Claustrophobia in Disneyland

Donald Duck Presents, The Literary Onion as Captain Claustrophobia

The Disneyland Paris Annual Pass Social Media Page recently posed the question: When was the last time you cried in Disneyland Paris and why? They received a lot of the responses you would expect: I was so happy to see the castle; I was scared going on Space Mountain; I was overjoyed to meet a character I loved. All of these are overwhelmingly positive (even the fear which is something that a rollercoaster is supposed to evoke). I decided not to answer…

            At least not on the Social Media page, designed to share the love of a place beloved to many people. The truth is, whilst researching a story, I’ve visited Disneyland Paris a lot in the past year (give or take five times—maybe six)… and I’ve cried… every… single… time. Sometimes multiple times, but not out of love or fear—I’ve cried out of hatred for myself.

            You’ve probably heard of claustrophobia. It’s been represented many times on TV programs. You’ve maybe even experienced it yourself going into a small place designed to make you feel enclosed. Except—this isn’t my level of claustrophobia. My cowardice far surpassed that level of ‘stuck in a small box’. Instead I fear any locked room. I fear being stuck in any place. In classrooms I’ve (at least since I was at University) had to sit at the door closest to the exit. In cinemas, I have to be at the end row with easy access to run at a moments notice. I even struggle with public transport—I have panic attacks on trains and buses, desperately wanting to escape and feeling out of control. Even car journeys can leave me feeling like I’m about to hyperventilate.

            This, as you may have figured out, is a bad condition to have when visiting somewhere like a theme park… and oddly, this has only come about in the last year. Before 2021 I hadn’t visited Disneyland since I was 13 years old. Sure, I’d visited some theme parks at some point, but I’d mostly been designated bag holder as, even before the severe claustrophobia, I had a strong fear of heights or moving too quickly.

            After a terrible year in 2020 and early 2021, and wanting to work on my latest set of children’s books, I came across the videos by SeeYouInMainstreet and Sam4God on Youtube. They reminded me of the few times I’d visited Disneyland Paris growing up. They started my interest in the mechanics of what made a theme park and inspired my latest project… and when my Mother suggested we visit it for ourselves so that we could see for ourselves what it felt like in person I jumped at it. I was so excited to go on everything… and for the first couple of days we were there I went on many of my childhood favourites and other rides I’d never seen before (Phantom Manor, It’s A Small World, Conte De Fee). I even managed Casey Jr, which may seem daft to those people who love rollercoasters but I’d had a fear of even baby rollercoasters spanning back to early childhood.

            And then I made the mistake of challenging myself. You see, when I was little I was waiting to go on Star Tours (a favourite of mine the first time I went to Disney a year-ish before) and I felt sick to my stomach. I wasn’t nervous about the ride at the time. I loved the ride… but I had a horrible fear of being sick. I desperately wanted to turn around and leave but my parents kept on going. In their eyes it seemed I was playing up for attention (I can’t entirely blame them for this. I was a very attention-seeking sort of child). They took me on the ride and it shook me around, as you know Star Tours does. I ran out of that ride feeling so sick and petrified that later when they suggested going again, even the sight of C3P0 in the queue made me push my way back out again in tears (I may have thrown up after I got off the first time. I can’t remember).

            So, there it was, decades later in that same queue starting at that same C3P0 animatronic chanting to myself that everything was going to be okay, feeling the sickness grow and my head getting progressively lighter and lighter as I tried to fight off the sheer panic. Everyone else, even small children around me, looked so happy to be there—and I felt alone and stupid and scared. I made it all the way into the ‘ship’ before begging desperately to be let off, running away as I had all those years before. A kind cast member led me down a secret corridor next to the ride, to a seat where I could wait for my Mum to finish her ride. That was the first time I cried (recently) at Disneyland. It was the first time in Disneyland I felt true hatred for myself.

            The next day… well, Star Tours had broken me. I went on Peter Pan’s Flight (my favourite ride as a kid, by far) and I nearly passed out. Every dip it took sent my stomach flying upwards. I gripped the front of the ride vehicle tightly, desperately wishing it was over—just like little me had done on Star Tours all those years before. I didn’t go on any more rides for the rest of that trip.

            The next trip came and I was excited to go on all the rides I’d managed to get on the last time, my favourite being the train around the park. I got into the train and the door was closed behind us. Suddenly that feeling crept back in again. The blood rushed out of my head as I realised that I was locked in. The door was shut. There was no way out that didn’t potentially harm me. I had no control. I spent that train journey holding off a panic attack, clutching myself tightly and begging my Mum to keep talking so I didn’t try and jump out. After that, there was no way I was getting on the train again. In fact, the last time I went to the park I stared awkwardly at the Frontier Land Train Station, watching the train come in and out, begging myself to work up the nerve to go in—as you may gather, I didn’t manage it.

            On my third trip in the past year, after having gone on no rides the previous time, and determined to go on one ride on the first visit with my sister and niece, I booked a ticket on April 12th (before they arrived) so I could get the ball rolling and get on one ride before they showed up. Unfortunately, it was the wrong day. It turned out to be the official date of the 30th Anniversary of the park and it was absolutely packed. My claustrophobia was activated just walking around the park, being surrounded by hordes of happy theme-park-goers and their families. There were no rides I could plausibly get on quick enough to jump my hurdle so I had to leave and escape to the relative peace of Earl of Sandwich in Disney Village.

            On that holiday I was excellent at holding bags and lining up so my niece could meet characters but I didn’t manage to get on any rides with them.

            For anybody wondering, ‘but you went to see some shows instead, right?’—the answer is still no. Out of all the trips I’ve had the past year I’ve not seen one show (at least in a theatre). Even though, logically, I know that they can’t lock the doors on the buildings for fire-safety reasons my head would need official confirmation from Disneyland Cast Members to actually feel safe inside. We did attempt to get that confirmation—but it turns out describing my severe claustrophobia in broken English and French to French speakers doesn’t get you that firm confirmation you need. In truth, I would need more than just a verbal confirmation anyway. I would have to see that the door isn’t locked for myself (and yes, I do test this at cinemas). So, no shows for me (except the one held in the Hyperion at Christmas as I’d actually been able to scout out that building beforehand to check it wasn’t locked).

            Every time I went I had the same problem. The Ratatouille Ride, an amazing ride I’d managed before Star Tours (and an amazing ride you should check out, if you haven’t) had the same issue to me as the train. The door shuts and you lose control. I tried to force myself to go on this ride too, knowing how much I’d loved it, but I’d broken down in front of it. I told my Mum to go on it alone and went to the side of a Food Stall to cry again, hating myself.

            It’s not all negative. Once I managed to find Conte de Fee with a walk-on-queue and, after yet more crying on a bench for twenty minutes, I forced myself onto it quickly before I could change my mind. I enjoyed every second and still try to get on this one as my beginning ride when I go (although periodically I do even fail getting on this if the queue looks busy). I’ve got on Buzz Lightyear in extra-magic time. Luckily I hadn’t been on this ride since before Star Tours and by this time I was gaining a bit more confidence—so, running with my Dad through an empty queue and giving myself an inspiring, rambling pep-talk that would make you believe I was insane, I managed to get on this ride too (helped by the fact you were kept busy shooting so I had no time to think and panic). I’ve managed to get on the Steam-Boat in Frontier Land as well, at least three times, but if I ever feel sick or full-of-food I don’t go on anything again.

            Each time I go I don’t know whether I’ll manage to get on rides. If I feel sick, as I said above, I know now not to force the issue. Being sick is such a strong phobia for me (and the entry point for how I gained claustrophobia in the first place) that I know not to fight it. If the queue is too long, I also can’t get on. I need rides with a short ride queue because the faster I get on the less time I have to fight all of the stress running through my body. Sometimes I manage to get on rides and sometimes I don’t—but luckily for me, I find Disneyland Paris so enjoyable in other ways that I’ve learned to not hate myself too much for not going on rides.

            However, yes, I have cried many times in Disneyland Paris. In fact, and I saved this for last for a reason, I even held up a ride once. After two days of constantly challenging myself to get on rides with my niece, sister and Mum in the summer holidays my niece wanted to go on Slinky Dog. Now, if you’re used to the American parks, it’s not the Slinky Dog you’re thinking of. It’s not a rollercoaster in Paris. It’s a small kids ride that goes around in circles quickly and it’s my nieces favourite ride. I had been terrified of this thing since the minute I saw it—with no plausible explanation, but this time after doing so well over the last two days I decided to try it.

            I made it into the queue. I waited ten-ish minutes to get near the ride. I made it down the steps to get inside the ride vehicle… and I froze. Suddenly I was hit by that same sick feeling. I lost all sense of control over my body. I felt like I was floating away—I was frozen in fear just next to the ride with my Mum trying to coax me into the vehicle.

            A cast member came up to see what was happening. She couldn’t start the ride with me standing there. She asked me if I wanted to get in or if I wanted to be shown the exit. I couldn’t answer anything but ‘I don’t know’. The tears were coming back but they were also stuck. I felt like my feet were being pulled into the ground. I looked between where my family were patiently waiting for me, where other families were waiting confused and the freedom of the people walking by. It felt like hours that I was stuck there, feeling like I was ruining everybody’s day and teaching their kids to be as afraid as I was, before I finally said through a tear-logged voice ‘I want to leave’. The cast member guided me to the exit. I walked like a ghost through the crowds to a piece of wall hidden away and started to cry again. Yes, people stared at me as they walked past as it wasn’t very well hidden. I felt a surge on uncontrollable energy buzz through me and I took my Rubik Cube out of my bag (a coping mechanism I’d only learned a month or so before to help deal with nervous energy).

            I hated myself for so many reasons at that time. I hated myself because I’d been doing so well up to that point; I hated that I’d failed in front of my niece and other kids like her, scared that I’d shown them that they should be afraid of something they loved; I hated that I’d lost control again. I cried harder on that time than any other time… And that’s when the cast member came.

            It wasn’t the same cast member as the one who’d patiently waited with me until I’d decided to leave. It was another cast member who was working on the same ride. By this time my Mum was back and I’d stopped crying as much but was still doing the Rubik Cube. The cast member came to check I was okay. She checked if I wanted her to go and get any water or a medic. She explained that she understood what I was feeling; that she understood anxiety—and, when I say it helped me feel so seen. So often when I have claustrophobic attacks I keep it to myself. I find my own way to deal with it—and I’m rarely ever public with my extreme reactions (as I usually avoid putting myself in that situation). But she made me feel less alone—too often mental illness is a lonely thing.

            I still struggle. Every day is a struggle and Disneyland is a struggle also (if anybody knows of a way to find out about the theatres and get an official confirmation on the doors, that would be great) but, oddly, Disneyland has actually helped to save me in the past year (so much so my psychiatrist recommended going back there to help deal with my depression which was often better when I was there). I get the pleasure of seeing characters I love, a world that had escaped from a storybook; I get to sit and watch other people, speaking all sorts of languages, run around happily and enjoy themselves—and I love to see other people happy. And yes, I get to challenge my claustrophobia so it doesn’t take full control of me.

            If you have claustrophobia, deal with anxiety or other phobias (or depression or other mental health conditions)—I may not know you but I want you to know—you may see yourself as a coward, or hate yourself for being afraid—but you are braver than anybody that doesn’t have those fears, because you fight every day to stand up to the fears trying to control you. Every day you fight the ‘Big Boss Battle’—and, so far, everyday you’ve won because you keep playing the game. I hope this helped and I hope my future book (whenever it’s written) will help any kids that are like me, who need to know just how brave they are.


The Literary Onion

P.S. I want to thank all Disneyland Cast Members that have ever shown my kindness when there. To the lovely cast member who helped me celebrate my birthday (a day I loathe and feel the most lonely on), to the cast members at Slinky Dog who helped me feel like I wasn’t alone and seen, to the cast members at the Studio Theatre who tried desperately to figure out what I meant and were considering allowing me to get in first so I could get the seat closest to the door (even though I didn’t take them up on it because I didn’t know if the door got locked)… Just thank you to everyone who works at Disneyland Paris, to all the Imagineers and Cast Members.

 Thank you to the YouTubers: Mammoth Club, All Ears, Sam4God, SeeYouInMainStreet, Ordinary Adventures etc. who helped with my research for my stories and showed me what I could be doing if I wasn’t such as wuss. Thanks to all of your dedication and hard work I know what rollercoasters and other rides look like for my research without having to go on them myself—as well as a lot of other Theme Park and Cruising aspects as well.

Eventually I will be bringing out my Magnum Opus, which is a full ranking of all restaurants (buffet and sit-down) at Disneyland Paris (from the POV of a trained chef). If you want to be notified when that comes out, please subscribe to my mailing list. Thank you and I hope you have a good day, wherever you are.


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