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Disney and Other Family Theme Parks… when your child’s theme is fear.

What better treat than to take the family to Disney, right? It is a child’s dream! One of the happiest places on earth! You look around and see everyone’s favorite characters signing autographs and waiting for the lines of giggling children to run up and give them a hug. All around you there is singing and dancing as excited kids drag their parents toward their favorite rides. OR… Disney and every other theme park out there can be a challenge to navigate…a walk through a potential mine field… a delicate balance between sheer happiness and utter fear, panic and despair. As a family, we tend to fall into the second category. Let me explain…

Have you ever been in one of the endless lines at the park (yes, I know they have Fast Passes, but you can only get a limited number at a time and maybe I didn’t get one for that ride that they did not want to go on… until they decided they wanted to go on it… until they didn’t) and watched as excited, bubbling tots waited with their parents for their 2nd or 3rd spin on a ride …building your excitement to experience said ride with your own child… only to have your noticeably older (mostly to you) child suddenly and completely wig out, start to whimper desperately, and ask to leave, causing those around you to aim their scolding eyes upon you (sometimes subtly… mostly not), wondering why on earth you would selfishly drag your obviously traumatized kid with “issues” onto a ride that he/she does not wish to ride, and, more importantly, why you would subject them to his/her whining and whimpering in what is SUPPOSED TO BE THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH, FOR WHICH THEY PAID GOOD MONEY? Have you ever been walking through a theme park with your children, spotted their all time favorite character just standing there waiting for a hug, and turned to find that one or more of your kids has gone from happy go-lucky to mass of trembling terror at the mere and distant sight of said character, whose dvds they have played enough times to permanently burn theme songs into your brain? If so, you totally understand what I am talking about. You need no explanation! That said, you are welcome to read along and to take solace in the fact that you are not alone in your struggles!

We just returned from a family birthday trip down to Orlando, where we went to both Universal Studios and two of the three main Disney parks. We had already been to Disney several times, but this was our first trip to Universal Studios as a family. All in all, I would say it was a good family trip…a fun trip, but not without hiccups. Back in the day… pre-Little Man, when the girls were very young, I had my first hard lessons on the diverse and sometimes frustrating reactions that kids may have to amusement parks. I can now say that I am a “seasoned” parent of amusement-park-challenged children and that the standards I use to gauge the success of each trip are quite different from what they used to be, before I had kids.

When my Moon was six years old we took our first trip to Disney. The fact that she would barely release my ankles to go down our local park slide at the time, prepared me for her fear of anything that went faster than the people mover and we knew that we would be using the Child Swap lines for anything else we may have wanted to try (THANK YOU CHILD SWAP). I was not quite as prepared for the shear terror she exhibited when exposed to most of her favorite Disney characters “in the flesh”, so to speak, nor did I understand why she would death grip my legs and whimper at the sight of Woody or Winnie the Pooh (while her two-year-old sister sauntered up to gather autographs for the both of them, nonchalantly explaining that her older sister “over behind Mamma” was afraid to ask), yet happily run head first into freaking ten-foot-tall Baloo, arms extended, or calmly high five the Army Man from Toy Story, WHO HAS NO FACE.

Even now, on this most recent trip… she posed with every super hero and avoided pretty much anything else (though her teenaged method of eye-rolling and feigning complete disinterest was MUCH more pleasant than the blood curdling screams back in the day when Woody snuck up behind her for a picture). So… since she is now an articulate seventeen-year-old, I decided to ask why she was (and to some extent still is) so terrified of some character costumes, but not others. This sums up her answer: It wasn’t so much the appearance or design of the costume that bothered her (she loved Maleficent, for example). It was the size distortion. Baloo is supposed to be big! Winnie-the-Pooh is not. Army Man may, in fact, have no face, but he is true to human size… even though she had to agree that he was much bigger than a plastic army man. When I pushed it a little further and asked why she was afraid of clowns, she quipped (with an eye roll), “Mom, clowns are just creepy… and their feet are too big.” Simple enough.

Now, let’s jump to Little Man (we shall skip My Sun because she will try just about any ride…including ones that I, myself, would not touch with a ten foot pole). Little Man is one of those kids that definitely knows what he wants to avoid, but sometimes thinks he wants to go on a ride, then gets in line and anxiety gets the best of him. And yes, at times I put a little pressure on him to follow through (or even offer the occasional bribe), but not because I care if we actually go on the ride or not and NOT on anything super fast or scary. I want him to see that, in the end, his fears are unfounded and that those things that we told him about the ride (a million times) are true. I want him to see that there were, in fact, no drops… or one small one, and that we were not trying to trick him. And so far (with the exception of The Barn Stormer, which his sister convinced him to go on and ended up being a tragedy) he has come through ok and even liked a lot of those rides after the fact. So, please don’t judge me if I do not yank him from the It’s A Small World line when he starts to tear up and whimper because he is certain that at some point in the ride all those robot children are going to begin to chortle as they send our raft plunging hundreds of feet into roaring rapids. I want him to see that this will not happen… that he can trust me to be up front with him.

Why go to theme parks at all if we end up needing to navigate them like parents walking barefoot through a carpet full of legos…in the dark? Because all in all and despite the challenges, we have a good time… and isn’t that (and not perfection) the whole point of going on a family vacation? Besides, some of those things that made one vacation or another bumpy, end up becoming hysterically funny family tales once enough time has passed: Remember the time your sister took her sandal off on Tom Sawyer’s Island and threw it into the lagoon before anyone could stop her? How about that time we waited for almost an hour to ride Pirates of the Caribbean only to have it close for technical difficulties as we neared the boats, causing your brother, who had decided that he did not want to be there, to cheer triumphantly among the angry sighs?

It all boils down to the metrics I now use to measure success. Who says you have to go on all the rides to have a good time? Who says you even have to go on any of the rides to have a good time? Yes, these places are expensive, so you do want to try to get the best bang for your buck, but sometimes that bang can mean different things to different families. I have three children. Two of them are extremely anxious. One will try anything. They all came out happy in the end, so I will count this family vacation as successful. Besides, take a moment… look around and past the misadventures of your own kids (something that is incredibly hard to do in the moment): there are plenty of other whiny, tired, irritated children and exasperated and exhausted parents out there! My point being that you are not the only one! It just seems that way, at times.

I would now like to leave you with some of Little Man’s ratings of rides at the various parks (in no specific order…as presented). He may not have gone on too many of them, but he had definite opinions about the ones he did try.

Na’vi River Journey (Disney’s Animal Kingdom): On a scale of 1-10… definitely a 10. It was smooth, relaxing, calm, pretty, glorious (what can I say? The boy loves his adjectives.), and most importantly THERE ARE NO DROPS.

Avatar Flight of Passage (Disney’s Animal Kingdom): (He totally DID NOT go on this ride, but wanted to express his opinion on why. The rest of us loved it, by the way.) On a scale of 1-10… no way will I go on this ride. It is probably very scary, too realistic and rough… and it looks like you are up in the air, which is pretty horrifying.

Kilimanjaro Safaris (Disney’s Animal Kingdom): On a scale of 1-10… This was a 10. You can see real animals, so the bumpiness didn’t bother me and it didn’t disturb the animals.

Pirates of the Caribbean (Disney’s Magic Kingdom): let me give you some background on this ride when it comes to Little Man. He used to be terrified of this ride, but somehow decided that they had shortened the drop so it is ok to go on… though he prefers a bribe… I am not going to argue that they did not, in fact, shorten the drop because it makes the ride “ok” in his book! So, PLEASE don’t tell him!) On a scale of 1-10… this one gets a 7 because it is fun, but it has an unexpected drop and even though they made the drop shorter, it is still a drop… and scary. (and he spent the rest of the day worrying that there were hidden drops in pretty much every other ride).

The Barnstormer (Disney’s Magic Kingdom): On a scale of 1-10… this one gets a 0. It was too bumpy. There were too many turns. It was too rough. I hated it. My sister made me go on it. This will never happen again.

The Seas With Nemo and Friends (Disney’s Epcot): On a scale of 1-10…this one only gets a 5 because it was nice and calm, but Nemo came off as a little rude and kind of a jerk.

Soarin’ Around the World (Disney’s Epcot): On a scale of 1-10… definitely a 9. It was smooth and very realistic and you got to fly over nature, but the noise was too loud sometimes and it was terrifying to fly through fireworks. (PS: this was one of the rides that he worried about the whole time we were in line.)

Jungle Cruise (Disney’s Magic Kingdom): On a scale of 1-10… this gets a definite 10 and an LOL. It was super funny and smooth!

The Haunted Mansion (Disney’s Magic Kingdom): On a scale of 1-10… a 9 because I mostly liked the ride, but I really was freaked out by the very beginning before you get on and right after you get on. It also kept stopping!

Spaceship Earth (Disney’s Epcot): On a scale of 1-10… I give it a 10. It was cool and really pretty inside. The ride was very smooth and the cartoon was funny.

The People Mover (Disney’s Magic Kingdom): On a scale of 1-10… I give it a 10. It was very smooth and they taught about the history. I also got to see the inside of the Buzz Lightyear ride, which I want to go on, but the park was closing…so next time. I saw the inside of Space Mountain, too, but I would NEVER ride that!

The Simpsons Ride: (Universal Studios) On a scale of 1-10… It was a 5. It was funny, but way too realistic and scary and bumpy. It was good that I could close my eyes at the scary parts.

Kang and Kudo’s Twirl n Hurl: (Universal Studios) On a scale of 1-10… a 9. It was fun, but a little hard to control.

Fast and Furious – Supercharged: (Universal Studios) On a scale of 1-10… this was a 0. I do not know why I went on this ride. It was loud and bumpy and scary.

The Cat in the Hat: (Universal’s Islands of Adventure) On a scale of 1-10… I give it a 9. There were some loud noises and it was a bit jerky, but humorous.

The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride: (Universal’s Islands of Adventure) On a scale of 1-10… I give it a 10…even though it was a little bumpy.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish: (Universal’s Islands of Adventure) On a scale of 1-10… I give it a 10 because you got squirted with water and it was hot out!

Jurassic World Raptor Encounter: (Universal’s Islands of Adventure) On a scale of 1-10… I give it an 8. I LOVE dinosaurs, but it looked so real and Blue was pretty scary and liked to surprise people!

On our next trip down, he wants to do a more extensive review and says that “maybe” he will go on some more rides. “Maybe”… unless he decides not to…

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