Visitors pass by the entrance gate to Disneyland. (Christina House / For the…)
The days when parents could drop kids off at Disneyland for the day, leaving it up to Mickey and Goofy to watch over the youngsters, are over.
Walt Disney Co. has unveiled a new admission policy requiring that children entering any of its U.S.-based theme parks be accompanied by a visitor at least 14 years old.
In years past, parents living near theme parks would often use them as day-care facilities during summer vacation and spring break. Children would be dropped off for the day, clutching passes and some spending money.
The change puts an official end to that ritual.
The new policy, according to Disney officials, puts Disneyland's age policy in line with the company's other amusement parks. Industry experts say the new rule reflects a change in attitude about what age is safe for children to be left unaccompanied in a theme park.
"It's just the changing of society and the world we live in," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., an industry consultant. "Today, people are more safety conscious."
Indeed, it is now a different era compared with generations of Southern California kids who grew up running around Disneyland during summer break — all without adult supervision. Some living in Orange County suburbs would get dropped off by parents on their way to work. Others used public transportation for a day at the park.
Sarah Whittenberg, a writer who grew up in Irvine, recalls that in the early 1980s her parents dropped off her and several friends, all about 12 years old, at Disneyland. Their instructions were to meet at the park entrance at the end of the day.
Whittenberg said she would not let her 4-year-old son Noah roam unaccompanied in the park even when he turns 12.
"I do see the world as much more dangerous," she said. "I can never trust the security at a place as big as Disneyland."
Monica Garcia, who also grew up in Irvine, said she fondly remembers when she was 11 and her parents let her visit Disneyland unaccompanied.
"My parents would basically drop me off with my best friend, and we would spend the day together just hanging out," she said. "In middle school I could navigate that park blindfolded."
Garcia now has a 4-year-old daughter, Valentina, but would feel comfortable letting her visit the park without an adult chaperon when she turns 11.
"It's a pretty controlled environment," she said of Disneyland. "It's nice for kids to get a sense of independence."
But parents may be less likely to use theme parks for day care because of the high price of admission, said Robert Niles, author of Theme Park Insider, an online guide to the nation's most popular theme parks. Daily passes for Disneyland are $87 for park-goers over 10 and as much as $649 for an annual pass.
"As baby-sitting goes, it can be pretty expensive," he said of dropping young children off at theme parks.
Many Southern California theme parks and water parks do not have an age admission policy. Among them are Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park and Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia.
Six Flags Magic Mountain spokeswoman Sue Carpenter said the topic has been discussed among park officials for years, but the park has not had a problem with young, unaccompanied visitors.
At Raging Waters in San Dimas, the park recommends that an adult accompany visitors younger than 12. But in most cases, park officials say, they only question young visitors about their age if they are misbehaving.
"Industrywide, this does happen," Raging Waters spokeswoman Mary Papadopoulos said. "Everybody does the best they can to police it."
At Legoland in Carlsbad, children younger than 12 must be accompanied by an adult to enter the park
Disney officials say the new admission rule was intended to adopt a policy that is consistent at all U.S. parks. Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., has long had a policy that children be accompanied by a park visitor at least 14 years old.
Disneyland and Disney California Adventure in Anaheim had no age requirement for admission until now.
"We regularly review all of our policies and identified an opportunity to provide a consistent age of admission and address a question we occasionally get from parents," Disneyland spokeswoman Suzi Brown said. The new policy takes effect Saturday.
Disney chose age 14 for several reasons, she said. For example, children younger than 7 must now be accompanied by a guest at least 14 years old to ride the attractions at Disneyland and California Adventure Park.
Also, the Red Cross has recommended that the minimum age of a baby sitter should be 14, she said.
Disney officials say they can confirm the age of a park visitor who holds an annual pass, and will question park-goers with daily passes about their age to enforce the new policy.