The majority of Disney’s most popular characters share a surprising trait: they are almost all teenagers. Jasmine, Rapunzel, Snow White, Aurora, Mulan, the list goes on and on—the greatest stories in the Disney collection all surround the adventures of teenagers caught up in unexpected circumstances.
This is a bit ironic, considering how many families throw up their hands in despair at the idea of bringing a teenager to Walt Disney World...
There are many reasons people assume Disney parks and teens are a bad combination. By and large, teens tend to favor thrill-heavy destinations like Universal Orlando Resort and Busch Gardens over Disney, which they associate with “rides for little kids” (something most teens detest). Many parents grow exasperated trying to get moody teenagers to pry their attention away from phones to participate with the rest of the family on a Disney vacation without moping or complaining.
Writing about Disney parks isn’t my primary vocation--my full-time job is actually working with and mentoring teenagers in Florida. During my time in that role, I’ve learned a lot about what teens do and don’t like, and on rare occasion, I’ve had the pleasure of bringing students to Walt Disney World. It’s a real joy when these two streams of my world collide—particularly when we have the opportunity to change the mind of teens certain they would hate everything about Disney but end up having a great time.
One of the most surprising things we’ve found bringing teens to Walt Disney World is they seem to really, really like Epcot.
Most parents can barely believe this idea: “Epcot?! It’s Disney’s most adult park!”While it is true that most teens tend to tag Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom as their favorite parks at Walt Disney World, it never ceases to surprise us how much teenagers end up enjoying Epcot when you go about it right. We’ve even had occasions when teens were given a choice of any Disney park to visit, and they chose Epcot without hesitation.
How is this magic trick possible? Here are 10 tips we found to help ensure your teenager has the best trip ever at Disney’s most peculiar park…
1. Teens like choice
If there is a #1 rule for bringing teenagers to Walt Disney World, it is this: teens appreciate choice.
This may not always be obvious with some teenagers—many adolescents I know have almost comical difficulties making choices and may frequently brush off opportunities to choose with a non-committal, “I don’t care.”
Despite this, most teens care about having the opportunity to make choices. Adolescents are both older children and little adults at the same time. They’re in an in-between phase of life where they don’t have enough experience to be ready for major responsibilities, but they are self-aware enough to want to make decisions for themselves.
Many of the teenagers who I’ve spoken to who didn’t think fondly of Walt Disney World cited a common theme: they felt like they didn’t get any say in the vacation. In some cases, entire vacations centered around the desires of the youngest child. In others, adults made all the decisions and didn’t leave any room in the itinerary for the teenagers to try things that interested them.
If you want to win points with your teenager on your next Disney vacation, give them the opportunity to make some meaningful choices on the trip. If you like touring with an itinerary, purposefully leave some wiggle room where your teenager can choose between a few options of what they want to do. Include them in the trip planning process, scoping out any experiences they seem to really be interested in. If you tend to tour the parks with a lot of flexibility, this is even easier as you can identify these choices as you go.
One important caveat on this: don’t pressure teens regarding choices. They may not have a strong opinion or be able to make a decision quickly, and teens are at a particularly vulnerable time where they can get anxious easily if they think everyone is annoyed with them. Be patient and flexible.
2. The power of nostalgia
Disney nostalgia isn’t a thing with all teens, but it can produce surprising results in those who grew up watching Disney films or visiting Disney parks.
Epcot doesn’t tap into the nostalgia bug as much as Disney’s other parks, but you may be in for some surprises if your teen has a soft spot for films like Finding Nemo, Frozen, Coco, Ratatouille, or other Disney classics. Epcot has attractions, pavilions, and character encounters connected to all of these that might hook a teen’s interest. I've been surprised more than once by the burst of excitement from teens overseeing Mary Poppins wandering through the UK pavilion or realizing there is an entire section of Epcot dedicated to Ratatouille.
If your teen shows a surprising moment of nostalgia for an unusual attraction, lean into it! These are just the opportunities where a teen can feel like they’ve been heard and had a say in your family vacation.
3. The power of curiosity
One of the factors that works strongly in Epcot’s favor as a park for teens is that there really is nothing for them to compare it to.
It’s easy for a teen to make comparisons between Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Universal Orlando Resort. Same thing for Busch Gardens and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Teens will often have strong preferences for one or the other. Epcot is an utter oddball among theme parks—it is probably the only theme park on the planet that started out as a concept for a prototype utopia, evolving into a celebration of the human experience purposefully leaning away from familiar tropes employed in other parks.
Curiosity has played a major role for almost every group of teens we’ve taken to Epcot—everything in the park is strange and intriguing and utterly unique. Often raw curiosity is enough to keep teenagers engaged in exploring Epcot because they have no clue what they might find next.
We saw a funny example of this with a recent group of teens. A 16-year-old boy with us insisted he wasn’t interested in any of the park’s slow rides, but he somehow became fascinated with Journey Into Imagination. No matter how much we tried to tell him he probably wouldn’t enjoy the ride, our preposterous descriptions just piqued his curiosity further. He had to see what was in that giant glass pyramid, no matter how ridiculous it might be. A similar situation happened with The Seas with Nemo and Friends—none of the kids wanted to ride a Finding Nemo ride, but they immediately perked up with interest when they realized it housed a massive aquarium.
Keep an eye out for things in the park that pique your teen’s curiosity. Try new things. If teens have questions about an attraction and you know the answer, give them honest facts, but if they’re really interested in something, just roll with it.