treatment. He calmed down quite a bit after the treatment, but was whimpering. As much as we explained and comforted him, he was committed to working himself into a panic. Back through the FastPass line we carried him. Once we were on the ride, he clutched onto us and didn't want to look at anything, but he kept that flashlight shining at everything. Little by little, he loosened up as he realized that we were telling the truth and that everything was pretend. At the end, he asked us why the heffalumps and woozles were all pictures and not real. Apparently, despite all of our discussion about the ride and all of his previous ride experiences, he thought that the characters would be real. He was still having trouble internalizing it. As a reward for being brave and trying the ride, we bought him a die-cast honey pot vehicle to remind him that he rode the ride and that he didn't have to be scared.

Later that day, we were going to ride Peter Pan’s Flight, but he started getting nervous again. We were able to build on the success at Pooh and to convince him to get in line. He protested a little, but not too badly. We got on the ride, and again we were proven right in telling him that he shouldn't be afraid. After we finished, we again told him how proud we were of his trying the ride.

The next day, we were at Blizzard Beach, at the Tyke’s Peak kiddie area, and he started off wanting to ride the inner-tube slide, but suffered a last-minute panic again. We backed off and let him warm up to it slowly. He went down some of the other very small slides, and then tried the long body slide while wearing a flotation vest. He had to ask the lifeguard at the top about a dozen questions to make himself comfortable, but he finally got on the slide. Then he had to do it again. And again. And again. After lunch and some other activities, The Kid decided that he was ready to ride the inner tube ride. Four times.

So we had kind of a mixed bag. We had to force the issue on the first ride to break the resistance, but after that, we were able to let him warm up to rides on his own. We still try to let him tackle rides at his own pace, and sometimes he won't ’t go on rides that we think should be fine for him. As long as he’s not avoiding all rides, we’re OK with that. There’s always the next trip.

Mary Kraemer is a travel consultant with CruisingCo/MouseEarVacations. She loves to travel with her husband and four children and is an avid Disney fan who visits Disneyland several times a year—and Walt Disney World and the Disney Cruise Line as often as possible. Mary writes:

Disneyland presents some interesting challenges for young children who might be afraid of rides. Part of the magic of Disneyland’s rides is they are hidden inside buildings where the story can happen without interference from the outside world. But the flip side to that is that it can be tough to gauge whether it will be scary to a young child because it can’t be seen. Almost counterintuitively, many of the rides in Fantasyland have a scary or sinister element. If you think of films such as Snow White or Alice in Wonderland, it’s easy to know there will be some frightening places as the ride follows the storyline.

Probably the easiest thing with really young (or perhaps just timid) children is to start off with rides that they can see: Dumbo, Main Street vehicles, the Disneyland Railroad, the Mark Twain, and so on. Then try rides that are kid-friendly such as "it's a small world" and the Jungle Cruise. Take in some shows that they’ll enjoy, too, and you’ll have a very full and happy day. If you just have to go on Space Mountain, use the child-swap system and go on the ride while leaving the child with another person in your group.

When a child tells you they’re afraid of a ride, don’t force them to go on it. As illogical as it might seem to you, respect the child’s fears. Try to talk about what is frightening them, and if they don’t budge during the conversation, reassure them by saying they might feel like trying it another time and let it go. If you force a child to go on a ride, the child will become increasingly fearful and almost guaranteed to cry during the line and on the ride. Forcing an already upset child won’t make them like the ride, will not really be an enjoyable experience for you, and is guaranteed to annoy everyone else who probably doesn’t want to experience the ride listening to wails and screams. And it will take time after the ride to calm down, if the negative experience hasn’t ruined a lot of the day. You don’t want to have your child’s memory of their Disneyland trip to be, “I was so scared on XXX ride, I cried, and it was awful,” do you?

I’ve been taking my four kids to Disneyland for 20 years, since my oldest was 2. Much as I love going on coasters, it’s been a pleasure to experience the park through their perspective. Yes, admittedly, it’s difficult to give up rides you love to have a day at the park on someone else’s level (I’ve probably set the Guinness record for number of times riding on Casey Jr. in one day). But the reward is having a wonderful time together, being able to share that positive memory later, and hopefully, expand on that experience at the park as they grow older and braver.

Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock’s three boys are now 11, 8, and 5. They’ve been visiting Disneyland since they were each just weeks old. Adrienne has been a day camp counselor and teacher. Now she’s a mom and a Cub Scout leader and has been a Disneyland Annual Passholder for 14 years.

I think that attraction fears are much easier to handle for regular visitors than they are for occasional guests. If I have to miss one of my favorite rides on a trip, I will be fine because I know I will be coming back soon and can catch it next time. For my family’s trips to Disneyland, I can be far more patient than I will be when we visit Walt Disney World. Who knows when we will be back? I want to have my opportunity to experience these great attractions, too!

First and foremost, the No. 1 rule of parenting a child with an attraction anxiety is: Know your kid. For parents, children and other guests on rides, there is nothing worse than a very loud unhappy child. The children are miserable. The other guests are miserable. And, boy howdy, we parents are stuck in a level of misery which leaves no room whatsoever for our personal enjoyment of the attraction.

With my eldest son, I learned, early on, that the best way to gain his cooperation was through direct honesty. Matthew dreaded trips to the doctor because he never knew for sure if there would be a shot involved. I wrongly believed that hiding the scary information from Matthew would leave him blissfully in denial. Once I became straight-forward with him, our trips became more pleasant, even when he knew that there would be a shot involved. Likewise, with rides, the fear of the unknown was greater than the known. When Matthew knew I would be honest about scary rides, he could more easily trust my description of the not-scary rides. I used simple but direct words. “This ride is dark. There will be a silly cat and a wacky rabbit. There is a queen who is not nice but she does not jump out at you.” Sometimes offering to cover his eyes and ears during a scary part was enough to encourage him to give a ride a try.

My second rule of thumb is to consider the attractions. Attractions like the Enchanted Tiki Room provide a simple and easy escape route. If a child loses it in the Tiki Room, parents can plan ahead to sit near the exit and quietly leave if they have to. Children seem to have an easier time riding attractions that are visible. Attractions concealed behind walls betray an aura of foreboding. When considering hidden attractions, I like to take young children on the easy rides first. it’s a small world is obviously the brightest indoor attraction. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is darker but more welcoming and cheerful than others. We try to build up to the scarier rides to gradually increase their comfort levels.

Author and columnist Jeff Kober recently wrote "The Wonderful World of Customer Service at Disney". It's available through He has also created the Disney at Work series featuring the Magic Kingdom and Epcot and is available for the iPhone and iPod Touch. He and his wife along with their six children live in Orlando, Florida. Jeff writes:

In some of my earlier columns I have alluded to two of my children (now ages 7 & 10) who deal with issues related to autism. This has forced me to re-look at the Disney experience with them. While it seems that loud noises or very dark settings might be what upsets them the most, the fact is it can vary differently. For example, both of them have a paranoid fear of fireworks. But they have been in other settings where they seem quite fine. The older of the two enjoys Star Tours, with it's dark setting, constant motion, and intergalactic explosions.

The biggest suggestion I can offer is Youtube. Videos of attractions have opened up a number of park experiences my children would never have taken on before. For instance, a year ago my youngest son refused to do much of anything at Disney's Hollywood Studios except Honey I Shrunk the Kids Movie Adventure playground. Through YouTube he now insists on visiting Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story Mania, and The Great Movie Ride.

It doesn't always work. I'm still trying to get my son to watch The Country Bear Jamboree on YouTube. He seems to detest that attraction, and yet he easily enjoys and insists on attending the Monster's Inc. Laugh Floor. Perhaps that's because he's more familiar with the characters. His favorite experience is the horse drawn trolley on Main Street. He loves to watch the horses.

And neither likes character meet and greets. They'll tolerate the parade from time to time. But a Disney character, even a face character, is overwhelming to them.

While I really would love for them to enjoy many of the things I enjoy, I take solace in the thought that watching them grow up will simply take a little longer. When it comes to Disney, that's not an entirely bad thing. I look forward to many trips with my children in the years to come. Meanwhile, we watch the fireworks from the parking lot instead--with the windows up. They love that, because they can't here the accompanying shell bursts. Again, it's not the same memory I have with my father watching fireworks on Main Street. But it is a memory anyway.

It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!

Visit the Parenting on the Parks section of our MousePad discussion board, and share your best tips for what you bring when you're at the Disney theme parks (link), or send your suggestions via e-mail (link). Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!

Next time: What age is it safe for kids to roam the parks by themselves?