Managing Anxiety at Disney World

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A large percentage of people in the world experience some level of anxiety when faced with high crowd situations. This can range from general discomfort to full on panic. For some people, a trip to Disney World has the potential to trigger anxiety throughout the vacation and planning process. But there are ways that you can manage anxiety at Disney and still have a wonderful time. ​

Anxiety at Disney

First and foremost, I’m a therapist so you know I have to say this. If you are experiencing a significant level of anxiety that interferes with your ability to function and enjoy different aspects of your life, you should see a therapist in your community.

It is important to learn coping skills that work for you. Coping skills require practice. Trying to bust them out for the first time in the midst of your family’s dream vacation is not going to be terribly effective.

All of the advice to follow will assume that you have some coping skills that you are fairly confident in and will combine them with some tips that are specific to being in Disney World.​

This post will focus on some tips to use during the planning process to set your trip up for success before it even starts. Then we will take a look at how you can manage that anxiety once you are there in the moment.

You know your anxiety best and know what types of situations will likely trigger it. Use this information to your advantage and craft your strategy.​

For the purpose of this article, it will be assumed that the main source of anxiety for people is dealing with the intense crowds and potential anxiety related to feeling “trapped” while waiting in long lines. There are of course many different triggers for anxiety, but a lot of these strategies can be adapted to meet your needs.

PTSD and Disney World

If you are planning a trip with a combat veteran who has difficulties with PTSD and loud noises such as fireworks there are some additional needs to take into consideration. While the fireworks show themselves are obvious things to avoid, be aware that some of the shows that happen multiple times throughout the day also shoot off pyrotechnics.

Having prior knowledge of these showtimes is important to avoid triggering an intense reaction. Know the show schedule, give your veteran a heads up that the fireworks will go off soon so he/she isn’t caught off guard by them. Plan to be at the opposite side of the park and inside somewhere to try to dull the sound.

Also, keep in mind that those fireworks can be heard far and wide, including your resort room if you are staying close to one of the parks. Some sort of earplugs or noise canceling devices might be a good idea.​

What is the Source of Your Disney Anxiety?

First, take some time to figure out what triggers your anxiety about your Disney trip. As I mentioned above, there are any number of reasons you could feel anxious.

Once you know more about what is making you anxious, you are one step ahead of the game. Now you can come up with a plan for how to manage your Disney anxiety.

Anxiety is essentially feeling out of control based on your fear. By coming up with a plan to manage your Disney anxiety, you take back control. As a result, this decreases your anxiety.

Practice Relaxation Before You Go

I know I mentioned this already, but it’s worth repeating. Knowing how to calm yourself down is ESSENTIAL when handling anxiety. Deep breathing (or diaphragmatic breathing) is one of the most effective ways to do this. If you can exert control over your breath, everything else will follow.

Steps for Deep Breathing

  • Focus on deep breaths from the belly (diaphragm), not the lungs
    • Place your hand on your belly – if you see it going up and down as you breath, good job!
  • Inhale a slow, deep breath to a count of 4
  • Exhale, slow and controlled, for a count of 4
  • Repeat this until your breathing and heart rate calm down

Everyone is different, so play around with your pacing and counting. If practiced regularly deep breathing is so effective.

Being able to use deep breathing during your Disney vacation can be a real life saver.

Create a Positive Mantra to Use at Disney

I also suggest that you come up with a mantra you can use during the trip. It can be used during deep breathing or seperately.

The mantra will be different for everyone, depending on what triggers your anxiety. So give this some thought before you go. Pick one that really “speaks” to you.

Example: No matter what happens, we are having a great time together at Disney World.

Tips for Handling Disney Anxiety Through Planning

The goal of having an anxiety free vacation, whether it’s to Disney or elsewhere, begins in the planning process. We all know by now that I’m a crazy planner when it comes to taking a vacation so of course, I’m going to recommend planning. But when you have anxiety, understanding what you are facing and planning for it accordingly becomes very important.

The more knowledge you have of the ins and outs of taking a vacation at Disney World, the more confident you will feel heading into the trip. Knowledge is power and you want to use this to your advantage.

Research, Research, and More Research

If you haven’t done so already read my post about the steps to begin planning a Disney trip as that will give you a good foundation. Also, read up on Fast Passes and how to utilize them on your trip, as well as the ins and outs of the various dining options at the resorts and how to book Advanced Dining Reservations if you plan on any Table Service meals.​

Really, the more comfortable you feel with all aspects of the planning process, the less anxiety you will have. Also, consider doing practice runs on booking FastPasses and dining reservations. This way you won’t be so overwhelmed when your window officially opens up.

Anxiety at Disney World

Go During the Slower Times of Year (If Possible)

The very first thing that comes to mind is: go to Disney when it’s not as crowded! This seems like an obvious piece of advice. However, this has become increasingly difficult to predict.

Disney has done a phenomenal job of spreading the crowds out so it is almost always busy. By all means, study the crowd calendars and get an idea of when the lower crowd times are and choose to book your trip then. But, do not think that this guarantees you a low crowd.

Shoot for that time of year, but go in with a plan of how you will handle things assuming a crowd level of 10. Then you at least know you are prepared for whatever happens.

The main piece of advice I would give regarding choosing your dates is to try to avoid going during the busiest times of the year: Christmas, Thanksgiving week, Easter, etc.. Those are the times you are pretty much guaranteed full-on crowd insanity.​

Make sure you read my post all about the best times of year to go to Disney World to get an idea of when would be the best time for your family.

Choose Your Resort Wisely

The resort that you choose to stay at should also be carefully considered. If you have the budget and are planning on taking a mid-day break to avoid crowds, try staying at one of the resorts that provides easier access to the parks.

For example, the monorail resorts and Wilderness Lodge provide easy access to Magic Kingdom. If you want easy access to two parks from one resort, look at Beach & Yacht Club, BoardWalk Inn, and Swan and Dolphin.

If you are on a budget, the new Skyliner provides easy access to Epcot and Hollywood Studios from Caribbean Beach Resort, POP Century, and Art of Animation.

When the thought of crowded buses is less than pleasing, take this into consideration when choosing. Either choose a resort that offers other modes of transportation or consider using Uber or Lyft instead.

If the nightly fireworks will be a problem for veterans, try staying at the resorts that are farther away from the parks.

Disney offers so many resort options that you should be able to find one that meets your needs, and that’s not even taking into account the plethora of options you have outside of the park.​

Make Lists to Stay Organized

Lists are my lifeblood. I have lists for everything. Planning a Disney trip can be overwhelming at first. By keeping lists of various parts of the trip you can stay more organized.

Lists also have the bonus of helping you to compartmentalize all the different pieces of the trip that need your attention. This helps with focus and breaking things into smaller more manageable pieces.

Remember:

Increased sense of control = Less anxiety

Create a Wish List, Not a Must-Do List

Really, the difference here is in the semantics. But the difference is a powerful one. The phrase “must-do” evokes a certain amount of pressure to get those things done. The last thing you want to do is add pressure to an anxiety filled situation.

This is especially important if you know your anxiety is triggered by things “going wrong”. If you perceive the inability to get your Disney “must-dos” accomplished as failure, then this applies to you.

A wish list on the other hand is a list of things you would love to accomplish but recognize you might not be able to. If you go in with an open mind regarding doing all your wish list items, you will be much more relaxed about them.

Absolutely prioritize the top items on your wish list. But be OK if for some reason they don’t work out. There are still a ton of other amazing experiences to be had at Disney World.

Delegate Disney Planning Tasks to Other People

If there are certain areas of planning that overwhelm you too much, there’s nothing wrong with taking that item off of your plate. Other adults in your planning group can help whenever you get stuck.

In the event you don’t have another adult who can take some of the weight off, consider working with a Disney travel agent. Then you can let someone else do most of the heavy lifting. A Disney travel agent can also help guide you and keep you organized through the decision making process.

Join a Supportive Disney Facebook Group

Finally, surround yourself by supportive, like-minded people. There are tons of Disney planning Facebook groups. These groups are there for people to ask questions, get support, and otherwise share their love of Disney.

Having other people to bounce ideas off of or ask questions to is really invaluable. A great Facebook group which I recommend is Walt Disney World Made Easy For Everyone. It’s a supportive group you can join to ask any planning questions you have.

Managing Anxiety at Disney Parks

As you begin to look at dining reservations and Fast Passes you start thinking about how to structure your days at the parks. This is something that everyone who is going to Disney World should do, but is especially important to consider if you know that crowd/line anxiety will be an issue.

You can use your dining reservations and your FastPasses strategically to minimize your experience of crowds.​

Use Dining to Minimize Anxiety​ at Disney

For most people, planning their dining is simply a matter of picking which restaurants they want to enjoy and whether they want to eat at Quick Service or Table Service restaurants. But when you base your planning off of minimizing anxiety at Disney, it makes sense to do this through a slightly different strategy.

The Advantages of Table Service for Anxiety

If your budget can handle it, planning more Table Service restaurants might be a good idea. This allows for a less chaotic dining experience and gives you a little bit of a break during the day. If budget is no factor than this is the most obvious route for smooth sailing.​

Scheduling a Table Service lunch is a way to incorporate that less chaotic setting with taking a break during the busiest time of the day. If you schedule a 1:00p lunch it will take about 1.5 hours. During that time you are inside, away from the thick of the crowd, relaxing and enjoying your meal.​

Quick Service Restaurants and Packing Food

The most common path is to have a combination of Quick Service and Table Service restaurants. To minimize crowds as much as possible when going to the Quick Service restaurants, try to go during off times. For example, lunch at 11:00a, dinner after 7:00p.

This will lower the crowds that you have to contend with at the more chaotic Quick Service restaurants. I’ve been in Cosmic Ray’s Cafe during prime dining time, and trust me, it can be very crowded and loud. This is the exact scenario you want to avoid.

Another great way to avoid lines and crowds at Quick Service restaurants is by using Disney’s mobile ordering system. This allows you to stroll up to the pick up window when you are ready. You bypass the line of people waiting to make their order.

If you are on a tighter budget, then a combination of Quick Service and bringing your own food into the parks is also possible.

If you pack your own food you can find some quiet spots throughout the parks to eat. I’m currently in love with Tom Sawyer Island at Magic Kingdom as a quiet place to escape. It does not get as crowded as the rest of the park as most people don’t bother with it. You will find yourself nestled among trees and water, sitting at a picnic bench or on a rocking chair enjoying your meal.

Pre-Park Opening Breakfast

A pre-park opening dining reservation is a great way to get into the parks early before the masses are even allowed to enter. Each of the parks has restaurants which start seating breakfast at 8:00a. This allows you to get into the park and walk around leisurely with very few other people before you enjoy your meal.

Then, when the meal is over, you are in prime position to give yourself a head start on whichever attraction you want to see first. In fact, a pre-park opening breakfast at Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom is my favorite Disney World hack.

The Hub during early entrance for PPO Be Our Guest reservation

Use FastPasses Wisely

Using your FastPasses to the max is one of the main planning strategies you want to utilize. This allows you to streamline the trip and tour more efficiently.

As you sit down to plan your FastPasses ahead of your 30 or 60 day reservation window, read over the Fast Pass strategy post. The strategies listed there will teach you how to make the most of your unlimited FastPasses. Because who wants to wait in line for rides?

When thinking about touring Disney World with anxiety, the name of the game is to avoid the crowds as much as possible.​

Focus on Rope Drop and the Evenings

In combination with using FastPasses wisely, you want to take advantage of the least crowded parts of the day. In general, rope drop and the evenings will have less crowds.

Rope drop is the term used for park opening. The first 1-2 hours of the park day have the lowest crowds. During this time you can get on many marquee rides with little to no wait.

I do not suggest you rope drop the most popular rides if you have anxiety over crowds. This requires getting to the park extra early and waiting in large crowds for it to open. However, if you arrive about 15 minutes before a park opens you can basically walk on the other rides.

For example, my family rode Expedition Everest 6 times in a row when we rope dropped Animal Kingdom. You can read my guide to rope drop Animal Kingdom to get a feel for how rope drop works.

Conversely, in the evenings crowds start to thin out. Families with younger children tend to leave for dinner and their beds. This is another time when you can get on the rides with minimal wait.

If planned well, between FastPasses, Rope Drop, and evenings you should never have to wait more than 20 minutes for any rides. This is huge if lines cause anxiety.

Leave the Parks During the Afternoon

Also, decide whether you want to leave the parks entirely during the afternoon, or stick it out there and just avoid the crowds as much as possible. Either is completely possible, it’s just a matter of what you prefer.

If you focus on the mornings and the evenings as your preferred time to visit the parks, that leaves the afternoons. The afternoons can become oppressively crowded. Because of this, consider taking a break during the afternoon.

The good news is you have a lot of options for how you can spend your afternoon! The standard option is to return to your resort for a swim or a nap. But you aren’t limited to just that.

Here are some ideas of other things you can do in the afternoons around Disney:

  • Ride the Friendship Boats around Crescent Lake
  • Visit the other Disney resorts to explore
  • Walk around the Crescent Lake resort area
  • Go mini-golfing
  • Ride the new Disney Skyliner

In fact, I have an entire post dedicated to things you can do outside of the Disney parks. You can fill your afternoons with less crowded activities quite easily.

View Events from Less Popular Spots

This is one of my favorite strategies to use in the parks just in general. I get uncomfortable when packed into a crowd like a bunch of sardines, so I try to avoid it as much as possible. As a result, I’ve made it my mission to find good viewing spots that don’t include the main drag of the park.

And yes, this has included spending time looking at park maps and picking a spot to try before I get there. Sometimes my spot turns into a huge success, sometimes, not so much. But at least I’m not crammed into the sea of humanity in front of the HUB.

Magic Kingdom Parade and Show Viewing

We always view the parades from Frontierland because there are just less people there. It also has the bonus of being where the parade starts from, so you can then take advantage of the fact that everyone else in the park is still watching the parade and go on some rides with short lines.

Liberty Square is another good spot to watch the parade from that gives you easy access into Fantasyland once the parade is over.

We also watch any of the stage shows from off to the side of the Hub. Sure we can’t see everything that’s going on, but you can see well enough to still enjoy the show and be able to experience it. And once the show is over, you easily slip out into the rest of the park before the masses are able to disperse.​

Disney Park Fireworks

Fireworks viewing is getting a little trickier now that Disney is relying so much more on projections. Our attempt to view Happily Ever After from the side was a bit of a fail last time. However, I’m content that we at least were able to see the show without having to be stuck in that massive crowd.

For Holiday Wishes we always view the fireworks from Fantasyland, specifically over near The Beasts’ castle. It gives you the feeling of being immersed in the perimeter fireworks.

A bucket list item for me is to watch the fireworks while riding either Seven Dwarfs Mine Train or Thunder Mountain. I’ve heard it’s amazing. It’s up to you to decide if seeing the projections is a priority or not. If it’s not, try viewing them from somewhere else in the parks, or even take the monorail over to the Poly and watch the fireworks from the beach there.​

If you have the budget for it, any of the dessert parties would be a good way to avoid having to deal with crowds during the fireworks shows. The dessert parties give you a nice atmosphere and some yummy snacks followed by prime viewing of the fireworks.

At Epcot, you can use my Rose and Crown Illuminations viewing strategy to give yourself a great meal and completely stress free fireworks viewing.

Take Plenty of Breaks

This is pretty important for helping to manage any anxiety while you are at the parks. I recommend that you plan to take periodic breaks in out of the way locations. This will allow you to regroup and do some deep breathing.

If you budget these breaks into your day from the beginning you can keep your anxiety at a more comfortable baseline.

You can choose to take breaks in out of the way locations or on certain types of rides.

Quiet Areas in the Parks

  • The gardens of Canada Pavilion (Epcot)
  • Tom Sawyer Island (Magic Kingdom)
  • Discovery Island Trails (Animal Kingdom)
  • Star Wars Launch Bay (Hollywood Studios)
Handling Anxiety at Disney World
This is in Canada at Epcot, the perfect spot for a break

Large Capacity Attractions Perfect for Relaxing

  • Any of the movies in Epcot
  • Carousel of Progress (Magic Kingdom)
  • Hall of Presidents (Magic Kingdom)
  • Finding Nemo the Musical (Animal Kingdom)
  • People Mover (Magic Kingdom)
  • Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream (Hollywood Studios)

Really, there are many more places you can go for a quick escape and some deep breathing. In fact, you can even make a game of it. See if your family can find some amazing quiet spots in the parks that no one else knows about!

Disability Access Service Pass

If you or someone in your party has anxiety to the level that it can totally derail the trip, there is always the option of the Disability Access Service Pass. This is the system that Disney uses to help people with both physical and emotional difficulties to enjoy the parks successfully.

Here is a list of FAQs and information provided by the Disney Parks Blog to help give you an idea of how it works. Also, I would highly suggest you call Disney with any questions you have regarding DAS to see if it would work for you.​

Anxiety at Disney: Pandemic Edition

I wanted to add a few quick words about what’s going on in the world right now, and how that impacts your Disney trip anxiety. Clearly, there’s a pandemic going on. As I write this, Disney is preparing to reopen the parks by the end of the week. At the same time, cases are beginning to skyrocket again.

If you are someone with a predisposition towards anxiety, or already have anxiety in place about a Disney trip, I strongly urge you to reconsider your trip at this time. The added strain of anxiety over potentially getting sick during your dream Disney vacation is enough to tips the scales over the edge.

This advise is especially valid for those who have never gone to Disney before. You don’t want your first Disney experience to be tainted by high anxiety about getting sick.

If you are absolutely determined to go, pay very close attention to what is going on at Disney. This will allow you to prepare yourself as much as possible, and make plans for how you are going to handle different situations. Procedures are changing often as Disney gets their bearings. Read as many blogs as you can and watch recent trip videos to get a feel for how everything is working. You’ll be happy you did.

If you need more specific information about the new procedures and opening details, take a look at these posts:

Final Thoughts

I am quite confident that if you are able to combine using coping skills with a well laid out plan you can successfully navigate a vacation to Disney World.

However, a very important thing to keep in mind is that sometimes the best laid plans go awry. Being adaptable is of utmost importance. If you know that adaptability is not a strength of yours, go in with contingency plans just in case.

Also, have a plan in place for what to do to rescue your Disney trip if it isn’t going as planned. Knowledge is definitely power when it comes to being ready for your Disney World vacation.

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Your Thoughts

Did I get all the good tips for how to handle anxiety at Disney? Have you tried other techniques that worked really well? Please share in the comments below. Don’t forget to follow The Disney Journey on Facebook and Pinterest.

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