Discipline at Disney Parks

by Adrienne Krock, contributing writer

We've all seen exasperated parents trying to discipline their children at Disney theme parks. How many times have you passed a parent making a threat that you have to wonder "Will they really do it? Will they really go home right now?" Some of us may have perfect children, but I know first-hand: I don't! From time to time we all have had to figure out how to handle discipline situations in the Parks, be it a child who's disobeying, not cooperating, climbing where he shouldn't be, fighting with her brother or having a tantrum because he isn't getting is way.

HOW do you handle it? What do you do at a Disney theme park when it's time to discipline your child?

Chris and his family stumbled upon the Disney magic in 2002, and have made a number of trips since then. Since then, he makes it a point to seek out the ultimate in Disney trips and share his experiences with friends, family, and complete strangers. Chris posts on MousePad as GusMan. Chris writes:

Every parent would like to think that going to a Disney park in of itself is the ultimate treat for their children and they will respond by being transformed into model tourists. After all, you never see any behavior issues in any of the Disney promo videos, right? Truth be told, the extreme amount of stimulation the parks offer can sometimes cause even the best-behaved child to melt down, act out, and behave in different ways.

While it has been said that discipline starts at the home, I add in the idea that it needs to continue at the parks. However, this can be a challenge since no one wants to change big vacation plans because of a behavior problem, but something has to be done to maintain order. Here are some ideas and/or examples that we have recently experienced:

  • Trip preparation begins at home. For example, if you know that your child has to work on table manners, start working with your child on those manners a couple months beforehand. The same sort of “training” idea can be used while waiting in longer lines in stores if they need to learn patience or keeping their hands to themselves. Help them understand that what they learn now will be used during their Disney trip.
  • Do not make idle threats. This is something that I learned a long time ago and while it is easy to spout out extreme measures to try to regain a sense of order, there are two things to consider: 1) You may make the situation worse by scaring the child and 2) They will learn that you are really not going to go through with the threat once you don’t really go through with it after the first few times. Once that happens, it will be even harder for a parent to control the situation.
  • If you see your child doing something that they shouldn’t, do point it out right away. A quick “Please do not do that—you might get hurt” sort of comment may be all you need to help note incorrect behavior. After all, swinging on ropes or lean rails may seem like a fun way to pass time, but it may not be a good habit to create.
  • If you need to discipline, calmer is better. Seeing parents yell at their kids at Disney is one of the saddest things to experience. Not to mention, that it ruins the magic for the other guests around you. Keep calm, try to find a somewhat private spot, and try to calmly talk things out and explain what they were doing wrong. It keeps your dignity, as well as the child’s. This sort of interactive timeout may be what is needed to get your child to realize that what he or she did was not acceptable.
  • Along the same lines, try to find out the source of the behavior issues. The root cause may not be what you think it is. Is your child acting out because of heat or fatigue? What about an attraction that may be a little scary in their minds eye? Are they thirsty or hungry? Sometimes children don’t know what they want or need until the parents ask. I was amazed during my last trip on how some issues can be brought back under control by a cool drink or even an ice cream treat—especially during the heat of the summer.
  • Avoidance can be the key. To elaborate, if you recognize a pattern of when your child starts acting out, try to either avoid those situations or possibly consider alternatives. There were times were my son just had enough and he was beginning to start getting really cranky and you could tell he was about to be hard to deal with. I would take him back to the resort hotel for a few hours for some cooling off at the pool and some down time. Sure, that was time away from the parks or the rest of the family, but he also expressed on how much fun he had alone with me. I had no problem with that.

From my perspective, simpler is better. Sure, you want your kids to have the magical time of their life, but that does not mean that they should be given free reign. It just means that you may have to adapt disciplinary measures in such a way where they can be implemented on the road or in a crowded park.

Mary Kraemer a travel consultant with CruisingCo/MouseEarVacations, loves to travel with her husband and four children. She 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 shares from her experiences:

I take a rather "top down" approach to discipline in the parks: It starts with the parents. It’s up to parents to set limits (and then follow them). It’s up to parents to make sure their kids behave in line. It’s up to parents to make sure their kids aren’t so overextended, overtired, and oversugared that they are little more than a meltdown waiting to happen. It’s up to parents to understand that their kids who normally can’t function without a nap somehow don’t magically transform into kids who can get to the park at rope drop and last until the end of the operating day. It’s up to the parents to not impose the concept of “we need to get our money’s worth out of these park tickets” by dragging their crying kids through the park and yelling at them. It’s up to the parents to understand that if their little princess or swashbuckler is frightened by rides such as The Pirates of the Caribbean or the Haunted Mansion, for heavens sake, don’t make the kids go on the ride! (And if it were up to me, parents wouldn’t even buy those light-up swords that kids swing around in crowded areas, but well, I guess I can’t have everything.)

I’ve taken my kids to Disneyland several times a year since they were babies. My twins and youngest daughter are 14 months apart; that didn’t stop us from making the 400-mile trip (but we did bring along a lot of gear). We’re lucky because we have annual passes, so the "getting our money’s worth" concept is not too relevant for us.

My kids understand that their behavior is expected to be proper and anything less is not acceptable. My job as their mom is to make sure that they are well fed, sunscreened, and have a great time (which sometimes means we have to leave the park before the fireworks because someone is tired and that’s the end of our magical day—it sometimes means we don’t get up at the crack of dawn to be the first ones in the park … we play it by ear and take care of ourselves.)

I have had several trips where I’m the only parent with the three kids (and believe me, it’s a tight fit in one of those Dumbo elephants when there are four riders!), and it’s worked out fine.

Why? Because I keep my expectations clear with my kids. When I say to stop fooling around in line, I mean it. And it took only one time to follow up on my promise of “if you don’t stop that right now, we are leaving,” to drive home the reality that I mean what I say.

We have always had the rule that the kids can look at things in the stores, but nothing is purchased until the last morning, right before we head home. That’s a great way to prevent the “I wanna, I wanna, I wanna” whine that far too many kids have right before the tantrum when they don’t get the desired object. My kids think about what they can buy; they are empowered to make their own choices.

Occasionally, I have brought along a friend or two for my kids, and I always expect the same good behavior from the friends as my own kids. Without too many exceptions, it has worked out fine and everyone has had a great time. Perhaps it’s my no-nonsense tolerance, which I clearly explain to the kids at the beginning of the trip: Bad behavior will win the child a quick trip to Orange County airport and a seat on the next plane home to their parents, at their parents’ expense.

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:

Do we really want to think about discipline when we’re surrounded by magic in the Happiest Place on Earth? Shouldn’t all the kids just magically behave and have permanent smiles on their faces like all those happy woodland creatures in the Disney movies? Of course they should. But they don’t, so what’s a mom and dad to do when things go wrong? My wife and I discussed this and realized that over the years of trips there were three main things that helped us deal with discipline. The first two are really all about prevention.

The best way to deal with a meltdown in the parks is to do whatever is possible to avoid having one, and that means knowing your kid’s limits and not pushing them. After so many trips, we’ve learned to read our kids faces and attitudes and to keep them in check. I can do 12 hours in a park, no problem. They can’t and shouldn’t. We know when they need to leave and we honor that need and we leave. We take a break and get ice cream or spend some time in an air-conditioned store. Most importantly, we go back to swim or to relax at the resort. It’s amazing how many people don’t realize how overwhelming and over stimulating the Disney parks really are. It’s one of the many reasons that we always stay on Disney property, so we can get away from the parks easily and take it down a notch for everybody. Knowing the kids limits and not pushing them has gone a long way toward keeping their behavior in check.

My kids were in a Disney strollers until they were 7. My boys just turned 8 and, to be honest, if they were any shorter, I’d keep them in there an extra year. The Disney strollers are big and roomy and worth every penny. This goes back to prevention. My kids are healthy and active, but walking around a Disney park in the Orlando humidity is draining. The more comfortable they are, the better they behave. We were recently talking to some first-timers going with their 4-year-old. They weren’t thinking about a stroller at all. “She walks just fine.” they were saying. Ultimately, we talked them down from their level of insanity and, P.S., they were thrilled with the Disney strollers. Get a stroller; pay for a length of stay to save a few bucks, and get your hot, tired and over stimulated child into it and you might just prevent some meltdowns.

Granted, no matter how much you strive for prevention, kids are kids and things may go wrong. We’ve learned to calmly react to these situations and instantly divert their attention. We have twin boys and as much as they are lovingly joined at the hip, they also torture each other consistently. We know that one of the things they love most at Disney is getting “stuff.” For the past few years, we’ve had the grandparents get them Disney gift cards for their birthday. When they start to misbehave, the cards are whipped out and they’re reminded that misbehaving children do not get to use their gift cards. No yelling is required. It’s a practical, tangible thing that keeps them in check. We’ve only had to follow through on that threat once or twice and they were able to earn it back the following day. The nature of the gift cards also teaches them to budget. Call it bribery; I’ll call it diversion.

So our three big tips are: don’t push them, keep them comfortable and come up with a diversion that means enough to them to want to change their behavior. This should minimize the need for strong discipline and conflicts in what’s supposed to be your happy, restful vacation.

Jenny is an at-home mom and former theme park employee (not Disney). She has two kids, ages 5 and 3 and a half, who have been going to Disneyland since they were weeks old. They visit Disneyland once a month. Jenny writes:

I think our most successful days at Disneyland have been those that I spent a few minutes to go over the ground rules for the day. It sure makes it easier on me to enforce any consequences when I know the kids are fully informed.

What works for us is a three-strike system, where the third strike gets us a FastPass back to the parking lot and back home. We are local, and go often, so if that means I have to follow through one time, I will do it. Luckily the kids have never gotten a third strike, but, should it happen, I have every intent on following through. I think this works for us because, at home, we are fairly consistent with following though. Once my daughter earned two strikes in the bathroom in the parking garage for whining. We hadn't even made it to the park yet, and I thought, certainly, that was going to be the day I had to follow through. If we are with a larger group, or anytime that going home isn't feasible, the punishment becomes missing out on a ride or two.

There are many behaviors that will earn a strike: fighting with a sibling, throwing a fit when taking turns choosing rides, whining/crying, and just generally not listening to Mom/Dad. The latter usually gets a warning however, since I can't predict every scenario. If for example, I have to ask the kids more than once to stop hanging on a chain.

Being on vacation we may bend the rules just a bit, but we find that it really does make for a better trip when we stay as consistent as possible.

Parenting in the Parks columnist Adrienne Krock’s three boys are now 11, 9, and 6. They’ve been visiting Disneyland since they were each just weeks old. She has been a day camp counselor and elementary school teacher. Now she’s a mom and a Cub Scout leader and has been a Disneyland Annual Passholder for 15 years. Adrienne adds:

Kids will be kids, even at Disney parks. That means that I’ve had occasion to discipline a child or two over the years for misbehaving during a trip. The key for me is to have consequences ready before I need them: I do not think quickly on my feet as I would like. When I have a plan ahead of time, I find it much easier to maintain my own temper and frustrations. The calmer I remain, the better I can defuse the situation. I readily admit that this is much easier for me at my home park, Disneyland, because I know we will return another time. I found it much harder to take away anything when we visited Walt Disney World because we had spent so much money and built so much up for the trip that I did not want to waste any time or expense. Discipline at Walt Disney World was a much more chilling challenge.

The first rule of discipline anywhere is that “Consistency Begins at Home.” Long before we ever boarded the plane to Orlando or packed the car for a day trip to Disneyland, my husband and I established consistency at home. Are we perfect? No, of course not. But our children know that when we choose a consequence, the chances are pretty high that we will follow through; high enough that they usually know better than to push their chances. (They’re not perfect, either!) Basic, classic consistent behavior modification just works. The key for us lies in finding the rewards and consequences to use on vacation.

We are fortunate that in advance of our Walt Disney World vacation, we had plenty of experience at Disneyland. One day trip several years ago set the standard which has followed us ever since. That day, my eldest was in rare form, not listening to his adults despite numerous warnings and reminders. Ultimately we took away rides for the rest of the day. Go ahead, read that again. For the rest of the day, our son rode no rides. An adult stayed off rides with him each time. It was a sacrifice for the adults but we also had Rider Switch to use on the height-restricted attractions. We have never again had to go to such extremes but the biggest benefit of that day is that every time I say to any of my children: “If you do not correct your behavior, you will miss (X number) rides, do you believe me?” They always do. Every time.

Arriving to a place where we took away rides for an entire day did not come lightly. I do not suggest rushing to such a severe consequence just to teach a lesson, and most people will not ever need to go to such an extreme. On that occasion, canceling our trip was not an option and because it was off the table, there was no way we would threaten to leave the park. We needed to pull out the big guns. The second rule of discipline is: Don’t make threats you will not carry out.

We are Annual Passholders at Disneyland, so it was easier to take it away knowing that we would return again, and my son was a lot more willing to push his luck with his poor behavior because he feels very comfortable and familiar at Disneyland. On vacation somewhere less familiar, I would be surprised if any of our children escalated their behavior that far. But the residual effects of “Do you believe I will follow through even at a Walt Disney World or Disneyland or Yellowstone or in front of al of your friends at a birthday party or in the middle of Target even though I have shopping to do?” carry on.

There are many privileges that we give our children at parks: They may get a special treat in the afternoon, such a churro or an ice cream cone. They may take turns choosing which ride they want to ride next. Each child usually has a must-do ride.

Privileges are currency that the children can earn or lose through their behavior. I do not mean to suggest that every treat should be tied to behavior; not at all! I do suggest choosing a few to use just in case. We have taken away “the next ride” instead of taking away all rides for the rest of the day. We can take away the next two rides. We can say “You do not get to ride with your brother, you have to ride with your mother.” Or, on Autopia, we might say “You don’t get to have your own car. Mom’s driving.” Get creative! I especially like the creative options for the once-in-a-lifetime trips. I would have a really hard time telling a child that he could not ride an attraction that he might not see again for several years, but not driving that vehicle car may be enough to correct a behavior. Sometimes the consequence is having to hold my hand so I can immediately supervise the child, be it my 6-year-old or my almost-12-year-old. Loss of freedom to explore can be a painful consequence no matter the age. They’re not too little to hold my hand!

Desserts and sugar treats are one of the easiest things to take away from my children. But if the rest of our group is eating something, I make sure that everyone has something to eat, even if it is not their preferred treat. This leads me to my third rule: Don’t let anyone get too Hot, Hungry or Tired. Please note, I said “anyone.” This rule applies to children, as well as adults. If Mom and Dad become too hot, hungry or tired, we start to pull our trigger fingers much faster than otherwise.

We monitor what our children eat. One of my children reacts more to low-blood sugar than the others, but we always make sure that everyone has eaten proper meals and snacks. We supplement meals with sturdy snacks and try to include protein. Many restaurants offer milk for sale if needed, and we’ve been known to carry string cheese in our backpacks for this purpose. Before we implement a stricter consequence, we often ask ourselves “When was the last time this child ate and what did he eat?” Sometimes the natural and logical consequence of his behavior is “Before we get in line for Matterhorn, you need to eat this Mickey pretzel with cheese sauce.” Other times the consequence might be a trip to the Tiki Room. Not all consequences are punitive.

Finally, you may have noticed that I did not spend much time on rewards. Really, in this case, the reward is the trip itself. I try to remember to heap praise on my children. I rarely give generic praise, but I try to find concrete examples to make the compliments meaningful. I thank them for cooperating. I point out that because they are cooperating, we get to have a fun time together and go on so many rides. I let them know how much fun I’m having with them on our trips and thank them for their part in that. In our family, children’s cooperation is especially important when I tackle the task of all three of my sons with no other adult to help me! They know that if they do not cooperate, we actually do have to leave because I cannot handle three children alone without their cooperation.

Which brings me back to Rule No. 1 of Discipline: Consistency begins at home. They know how to cooperate. They know that as the Meanest Mom on Earth, I WILL pull out a consequence right there at Disneyland. And sometimes, that’s all I need.

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