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Disney Food for Families: Coping With Fears

Kids can be caught off guard by some of the themed elements at Disney restaurants. Erin Foster’s next Disney Food for Families column describes what restaurants might pose a problem and how to cope.

Wooly Mammoth

When my daughter Louisa was four years old, she was already a veteran of several Disney trips. These trips included at least a dozen character meals, dinner at the raucous Whispering Canyon Cafe, and even the foot-stomping Hoop Dee Doo Revue.

She handled all these experiences with kiddie aplomb, so it never occurred to me that we would ever have any problems at Disney restaurants. I was shocked when we got to the Animal Kingdom’s Rainforest Cafe and mid-appetizer, Louisa had a full-on, quivering-lip meltdown.

As it turns out, we had been seated directly next to the life-sized, chest-thumping, screeching, audio-animatronic gorilla. In her preschooler mind’s eye, that gorilla was inches away and effectively alive. She was terrified. My husband ended up getting his meal and hers packed to go; they left the rest of the family and went back to finish eating in the hotel room.

I later learned that, of course, she had company in experiencing sensory overload at the Rainforest Cafe and that there are several other WDW restaurants that have the potential to unsettle sensitive souls. I’m going to identify some of those and then give some possible coping strategies to avoid meltdowns and keep everyone eating together. Because, seriously, that giant volcano ice cream and brownie dessert thing at the Rainforest is worth sticking around for.

Volcano Dessert from the Rainforest Cafe

Potential Trouble Spots

These WDW restaurants are those most likely to induce some sort of fear in very young children or individuals with sensory integration issues:

Any character dining situation: Just as some kids are afraid of the characters in the parks. They may also have trouble with large moving mice in a restaurant.

Characters can be scary

Rainforest Cafe, at Animal Kingdom and Downtown Disney: As mentioned above, there are life-sized animals that move and make realistic jungle sounds. Several times an hour, a simulated rainstorm has faux thunder and lightening echoing throughout the dining room.

T-Rex, at Downtown Disney: BIG dinosaurs move and roar. Intense lighting.

Sci-Fi Dine-In, at Disney’s Hollywood Studios: Dark replica of a drive-in movie, with diners facing a screen showing clips of old-time science fiction films. The movies shown are considered by most to be campy fun, but there are a few who find them upsetting. (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, anyone?)

Garden Grill, at Epcot: In addition to the presence of characters, this is a revolving restaurant — the dining area actually moves while you are eating. The motion is extremely slow, but there are some motion-sensitive individuals who my find this notable.

Coral Reef, at Epcot: The potential for trouble is small. However, if anyone in your party has a phobia about sharks, this is one to avoid. An entire wall of the restaurant is an aquarium filled with tropical fish, rays, and yes, sharks.

Sci-Fi Dine-In Movie Posters in Entrance Area

Teppan Edo, at Epcot: Japanese chefs cook hibachi-style right at your table. Many of the chefs will create a table-top onion volcano that shoots flames. Those with fear of heat or fire may be wary.

Spirit of Aloha Luau, at the Polynesian Resort: During one of the dance sequences, performers juggle fire. Again, those with fire issues might have concerns.

Coping Strategies

So what could I have done differently to have avoided Louisa’s gorilla-induced panic? In my case, I should have remembered that she had a tough time at the gorilla exhibit at our local zoo and held off on the Rainforest until she was a bit older. There are a number of ways to navigate past your unique trouble spots and keep everyone happy and fear-free during your Disney dining.

Simply avoid thematically-challenging restaurants: With dozens and dozens of fantastic dining choices, there’s no need to go anywhere that might cause your little one to be upset. If your child is in a character-fear zone, save Chef Mickey’s for the next trip.

onion volcano at Teppan Edo

Use desensitization strategies: If you have big group that wants a character meal, but one child is wary, take small steps to get that child comfortable with characters. Visit local a local restaurant or store that has costumed characters. Sometimes seeing larger-than-life creatures is easier close to home. Similarly, for a shark phobic, try a trip to a local aquarium first. Or for a robot film fear, show a few campy old sci-fi films at home. To see how your child might react to simulated thunder/lightening in a restaurant, try taking them to the Magic Kingdom’s Tiki Room first and see how that goes.

Do your homework: If you think your child might be afraid of something, but aren’t quite sure, scan YouTube for footage of the restaurant, possibly showing the results to your child. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words of advice.

Be aware of your timing: Make sure your child is rested and fresh before your attempt dining in a potentially rough situation. Meltdowns are more likely when children are hot and overtired.

Plan your challenging restaurant visit late in your trip: If you have suspicions that your child may have issues with a particular restaurant, schedule reservations for that restaurant for the end of your Disney visit. This will give you an opportunity to poke your head into the restaurant beforehand to give your child a sneak peek. If you see signs of trouble, you have time to make alternate dining plans.

Make your server your ally: If you have a sense that your child might be able to handle a challenge with a bit of support, let the restaurant host staff and your server know what you need. Servers can explain to characters that they need to keep a bit of distance between them and the child. You can also ask to have the fire volcano portion of the Teppan Edo cook show omitted. And you can ask to be seated away from the aquarium at Coral Reef or away from particular audio-animatronic creatures at T-Rex or Rainforest.

With a realistic eye on your family’s capabilities and bit of flexibility, planning, and communication, you should all be able to have magical dining experiences throughout your Disney trip.

DinoLand Photo Credit: Meshmar2

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16 Comments

  1. These are GREAT suggestions, Erin. My easy-going, afraid-of-nothing kid surprised us with a meltdown at T-Rex a couple of years ago. We still have trouble going there.

  2. Becky Michalek says:

    Great Article!! One thing that I wanted to add to was that may help other people is while dining at the Garden Grill in EPCOT is that the restaurant revolves around the ride that is below it. At one point in the ride you go thru a thunderstorm, with lightning and thunder… this can also be heard when you are eating dinner and are “moving” thru that section!! Our 2 yr old son is afraid of thunder, so for those few minutes that you move thru that section of the ride below you hear the storm! If you have small ones that dont like storms… be ready for a possible melt down!

  3. Kelly says:

    I don’t have children, so I’m by no means an expert, but something I’ve read on various Disney boards is to keep yourself between the child and the character. So I wonder if placing them on the opposite side of the table where it’s difficult for characters to come in would help?

  4. Griffin says:

    Interesting article! I would say to plan ahead of time, and just avoid spots that you think will give your family a problem. No sense chancing it to me. (Luckily DS loves T Rex and characters :D)

  5. Vickie says:

    Interesting — and one other reason for planning the potentially-meltdown-inducing meal towards the end of the trip: not only can you check it out, but if your child does melt down, it will not ruin every other dining experience for the rest of the trip as the child fears going into any other restaurant!

  6. Laura says:

    My 7 year old is actually terrified of eating at 50′s Prime Time. She is very much a by-the-rule kind of child and the “cousins” that wait on everyone and the “punishments” scare her to death. She refused to eat in there-although she has asked if we can get the food to go. And all parents know that a child that has not eaten will just have more and more meltdowns.

  7. Daniel says:

    I used to be afraid of 50′s Prime Time because the servers used to yell at me. Also Planet Hollywoods sometimes scare me…. i don’t like being seated next to the “Chucky” doll… eek

  8. AJ says:

    Leigh — Interestingly, even I have problems with Rainforest and TRex sometimes. I have super sensitive ears, and when things start screaming and roaring, it catches me off guard! Old habits die hard, I guess.

    Becky — GREAT advice. Even back in Epcot’s early days (when I was visiting as a child), that thunderstorm scene scared me. Thanks!

    Kelly — That’s a really good idea — at least for the first time to see how they do. I’m thinking that would work really well at Crystal Palace in those center tables. The kids can sit on the booth side.

    Griffin — Good point! (Glad your little one is adventurous!)

    Vickie — Absolutely! Keep the scary meals for later — just like the scary rides!

    Laura — Yikes! Thanks for the word of warning! Sorry about your little one — that’s never fun :-(

    Daniel — I can totally see being afraid of 50′s Prime Time, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be seated next to a Chucky doll even today!

  9. Dawn says:

    I suffer from severe Meniere’s Disease (really, really bad dizziness,vertigo and nausea, and the Garden Grille dosen’t bother me. The food is excellent!

  10. Josh says:

    Great compilation of restaurants Erin! I know a few people in my family have problems with Sharks and such so it’s really great to know.

    I know for a fact a few people have problems with Animal heads (or any mounted heads for that fact) so are there any places in Disney with that sort of decor? Thanks.

  11. Erin says:

    Thanks all for the comments.

    Dawn – Interesting. I dined at the Garden Grill two nights ago and had an ever so slight issue with the movement of the restaurant. I was fine if I kept focused on the food (not a problem for me), but if I looked up for a while, I was the tiniest bit dizzy. I had never had this happen on the lower level of the seating (the booths), but we were up on the tables this time and I found the movement more pronounced there.

    Josh – I’m have an honest to goodness fear of tropical fish. Weird, I know. So the aquarium freaks me out. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of WDW restaurants with real mounted heads. The late great Adventures Club at Pleasure Island had mounted heads, but they won’t be seen again. There are fake, talking mounted animal heads at the Country Bear Jamboree attraction. I’m sure I’m missing something else though.

    Anyone else have a better memory than I do?

  12. Dawn says:

    Erin — I have never eaten on the upper level. Great advice about the upper level. Something to think about, for my next trip. Thanks!

  13. Brighid has her one and only meal meltdown at 50s Prime Time, when “Mom” yelled at her father for not finishing his veggies and made him stand in the corner. She burst into tears and screamed at the poor women to stop yelling at her Daddy, then she clung to his legs for three days straight.

    Great advice across the board!

  14. Melissa says:

    I’m actually pretty bird-phobic, so eating at the Mexico pavilion or at many of the outdoor settings completely freaks me out. I tried to eat a turkey leg in Liberty Square: WORST IDEA EVER.

  15. EEFoster says:

    All the comments about the 50s Prime Time are very interesting. My kids laughed when their dad got scolded by the server. (Hmmm, guess I need to work on teaching that compassion thing.) But now that you point it out a totally see how the experience could be upsetting for some.

    Melissa – Good point about the birds. This can really be an issue with some of the outdoor counter service venues. I was at the Boardwalk Bakery with a bird phobic friend once while the seagulls were circling. She had to leave because she was so freaked out. I’ve also found birds to be an issue at the Flame Tree in the Animal Kingdom.

  16. Sarah says:

    We live near a Rainforest Cafe at the Mall of America and thought it would be a real treat to take our daughter there. We didn’t even get to order appetizers before the thunderstorm and screeching gorillas scared my 3 year old DD out of her wits. They moved us to a quieter spot, but the damage was done and we left without eating. It was way overpriced anyway. 7 months later and my daughter who can barely remember what she did yesterday still talks about it.

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