How do you handle Fear, Anxiety and Phobias at Disney World?
Visiting a place as unusual as Disney World for the first time can be anxiety provoking, even for those without fear issues. If you or someone in your travel party has anxiety, fear and/or phobias, it can feel overwhelming. How it’s handled can make or break your trip.The great news is that with a little preparation, it’s often possible to dramatically reduce your fear level, or even to eliminate it all together. And if it’s not removed, it can often be handled in a way that minimizes it.
In this article we’ll discuss some possible strategies including those for some specific phobias. Since there are so many possible phobias, there’s no way to address each one here, but we’ll discuss some of the more common ones.
To get some helpful strategies, we interviewed Laura Bravo MA, LMHC, NCC of the Total Life Counseling Center in Orlando, Florida (www.Totallifecounseling.com). One of Laura’s specialties is counseling those with phobias, and she was also a Disney annual pass holder. We’ll include Laura’s suggestions as well as some of ours.
Before we share the above, are you looking for a Travel Agent? If so, consider using one that knows Disney World well and has experience with special needs travel. Visit our Travel Agent page here to learn more.
If you know you or someone in your party has anxiety, fear or phobias, prepare well before your trip to Disney World.
Preparing in advance can consist of several strategies. First we’ll cover some general strategies and then we’ll go into potential strategies for specific fears and phobias.
Here are some things you can do to increase your odds of having a great time at Disney World:
1. If possible, seek counseling in advance of your Disney World Trip.
Laura Bravo recommends that those with phobias prepare with therapy. This is true for adults as well as children. Laura’s approach to therapy would be to offer a combination of :
- Systematic desensitization therapy. This is a gradual process that allows you to become desensitized to the phobia trigger. By taking small, manageable steps, you reach your goal of being able to tolerate the phobia trigger comfortably.
- Relaxation techniques. The relaxation techniques can be used in conjunction with systematic desensitization. (Tip: Even if you’re unable to get counseling, you could always find some relaxation techniques online, and practice them on your own.)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. This therapy allows you to change your thoughts and behaviors. Laura believes that it’s very important to begin this therapy at least 6-8 weeks in advance. She feels strongly that it’s not the kind of thing you can start a week before.
Prepare to have someone to talk to while on your trip, if possible. If you have severe issues, one option would be to find and talk with a counselor/therapist in the Disney area in advance of your trip. It would be especially helpful if they’re familiar with Disney World, but just knowing that you have someone nearby to support you during your visit may reduce anxiety.
You can also talk with your counselor/therapist from home about setting up a phone appointment during your trip.
2. Never force anyone with fear, anxiety or phobias to do something they’re not comfortable with. Even if it’s yourself!
People with phobias are often able to tell that their fears are out of proportion to reality, but they have difficulty controlling their emotional and physical responses to those fears. We strongly advise against forcing these people (or even allowing them if you have authority, to engage in an attraction that can cause fear).
This is true even for yourself. There’s no reason to put pressure on yourself to do everything at Disney. As I mentioned above, there’s so much to see and do that almost anyone can have a blast being there without participating in everything there is.
Keep in mind that the parks are meant to be fun. We can’t stress enough that no one should be pushed into anything that might feel frightening. You may choose to encourage someone who truly wants help and support to try something. However keep in mind that pushing sensitive people, including yourself, your children or your mentally challenged companion can ruin a vacation and even worse. It can be traumatic and life altering. It’s just not worth it when there’s so much fun to be had in the Disney parks.
3. Discuss the “Ability to Decline” with all travel companions before your Disney World Trip.
Before leaving for your vacation, It’s important for you or the person with anxiety to come to an understanding with the members of your party. The person with fear issues must know that they won’t have to do anything that they don’t feel comfortable with. For someone with anxiety, just knowing that they’re in control of what they do or don’t do, with the ability to set his/her own limits, can drastically reduce anxiety.
If you’re the person with the fear, discuss the situation with your travel companions and come to an agreement that you can be comfortable with. Don’t allow anyone to pressure you into doing something you don’t feel comfortable with. To this end, it’s important to travel with people you can trust to respect and support your needs. If you don’t feel certain that your travel companions will be supportive and respectful, consider changing your plans. We don’t advise traveling with those who you don’t feel safe with.
For information on declining a ride or show in the parks at different stages, read the “Leaving a Ride or Show Before or Once it Starts” section in The Parks chapter for details.
4. Reduce the unknown at Disney World – become familiar.
Some people are simply anxious about the unknown. Becoming familiar with the Disney environment can reverse that issue. Learning about some of the things you’ll encounter in advance of your trip can help reduce fear and anxiety by taking some of the unknown out of the situation. You’ll want to research things like:
- Your resort (Disney World owned or otherwise)
- The parks & rides
- Specific attractions you expect to try
- Disney transportation
Study the rides and attractions in advance of your trip. You can do this through a good travel guide book, Disney website or and by watching videos on Youtube (more about that below). Take the time to look for whatever you think may trigger fear. Or simply view the videos to help you feel more comfortable and familiar with where you’ll be going and with what you’ll be doing.
5. If you have active phobias, you may wish to avoid certain rides or situations.
Becoming familiar as we discussed above also gives you an opportunity to review and decide which rides and attractions would be suitable, and which to avoid. As you look for possible triggers for fear, sometimes just knowing that they’re there can help you prepare mentally, or it can help you decide to skip certain attractions.
Therapist Laura suggests those with phobias use common sense and stay away from rides (or situations) they know include their triggers. Of course it’s a personal choice, but there’s so much to do at Disney, that most people can have a great time even if having to avoid certain things.
For example, Hollywood Studios Tower of Terror is designed to inspire fear. Some people without fear, anxiety or phobias prefer to bypass it for other rides and attractions that have a more positive, peaceful impact. Of course if Tower of Terror doesn’t include your particular type of trigger, it might not be a problem at all.
If you do plan to avoid certain rides, it’s a good idea to bring a list of your pre-approved attractions to the parks with you. If you’re still uncertain about an attraction, you can include that in a separate “maybe” category.
6. Research rides and attractions further to help with your decision making.
If you have a concern and you’re still uncertain after researching before your trip, there are a number of things you can do:
- You can call Services for Guests with Disabilities before your trip at (407) 560-2547. They may be able to help you with information. However Disney has recently changed the way this department works, and unfortunately we’ve been finding that the Cast Members manning the phones in this capacity have less hands on experience and knowledge than they used to. While it can’t hurt to try them, I’d also take what’s said with a grain of salt.
- You can decide when you’re at Disney World by talking it over with the cast members at the attraction. Ask them anything you need to know to help you make your decision. Be sure they’ve personally been on that attraction. Just because they work there doesn’t mean they’ve tried it. Don’t worry about asking the Cast Members questions – that’s their job and they’re usually well trained to handle guests with respect. They can discuss the potential triggers in the attractions with you. However please be aware that even the Cast Members at the ride or the Cast Members at the above phone number might not have ridden the ride themselves, or they may have not looked for your possible triggers when they did.
- Try a test vehicle. Some attractions have sample ride vehicles that you can see or even sit in. You can ask a cast member if they have one and where it is.
- Talk to and observe guests at the exit. See what children and/or adults say about the scariness of the attraction. Look at the faces and reactions of the people as they exit. Do you see kids crying or adults looking stressed? If so, take that to heart and consider skipping the attraction. If they’re happy and excited, this can calm fears. Remember, fun is the goal here. If there’s any question or doubt, it’s best to move on and enjoy something else!
7. Know the rules about leaving a show or ride.
If you decide to go on a ride, know that you can always “chicken out” before you board. Once your on a ride, the rules are different. Check out this article for details. Leaving a Ride or Show Before or Once it’s Started at Disney World.
This article also includes information on using test vehicles at certain rides.
Sometimes when feeling panicky, people will try to get off of a ride. Of course Disney doesn’t permit this. Remember that you should never try to get off of a ride before it’s over since that’s far more dangerous than just riding it to the end. Some rides are lifted high above the ground, and none of the rides are designed to be walked through. All of the rides have sensors that tell cast members if someone has left the ride car. The rides usually stop until a cast member tells it to go again. Once you’re in, realize you’re committed. One reader had a panic problem managed to see it through to the end:
“I had just gotten on the Buzz Lightyear ride in Magic Kingdom and I wasn’t feeling well at all from a flare up of a health condition. As our ride car started out, I panicked, feeling like I had to get off. I started to try and rise up to get off – it was kind of involuntary at this point. I got scared that I couldn’t handle the ride, feeling the way I was. My husband calmed me down and told me that I couldn’t get off, and that I would be okay. Turns out I was fine. Once I started focusing on shooting the targets I calmed down and even enjoyed myself. I probably shouldn’t have gotten on since I wasn’t feeling well, but I didn’t want to give in. Still, I was okay.”
8. Share details with children or those who are mentally impaired, if possible.
If the person with fear is a child or mentally impaired person, share the details of what will happen in advance so there are no surprises. It may help to look at videos and photos. If you take the surprise out and talk about the fact that it’s all make believe, you may be able to dispel fears in advance.
Of course, very young children and people with certain conditions may still not be able to grasp the difference between reality and make-believe. If that’s the case, you may wish to avoid anything that could trigger fear.
Laura suggests that if, by agreement of everyone involved, you do intend to bring a child or mentally challenged adult on an attraction they might find scary, do not go on that attraction right away. If you do, you may not be able to get them to try anything else. First try some rides that are light-hearted and fun, or that don’t incorporate anything that’s likely to trigger fear.
If a child or mentally challenged adult does get frightened, Laura says to reassure them that this is all pretend and that nothing will hurt them. You may want to sit down with them as soon as possible and have them take some deep breaths. Calm them down by being gentle. Remember that to those with fears, phobias or mental challenges, things can seem bigger than they are, and they may also seem real.
9. Adults – if you’re skipping rides or attractions, have fun apart from your party.
Once in the park, if you’re an adult who doesn’t want to go on a ride, why not let the rest of your party enjoy it while you relax some other way. Shop, grab a snack or just enjoy the park ambiance while you wait for them. Pick a spot to meet up, or wait for your party by the ride exit. You can even call each other by cell phone when it’s time to meet up.
10. Make use of the Disney World Rider Switch program for kids and mentally challenged adults.
If there’s an attraction that you really want to try that’s not appropriate for a child or mentally challenged adult, consider using the Disney World rider switch program. It allows one person to wait with the person who is unable to participate, while the other person rides. After, the person who waited can go on the ride with very little wait time.
11. Know that ride stops are to be expected.
On many of the rides you’ll experience intermittent stops. Just remember that this is normal, and shouldn’t last long. Most of the time it means that they’re boarding someone with mobility issues, so they have to stop the ride to give the person more time to board.
Even if there is a technical problem, you can be confident that the cast members are aware of it and are working on it.
If for some reason the ride can’t continue (this is very rare in our experience and in fact we’ve never had it happen to us), cast members will get you off the attraction. They have plans for evacuation, even if you’re in a wheelchair or if you have mobility problems.
12. Handle your own fear response while at Disney World.
If you do panic at any time, Laura suggests that you master relaxation techniques in advance, and use your relaxation training to self-soothe and self-calm.
If you haven’t had specific phobia training, and you’re feeling anxious or panicked while on a ride, some of the following may help you get through the experience:
– Recognize that you’re body is creating a “fight or flight response” because of your thoughts about this situation. This means adrenaline is running through your body. Realize that in this situation you shouldn’t believe your body signals. You’re really okay. Realize that the adrenaline will dissipate and you’ll feel calmer in a little while.
– Tell yourself the truth of the situation. Talk in your mind or even quietly under your breath if you need to. Tell yourself it’s just temporary. It will be over within a very short time. If you have a specific fear, tell yourself the opposite of what you’re fearful fantasy is. Tell yourself that you’re not actually in any danger, and that you’re just feeling the effects of the adrenaline. It will pass, it will be over shortly and you’re okay. Remind yourself that thousands and thousands of people go on the same ride every day, and they’re okay. If they can do it, so can you. Know that the Disney cast members are well trained to handle emergency situations. They have plans and procedures and know what to do if there’s a real emergency.
– Look away. If something in particular that you’re looking at is bringing up fear, simply look away or close your eyes, look down or look at something else.
– Practice a breathing technique. During a panic attack breathing can become shallow, rapid and tight. This can make matters worse. Concentrate on taking some deep, full breaths. Slow down your rhythm on purpose. As you breathe, think about pulling the air all the way down to your stomach so that it your stomach actually distends. Then let the air fill up your chest. If it helps you, and you’re able to safely do so in the attraction you’re in, close your eyes. Focus on your breathing.
– Get support. If you’re riding with someone who can help you, let them know you’re having a challenge. Talk to them in advance about your situation, and how you plan to conquer fear if it should arise. Ask them to remind you of the things you need to do if you should experience fear.
Afterwards you can find a place in the park to take a relaxing break. There are many outdoor benches, and some are in less trafficked areas. You can sit in a restaurant and have a snack or drink. If you want to lie down in a cool, quiet environment, Disney World has First Aid locations in each park. They have semi-private cubicles with beds. If necessary, you can leave the park and go where you can relax such as back to your hotel room. Do something that you find relaxing such as swimming or shopping.
For those with spiritual beliefs, drawing upon those can help. One reader shared that she does well with a spiritual approach to handling fear:
“I’ve had problems with fear. I’m a Christian and I believe the spiritual world can affect our emotions. The bible identifies a spirit of fear as a real being that can oppress us. I’ve found that by praying before and sometimes during a ride I’m afraid of, I’ve been able to overcome my fears. I command the spirit of fear to leave me in the name of Jesus, and I confess the scripture that says God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of sound mind, power and love. It works! I should add that as a Christian I try to avoid rides that are meant to be scary. I don’t believe that it’s scriptural to participate in rides that are specially designed to create fear. This is not the same as rides that designed to thrill like some roller coasters though, which I feel can be okay. ”
Some Reader Strategies:
Strategies from Miranda Brooks: “Both my sister and I have severe anxiety (like she has at least one panic attack a week and I just completely shut down). We’ve found looking up ride videos on YouTube, watching vlogs and reading blogs helps a lot! We’ve also founds squishies and fidget toys work great for my sister to distract her if she gets overwhelmed”
Strategies from Ann Ashenfelder Littell: My kids and I all deal with anxiety. Some thoughts: I find that using an ECV for my physical health issues actually makes my anxiety worse. Probably because I am so much shorter while seated and everyone else seems to be looming over me. So, crowded spaces are even harder. I request the DAS because I actually need it more because I use an ECV for the mobility issues.
Make sure you have any anxiety medication with you in the park if you have it. Often, people grab the bare minimum stuff so they aren’t lugging everything all day long. But, anti-anxiety meds need to be on that list of stuff to bring with.
I research obsessively before trips because it helps my anxiety. I like to know what to expect. My kids also tend to have less anxiety because they know that I have researched so much and I will be able to help them deal with whatever happens.
Headphones with soothing sounds or music can be very helpful, particularly if all of the sounds in the parks are overwhelming.”
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