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Taking the Kids: Hitting Coasters with Sometimes Reluctant Kids

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Media Services on

"Go Back!" I blurt out. "Go Back!" My kids look at me as though I'm nuts, but I can't help it. On Walt Disney World's Tower of Terror, as we make that stomach-lurching drop, I'm begging to go back.

I screamed so loud on that ride, and another one as well, that I lost my voice, which convinced me to sit out big coasters from then on. I freely admit I'm the coaster coward in my family. I don't want to feel queasy for hours afterward, nor do I enjoy being scared out of my wits.

That's why I get upset when I see parents trying to make light of their kids' fears. I get that they've waited in a long line for the hot attraction of the summer. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, there are at least 20 new coasters and thrill rides this summer at theme parks across the country. And a lot of us will be heading straight too them: An estimated 300 million of us are expected to visit 400 U.S. amusement parks in the coming year.

I get that families have paid big bucks for their theme park experience. (It's not unusual for a family to spend more than $400 to $500 for one day.)

But when a child is reluctant -- whether they are a kindergartner who barely makes the height limit or a teen -- the worst thing you can do is force a child onto a ride. "If they get on a coaster scared and anxious, they won't enjoy it and they might never try it again," warns psychologist Dr. Susan Bartell, herself the mom of three. Bartell helped LEGOLAND Florida develop Roller Coaster Readiness tips, which you can download from, or pick up at the park.)

Dismissing a child's fears, comparing them to a "braver " sibling, trying to bribe them or calling them a baby won't help, Dr. Bartell says.

It's important to remember why you are at that theme park in the first place, she adds. You're there to spend family time, making happy memories in the process. "Keep your eyes on the prize," she says. "What you are paying for is for everyone to have a good time, not riding a particular coaster!"

And if you are the one who is skittish, don't push your fears onto your child, Dr. Bartell cautions.

It's not always the littlest park goers who are afraid either. Sometimes it is the tween or teen that is prone to motion sickness or gets claustrophobic. They might be afraid of losing control or of the speed. "Empower your kids to say no to something they know isn't good for them," says Bartell.

Certainly wherever you are vacationing, it is good to encourage kids to get out of their comfort zone, Dr. Bartell offers, but a little bit at a time. When you arrive at a theme park, especially with a young child, point out all of the fun attractions, not just the thrill rides. Explain that "Nervous is Normal" on a coaster and that that is part of the fun. Show them that kids coming off the ride are smiling and don't look scared.


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