By Teresa Pitman
You may be shocked by this, but I managed to find a 13-year-old boy who had never been to WDW. I know, it’s a little horrifying to think that any child could be so deprived. Even worse, he’s the son of one of my closest friends. Clearly, some sort of intervention was needed: reservations at the Polynesian were soon made and off we went.
But while introducing Liam to Disney was obviously essential, we had a few other worries. Teens are notoriously challenging to travel with. Would he think Mickey and friends were “childish” and “not cool”? Would he want only to go on the most thrilling rides and complain that everything else was boring?
Rather than run through our entire trip (and it was an excellent trip!), I’ll share with you some of the things we found helpful in having a good time with a teen in WDW:
1. Remember that teens look up to older teens and young adults, and that cast members are often — you guessed it — older teens and young adults. Take every opportunity to get your teen involved in conversations with these Disney ambassadors. I had brought along a lanyard with a couple of pins “just in case” Liam wanted to try pin trading. Turned out to be one of my best ideas ever. That lanyard gave him a reason to start conversations with the cast members who (of course) usually turned out to be very friendly. He came home with a great collection of pins and the feeling that he’d met a lot of interesting people.
2. On the other side of the coin, teens also often enjoy entertaining young kids — and, fortunately, there are plenty of young kids in WDW. Liam got a kick out of saying “happy birthday” to little ones with birthday buttons and bowing to little girls in princess dresses. My own sons, who were already experienced Disney visitors in their teens, enjoyed buying funny hats (the large ones that come with Goofy ears, birthday cakes, Mad Hatter, etc.) and seeing the reactions of the kids around them. They’d joke around with the kids on the rides, pretending to be scared of Captain Hook or the Dinosaurs, causing general hilarity among the preschool set.
3. Teens like to feel useful. Liam’s a fast runner, so he became an essential part of our park touring strategy. We’d walk through the gate, hand him our tickets, and he’d race to the ride of our choice to get FASTPASSes for the most popular ride we wanted to do, while we strolled at a leisurely, grown-up pace to the first ride on our plan. We also put him in charge of the map, so he could help us find our way around.
4. Teens are often ready to be a little adventurous in eating. Liam loved having the chance to try some new tastes at Boma and Le Cellier. They also can have fun with the theme restaurants: nothing entertains a teen more than seeing Mom get sent to stand in the corner by the waitress at the ’50s Prime Time Cafe. And my boys could have watched the movies at the Sci Fi for hours. It’s worth a little planning to make this aspect of your trip fun. Don’t forget, though, that teens, especially teen boys, can eat a LOT. They bring new meaning to the phrase “all you can eat” and this may be the one time you really get your money’s worth at a buffet. It’s also a good idea to pack some snacks with you or plan for regular snack breaks throughout your day.
5. While WDW mixes up the thrill rides with gentler attractions, there turned out to be plenty to interest Liam. Yes, he did Expedition Everest twice and love the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, but he also got a big kick out of Buzz Lightyear and Splash Mountain. We also found another great way to meet his thrill-ride quotient: the water parks. Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon both have plenty of exciting slides — heck, swim up to the front of the wave pool in TL and you can get a thrill every couple of minutes! Teens who are normally self-conscious about their bodies in bathing suits can sometimes be persuaded to swim at WDW because they’ll never see any of those people again. (As a bonus, we didn’t have to stand in any of the very long Fantasyland lines).
6. Another bonus: teens are great at staying up late. While this can be a pain on school nights, it can work out well on a Disney vacation if you take advantage of those evening Extra Magic Hours. You can start your day a bit later knowing that your teen will still be full of energy at midnight and ready to do Space Mountain one more time. (Since many of my recent trips have involved my preschool-aged grandchildren, this was a refreshing change!) The flip side of this, though, is that teens aren’t great at getting up early — so plan accordingly. We found it worked well some days for the adults to get up early, pick up breakfast, and bring it back to the room for the later-rising teens.
7. The big question with teens is often “how much independence do you give them?” Should you let them tour the parks on their own? As with so many things, it depends. Liam, at 13, was happy to tour with me and his mom (and, hey, we needed him to get the FASTPASSes!). When I brought Dan and Jeremy, at 14 and 17, they enjoyed having some time to tour without me — and some time to just hang around the hotel pool while I was out in the parks. I felt more comfortable about it because there were two of them, and I consider Disney a pretty safe place. Cell phones can help you stay in touch if you do decide to let your teens go off on their own (although if you are from Canada, as we are, beware of the roaming charges!).
When you visit WDW with teens, as when you visit with kids of any age, flexibility is the key. Some teens, like Liam, get a kick out of thrill rides, but others don’t. Some can let down their hair and play with the little kids, or pose happily with the characters, others would rather not. (And some will tell you they’d rather die!) Fortunately, WDW has plenty of variety — your non-thrill-ride teen might spend over an hour watching the gorillas in Animal Kingdom or be entranced by the magic of Cirque du Soleil.
Finally, my advice is to trust in the magic. I’ve known many teens — including my own nieces and nephews — who rolled their eyes about the “uncool” idea of a Disney vacation. But once they were there, immersed in the World, they ended up laughing at Crush, screaming on Dinosaur, and playing like little kids in the Honey I Shrunk the Kids Playground and basically having a great time. Maybe a little pixie dust landed on them as we drove under the sign.