Tackling a child’s fear of mascots and characters while traveling
Run. Run. No, not over there. Duck. O.K., you are safe. Goofy is gone.
This is what my oldest son, Dek, age four, heard from me at least once a day during our visit to the Aulani, a Disney resort on Oahu. Why were we hiding from Goofy? Well, Dek is afraid of people in costumes. He won’t go near them. He doesn’t even like to talk to kids who just got their faces painted at the zoo. Nope, my boy is a realist, has certain expectations about how a person should look, and he has a very active imagination.
Fear of mascots, characters and costumes
Masklophobia, or the fear of masks, is very real and a diagnosed phobia. According to About.com, it is especially common in children and part of normal childhood development. For most young children it is simply a fear that they will grow out of; for others it will stay with them their entire lives and they may need to seek treatment to overcome those fears.
I’m not entirely sure what scares Dek about costumes, but I do know he looks at life very practically. Masks and costumes change the way a person looks. If it talks like a human but his or her mouth doesn’t move that can be disorienting for kids. I can’t really blame Dek for being scared of this character that he has only seen in books and on TV suddenly springing to life and asking him for a hug and a chat. At 4 years old, a time when you are still figuring out the world, you can’t really be expected to accept everything that comes your way, especially when mom keeps warning you about strangers.
We haven’t done Halloween with Dek yet, but that is only because we have been out of the country during the holiday. I imagine it would not go over well. Visiting Santa was a disaster this past Christmas. Dek stood in the corridor as far from Santa as possible while Ty and I tried to say hello (Ty didn’t like him either). Dek is still deciding if the “big guy” is real or just make believe. Oh sure he likes the idea of Santa bringing him presents, but he doesn’t want to sit on some strange man’s lap in order to get them.
Is Disney a mistake?
Based on these fears and our history with characters, I honestly thought bringing Dek to a Disney resort would be a nightmare. The place would be crawling with cast members in costume. Dek would be hiding every other minute.
Thankfully this was not the case.
Disney has their system down. They understand that not all children are ready to accept their characters and that kids may not understand that it is just a grown up in there saying hello. The Aulani was also not crawling with characters. We saw Minnie, Mickey, Goofy, Chip and Dale. I heard that Stitch was wondering around, but I never saw him, although the kid’s club staff did tell me he made an appearance at Auntie’s Beach House (Aulani kids club) while Dek was there.
How did I navigate Dek through these encounters? Simple. I avoided events that were character driven, used distraction and I was very, very patient.
Navigating a character-centered sight
- Understand that it is OK that your child is afraid of people in costume. I would rather my child be a little hesitant of strangers than wondering off with the first guy who offers him candy. This is also a natural reaction. Some grow out of it; some do not. I know teenagers and adults who are still wary of people in costumes.
- Have a plan for when you encounter a character. I told Dek that if he saw someone in costume he should let me know and we would move to a different spot. I gave him the power over his fear, which made him feel more comfortable roaming around the grounds with me.
- Give a little push, but not too hard. I signed Dek up for Stitch’s Space Goo at Auntie’s Beach House while we were at Aulani. It was a free activity the kids are welcome to do. I did not realize that Stitch actually shows up. I just wanted Dek to do something with other kids besides playing video games (a downside of kids clubs). I’m glad Stitch showed up though. It gave Dek the chance to make up his mind on his own. Although I hoped a little peer pressure would make him stay, he opted out because he wasn’t quite ready to meet Stitch yet. The club called me to let me know and I was fine with it.
- Come prepared to the Character Breakfasts. You can imagine the fun we had at the Character Breakfast already can’t you? The buffet was really tasty, but Chip, Dale and Goofy were roaming around the tables. We grabbed one of the staff leading the characters around and asked them to avoid our table. We also sat at a table on the edge that had a view of the buffet. This was not far enough for Dek. He ended up sitting in the stroller with the shade down and his plate on his lap so he could eat. Dek might not have been thrilled, but he was content, and even more important, he was not afraid. His brother Ty waved at the characters as they passed. At almost 2 years old he thinks waving is a blast and will wave at anything that moves. So did Dek at that age.
- Create a safe space. Sometimes you can’t avoid being near a character. They show up at an event in a restaurant or party space. Scout out a safe place for your child to still have fun, but hide too. While in Keystone, Colo. Dek hid out in the rescue dog area while mountain mascot Riperoo said hello to all of the families. I let the event staff know that we were hiding from the mascot and they helped me keep Dek’s hiding spot safe. We had some fruit and chatted about his time at ski school. Later I found an air hockey table in a small corner. I planted him there for the rest of the night with a bunch of other boys where he was hidden from any Riperoo appearances and having the time of his life.
- Be patient. More than once we had to switch pools when a character showed up for a dance party or afternoon activity at Aulani. The nice thing about Disney is that there is always somewhere else to go. I grabbed our towels and we scooted over to another pool. I didn’t force Dek to face his fears, I just moved on. It wasn’t a big deal to me, so it wasn’t a big deal to him.
If Dek never wants to hug a character in his life I am OK with that; I prioritize what I push. Reading is a must in our family. Hugging Goofy is not. I do hope Dek can push past this so he can enjoy more events in life, after all, there are some crazy bands out there that like to throw on costumes, and Halloween really can be great fun. Until then I will sit tight and tell Mickey, Elmo, and whomever else we meet during our travels to just move on to the next table.
*Although these tips are primarily based on our Disney experience, the tips can be applied to other character-themed locations. Even in Keystone, Colo. we had to avoid their mascot Ripperoo with some of the same tricks.