When did I become scared of Mickey? Dealing with anxiety when meeting characters
Even in the Happiest Place on Earth, anxiety and panic attacks are a part of life and vacations for those of us who deal with anxiety disorders. In this series of articles, I will be talking about what helps me navigate a variety of situations that are, if not unique to Disney, at least something that I don’t run into in my daily life.
I have dealt with anxiety and panic attacks for many years, and manage to function well in familiar situations. I have a professional career, a family, and most people would be surprised to learn that I struggle with anxiety, take medication and have had plenty of therapy to teach me coping skills that allow me to navigate everyday life successfully. But what happens when the thought of meeting your favorite characters sets those unwelcome feelings in motion?
There are several different ways to meet characters, and they all have unique benefits and challenges. My examples here are largely from Walt Disney World, which is the park I have the most experience with, but the tips and discussion apply to any of the Disney parks.
Character Dining can be an excellent way to meet multiple characters at once. In some cases, it is the only way to meet some of the rarer characters, such as Piglet or Flynn Rider, or to see some of the characters in different costumes, like Farmer Mickey at Garden Grill in Epcot. It also gets you out of the heat of the Florida sun and, while expensive, does mean you don’t have to stand in multiple queues to meet your favorite princess, saving you precious park time. As someone who doesn’t cope with crowds or heat (do any of us?!) we have done a lot of character dining experiences in an attempt to make the character meets more enjoyable for all concerned.
It does have drawbacks too, so it is worth considering your own anxiety triggers and what would be a more comfortable situation for you. Here are some points to be aware of when you are deciding whether character dining would be your best option.
Waiting for the characters to come to your table is not a relaxing experience. To be honest, although we have done most of the character dining experiences and enjoyed meeting the characters, we only fully relaxed once we had met everyone and could actually focus on our meals. Before that, we were watching to see where they were and, as each character got near us, I became more and more on edge. Multiply this by four or five characters who are at different positions in the restaurants, and it starts to get stressful.
Bonus anxiety points are awarded if you are at a buffet restaurant, say Crystal Palace or Tusker House, where you also have to time your trips to the buffet so that you don’t miss any of the characters coming by your table, because if you do then you may have to wait a long time until they come round again.
Some of the restaurants can get exceptionally loud. Chef Mickey’s is probably the worst offender, due to the acoustics of the atrium in the Contemporary, but also the character hijinks and the fact that we all get a little excited when we see our favorite characters.
I would suggest that, if noise and chaos is a trigger for you, you should consider making your dining reservations for off-peak times, particularly for the most popular restaurants.
Scheduled Character Meets
My Disney Experience shows the location of all the scheduled meet and greets in the parks. Some, such as Mickey Mouse at Town Square Theatre in the Magic Kingdom, do have the option to get a Fast Pass, but most don’t, and it is not possible to get a DAS return time.
Meeting characters this way removes the cost and time that character meals require. Where Fast Passes are available, that may be a great option to consider. In the locations where Fast Passes are not offered, the lines can get long, and many of them are outside.
By planning out the character meets that are important to you ahead of time, and being strategic with Fast Pass use, you can try to limit the amount of time you have to stand in line.
As an aside, unscheduled character meets happen more often in Disneyland and in overseas parks than in Disney World, but they do happen from time to time in Disney World.
Hard ticket events
In this category, I am including the holiday parties, After Hours events, Early Morning Magic events (not to be confused with Extra Magic Hours, which are free for all guests at Disney resorts and some other hotels), DVC parties and other paid or special events.
The biggest obstacle to meeting characters at these parties and events is that they are paid events, and the costs add up shockingly fast with a family.
Some of these events can be an excellent way to get shorter character lines and lower crowds. For example, I know of several families with young children who booked Toy Story Land Early Morning Magic specifically for the short(er) lines to meet Woody, Jessie and Buzz. However, be aware that you will still have to queue at some of these events.
At the other end of the scale, there is Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, which regularly sees lines of upwards of an hour to meet the most popular characters. If crowds and queuing makes you anxious, this may not be the best way to meet your favorite characters, though very late into the evening the lines do get a little shorter. Do, however, be aware that some characters don’t stay out until the very end of the party, so if you absolutely must meet Minnie in her Halloween costume, consider making it a priority.
Wherever you want to meet the characters, here are some tips for making your encounters with the characters more fun and less awkward:
1. In the words of Scar, be prepared. Make sure you know when and where the characters meet, and include this in your park schedule. If you are attending a character meal, make sure you know which characters are present at the meal.
2. Think up some questions to ask the characters in advance. It may feel forced or artificial, but by preparing some quick talking points, you can avoid the awkwardness of meeting the characters and not knowing what to say. This is particularly helpful with “fur characters”, like Mickey, Chip, Eeyore and Pluto, who can’t talk to you and have to rely on gestures and nodding. If you feel weird asking questions, pay compliments instead - the princesses, in particular, love to receive compliments.
Some examples of questions:
Ask Alice how her cat Dinah is;
Ask Mary Poppins to show you the proper way to curtsey;
Ask Elena how many instruments she can play;
Ask Donald to show you his happy dance;
Ask Pluto if you can rub his nose;
Ask Tigger whether he can bounce higher than you;
Tell Chip and Dale that you know how to tell them apart, and watch them be impressed (Chip has a brown nose, like a chocolate chip, and Dale’s teeth are spaced wider apart)!
3. Play along! The more excited you are to meet the characters, the more they will be excited to interact with you and make this a special experience. This is true for both kids and adults, so if you are an adult, you can still have an outstanding and memorable character meet.
4. Focus on the characters, not just their autographs. If you get to the front of the queue and thrust your autograph book at Pooh, he will sign it. But it will be more fun all round if you talk to him too. An unusual autograph request can also be a great ice-breaker. I have seen people who get characters to sign their page in an illustrated Disney encyclopedia, which makes a special souvenir.
Our child was also nervous about to meeting the characters, so instead of a standard autograph book, I made a small photo book full of photos of her dressed as Cinderella for Disney on Ice, Ariel for Halloween, and with her giant Minnie Mouse on the day she was born. She delighted in showing each character “their” photo, and telling them the story. The characters were all very flattered and it made for easy character interactions and such magical memories.
5. When it gets awkward, just politely ask if you can take a photo together. If you would prefer not to hug the characters or put your arm around them, that’s perfectly fine - they are very skilled at reading body language cues. Princesses will usually offer their arm to male guests.
6. It’s a cliché, but it’s the most important tip: have fun! You may feel awkward, but the characters meet hundreds of guests every day, and they are used to directing the encounters and putting guests at ease.