How Old Is Old Enough to Go Solo?

Friday, March 22, 2013

My son's never been a big fan of thrill rides. This might change some day, but even now, at 16, he doesn't seem to have any interest in Rock 'n Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, or any of the other thrill rides at Walt Disney World. He went on Mission Space Orange once, and doesn't seem to have any desire to do it again.

My spouse is about as enthusiastic about theme parks as my son is about thrill rides, so my son and I have done plenty of Disney travel with just the two of us. We took our first mom-and-son trip to Walt Disney World about 10 years ago, and have probably taken about a dozen trips since then.

We bought my son his first cell phone when he was 10 years old. My primary motivation? To give him a quick way to reach me if he needed to, so I could run off for 20 minute and ride Rock 'n Roller Coaster. Sure, he wouldn't be able to reach me *on* the ride, but that's only about 2 minutes, right? So later that same week, my son went to watch Muppets in 3D while I enjoyed my first roller coaster in many years.

Now, some folks think I'm crazy to have left a 10-year-old alone for 20 minutes in a theme park. And others think I'm overprotective. Suffice it to say there's plenty of room for reasonable people to differ about how old is old enough to wander a theme park solo. There are also many factors that go into this decision. Does the kid know their way around the park? Is the kid comfortable with being solo for a little while? Does the parent trust the kid to not get into trouble if left unsupervised? Is it in everyone's best interests for the parent to get 20 minutes solo? (Because really, sometimes you just gotta do that. HT to Eliyanna for finding that article!)

At 10 years old, I wouldn't have let my son head off to the park by himself. We'd always enter and leave the parks together. Most of the time we stayed offsite, but even when staying onsite we'd take the bus together to and from the resort hotel. On our last trip, he was 16 years old and he didn't enter or exit any of the parks without me, though I *did* go to Magic Kingdom without him one morning (I wanted to play SOTMK, he wanted to sleep until noon, so you can tell which one of us is essentially 12 years old).

So why did I bristle when I heard this week that children under 14 will not be permitted to enter Disney parks unless accompanied by someone 14 or older? In many ways it seems perfectly reasonable, though I might argue for pushing the age just a little bit younger (when I was 13, I roamed my home town quite freely, and would have been just fine going to Disneyland for a few hours alone, or with a same-age friend).

The Internet is abuzz on this topic, including speculation on Disney's motivation for changing the policy. The leading theories seem to be that there was some related incident we're not being told about; this strikes me as entirely possible, though not necessarily the child-in-danger scenario that might immediately come to mind (it's just as likely that Cast Members are spending a lot of time helping unsupervised kids, or that unsupervised 13-year-olds are behaving badly). The second-most-popular theory seems to be that rich and/or lazy parents were "using Disneyland like day care" all summer, simply buying their kid an Annual Pass and dropping them off all day, every day, to the detriment of other Guests' experience. The day care theory makes me sad (so many people lack high-quality care for their children!), but it also makes me wonder about the math and logic. A Disneyland AP costs far less than a summer of day camp, and I'm guessing the unaccompanied children aren't really young enough for daycare (the word which is consistently used), which would be astronomically more money. Something about this just doesn't smell right, especially since the Disney fan community often seems resentful of too many "locals" in the parks, a discussion that comes up far more frequently regarding Disneyland than Walt Disney World.

What really bugs me about this new policy is the inconsistency. When my child turned 10, he didn't just get a cell phone -- he also started getting "adult" tickets for Disney parks, and "adult" pricing at Disney restaurants (admittedly only an issue at buffets, since he would still order off the children's menu if possible). This irked me at the time, but it would have irked me still more had policy forbidden him to enter the park by himself (despite my lack of interest in ever sending him off to do so!). How is it that a kid can be old enough to be paying the adult price, yet too young to go there alone? I don't think I'd feel any better if they called it the "full" price, and started charging under-10s a "junior" price (or some other semantic way out of this problem). And let's face it: The age distinctions for Disney ticket prices have always been kinda odd. Children are in a tiny little window: Three to 9 years old. No student pricing. No senior pricing.

We probably won't hear much about this policy after the next week or so. Most travelers (and I'll bet most locals) don't send kids off to enter the parks on their own, and those who did won't keep the discussion alive for long. But many a parent has been annoyed and shocked to discover that 10-year-olds pay adult prices for admission at Disney parks, and that's not likely to change any time soon.