Stretching Comfort Zones at Walt Disney World
After talking a little bit about common fears at Walt Disney World, I felt it was important to talk about stretching comfort zones and facing some of those fears when possible. First, it is important to think of comfort zones like a spectrum.
Comfort Zone Spectrum
On one side of the spectrum is the “comfort zone.” Think of this like a green light. You are in this zone when doing things you find easy, simple, and fun but also things that are dull or boring. These are things you are completely comfortable doing without support or assistance. Things like writing your name, playing your favorite game that you’ve played many times, or doing easy chores could fall into this category
Toward the middle there is the “stretch zone.” Think of this like a yellow light. You may be in this zone when something is new or unfamiliar to you, you are doing something that is somewhat difficult or tricky for you, or you are doing something that makes you nervous. Sometimes things you may be somewhat scared of fall into this category.
On the other side of the spectrum is the “panic zone.” Think of this like a red light. These are things that you are very fearful of or anxious about and that when attempted or forced into may cause you to panic. Things that make you enter your panic zone can trigger anxiety attacks or have long lasting traumatizing effects that lead to deep rooted fears or aversions. When faced with something in their “panic zone” some people completely shut down, others flee, others build a defense or “fight” (also known as the “Fight or Flight” response).
Stretching Your Comfort Zone
When stretching your comfort zone, you want to do things that make you a bit nervous or cause you to stop and think (things in your “stretch zone”) rather than things you feel will cause you to be completely terrified or out of your element.
To stretch your or your child’s comfort zone at Walt Disney World, try to find rides that put yourself or them in their stretch zone rather than their panic zone. Part of that involves facing only one fear at a time. If your child is afraid of both heights and drops, it’s best to avoid things that involve both those fears (like Tower of Terror and Splash Mountain) and start with rides that only involve one of those fears in a somewhat gentle way (like Dumbo).
When Stretching Your/Your Child’s Comfort Zone at Walt Disney World, Be Sure to Follow These Guidelines:
1. People cope better with novel situations in a supportive environment. Being with people that unconditionally support you and you trust will keep you safe helps you feel more comfortable taking chances and risks. Encourage the person who is a bit nervous. Hold their hand if they need or provide other positive touch. Discourage other members of the party from making fun of them.
2. People cope better when they know what to expect. Explaining what the ride is like and entails in the most honest but least threatening way can help someone prepare themselves for what they are about to experience. This is a main premise of Child Life practice! When it comes to comfort zones, surprises are not your friend!
3. Start small and build up. Going back to the stretch zone vs. panic zone, you don’t want to put the person into panic mode from the start. This may cause them to never want to try again or to have a terrible day or rest of the vacation because of their traumatic experience. They may even begin to associate Walt Disney World in general with that negative experience. You can always then take it one step further and try something bigger if they have a good experience, but it can be very hard to erase that negative experience from memory!
4. Always offer options and a sense of control when possible. When people are trying new things that may make them a bit nervous give them some choices. Going back to the fear of heights, allowing them to choose between things like Dumbo or Astro Orbiter may help them take ownership of their decision to try and be slightly less nervous. For younger kids, offering 2 choices is best to ensure they do not get overwhelmed. Rides like Dumbo that allow the person to control how high they go will also help them feel a sense of control.
5. Allow the person to have an out… even if they change their mind at the last second. The person may be ready to try up until they get to the ride load area. It’s important to let them know it’s okay to change their mind. Forcing the person to then get on the ride can have detrimental effects in their trust in you if they end up in their panic zone. When traveling with small children (and two adults), Disney offers a rider switch option so that if one child decides they no longer want to go on one adult can stay behind with that child while the other adult goes with the other child(ren). Once they come off, the kids can then go again with the second adult without much of a wait! Just let a cast member know in the line when you get to the front that you’d like to try this option.
6. Don’t force a child before they’re ready. Again, if they aren’t ready to do something and enter into their panic zone, it may have detrimental effects in their trust in you.
7. Validate, Validate, Validate. When a child tries something new, whether they liked it or not, applaud their effort for trying and validate their feelings. If they enjoyed themselves this can look something like this: Mickey I know you were pretty nervous about trying that ride because of the big drop, but you were so brave and tried it anyway. I’m so glad you enjoyed it!
If they had a tough time, it may look something like this: Mickey, it seemed like that ride was pretty scary for you. I’m so sorry it wasn’t what you expected. Even though you didn’t end up liking it, you were so brave for trying something new. We can take a break from these type of rides and you can decide what we try next. (This again places some control back into the person’s hands after they may have felt like they lost some control during that fearful experience).
8. Bravery is not the absence of fear… or tears… or screaming. A big thing we always talk about with kids in the hospital is that being brave doesn’t mean not being afraid or not crying or not screaming but more that you tried your best to do what you needed to do to help yourself get better. At Disney, bravery is trying something new, trying something that makes you nervous. You can scream your head off and cry but still be brave! Praise those trying new things for being brave, even if they cry or scream or are terrified the entire time!