Disney World bills itself as the most magical place on earth, and for Disney lovers like myself, it definitely fits the bill! But I never expected to have a child scared of Disney World rides. Still, that’s what I ended up with when I took my 4 year old back to Disney World this year. A funny thing happened when I stopped pushing (or strongly encouraging) her to ride – she had a magical time anyway.
Now I recognize that a vacation to Disney World involves a huge upfront cost. That cost might make you feel a lot of pressure to make sure your family enjoys the vacation. But I quickly learned that making my daughter feel that pressure, even indirectly, hurt the situation. Even simple things like “You should just try it!” could potentially turn Disney from a shared experience into an adversarial one.
This post details some ideas for things to do with your kids besides the rides. I’ll start by just discussing the types of scares you might want to think about, then discuss some fun alternatives in the parks, and finally end with a discussion of whether going to Disney World without rides is “worth it.”
Also one final note: I know people might feel differently, but I’m all about encouraging young children to try new things including things they might be afraid of. This post is directed to parents who, like myself, have determined that they definitely have a child scared of Disney World rides. It also should help you have backup plans if your touring plan falls apart because your child refuses to ride anymore.
Types of scary rides and attractions in the parks
When it comes to rides that might be scary for children, you can break Disney’s rides into two types. Thrill rides present the most obvious fear factor for children. Rides like Star Tours, Test Track, Space Mountain, and Expedition Everest are fast, loud, and can be really frightening for some young children. Even when your children meet the height requirements it still might be too intense of an experience for them. Even though M met the minimum height, I didn’t bring her on Star Tours because I knew she’d be miserable.
The tricky rides are the dark rides – those rides usually themed after a wonderfully happy Disney movie. Rides like Winnie the Pooh, the Little Mermaid, and even Journey into Imagination can get dark and scary for moments. For my daughter some of those moments were enough to ruin the whole ride for her. Eventually she said “no more inside rides” – and that was that. (To her credit, she tried everything at least once).
Finally, a lot of children fear loud noises, so they might even be afraid of things like The Indiana Jones show at Hollywood Studios or even the Muppets 3D show! And for many kids fireworks are a non-starter. If you want to prepare ahead of time, WDW Prep School has a great resource for potential fright factor for rides at the parks. Combine that with a knowledge of your children to mentally prepare, but remember, they might surprise you! In either direction.
Idea 1: Meet some swell characters around the parks
So you’ve planned a 5 day trip to Disney World and after day 1 you realize you have a child scared of Disney World rides. Doh! Not to fear, there’s a lot you can try. The first thing I’d suggest is pivoting and focusing more on meeting characters.
At any of the parks, you can probably fill up an entire morning (or more!) just meeting characters. The key here though is efficiency, you don’t want to wait in line for two hours to see one princess and then just go home. But meeting characters can be a wonderful experience, especially for young children who still think the characters are “real.”
You get three FastPass selections to start every day, if you use two of them for character meet and greets you should save yourself a bunch of time. Grab an autograph book (preferably somewhere off site) and start a collection!
You can also avoid waiting in lines by making a reservation for one of the character dining meals. These meals are more expensive so you are paying for convenience but this is the fastest way to meet a bunch of characters at once. Also be sure to check out the talking Mickey Mouse in Town Hall Square at Magic Kingdom.
Idea 2: Move it and shake it with parades and street performers
There’s a lot going on at Disney World outside of the rides. From a parks operation perspective, street performers, parades, and shows exist to draw crowds away from the rides to cut down wait times. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t great!
My daughter loves the “Move it! Shake it! Dance and Play it! Street Party” at Magic Kingdom. While parents might get annoyed when ¡Vamos! gets lodged in their head for the next four hours, think about the fun a little one would have just dancing with Mickey, Minnie, and pals in the street. Sure it’s supposed to be a parade but that didn’t stop M from busting a move on the sidewalk.
You can also just wander around the parks enjoying the atmosphere. Disney does a great job of having random street performers pop up when you least expect it (though if you do your research you can figure out when to expect it). Whether it be the pianist at Casey’s Corner on Main Street, Taiko drummers in the Japan pavilion, or marching Storm Troopers (okay that might be scary), there’s plenty to see and do on the streets of Disney.
Idea 3: Spend time in Disney play areas
Disney has set aside a lot of play areas for young children. These are well themed and have a touch of the Disney magic – though I’d admit if I paid all that money just for my kids to play on playgrounds I’d be a little miffed.
Still, the Boneyard in Animal Kingdom is a wonder of a play area, toddlers and preschoolers could probably spend an hour there happily before remembering they need a snack. Here’s a great compilation of free play areas from When Tara Met Blog.
Idea 4: Hit up the Kidcot Fun Stops at World Showcase
World Showcase often gets ignored by parents of kids, frankly because kids don’t necessarily love edutainment. But if your kids are young enough, they can have a lot of fun visiting every Kidcot fun stop. Basically, at any of the pavilions in World Showcase, obtain a cardboard Duffy Bear cutout. You can get a special stamp from each country on your Duffy Bear – so lots of young kids (including my daughter) enjoy trying to get the full set.
Each Kidcot fun stop also has a craft that your child can do. You can grab a unique craft/coloring page from each country. Finally, during special events like Flower and Garden or the International Festival of the Arts, you can often pay a small fee (~$6) to participate in various scavenger hunts. Whether you search for hidden Figments or easter eggs, a young child can have a very fun day at World Showcase without getting on a single ride.
Idea 5: Take a day off from the parks at your resort or Disney Springs
I recognize Disney tickets cost a lot of money. And once you’ve used them once, you need to use up all your days within 14 days. But if you have the time, it’s great to take a day off. If you’re staying at an on site Disney resort, you can spend an entire day just exploring the resort and lounging at the pool. Port Orleans: Riverside had tons of stuff we could do on a day off.
You could also visit other resorts, too! The monorail loop by the Magic Kingdom has a lot of great resorts to visit. Ditto the Boardwalk area (the walkway between the Epcot International gateway and Hollywood Studios). Like all of Disney, the theming of resorts really makes for a great experience.
Finally, Disney Springs has undergone some major improvements since its rebranding from Downtown Disney. That place is alive with energy: there are plenty of things to do, eat, play, and try there!
Final Thoughts – Is Disney worth it without the rides?
Some people don’t bring their kids to Disney until they are older, which is totally understandable. At the price point, you may not want to risk the investment only to find your kids are scared of everything.
That being said, I have a newfound appreciation for visiting Disney without rides. In my mind, I used to always process Disney as a theme park – aka I’d calculate the “value” gleaned from my ticket in rides per hour.
Since having kids, I realize that the cost of the ticket covers way more than rides: it covers the ambience, the shows, the surprise experiences you have, and so much more. Obviously, this comes from a Disneyphile perspective, but the fact of the matter is, I just enjoy being at the parks (and around them).
So yes, I feel you can have a very worthwhile time at Disney without riding any rides. In fact, after we were stranded, my daughter and I spent a lovely half day at Hollywood Studios, and didn’t step on a single ride (though we did go to her favorite attraction, Disney Jr Live!). We reminisce about that day at the parks more than all the other ones, proof that you don’t need to ride to have a memorable time at Disney with your family.
What other non-ride activities did I miss? Let me know!