We had been planning the trip for weeks, and all had our costumes ready for Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. My son wanted to be a fighter pilot and told me I needed to be a helicopter pilot, and we were set.
It was gonna be awesome.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, my Mother and I talked non-stop about everything we were so excited to show my son. She’d reminisce about what rides I always wanted to go on at his age and all the characters I wanted to meet.
I’d be thinking through which experiences I loved that I wanted to get to share with him. Taking your child on a trip like this is like getting to relive your childhood all over again, and I was giddy with excitement.
Imagine our surprise when our very first ride experience went like this…
Hysterical tears, screaming, trying to run out of the line, and overall being terrified.
How was it even possible to be terrified of the most magical place on earth? I was perplexed. We chalked it up to that specific ride, which was a bit dark in the waiting area and instead tried out a show.
Same… exact… response.
After trying a few more times, it was safe to say that he wasn’t going to go on any rides or see any shows without completely losing his shit. Insisting on him doing so was just going to set him up to need therapy as an adult.
At that point in time, my Mother was starting to get upset because how she had envisioned spending her birthday was not turning out the way she had thought it would.
We all were going to be miserable unless we made a mindset change.
So I decided to take charge and suggest a different approach. We were all going to have to view it as a learning experience. It worked, and we all ultimately had an amazing time from then on out.
Here are six things we did as a family to help my son release his fear of Disney World.
We Released Our Own Expectations
The very first step was for my Mother and I both to release the expectations we had set for this trip. Especially those regarding activities and experiences.
Just because we loved the rides and shows, didn’t mean that my son would. There were also plenty of other entertainment options that didn’t involve being indoors in the dark with loud sounds. Ones that we could all enjoy.
So instead we spent more time finding characters to meet, watching parades, and eating treats.
We actually discovered parts of the parks that we didn’t even know existed as a result of having to think outside of our regular routines and looking for other options.
We Stopped Comparing Him to Other Children
We had taken him on many of these rides when he was 18 months old and he handled them all fine.
Now that he’s three, on each of the rides and shows we’d see hundreds of other kids his age who were handling the experience just fine.
We’d even point them out to him, but that ultimately made me feel like I was shaming him for expressing his fears, which we unknowingly were!
Once we decided to focus on him instead of the other children, it made it much easier for all of us.
We Learned to Respect His Fear as Being Genuine
At one point, out of frustration, my Mother mentioned she felt he was being spiteful in not wanting to do what we wanted to do and that his reaction was manipulative.
But he had the same, exact reaction on every ride that included any kind of dim lights, loud sounds, and movement. He wasn’t reacting to the situation but to the specific experience. It was too overwhelming for him.
In order for him to eventually be able to move past his fear, we had to accept it as genuine fear and not a manipulation tactic.
He actually would calm down significantly if we just asked him if he was afraid, and if so that we’d leave the line. Worked like a charm.
We Taught Him How to Verbalize What His Fears Are
My son is only three years old so identifying his emotions is still a work in progress.
So we spent a lot of our trip coaching him through answers like “Are you afraid? Is it the dark? It’s loud, isn’t it? That makes you feel scared? What would make you feel better?”.
We Gave Him Tools to Help Manage His Fear
In between ride attempts, we’d talk about what to do in situations where things seemed scary. He kept referring to it as “spooky times” and it was adorable!
The technique he liked to demonstrate the best was closing his eyes. He’d squint and squish up his face and that seemed to do the trick.
We also suggested hugs from Mommy or Grandma, remembering it’s all make-believe, and even bought him a Mickey bubble wand that lit up so if he got scared of the dark, he could turn on his own light.
We’d Ask His Permission to Try Again
By far the most important thing we learned was not to force him to try the rides again, but to instead ask him if he was ready. If he wasn’t, we kept talking about his fears and the ways to manage them.
Eventually, he felt brave enough to try another ride and used his new strategies to block out the spooky parts. He still cried and was afraid, but he was extremely proud of himself after he got off the ride that he at least tried it.
So how did our trip end?
Now that we’re back at home he’s been telling everyone that he “LOVES Disney World”.
When asked what his favorite ride is, he says “Nemo… even though I cried. But I closed my eyes when I saw the fish monster and everything was okay”.
How have you taught you taught your child to handle their fears? Leave a comment below.