I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1972, in fifth grade, I went to Disneyland. We didn’t go in the summer following 6th grade, so I saved my money working lawn jobs and paid for my family to go on vacation to Disneyland at age 12. We stayed at the brand new Howard Johnson Hotel and I went to the parks. Half of that time my parents joined me. The other half I was on my own.
I did the same thing the following summer, only this time I saved up enough money to stay at the Disneyland Hotel. My parents only spent lunch and a couple of hours in the afternoon with us. Otherwise, I and my younger brother of nine were on our own at the parks. I think we stayed together. But I honestly couldn’t tell you.
Looking back, I thought nothing of it at the time. There were no cell phones, no texting, no way of even reaching my parents other than just the agreement to meet in the middle of Central Plaza at noon, and if that didn’t work–going back to the hotel room.
This week, both Disneyland and Walt Disney World announced that unless a parent was present, children that appeared to be less than 14 years of age would be turned away at the gate. While the signage has been replete throughout the park that children under age 9 could not ride an attraction without someone older being present, I had never really heard of any policy prior as to what age minors should be to enter the parks. It certainly wasn’t in the brochures or any of the literature or media.
Times…they are a changing. If anyone should have been concerned about my being on my own in the seventies, it was when I was 15. That summer we were staying in Oceanside, California–some 90-100 minutes away from Disneyland. After pleading with my parents to go to Disneyland, my father put me on a Greyhound bus at 6:15 am, and then I walked from the station several blocks away to the park afterwards. I remember the station well…filled with sailors and “ladies of questionable repute”–though I’m not sure I fully understood that term at the time. I repeated the same exercise in reverse after the park closed, finding the Anaheim station in the dark and taking the bus back to Oceanside. I can’t believe my parents let me do that. But they trusted me. And they trusted Disney.
Truth be told–children on vacation isn’t Disney’s biggest concern. There’s a reason why this is being announced this week. Over the years Disney has become the perfect place to dump your son and daughter with their annual passes while you’re working. This policy is seeking to remove that. It’s so commonly done that even some Cast Members are checking their kids in and then leaving to go to work themselves. Before, kids couldn’t get to Disney World unless someone took them by car. Now, buses easily transport them from many miles away. You would be surprised at the number of latchkey children just outside the gates of Disney. No wonder that Disney consulted with child-welfare organizations around this policy. They don’t want to play babysitter at the parks. There’s too much legally at stake.
I think that children should be accompanied by an adult–though I’m not sure at exactly what age. Fourteen seems old. After all, I was out throwing newspapers when I was ten. Surely I should be capable of riding Dumbo on my own.
When I was running a water park down the street from Disney, I had many parents come to me asking that I make an announcement over the loud speaker or have every employee look for their child. As I inquired to the child’s age, and when they responded by saying the kid was age 10 or 12, I would reply with a gentle smile, “Well the bad news is that they’re having a better time than you are.” Clearly, you can give some freedom to children as they get older.
But small children–they have to be watched–especially those under 9. At the same water park, I dealt with an event where a five year old had been raped in one of our restrooms. I was the duty manager that day and it was a painful, terrible experience. Police, dogs, and reporters all showed up shortly afterwards. The perpetrator was never found. It was awful. The parents, visiting from the UK, were in shock. And yet, when we asked where they were at the time, they simply replied that they were laying out taking a nap by the wave pool. They thought nothing of their child wandering on their own in the water park.
Of course, that wasn’t a Disney park. But the rules may still somewhat apply. Earlier this month, one family spoke up about what happened recently when their child went missing on a Disney Cruise. Their 3 year old son was with the on-ship childcare facility aboard the Disney Wonder. Disney uses a tracking band system. In this instance, the band didn’t work, and there was a period of time that went by before the son could be located. Fortunately, the child was okay and unharmed. He had climbed into a ‘tunnel’ of stacked chairs and fell asleep. But it took inquiring about it and some 45 minutes later to find the child. Hopefully, in the wake of this, Disney will re-examine some important policies and procedures.
Does Disney do a better job than anyone else? Absolutely. You’ll find several articles about Disney making safety a first priority here on this website. But the truth of it is…you’re the parent. You have to watch your children. It’s why you came to Disney…to be with them. If you utilize a Disney program that watches over them–ask lots of questions–and follow up. Don’t just assume.
And if you work locally and hold annual passes, promise the kids you’ll take them after work or on the weekend if they get their jobs done. Never completely assume the complete responsibility of caring for young, young children to the hands of others. Even if it’s Disney.
So what do you think? Can you trust a child alone at Disney? How about when they are being cared for on the cruise line? Let us know what your thoughts are in terms of Disney’s promise of a safe experience, of their new policy regarding minors entering the park, and the role parents play in watching their children.