“Go to Disney World”, they said... “It will be fun”, they said...
There are few situations one can experience during a Walt Disney World vacation more unpleasant than having a panic attack in the parks. It’s not a particularly cheery topic, but it’s a serious struggle many guests dread. Maybe the press of the crowd became too much. Maybe you had an encounter with a rude guest. Maybe your family started arguing or you got into a disagreement with your spouse. All you know is the world is spinning out of control, and it feels like everyone is watching while you crack under the pressure.
For those unfamiliar, a panic attack is more than just a momentary “freak out”. According to Dr. Evelyn Farrell, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, “A panic attack is a severe onset of fear that involves physical reactions that can include rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, numbness or tingling fingers or other extremities, and even tightness in the chest or chest pain. The physical reactions often increase the person's fears causing even more physical reactions. The physical reactions are part of the body's fight or flight system that activates in response to a threat. This threat may not be obvious.”
Basically, your brain says it’s in mortal danger when the reality of the situation may not be so bad. Panic attacks also have a mean cousin called social anxiety that loves to show up in places as busy as Walt Disney World.
“Social anxiety is discomfort in social settings,” Dr. Farrell explains. “People with social anxiety have a fear of being judged or being humiliated. Even people without severe anxiety issues can occasionally find themselves in situations where they begin to experience symptoms of anxiety, and the most common situations where that might happen would be in crowded or closed-in spaces such as one might experience in a theme park or other public event.”
I struggled with social anxiety disorder for nearly ten years, and despite absolutely loving Walt Disney World, it seemed an inevitable curse that every trip I had to endure multiple anxiety attacks. The worst came when we arrived at Disneyland February 29th of 2012. It was supposed to be the off-season, when kids were still in school. Instead, we found the most insane crowds I’d ever seen in my life, all there to attend a special Leap Day event. It was a literal nightmare, and it seemed almost every encounter from surly resort staff to cranky guests triggered a new panic attack.
I’m happy to report that thanks to counseling, perseverance, and a healthy dose of faith, I’ve been completely cured of the disorder. I learned how to deal with and overcome anxiety attacks until they have no hold over me anymore. If you struggle with panic attacks, your Walt Disney World vacation doesn’t have to be ruined by them.
Here’s some general advice for what you or your loved ones can do if you have a panic or anxiety attack at Walt Disney World. Disclaimer—Theme Park Tourist is not a medical journal. In all things, double check any advice with a mental health professional who can help prepare you for your vacation with specifics.
1. Plan for what you can
If you have control over planning your trip and know you have a tendency towards panic attacks, there are a few things you can do to reduce the risk of an incident. The most obvious is plan your trip during the off-season. Even the most stalwart socialite is likely to crack under Disney holiday hordes, so choose your vacation time wisely. While the best time to visit is changing year by year, certain seasons like January, late September, and early December remain quiet.
If possible, it is also a good idea to stay on Walt Disney World property. Having a resort nearby to retreat to can help provide a much-needed refuge for you to return if needed (more on that later). The Magic Kingdom resorts tend to be the busiest and loudest, so consider one of Disney’s moderates, Epcot resorts, or even the resorts surrounding Disney Springs as an alternative to the craziness of the Polynesian or Contemporary.
As for planning your itinerary, avoid scheduling your park days around Extra Magic Hours. While that extra hour in the morning or evening can be a great time to ride hot ticket attractions, historically, Extra Magic Hours parks tend to be the busiest to visit that day. Be aware of this, and have a backup plan if the park of your choice swells to OMG-they’re-storming-the-castle levels.
Still, even with a good plan, panic attacks can happen. What should you do if one strikes?