Lost and Found: Parents' Edition

by Lisa Perkis, staff writer

Welcome to another MousePlanet Parenting Panel. This week's topic is an important one for families of any size and age ranges who visit the Parks:

What is your strategy for keeping track of your kids at the park? How do you ensure your kids will be found if they get separated?

MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry and wife Diane, "the marathon-running graphic designer who loves to garden and is a big Tinker Bell fan," are raising 10-year-old Samantha, who "shares her father's love of Disney and her mother's love of art," and twin 7-year-old boys, Casey and Alex, who "consider Mickey Mouse's house their favorite place.” Chris writes:

This topic hits home for me because I had one of those horrible panic-stricken moments at Walt Disney World where I actually lost one of my children. Keeping your eye on 4-year-old twin boys in a small confined room is tough enough. Watching them run around Disney can be pretty harrowing. We’ve never been ones to dress the boys in identical clothing or anything like that, so if they separate they blend in pretty quickly.

We were in the L.A. Prop Cinema Storage store, which is on the corner of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards in Disney’s MGM Studios, as it was called then. If you’re familiar with this store, you know that it’s a little unusual for a “Main Street” type of store in that it has three ways in and out. It has an entrance on Hollywood, another on the corner onto Sunset and a third into a small courtyard off of Sunset with one of those great vintage cars.

It’s a small store full of kids toys, plush and clothing. I can’t remember what I was looking at, but as they say, in a blink of an eye, Alex was gone. I called out for him repeatedly and there was no answer. His twin brother Casey, usually attached to Alex at the hip, had no idea where he was. As I realized that there were indeed three ways out of the store, I panicked, grabbed the cast member at the register and scrambled in and out of the three exits looking for him. There was no sign of him. It was the worst few minutes of my life.

Now, my boys can be a little crazy for sure, but they were never in the habit of running away from us. They tend to be little scaredy cats, especially in a big overwhelming place. So, something told me he hadn’t run out of the store, especially that quickly. I went back in and searched behind each rack of clothes and found Alex quietly hiding behind a rack of T-shirts. I was torn between hugging the stuffing out of him and yelling at him, so I walked a fine line and made sure he knew never to do anything like that again.

From that point on, Diane and I have always designated one twin each whenever we’re in a Disney park, or any crowded place for that matter. We still don’t dress the boys the same, but we’re much more vigilant with them, and that’s really our only tip. Be vigilant. Never be surprised by the situations your kids could get in, especially boys and especially at a theme park.

One of the reasons I’ve been such a big proponent of renting the Disney strollers is because it keeps the kids confined while we’re walking around. The boys are 7 now, and they just did their last trip in a big Disney double stroller. People may have looked at me funny because they were a little big, but we weren’t chasing them around the parks and knew where they were all at all times. They’ll probably be 8 on our next trip and are too big for a stroller, so I guess we’ll have to just ramp up the vigilance factor. We’ve got them pretty well trained at this point, at least in the parks; we’re still working on at home. I think we’ll be just fine.

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:

This is a topic that every parent who takes kids to a Disney park should address with their kids before someone gets lost (and, if my experience says anything, someone will get lost at some point). There are a few simple strategies to handle this, even if your kids are fairly young.

Years ago, before anybody who came into the park could get a name badge made, it was very easy to identify a cast member because of the oval badges they wore. When my kids were little, we would be barely into the park when we had The Talk About What Happens When You Get Lost, which consisted of having a helpful cast member nearby and I would tell the kids, “If you ever find yourself without Mommy or Daddy, all you have to do is find someone with one of these badges (pointing to said badge on the smiling cast member), and they will help you find us again.”

Now that badges can be made and there are regular people walking around with various forms of those oval badges, that’s not such reliable advice. So, I would now tell small children to walk to a store or to a ride, and find a cast member there.

From a young age (meaning while still riding in strollers and before being able to read), my kids always liked looking at park maps. They pretty much knew where they were and how to get to someplace, because they were so familiar with Disneyland. All that goes out the window when you’re at a new park, or if you’re not a frequent visitor, so unless you have a good knowledge of a park, it’s better to tell kids to find a cast member to help them rather than to meet at a certain location within the park (but that is a good idea for older kids or even other adults in your group if you don’t have cell phones).

When my kids were little, I never ever brought them to a Disney park wearing any sort of Disney-related clothing because as soon as you hit the mass of people in the park, clothes with Disney characters or anything like that instantly turn into theme park camouflage. Instead, my kids wore tie-dye tee shirts, which make them a lot more visible in a crowd (and I happen to make my own tie-dye, so it was easy for me to create this.)

At one time or another, each of my kids has gotten separated from us at the park, and at no time has there ever been any panic involved (a little adrenaline, yes, but panic, no). My youngest daughter was probably about 4 when she decided she was going to test out Mommy’s What To Do If You Get Lost advice, and when we walked into the candy shop on Main Street, she proceeded straight on down the street without us. She calmly walked up to a cast member, looked up, and said, “I’m lost.” Meanwhile, when I looked around in the candy shop, did the head count and saw one was missing, the first thing I did was backtrack to Main Street to see if she was there. And I listened in case she was crying. Nothing. So I walked over to the cast member at the counter and told her that my daughter was lost. When they asked me for a description, I had my older daughter with me and was able to say, “She is wearing a tie-dye dress just like this one, but she has blond hair.” Easy. A couple of CM communications and a few minutes later, my daughter was back with us, smiling and happy. The advice worked perfectly!

MousePlanet Columnist Lisa Perkis says her proudest accomplishment in life is being a mom to Emma, 15, and Charlotte, 13. She has also taught preschool for 19 years in her hometown of San Diego. She and her family visit Disneyland as often as possible and have had annual passes for 12 years. Lisa writes:

I have had moments at the Parks when the kids were younger when I would lose track of one of the girls for a moment in a shop, suffer a panic attack, and then spot them over by the Jelly Belly towers or figurines. We always had reminded the kids to go straight to cast members behind a counter or working the entrance to an attraction if they lost their way (easier to spot them in those prominent spots.) Luckily, we never had to test out their lost-and-found skills, but I was visiting Disneyland with a family last summer who had an honest-to-goodness lost child and learned a lot about what individual families teach their kids and what may and may not work in a panic situation.

The particular family we were spending time with has a large batch of kids ranging in age from 16 down to 4 years old—seven children in all. That already presents a challenge to keeping track of kids; it fairly boggles my mind, having only two to spot in a crowd. The family usually pairs off and the older siblings help to keep the younger ones from wandering, but on the way to the Enchanted Tiki Room, the youngest little boy was separated from our group. Mom did not realize it for several long minutes—not until our whole party was seated in the shade and chatting before the pre-show. At first we thought he was with his dad in the restroom, but when dad came back and there was no little “Joseph,” concern turned to panic. Here’s what surprised me: the dad immediately said “I’ll go to the Sword in the Stone—that’s where our meeting place is if anyone gets separated.” He was counting on a 4 year old’s ability to make his way through the crowds from Adventureland, make his way across the Park, and hang out at the Sword in the Stone in Fantasyland until dad showed up to get him. While dad was heading off to Fantasyland, mom was backtracking their steps and calling out for her son while the other kids (my children included) looked, as well.

I had a different hunch and told the mom I would head over to the Baby Care/Lost Children Center on Main Street to check for the little guy. Even though the parents had not thought of this option, I knew any cast member would take a missing child there while trying to locate the parents. And sure enough, there was "Joseph," playing with toys, but with a tear-stained face. I had to explain to cast members I was not mom while at the same time trying to reassure the boy his mom was looking for him and that everything would be fine, while trying to get mom on the phone to reassure her. Not 60 seconds after I arrived a call came in on the radio that cast members had mom on her way to Baby Care. It turned out, that instead of heading to Fantasyland, the child had instinctively gone to a cast member in a store and asked for help, thus ending up in Lost Children. All was well in the end, but it certainly reinforced to me how important it is to have an easy, practical plan about what to do when lost, especially with very young children.

It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!

Do you have any stories of lost and found children? What are your strategies for keeping the family together and what has worked for you when things do not go as planned? Visit the Parenting on the Parks section of our MousePad discussion board and share your best tips (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!