There are multiple lessons for adults and children at Walt Disney World. What's ironic is that Disney's primary lessons for young and old are in patience and impulse control. These are two very difficult tasks for children and true mastery of either of these qualities are finalized in young adults (mid-20s). The Disney Parks are the marshmallow test on steroids. The marshmallow test is an iconic research project done by a team led by Walter Mischel. His test attempted to understand willpower and self control. They did this by giving a child the choice of eating one marshmallow right away or waiting for later and enjoying two. Most children under four, fail the test. Children over eight are the ones that master it every time. The waiting and lines at Disney cause all to have to go through this process time and again. However, at Disney, unlike the marshmallow test, after the wait you get much more than just two marshmallows. Everyone gets their imagination expanded and their hearts filled with joy. It was interesting for me to witness this constant restraint, sometimes in failure and sometimes in success, of the many children and adults at the parks. In the spirit of writing about the solution rather than the problem, here is how I think parents can handle this Disney test of patience and impulse control.
Children 4 and under
Maintain your routine: Eat and rest at the same time that you do at home each day. For those of you able to spend several days at the parks, break up your visit between nap times and get back to your hotel at the time your little ones need to rest. For those of you who only have a day or don't have the luxury of returning to your hotel, stop and rest at the times that you usually do this at home. If little one is used to a 10 AM nap then that is the time to find a space in the park to sit and snuggle and have at least 30-45 minutes of peace with your little one.
Set attainable expectations: the Fast Pass is the best tool to use at the Disney parks, especially for little ones of this age. Use them, and although this is a bit of common sense, do not expect your little one to be okay with the long line and the waiting. All the children of this age group cannot sustain or hold their impulse control beyond 5 minutes. Be conscious of this and predict for them or play with them while waiting in line. A 20-minute wait to get on Peter Pan is like asking this little person to speak in Martian. When they lose their patience, understand that those lines are asking them to do something beyond their developmental capability. Take a deep breath and think of entertaining things you can change and do in line every 5 minutes.
Children 5.5 and up
Predict and plan with your child: Before the trip, speak to your children about the plan. Tell them about the lines, about how many gifts/toys you will buy, and warn them about the rides, which start out dark and scary but end up fun and exciting. Those over seven can come up with ideas on how to help themselves while waiting in line and tell you how many toys they would want. Include them in the planning process and they will have ownership on how the trip goes, which will help with meltdowns and disappointments.
Maintain your eating and bedtime schedule: ...as best you can. The parks adrenalize the children so you can generally get away with a lot when it comes to sleeping. That being said, be conscious of eating and sleeping to maintain their body and regulatory system at optimal levels so that they can better self-soothe and care for themselves.
Tweens and Adolescents:
Use the same tips as in the over 5.5 age group and:
Include close friends or family members of their age group: If possible bring a close friend or make sure that they have a family member in their age group with whom to enjoy the park. This feeds into their high need for social connection.
For 13+ find a time for them to explore the park alone: Yes scary, but you will give them the freedom they seek. Perhaps you can have a pleasant lunch with your spouse while you agree that your teen will go to Tomorrowland and explore the rides and Space Mountain without you.
I hope you will take these tips into account the next time you visit the Disney Parks. I know that when we hold our children's development in mind when we plan out an activity or choice it works out for the better.