Free-Range at Disney World

Hi nisserrsys
Readers — I’m wondering whether folks somehow feel MORE Free-Range when they’re on vacation, and if so — how come? Is it because when we relax, we relax about danger, too? Or do we somehow trust other environments more than our own? Or is it only the confines of a Disney resort?
Anyway, this post comes to us from Michelle Rise, who describes herself as “a homemaker, mother of 5 who has had over 20 years of experience trekking through the Disney parks with her family.” She Tweets @Rise7Up. – L
Let me start by stating I’m not always 100% Free-Range as a parent.  I often say no when it’s quite possible, upon reflection, I could have said yes.  Yes, you can cross the four lane highway to get ice cream.  I said no for years until I realized neighbors were allowing their kids to cross the same highway.  After all, the legal speed is 35 mph and there are crosswalks and lights at the particular intersection.  I didn’t need to be such a ninny.
The goal of most parents is to raise children eventually capable of taking care of and supporting themselves and their own families, I began to look for ways my kids could safely learn independence.  One was family trips to Florida to visit Walt Disney World.
Orlando is a pretty big city compared to the sleepy suburb where we live in Alabama.  We noticed though, how quickly our 6 year old son Leland learned his surroundings, not only in the theme parks but also the shuttle to and from Hawthorn Suites, where we were staying.  Take note that it is not on Disney property so this gave the added anxiety of another bus to navigate to and from the parks. Our 12 year old daughter, Leah, had no idea where she was and had we said Canada, she might have believed us.  But at 12, she wanted freedom to roam, although she would have preferred to do so with a friend rather than her brother.  The problem was this: One day, both kids weren’t ready to head back to the hotel when we were.   But baby brother, Luke, needed a nap.  Luke’s nap was our official excuse for going back early.
We thought about it a few minutes and decided if the two of them agreed to stay together, we would trust them to get back to the hotel from the Magic Kingdom after riding Space Mountain, Astro Orbiter and the Teacups.  We knew Leland could manage just fine and Leah was responsible enough to watch him.
We went back and worried some, but thankfully had the baby to distract us. Sure enough, about two hours later, Leah and Leland walked in beaming about their adventures.  Both proud and excited, Leah admitted she almost had the two of them get on the wrong bus but Leland corrected her and she (miraculously) listened.
Not only did it create a great memory, it cemented a sibling bond still very strong today.   I’m thoroughly convinced that allowing freedom is what gave Leah the confidence to become a worldwide traveler when only 18 years old and Leland the desire to see and do amazing things by joining the US Coast Guard. – M.R.
Did a small Free-Range experience at Disney change two kids...forever?

Did a small Free-Range experience at Disney change two kids…forever?

18 Responses to Free-Range at Disney World

  1. Eileen September 18, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

    This is a great story…and it points out something that I think is key to a free-range approach: knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each kid.

    There’s no point in trusting your child with the freedom to navigate, when navigation is not their strength.

  2. BL September 18, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

    I’ve noticed the kids (participants and spectators both) having the run of the place at the Little League World Series.

    (Of course, there are always some parents angrily snapping “stay right here where I can see you!!!” Alas.)

  3. Farrar September 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

    We were just at Great Wolf Lodge and while it’s all indoors, I noted the same thing – that kids had free reign of the place – and I also thought it must be a vacation thing. I think it’s sort of like how, when you go to a new place, your kids are more likely to try something new on the menu, even something good for them, that you know they would never try at home.

  4. Paul September 18, 2013 at 7:06 pm #

    Did the exact same thing on our last trip. I was beat, so I returned to our beach Club room, and let my three kids roam around EPCOT. We’ve been enough that I knew they wouldn’t get lost, and they felt great going out on their own.

  5. Betsy September 18, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    Of course now the minimum age requirement for “unaccompanied children to enter” Disney is 14. But it says nothing about leaving them there, once they are there! I loved the combination of the younger map oriented child and the older responsible one who is not! Everybody work together, folks!

  6. Timothy Cooke September 18, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    I love this story…can you believe how many parents would freak out and probably call CPS over this? Kudos to you Michelle, for giving your children some freedom!

    This story is also oddly relevant to me and my kids. I have three kids, ages 9, 6, and 6, and we want to go to Disney World sometime in summer/fall 2014. So we were literally just discussing the “Free-Range” aspect of the trip, and how much freedom I’d give them during it. And then I see this…that’s an odd coincidence.

  7. Stephanie September 19, 2013 at 1:13 am #

    We did something similar when we took the kids to Disneyland. The older kids wanted to ride things the youngest didn’t, so we gave them time on their own, with an agreed upon meeting place after a couple hours, and a cell phone just in case. The cell phone came in handy when they realized they were going to be stuck in line at the time they were supposed to meet us, although my husband and I were both pretty much expecting the kids to be late due to lines. Not like you can time things that precisely at Disneyland once you’re in line.

  8. Beth in Md September 19, 2013 at 1:23 am #

    I remember at the age of 12 my parents letting me roam around Epcot by myself while they went off and did other things. It was a wonderful feeling of independence! I don’t think my parents minded having a no kid break either!

  9. bmommyx2 September 19, 2013 at 2:21 am #

    This is awesome. We just spent two long weekends at Disneyland with our 6 yr old & 2 yr old. For me the key to the story was that she knew her kids, what she felt they were capable of & their limitations & she took a deep breath & took a leap of faith. My brother or a friend & I used to go off on our own at Disneyland all the time & just meet up for meals. My friends parents droped us off & didn’t even stay. This was all before cellphones too. I think certain situations are less risky than others. I’m pretty confident that between all the Disney employees (they have a lot visible) and other Disney guest it’s easy for your kids to get help if you teach them not to be afraid to ask. My 6 yr old is very bright, but he doesn’t always pay attention & is easily distracted so I don’t always let him do things that I would have done as a child. I am always looking for those moments when I can give him a little nudge to get out of his comfort zone & teach him a little more independence. I would never have him do something he wasn’t comfortable with unless I was able to watch or hear him. I often encourage him when he wants to know something to ask himself even if I’m with him. I have let him go to the cashier for change or to buy something if I was nearby. On our trip my hubby & I were enjoying our coffee while the little one was napping in the stroller. My oldest wanted a balloon & he suggested that if I gave him money he could go get it himself. I sent him to go & ask how much they were & then I would let him know. My hubby asked me (sounding a bit concerned) if I thought it was OK for him to go by himself? I told him that I could see where he was going from where we were sitting & remarked that anything happening was unlikely. I think I did end up going down when it was taking a while. Sometimes because he’s little & people are not used to kids doing things for themselves he isn’t always able to get someones attention. He also needs to learn to wait his turn, but be assertive at the same time and if they don’t notice him to speak up a little. I still think it was good for him. I often go place with both kids by myself & since my 2 yr old is a runner I have to stay closer to him often leaving my 6 yr old to his own, I’ve done this at the park or children’s museums & I feel confident that he’s OK.

  10. bmommyx2 September 19, 2013 at 2:27 am #

    The last day of both trips my hubby went to work & I spent the last day in the park with the kids by myself. A couple of times my oldest didn’t want to ride the ride my little one wanted to & I was told that in order for him to wait by himself he had to be seven years old. Also for him to go on a ride by himself he had to be seven. My son was one month shy of seven years & they told me he had to be seven that day so I told the employee he was seven & they said OK. I had to explain to my son that if anyone asked he was seven. Not thrilled that I had to tell a white lie to get around their rule. Personally I think it should be up to the parent to decide if their child can go or wait by themselves. I think the fourteen year old rule is to get in the park without a parent present.

  11. Silver Fang September 19, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    These days, Disney won’t allow kids under 14 to be in the park alone.

  12. Jen (P.) September 19, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

    We travel to Disney World somewhat regularly and when I’m planning a trip I frequent a message board so I can catch up on the changes since our last visit. It is not at all unusual to see wwyd-type questions about this sort of thing and those threads inevitably turn ugly. I remember one a few weeks ago where a single mom asked for opinions as to whether it would be appropriate to leave her son (I think he was 8 or 10) on a bench while she and her other kids ride the Haunted Mansion since he doesn’t like the attraction. Well . . . you can guess what ensued.

  13. Jen (P.) September 19, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

    @Silver Fang–they’re not allowed to ENTER the park alone, but from what I’ve read, there is nothing to stop you from allowing them to remain in the park without an adult.

  14. Gina September 19, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    I’m a Disney veteran (we lived in Orlando for several years, and were passholders) and I think Disney is THE place to test out your Free-Range limits. Especially for parents who haven’t tested Free Range waters before. Kids need to learn how to navigate, how to approach appropriate authorities if they need help, how to manage their time, how to control their behavior, etc. in order to truly be Free-Range. Disney is the perfect place to practice those things.

    My kids first used the boys’ room by themselves at Disney. They walked off in search of a trash can by themselves for the first time at Disney. The learned to stand in line on their own, they got in line for churros while I managed a stroller. These freedoms went a long way in developing their independence and ability to manage themselves in a crowd, but it was in a safe, positive place.

    And now they have skills to apply other places 🙂

  15. Michelle September 19, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

    Hello, I’m the Michelle who wrote this article and I appreciate the positive comments. I love the free range common sense parenting. It’s good for them. While you can’t drop young kids off at WDW, or anywhere for that matter, you can certainly allow some freedom once inside as long as you’re firm on expected behavior and meeting place. We always told ours they were not allowed to ruin someone else’s magic. We knew who could and couldn’t find their way around. And our oldest, who used to be lost easily, learned how to follow maps, signs and landmarks by focusing more. It may or may not have had anything to do with younger brother knowing. 🙂 But however it was, at 18, she was confident enough to fly off to Australia followed by a trip to Europe which she worked to pay for before going to college.

  16. Michelle September 19, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    Oh and to Lenore,
    I meant to tell you that I remember hearing about your son’s subway experience in the news and thought the over-reaction was absurd. I believe we are creating paranoia among ourselves and our kids by being outrageously overprotective. We’ve managed to raise 5 ( well two are still in the house) and none have had broken bones or serious injuries and are in general well adjusted kids minus the occasional dramatic teen girl meltdown or teen boy angst. I really enjoy your blog and appreciate being a small part if it.

  17. Christina September 19, 2013 at 10:40 pm #

    Michelle – Thanks so much for sharing this story!

  18. Bob Davis September 22, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

    Kudos to your son for joining the Coast Guard–don’t know if this has happened yet, but when a mariner gets in trouble out in King Neptune’s briny domain, your son and his shipmates will be the most beautiful people in the world when they come to the rescue.