Character encounters are a vital component of many families’ trips to Disney theme parks. Your little princess has been watching The Little Mermaid for five years, and she finally gets to meet her beloved Ariel fin-to-fin! I've had the honor of working with some of these enchanting characters over the years, and I’ve assembled some Dos and Don’ts to help your tribe squeeze the most magic out of your character greeting experience.
1. Don’t Force It. Younger children may not be ready to meet Goofy, Mickey, or even Elsa. The bright costumes and giant limbs may be intimidating, or they may just be plain star struck! Try to keep calm if your little Mousketeer panics at the last minute. Perhaps you’ve already waited in a 40 minute cue, but forcing your child to stand with Minnie will not create a cherished memory, or even a charming photo. It will do the opposite. Offer to pose with your child. If that doesn’t work, move on. Take a spin on “It’s A Small World” instead, pointing out the whimsical dolls and unique elements of each country to your child. Oh, and don’t forget to sing along!
2. Do plan in advance which characters are most important to your family. If visiting Tinkerbell is essential to your own little pixie, make it a point to find her right away. You can find out where most of the characters are scheduled to appear online, or any cast member should be able to point you in the right direction with a smile. Remember, changes are sometimes made last minute. If Snow White turns up where Mary Poppins was supposed to be, just go with it. Your child probably won't be upset unless you are.
3. Don’t tell the characters how long you have waited to see them. “We’ve been waiting an hour in the heat to see you, Pluto,” isn’t a fantastic opener, as the puppy is probably pretty toasty himself. Start with something positive. “We are so happy you’re here!” or “You remind us of our dog at home!” Pluto will appreciate your positive energy and give it right back.
4. Do have your camera ready. When a parent tries to recreate a special moment because she neglected to push the record button or have the flash on, the result is unnatural and anticlimactic. Be ready to capture the moments as they unfold the first time.
"Oh shoot, can you do that hug again?" Of course these things happen, but it's nice to avoid it if possible. On a similar note, remember that the character will take a photo with your child before your greeting is over. If they happen to start a conversation first, let it happen. Don't interrupt their interaction by snapping your fingers and demanding for them to smile for you. You could ruin a magical moment for your child.
5. Don’t spoil the magic. Don’t try to get the characters to “break.”
"Cinderella, where are you really from?" guests ask her several times a week. It's just not a clever question. Ten times out of ten Cindy will tell you that her story originates in France, but she currently lives in the castle with her husband, Prince Charming. She may even add something about spending time at her castle in Tokyo Disneyland Resort, but she'll never tell you she's from Michigan. And would you even want her to?
6. Don’t be a stage Mom. I have heard mothers scolding their sweet little girls as they proudly pose for a photo.
“Not that silly smile, Millie- a beautiful smile! No! Put your tongue back in your mouth! Open your eyes! Lips together!” While it’s understandable to desire a beautiful photograph, perhaps it would be less stressful- funny even- if you would allow your child to be herself in that moment. (It's also possible that she's posing foolishly due to nerves.) If she crosses her eyes, so be it. It will be an amusing conversation piece at her graduation open house down the road.
7. Do remind the characters if you have met them before. They have hugged many children since they last saw your child, and they would love a reminder.
“Princess Aurora, it was lovely seeing you last year in Hong Kong,” or “Belle, we saw you yesterday at World Showcase!” will suffice.
8. Don’t monopolize your child’s conversations. Encourage children to use their imagination when speaking with characters. Once, I overheard Princess Jasmine ask a little girl if she took a magic carpet ride to travel to Walt Disney World.
The child’s eyes sparkled as she responded, “Yes, a pink one!” Her mother tersely interrupted the magical exchange.
“No, Hannah, tell her we took an airplane.” The conversation was far more interesting before Mom imposed!
9. Do remind children to be gentle. I have seen poor Pluto get his ears, tongue, and tail yanked by naughty children. Worse yet, I have seen parents laugh at this behavior! It's so dangerous to treat them as if they're indestructible. Oh, and do remind kids to use their manners. Instead of demanding, “sign this,” have children ask politely. This tiny gesture will leave a lasting impression on your Disney friends.
10. Do encourage your kids to draw a picture or make a craft for their favorite character. Children feel special when Rapunzel fawns over their creativity and promises to show her friends Pascal and Maximus. Not to mention the characters cherish these tokens too. They certainly have a special place for such treasures.
11. Do realize that during a character dining experience, you are not likely to get a flawless, holiday card-worthy photograph. Dining with characters is a wonderful way to see numerous friends at once, all while resting your tired feet and filling your belly. However, a chair, napkin, or server will likely be in the background of your photo at restaurant locations. Your child will also have a face full of maple syrup or ketchup. Try not to worry about it and enjoy the experience! Furthermore, if it seems like a character has skipped your table, don't worry, just alert your server. They would never do it on purpose!
12. Don't worry if you aren't able to meet all of the characters in one trip. You'd spend nearly your whole vacation hunting down friends if you had to see all of them! Perhaps start with the essentials, and realize that there are so many other things to do and see at the parks. One way to see many characters at once is to watch the parades. Even though you likely won't get to be in the photograph, the experience will never be forgotten.