The Bashful Disney Traveler (A Guide to Walt Disney World for the Socially Challenged)
By Kitty Smith, AllEars® Guest Columnist
This article appeared in the July 15, 2008 Issue #460 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
OK, don't laugh, but the first time I went to Walt Disney World, I was a little scared (I was 30 at the time). Yeah, yeah, it's the most magical place in the world — what's there to be scared of? Well, you see, I'm bashful. Now, I'm not just a little shy when I meet new people. It's more like complete terror around strangers or in strange places. Being singled out is my biggest fear. (My hubby knows that telling a waiter at a restaurant that it's my birthday would be grounds for divorce.)
Normally, when I go on vacation, I just keep to myself, and for the most part, people leave me alone. (I think I give off "hermit" vibes or something.) But Walt Disney World is different. The cast members have all been trained to make every person feel special. I know they all mean well, and most people love this kind of service, but for a bashful person, it can be quite intimidating.
But if you, too, are bashful, there is hope. With a little research and some preparation, it is possible to avoid the attention and blend into the crowd at Walt Disney World. And it truly is worth the effort — there is no more magical place on this planet!
There are a number of general things that all socially challenged folk should keep in mind when planning a Walt Disney World vacation. First, know what you're getting in to. Spend some time at AllEars.net, read a few guidebooks, perhaps lurk around a Disney newsgroup. The more you know, the more prepared you will be. There are few things worse for a bashful person than being caught off-guard. Do your homework, and most likely that won't happen.
When to go: I used to recommend that you visit during slow season, because when Walt Disney World is crowded, it's REALLY crowded — we're talking wall-to-wall people. However, it's worth noting that if your schedule doesn't allow that, there is one bright side to the busy season. With that many people, the odds of you in particular being singled out go down.
Taking breaks: Once you're there, my number one tip, whether you are bashful or not, is to take a midday break every single day. Walt Disney World is overwhelming. If you try to run full-speed morning to night, you will burn out. For a bashful person, this is even more significant. Being tired and suffering from extra-sensory-overload makes those bashful situations much harder to deal with.
Special occasions: If you or someone in your party is celebrating a birthday, anniversary, honeymoon, or if this is your first visit, DON'T tell anyone. Disney loves special occasions, and they will be sure to single you out for special treatment. If they find out and give you a big button to wear, don't wear it. It's a signal to other cast members to treat you special.
What to wear: yes, this can be a rather significant issue for bashful folk. Obviously, as mentioned above, the "It's my birthday" buttons are a sure way to get noticed, as are those cute bride and groom Mickey ears; but there are other items that might surprise you. First, if you are visiting other attractions while in Orlando, avoid advertising them on Disney property. In other words, wearing a Universal t-shirt is a great way to get a little friendly ribbing from a cast member. Second, avoid anything advertising your hometown. Wearing an Ohio Buckeye's cap or a Columbus Blue Jackets sweatshirt seems to be a great conversation-starter with cast members ("So, you're from Ohio?") Hubby and I found that out the hard way.
Characters: yes, those people in big animal costumes can be frightening to us non-sociables. Not to worry – for the most-part, if you ignore them, they will ignore you. This is especially true of the big ones like Mickey Mouse (most people complain that they can't find them). However, the face characters (ones that don't wear masks) can be a little harder to avoid. If you have children, use them as shields (characters will usually gravitate to children if they see them first). Otherwise, just don't make eye contact. (I've only had one rough run-in myself. It was with the Mad Hatter. He just happened to catch hubby and me on a bench by ourselves, in a rather quiet spot at Epcot. He felt the need to sit down and join us. I guess when you decide to avoid the crowds, it's important to keep your eyes open.)
Cameras: Remember, if you're traveling with others, make sure that YOU are the one who carries the camera. If you are "taking" the shot, then you can't be "in" the shot. If that doesn't work, learn to hide behind things. Opening a park map in front of your face also works well, and fortunately, hats and sunglasses fit right in at WDW.
Most of the rides and attractions at Walt Disney World are safe for all levels of bashfulness, but there are a few glaring exceptions, so I'll focus on those. (It goes without saying that you should avoid all character meet and greets. As these usually involve long lines, it would be hard to accidentally stumble upon them.)
Animal Kingdom: While you can never quite predict what the animals will do, they can't actually talk to you, so you're pretty safe at this park. (Well, there are a couple of amazing parrots at the Flights of Wonder show, but they're not likely to single you out.) The rides are pretty much all safe for bashful folk, but you might want to be a little cautious with the shows. Finding Nemo: The Musical doesn't have any audience participation, but if you sit near the front, or on an aisle, there's a small chance that a roaming actor/puppet could glide by. Flights of Wonder is safe, as long as you don't volunteer (though if you have a fear of birds, definitely skip this one). Festival of the Lion King should be safe as long as you're not right in the first row (near the floor). They do choose one person from each "section", but this theater holds a LOT of people. As long as you're not up front, you should be fine. But note that this is stadium bench seating — you will be squeezed in with a lot of other people. (Most of the shows have bench seats, but this one is definitely the largest.) The "treks" (Maharajah Jungle Trek and Pangani Forest Exploration Trail) are as non-sociable as you want them to be. Cast members are available for questions, but I've never seen them approach anyone unless they appeared to want it. Also, if you find yourself at the park before the gates open, you may want to steer clear of the roaming palm tree — he's very friendly.
Disney's Hollywood Studios: Both rides and shows are pretty safe here. Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular does choose a handful of people before the show starts, as does the Backlot Tour. Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show, I believe, chooses one young person. However, in all of these cases, you really have to work at it to get picked. People actually want to get picked for these things, so it's virtually impossible to get volunteered by mistake. The thing you have to watch for at the Studios is roaming actors known as "Streetmosphere." They put on amusing skits throughout the day, in several spots around the park. They are pretty easy to identify — wild costumes and big voices. If they are just roaming (as opposed to actually performing a skit), just don't make eye contact and you should be fine. If a skit is in progress, just avoid being right up front (make sure there are people in front of you). They do choose an occasional victim, I mean, volunteer. If you're careful to stay out of their direct path, though, you should be OK. They will generally look for someone easy to get to. And once again, when they veer in your direction, don't make eye contact.
Magic Kingdom: On busy days, you may find some "characters" wandering around Main Street. As this area is almost always crowded, it's pretty easy to avoid them. As mentioned above, just don't make eye contact. The most important thing is simply to keep your eyes open — it's easy to get caught off-guard by a street actor when you're busy looking at all the sites and not paying attention to the people around you. In general, I've only seen these characters around Main Street. One exception is a rather "pushy" trash can that wanders Tomorrowland. However, he seems to favor children, so just make sure there are lots of kids between you and him.
As for actual attractions, there is one big warning at this park: the new Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. Various people throughout the theater are singled out, and actually pretty much made fun of and laughed at. I've only done this one once — I'm terrified to go back! I could see no pattern to how they chose people — no particular safe place to sit. This one rates extremely high on my bashful fear scale.
There are two other attractions I can think of with a slight chance for interaction. Occasionally, at the Haunted Mansion, a restless cast member may decide to surprise a guest with a little tap on the shoulder when the lights go out in the stretch room. You can avoid this by standing near the center of the room (though this does require being closed in among other guests), or simply by keeping your head up and staying aware of what is going on around you. (The cast member will be looking for someone who doesn't seem to be paying attention.) The other attraction to be a little cautious of is the Jungle Cruise. Because there is a live guide, there is the potential for unexpected interaction. It's easiest for him to pick on guests sitting close to him, so just try to get a seat near the back of the boat (to your left, as your board).
Epcot: Future World is pretty safe for bashful folk. Both Innoventions East and West have various interactive activities, but I've never seen anyone sucked into anything here. (Of course, not participating makes these two areas rather boring.) The only attraction I can think of with audience participation would be Turtle Talk with Crush (at The Seas with Nemo and Friends).The interaction is mainly with the young kids seated on the floor at the front of the theater and sometimes with their parents. For World Showcase, though, I do have one big warning: the World Showcase Players, found both in the UK pavilion and the Italy pavilion (see show times on times guides available at park entrances). These actors put on a number of shows every day. They are quite amusing, but you have to watch them from a distance. They choose a few volunteers for each show, and as far as I can tell, they almost seem to avoid those who appear too eager. I could almost swear that they are looking for someone who is easily embarrassed. I strongly suggest that you avoid the shows altogether, or watch from a distance, with lots of people between you and the actors.
I would like to mention, though, that aside from the above-mentioned actors, World Showcase offers a truly incredible experience for the socially challenged. I could never get up the nerve to visit another country where I don't know the language, or the currency, or the customs. However, I almost feel as if I've toured the world after a day at Epcot.
OUTSIDE THE PARKS
Just a quick note about Disneyquest, Disney's idea of an indoor theme park. It's like an arcade, but much, much more. While there is a healthy collection of old-fashioned pinball machines, as well as newer arcade video games, there are also some very unique experiences you won't find at your local mall. However, it's worth noting that most of these are group activities. There's a version of bumper cars where you will be shooting at and bumping into complete strangers. There's a pirates-themed attraction where, depending on the size of your party, you may be grouped with strangers to crew a ship. There's a large "pinball-type" game where your whole body controls a section of the table, along with other guests. While all of these are separate attractions and you don't have to participate in any of them, it's these more unusual offerings that make this place so much more than an arcade. If it's just video games you want, then it's unlikely you will get your money's worth here.
Are there really bashful issues with dining? YES! This might not be so true outside Walt Disney World, but some of the dining venues here are nearly attractions in their own right. If crowds (as opposed to one-on-one attention) are your biggest fear, then I strongly recommend planning your meals around "off hours". Planning lunch before noon, or dinner before 6 p.m. has worked well for us. During the busy season, even this won't get you quiet dining, but it will be better than it could be. (These times seem to apply whether you're doing the nicest sit-down meals, or the most basic counter service.)
Another special note about bashful dining regards single diners. Disney seems to feel this need to make single folk feel extra-specially cared for. They make it a point to engage you in conversation and make you feel like you belong. This is especially true at character meals and dinner shows, but can apply at any sit-down restaurant. Just be aware that if you dine alone, you may have to deal with more than your fair share of attention. I would imagine that bringing a book to read, and avoiding the counter seats found at a handful of places would cut down on this.
There are a few particular restaurants and dinner shows that require some special warning for bashful diners. Every character meal will, of course, include characters. They do actually come to your table and try to interact with you. As the experience with the characters is similar at all of them, I'm not going to list them individually — just avoid character meals if the idea of a giant mouse watching you eat is uncomfortable for you. (If you're not sure how bad this would be, I would recommend trying the Garden Grill at Epcot's Land pavilion. It seems to be the least intimidating of the character meals. I think the design of the restaurant helps keep it low-key.)
Disney offers a number of dinner shows, each offering different experiences, and different bashful issues. The most popular is the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort. The show offers up some corny entertainment that tends to spill out from the stage. My hubby and I gave this a try, assuming that if we intentionally chose the cheapest seats, on the upper level, that we would be safe from any actual actor contact. We were wrong. One of the stage performers actually came up there and picked out my hubby to introduce to the crowd, followed by a wild song about Ohio (where we're from) and the hometowns of a number of other guests. It was uncomfortable, but honestly, I think my hubby was just relieved that he wasn't the guy being heavily flirted with by another performer — she sat on his lap and made sure the whole crowd knew how she felt about this guest! This is NOT a good choice for bashful folk! Yes, the restaurant holds a lot of people, but don't assume that this will allow you to hide.
I have not tried any of the other dinner shows, but while not as extreme, I believe that they all hold some risk for attention. If possible, try to sit as far from the stage as possible, and NEVER give them any reason to suspect that you are celebrating something. This will almost guarantee extra notice.
In addition to dinner shows, there are a few unusual restaurants that deserve a mention; in particular, the '50s Prime Time Cafe at Disney's Hollywood Studios. This place is meant to evoke memories of family meals in the '50s, sitting around the Formica kitchen table, watching Leave it to Beaver on TV. In fact, there are little black and white TV sets all around the restaurant, playing snippets from old series. But the bashful warning is due to the staff. Each cast member is simply a part of the family. Cousin Tommy may be your waiter, Uncle Bill your chef, and Grandma may be the one to make your milkshake (which could take a while, because her arthritis has been acting up lately). It's an adorable premise, but be prepared — they really do treat you like family. You will be expected to help set the table, and you will be scolded if caught with your elbows on the table. If you don't finish your vegetable, you might find yourself fighting for your right to have dessert, or you just might find yourself being served your green beans by a waitress waving her arms and making plane noises. Unlike the dinner shows, you are virtually guaranteed to receive some sort of attention at this place — it's not for the bashful faint of heart.
The Sci-Fi Dine-in Theatre (also at Disney's Hollywood Studios) offers a completely different experience. Here, you will be seated in old cars (with small dashboard "tables"), facing a movie screen playing snippets from old "B" movies. The restaurant is always dark, giving it the feel of a drive-in at night. It's worth noting that, unless you are part of a large party, you will most likely be seated with strangers — not next to them, but directly in front of, or behind them. It's a little odd. Other than the possibility of getting a waiter on roller skates, the cast member interaction usually isn't that different from any other sit-down restaurant.
Epcot also offers some unusual dining experiences, mostly related to the various countries around the World Showcase. In Germany, you will find the Biergarten — a loud, boisterous affair, where Oktoberfest is celebrated year-round. The most notable bit of warning here is the communal seating. You will be seated with strangers on long benches around large tables.
In Morocco, Marrakesh Restaurant serves up belly dancers along with the couscous. While volunteers are sometimes invited to give the dancing a try, I think it's more often children that are encouraged to try this. However, I have not actually tried this one myself yet, so approach it with caution.
Another wild and crazy dining experience can be found at Disney's Wilderness Lodge. The Whispering Canyon Cafe is anything but "whispering." The restaurant is as much about fun as it is about food, and everyone is encouraged to join in the merry-making. Whatever you do, DON'T ask for catsup. You may find yourself with every bottle in the restaurant lined on your table. Another one definitely not for the critically bashful.
Now, this might seem like a lot of information, but for the socially challenged guest, being prepared and knowing what to expect can greatly reduce your fear. And while there are a number of experiences you might want to avoid, there are so many more that are worth checking out. One thing Walt Disney World does so well is offering something for everyone — including the extremely bashful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kitty Smith is a very bashful vegan Disney fan. She fell in love with Walt Disney World while planning her honeymoon — and 14 trips later, she's more in love than ever. When she's not scrapbooking her latest trip, Kitty, who also served as a peer reviewer for PassPorter's Open Mouse for WDW and the Disney Cruise Line, can be found dishing out Disney veggie dining advice at AllEars.Net.
Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.