“It's a world of laughter, A world of tears.
It's a world of hopes, And a world of fears.”
I swear to you, as a small child, I was absolutely sure that song had been written about Walt Disney World.
A tiny tot can find a lot of things to be afraid of at WDW. This catches many parents by surprise, as their dreams of sunshine and lollypops encounter the harsh realities of tears and tantrums. Fortunately, a little advance preparation can help head a lot of this off at the pass.
My first WDW memory is one of fear (my next one is of food, but we’ll save that for another day). I was quite small and in a stroller (which means I was younger than four, at which time my baby brother was the only child in our family with stroller privileges), and I encountered a bear! Okay, it was Winnie the Pooh. I’m telling you though, I was petrified. For starters, he was huge. Also, he had these weird-looking eyes and this bizarre “Hunny” pot on his head. I was completely freaked out. My parents were flabbergasted by this. My general fearlessness in the face of danger gave my mother many headaches and nightmares, but one tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff could reduce me to a quivering mass.
This is actually pretty common amongst small children at WDW. Parents buy the autograph books and spend twenty minutes in line, only to have their children stubbornly refuse to pose with Goofy. I’ve found that a great way to deal with this is to introduce your child to the concept in stages. Start with the face characters – Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, the Disney Princesses, etc. The child can clearly see the person’s face, and interaction is much easier. From there, try a character meal, like Crystal Palace or Chef Mickey’s. The characters visit the diners in a laid-back, less structured manner that many children find less intimidating. At this point, children will usually accept the characters like the old friends that they are. Except the villains of course. Even older children occasionally have some issues here. Your kids know who the bad guys are, and often don’t see any good coming from hugging the likes of Captain Hook or Jafar.
Of course, the rides can be pretty scary, too. Disney does a great job with theming, and anxiety can start to build up before you even reach the queue. After my own terrifying experiences on Pirates of the Caribbean as a child, I thought I was totally prepared when I took my three-year-old daughter to Walt Disney World for her first trip. I’d start her off on the ride all children love, Dumbo the Flying Elephant. (Sigh) Apparently, my daughter is afraid of heights. Do you know what she did like? It’s a Small World. Over, and over, and over again.
When we returned when she was six, I thought these issues were behind us. After all, she had been talking about The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror for years, literally. She was so psyched to ride this! As we started to head down Sunset Boulevard, however, she started to change her mind. At this point, I actually resorted to bribery. We took her into a shop, and I let her select any hat she wanted. She chose this bright pink monstrosity that looked like a fishing hat with feathers around the brim. It was quite possibly the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, but it got her on the ride. She was obviously there under protest, however, and I started getting “the look” from other parents. You know, the “You are obviously a bad parent” look. I knew that she would really regret it if she didn’t ride it, however, and on we went. Of course, as we exited she declared it was the best ride ever and immediately wanted to ride it again. Is it possible to want to praise your child and beat it simultaneously? (I stuck with the praise, of course, with a tiny bit of “I told you so” thrown in. I’m only human, after all.)
There are a couple of planning tools that can help with these issues, although they obviously don’t relieve them entirely. Disney has some planning videos that you can order for free, and they will give your child a brief glimpse of many of the attractions. There’s also a video Disney released in 1990 in their Disney Sing-Along-Songs series entitled Disneyland Fun. While this is technically of Disneyland and not the Magic Kingdom, they are similar enough that this will give your child a good idea of what to expect. It also teaches them several of the songs from the attractions, and shows other children interacting with the characters. I love this video!
The more familiar your child is with the movies that inspire the attractions, the more excited about the trip they will be, and the more fun they will have. Revisiting these classic films will also help fill the time until your trip time arrives. And who knew prep work could be so much fun?