We’ve all seen the ads: the happy child running through the castle arch and into the warm waiting arms of Mickey Mouse. Embraced by everyone’s favorite mouse, the child beams a smile of pure joy, and the world is a better place.
Except, for some children (and maybe adults), meeting a Disney character isn’t always a moment of pure joy. So what to do when your child dives under the table every time a fur character makes an appearance? There a few strategies for shy children that tend to work on all but the toughest cases of character-phobia. Whether your child is worried by fur characters (those covered from head to toe, such as Mickey Mouse or Winnie-the-Pooh), face characters (those with their faces visible, such as Snow White), or both, here are some tips to help make your Disney character meet and greets magical:
Before the Trip:
1. Introduce Park characters at home: YouTube makes everything about being a Disney fan easier, and that includes showing your child that Mickey Mouse is actually five feet tall and may or may not blink his eyes… ever. At Youtube you’ll find an array of Disney parade and show videos. It’s a great way to introduce kids to the larger-than-life scale of Disney fur and face characters. Bonus: they learn the songs, and then everyone can sing along with the parade. Try Attractions Magazine and Inside the Magic for excellent videos of entire parades, shows, and attraction ride-throughs.
2. Observe how your children interact with local characters: Meet any characters around the holidays or at a local event? To be fair, the Easter Bunny is always creepy, so interactions with this particular giant rabbit might not help determine whether or not the White Rabbit will be a fear trigger. Just the same, if your child has met any characters before, from Santa Claus at the mall to a cow at Chik-Fil-A, consider their reactions and how they approached the character.
3. Explain that characters are bigger in real life: Kids are reasonable. They like logic (or their own brand of logic). Point out that their favorite characters only look small on TV. Compare common fur characters to face characters like Sleeping Beauty or Belle: the princesses are adults (well, teenagers) and so they are adult-height, and since Mickey Mouse and Minnie are adults, they are adult-height as well. A perfectly rational explanation, right?
4. Plan important meet-and-greets for late in the trip: Don’t stroll into Magic Kingdom and turn straight into Town Square Theater to meet Mickey Mouse as soon as you arrive. That must-have Mickey Mouse-and-family portrait can wait until the end of your trip, giving you plenty of time to ease your child into getting cozy with characters — or at least to figure out how close you can convince your child to stand for the photo-op.
On the Trip:
1. Let kids observe characters at their own pace: Before diving into character dining or meet and greets, give your child some time to observe characters in the wild. One of the best opportunities for character-watching is early morning at Magic Kingdom’s Main Street USA. Both fur and face characters are usually in abundance in Town Square, which gives kids the opportunity to see what this character thing is all about, without joining in a queue. If they’re in a stroller, get their permission each time you ease them a little closer to the action. Often, even kids with no intention of letting that giant mouse get near them are fascinated by Mickey’s antics, which could lead to a full-fledged interaction later in your trip.
2. Character dining: Character dining is one of the best ways to introduce characters to wary kids. Children have plenty of time to observe the characters interacting with other restaurant guests, and they can always duck under the table if things get a little too real. Pick a restaurant that includes characters your child loves, such as the Crystal Palace for little Winnie-the-Pooh fanatics, then let them watch the action unfold around them. Get up there for a few hugs yourself, hang on to the table for a second round of characters, and you never know — even a nervous child just might give in to a photo with Pooh Bear by the end of the meal.
3. Make interactions part of a game: Sometimes all you need to get a child over their nerves is a little distraction, and what’s better a distraction than a game? Turn your character meet and greets into an autograph hunt, explaining that each character has different artwork in their signatures. Or bring along stickers and turn your autograph book into a sticker book — put in a new sticker for each character found. The character becomes secondary to the game — now you just need them to look up and smile for that photo!
4. Remember — don’t ruin the magic: Well-meaning parents might give in and tell frightened children that characters are just people in costume. If this seems like the only answer to getting a character interaction, it might be better to avoid characters altogether and try again next time you visit. Children love to have all the answers, and they really love to share their superior knowledge with other children. “They’re only people in costumes” might become your kid’s new favorite line, repeated to every other kid queued up for Donald Duck. Magic is a delicate thing, as any character attendant can tell you. One reassuring whisper might turn into shattered illusions for dozens of other children.
Granted, it is possible to try every character desensitization strategy in the book and still walk away without a single smiling meet and greet photo. At the end of the day, some kids just aren’t ready for characters during their vacation. Some might have loved big furry Mouse hugs on their last trip, hate them on this trip, and will be demanding them on the next trip. It’s not always going to look like the Disney World commercial where all the joy in the world emanates from a Mickey meeting, but consider this: some other part of your trip probably will. Concentrate on what is making your family happy this time around. A Disney vacation is the perfect opportunity to live in the now.