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.