Vote of the Week: How old should kids be to go off on their own in a theme park?

September 5, 2014, 1:20 PM · A question for the parents in the Theme Park Insider community: What's the appropriate age to send your children off by themselves in a theme park for the first time? For older parents, let's rephrase: How old were your kids when you let them go off on their own in the park?

On their own

Some of you might consider theme parks to be ideal places to allow children to learn to exercise their independence. A theme park is a contained environment with a staff of hundreds, if not thousands, of employees looking out for visitors' safety. They're fun to explore and offer relatively few opportunities to get into any real trouble.

Others might think the opposite. Theme parks are packed with thousands of visitors, crowding walkways and making it even more difficult for smaller children to see where they are. Attractions often involve complex machinery that can be dangerous to anyone without experience heeding safety instructions.

But, at some point, kids grow up. And as children approach their teenage years, their parents might find that agreeing to let the kids go off by themselves is the only way to get them to agree to a visit a theme park (or anywhere else, frankly) without protest.

My daughter was running around Disneyland with her friends, with no parents in sight, back in elementary school. She and her brother also took the train from our home down to L.A.'s Chinatown when they were in middle school. My freshman son often takes the train home from high school, or over to Universal CityWalk to meet his friends for movies. So, obviously, we're okay with sending them off into the world.

But our kids have been going to theme parks since before they can remember, so these are familiar places to them. They started going on L.A. Metro trains with their classmates for field trips in elementary school. It's not as if we just showed up in an unfamiliar place one day and said 'you're on your own!' We, and their teachers, worked to prepare them for independence.

Still, parents have to make the call: At what age do you let them have a little free time out of the nest? For broader social context here, I think that some people giving advice on this issue talk like ill-informed nuts. I wandered off by myself in public all the time when I was a kid, and crime rates today are much, much lower than back in the 1970s. The biggest danger facing kids today is from automobile accidents -- but many parents don't see the car trip as the most dangerous part of a theme park visit. Stranger danger? The people most likely to kidnap or abuse children are their own family members. Heck, maybe sending kids away from their family, on public transit, might be the safest thing to do for them after all. ;^)

Anyway, what's the age where you, as a parent, feel comfortable letting the kids go off by themselves in a park, with no adults present? And if you're not a parent, why not just look back on your own experience and tell us at what age you would have felt comfortable and confident going off on your own?

We will start the options at age 7, as that was the age a child needed to be to ride unaccompanied at Disney back when I worked there. (What's the minimum now? My children have been older than that for so long that I'm afraid I've stopped paying attention to such things.) Of course, when kids hit 16 they can get a driver's license and go to work in some parks, so that's our upper limit. (Update: Let's clarify that we're talking about letting them go off in the park when you are visiting the park, too, as opposed to just dropping them at the front gate.)

What are your rules for letting kids go in a park? And, when you do, what do you do while they're away? Let's get a conversation going in the comments.

Replies (12)

September 5, 2014 at 1:27 PM · I think it depends on the individual child, and other experiences. For a child who lives in a neighborhood where they are able to go off alone starting at age 7 or 8, then I would expect that parent would be more comfortable allowing a younger child to go off alone in a theme park. For a child who does not have the experience of being alone, then it is probably better for him or her to wait a little longer. We allowed our daughters to go off with a friend or each other starting at age 12, alone at age 13.
September 5, 2014 at 1:55 PM · Obviously I have no kids of my own, but I was around nine when I first went off to do rides at Disneyland on my own. I know that not long after that I was being dropped off at Six Flags Marine World alone with friends for the day.
September 5, 2014 at 1:38 PM · My parents let my brother and I tour Six Flags Magic Mountain, Disneyland, and Knots when we were 12 alone while they toured by themselves. It was not until I was 14 or 15 that they just dropped us off with our friends in which we were in the park alone.

And mind you this was in the 90s when you didn't have cell phones for everyone. So when we had to meet for lunch at a certain time we had to be there. A few times my brother and I would jump in empty lines on the way to the family meet-ups only to realize that we would be late of course.

September 5, 2014 at 1:51 PM · For me this is harder to answer, we have two children, oldest age 18 youngest age 13. The oldest we would let go places on his own or with cousins when he was 12 or 13, when he was 17 him and some friends from school went to New York for Easter break. Our youngest son it is a different story in that he has Asperger's Syndrome, part of the Autism Spectrum, and so even though he is 13 we are still cautious about letting him go places on his own.

As was mentioned before it depends on each child and how mature those children are.

September 5, 2014 at 2:34 PM · 13 years old, but only if they are watched by someone older like 17 years and responsible in a group and given cell phones. To be completely on their own, 17 is best age.
September 5, 2014 at 4:06 PM · My daughter who is 12 would never even consider asking to go off on her own in a theme park. In fact, two years ago, at the age of 10, she just about panicked in Animal Kingdom because I wanted her to sit at the table and watch our food while I walked around the area to find a missing member of our party.

I suppose it does depend on the child to some degree. If I had an extremely independent child who had exhibited very good judgement in numerous similar situations (do they ever?), I might make a different decision, but for the only child I have ever raised, I wouldn't dream of letting her run off on her own in such a hectic place before age 15. And then only when accompanied by at least one friend. Okay, 14 is a possibility, but I doubt it.

September 5, 2014 at 4:07 PM · I was allowed to go off on my own at Disney around the age of 8, but I also had decent park knowledge at that point.
September 5, 2014 at 4:59 PM · I am older than most people here and we didn't have theme parks as summer vacation destinations but we did have the Jersey Shore, Seaside Heights boardwalk to be exact. I am fairly sure I was about 8 or 9 when my mother would give me 50 cents and tell me to get lost for a few hours while she played Skilo. All the arcade games cost a nickle to play, so 10 plays could last a long time. I chose 11-12 for kids today.
September 5, 2014 at 6:30 PM · I chose 11-12 because I was 11 the first time we went to Disney World and my parents let us go off on our own. My kids are 18 and 15, but they don't seem to want to go off on their own!
September 6, 2014 at 7:45 AM · Even though I voted 11-12. I think I will change my vote and say 13-14. If there is an older sibling which is my experience when I was younger. My parents let us go around the park when I was 10 or so but I did have a 16-17 year old siblings accompanying me.
September 6, 2014 at 9:31 AM · I abstain. I have no kids of my own and won't try to pretend to have that sort of knowledge.
September 9, 2014 at 10:19 AM · deleted

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