Touring Walt Disney World Alone: Is Your Child Ready?
There comes a time in every Walt Disney World vacation when you find that not all members of your group want to do exactly the same thing. Maybe Mom wants to shop while the kids want more time on the rides. Maybe little brother wants another turn on the Teacups, while big sister wants to cool off on Splash Mountain. Maybe Dad wants to go for a swim, while big brother wants to sleep in at the hotel. Many of these situations involve parents and children with differing vacation wants and needs. Would everyone have a better time if kids and parents spent some time apart?
When children are small, splitting up is not an option; you know can’t send a four-year-old to explore Tomorrowland on his own. And when you’ve got high school seniors, you may be grateful that they want to conquer the Tower of Terror without you. But what do you do in the intermediate years? How do you know when it’s OK to give your child some time alone at your hotel or in the theme parks?
Is there an official policy?
Over the past five years, I’ve asked at least a dozen Disney cast members in various positions whether there is a policy about what age is acceptable to allow children alone in the hotels or parks. I’ve never gotten a firm answer. While there may be no publicly released policy, there is information from which you can infer the party-line point of view: the on-site childcare centers will accept children only until age twelve. After that, families have to answer the evening supervision question on their own.
Currently, there is no age-of-required-supervision given on the official Walt Disney World website. However, I did find reference on several older Disney-related discussion board threads to a statement on the 2004 version of WDW Annual Passholder site which stated, “Persons under the age of 10 years must be accompanied by a person over the age of 21 years while attending Walt Disney World® Water parks and the DisneyQuest® Indoor Interactive Theme Park. Persons under the age of 7 years must be accompanied by a person over the age of 21 years when attending the Magic Kingdom® Park, Epcot®, Disney-MGM Studios or Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park.” The implication here was that you could send your eight-year-old to the Magic Kingdom alone.
As for what the law allows, I have found that Florida has no legally mandated age for leaving a child unsupervised at home or elsewhere. (I’m not a lawyer. If you need more information, please consult a professional attorney.) But just because it may be technically acceptable to leave your child alone in a hotel or theme park, that doesn’t mean this makes sense for your personal situation. As with most parenting decisions, this really boils down to a judgment call.
Factors to Consider
When deciding whether to give your child time alone at Walt Disney World, there are a number of questions to ask yourself:
- How mature is your child?
- Has your child been home alone before?
- Has your child been alone before in public (going to the mall, going to the movies)?
- Has your child navigated alone before (walking to school, biking into town, etc.)?
- Does the child actually want to have alone time?
- Has your child had self defense or “stranger danger” training at school?
- Do you and your child both have access to a cell phone and do those phones have good reception at WDW?
- Has your child been to WDW before? Are they familiar with the surroundings?
- How far away will you be?
- How long will you be separated?
- In a hotel, what floor are you on? Where are the fire exits?
- Does your child understand when, and when not, to open a hotel room door?
- Will your child be with siblings/cousins/friends? What is the maturity level of those individuals?
- If siblings are together, do they get along well?
- Can your child be relied upon not to lose things like money or park tickets?
- What time of day is it?
- Does your child behave well at home?
- Can your child ask for directions from an appropriate source?
- Is your child able to identify cast members?
- Have you established contingency plans in case the unexpected occurs (a ride breaks down, a phone doesn’t work, etc.)?
- Does your child have any medical issues that need monitoring?
- Are there weather issues that might impact your child (impending storm, etc.)?
- Does the child understand how to call you from a hotel phone or other non-cell phone? Do they have your cell phone number memorized?
- Does your child understand how/when to call 911?
- Does your child have your hotel and room number information memorized?
- Does the child understand your rules about water safety?
- Does the child understand your rules about food consumption?
- Does a child alone in a hotel room have sufficient material to be entertained in a contained environment (engaging TV, books, snacks, etc.)?
The answers to these and a multitude of related questions will influence your decision on whether to allow your child some time alone at Walt Disney World. For some families, a child as young as seven or eight might be ready to go on a ride alone. For other families, a 16 or 17 year old might still need watchful attention at all times.
Practice Makes Perfect
In between constant supervision and a totally solo trip to the parks, there are a number of intermediate steps on the road to a child’s independence at Walt Disney World. Here are some milestones along the way:
- Allow your child to go into a public restroom while you wait outside.
- Allow your child to go on a ride alone while you wait nearby and are visible (Dumbo, Teacups, Carousel, etc.)
- Allow your child to go on a ride alone while you wait nearby and are not visible (Small World, Buzz Lightyear, etc.)
- Allow your child to get food at the pool snack bar alone.
- Allow your child to eat or shop in a theme park or your hotel alone.
- Allow your child to go to another area of a theme park while you are also in the park.
- Allow your child to set and follow through on a specified meeting time and place in the park.
- Allow your child to stay in the hotel room during the day while you are in another part of the hotel.
- Allow your child to stay in the hotel room in the evening while you go to a restaurant at a different hotel.
- Allow your child to return from a park to your hotel on their own, or vice versa.
- Allow your child to go to a park on their own for a few hours during the day.
- Allow your child to stay at a theme park in the evening while you return to the hotel.
Each of these steps gives a different degree of freedom that may feel more or less comfortable given your unique situation. You can use them as building blocks on the road to theme park independence. At each step, stop and assess how comfortable both you and your child are with more separation. If there is any anxiety, then take a step back or wait until your next trip before trying again.
In every case, be sure to discuss contingency planning with your child. For example, several of the restrooms at Walt Disney World have multiple entrances. Would your seven-year-old know what to do if she accidentally chose the wrong one to leave through? If a ride breaks down and someone is delayed or a cell phone battery fails, do you have a fail safe meeting time and place? A few minutes of advance planning can go a long way to making sure everyone has a positive experience.
What have I done?
While each family is different, I personally started letting my daughters go alone into a restroom or onto a ride when they were about eight years old. We’ve gone through several of the steps above and are now at the stage where my 11-year-old twins have stayed alone in our hotel room while I went to the resort’s quick service restaurant for a few minutes. Our 14-year-old has been allowed to explore Epcot alone for a few hours during the day. We have also allowed her to leave the Magic Kingdom and take the monorail on her own back to our room at the Contemporary, texting us all the way. Other families might consider our timetable to be too restrictive or too permissive. Tell me what works for you…
UPDATE March 2013: Disney has changed its policy on allowing unaccompanied children in the parks.
18 thoughts on “Touring Walt Disney World Alone: Is Your Child Ready?”
I really appreciate this article!! This exactly what I’ve been wondering about for our 13 year old – she’ll be 14 when we go next summer. You’ve given me much to think about and plan and talk with her about. We’ll be there with friends of hers and we were planning on letting them have some time on their own. Your article will help us with the plans and setting a few boundries for them. Thanks so much!!
Interesting post. I was surprised how many children as young as 7 or 8 were running around Pop without any adult supervision. Not exactly in my comfort zone, however at no point on our trip last month did I feel even a little unsafe or learly of of other people.
This is a great post. We just returned from our vacation last week with a seven year old boy. We felt comfortable letting him walk alone from our room to the pool at All Star Sports, get drinks at the hotel by himself and ride a few rides in the single rider line. At BB we let him swim in a pool by himself and we were around the corner on chairs. We felt these little things let him know we trust him as he grows into more independence at WDW.
Good material to think about. Remember that without parents does not have to mean “alone.” I’d feel much more comfortable allowing a child to go somewhere without my wife or me as long as she was with a friend and/or sibling and they understood the buddy system and that they were to stay together at all times. Plus, like you pointed out, with cell phones, texting, etc., it’s easier to stay up on how they’re doing.
One thing that I think should be taken into consideration is the crowd levels during your trip. I don’t mind my 11 year old son and his friend going off by themselves to do some rides on a moderate crowd day. However we were there over Thanksgiving last year. There was no way I was letting the kids go off by themselves in that crowd. They would have been separated for sure.
My son is very much tech kid, and had never had much drive for independence, so I used WDW to push him a bit. I made it clear that if he didn’t like what we were doing, he could head back to the on site hotel from the park. At 14 he had never ridden a public bus or had to navigate a new place on his own, so WDW was a safe place for him to practice, and learn the importance of paying attention in a pretty safe eviornment. He did get on the wrong bus once, but he ended up at the wrong resort, not in a seedy part of town. And he had much more confidence to try out city busses when he got home.
Thanks for the great feedback. Amy makes a good point about considering the crowd level when allowing your child freedom at WDW. Navigating the parks on a September afternoon is an entirely different experience than doing this on New Year’s Eve – even for an adult.
Coreen – I like the idea that you can also use Disney independence as training for other independence. Thanks for the idea.
Erin, this was a really detailed and thoughtful blog. As a parent of DD6 and DD8, it seems really far off about letting them go off on their own, but it definitely gives a lot to think about. Thanks for compilng such a thoughtful post!
I was thinking the same thing. I have a very mature 8 year old, and there is no way I would allow him to wonder off alone. I can see allowing him to ride a ride by himself and waiting at the exit for him. Honestly I can not see allowing 11 or 12 years olds by themselves either. I might consider it if it was in a group of 4 or 6 well-behaved kids, but definately not by themselves. All it takes is one creepy pervert……
Great post, and you covered the things to consider very well.
A big one to think about is how your child will do if a ride breaks down. Our younger two got to experience this for themselves a few years ago when they were on Splash Mountain by themselves at MK late one night. It was a chaotic experience due to what I think was understaffing and ride ops who did not know the correct procedures for getting riders off.
So, definitely think how your child would do if they were stuck on something like Space Mountain in the pitch dark for several minutes and had to walk down many stairs to get out of the ride.
Great article and answers. I find I’m much more willing to let my older two kids go off on their own than I am for my youngest. That being said, my youngest is 12 this year and I think she’ll be allowed a little more freedom on her next trip.
I like this list of “readiness”, Our kids are an interesting group, 14 DD (she’ll be 15 when we go in December), a DS 12-who’s Asperger’s and a DS 5 who’s a handful. and I’ve thought about how everyone is going to get along.
I’m just now realizing we can text and bug our teen, while she goes off for short spans to ride the cool rides. I might even let my big son go with her for a little while, he won’t do a phone, but I could get him a walkie talkie to handle. That way they get a little independence, he can do somethings by himself.
I don’t think I could put them on a bus, but if we’re all at the same park or at the hotel….
Thanks for the great ideas, I’m excited to see how it goes.
I’m impressed, I have to say. Actually hardly ever do I encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you could have hit the nail on the head. Your concept is excellent; the problem is one thing that not sufficient people are talking intelligently about. I am very joyful that I stumbled across this in my seek for something relating to this.
I know I *just* read this info about unaccompanied minors somewhere (aside from Touring Plans), now I can’t find it. Anyone have a link to source material?
Aaah I found it! It’s on the Disney ticketing Terms & Conditions (small print) when you’re buying tickets. If you begin a ticket purchase on the Disney website and then continue to the purchase screen, it’s in a scroll box at the bottom of the purchase screen.
Persons under the age of 7 must be accompanied by an adult when attending the Magic Kingdom® Park, Epcot®, Disney’s Hollywood Studios™ or Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park. If your ticket includes admission to Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park or Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park, please note that persons under the age of 10 must be accompanied by an adult.
Great article latest advice I go from an on-line cast member is:
“The current age that would be allowed to be by themselves is all day in the Theme Park is age 12,
If the parents are in the Theme Park with the children the children can go on the rides by themselves at age 7.”
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