Socialization and Desensitization at Disney Hollywood Studios

by Zan Raynor, certified dog trainer and CEO of ELLAS Animals INC

After driving an hour and half to get to the park, we were excited that Phin, a 13 month old “Staffchoxermo” (his grandparents are an American Staffordshire Terrier, a Chow, a Boxer, and an American Eskimo) hadn’t thrown up in the van. He tends toward motion sickness and it’s hit or miss whether he’s going to make it through a long drive without emptying his stomach. Research says he’s likely to outgrow this with age and continued socialization and desensitization through frequent car rides. We celebrated too quickly because once we were parked in the parking lot at Disney Hollywood Studios and as we were moving around outside the van getting everything prepared to get the dogs out, Phin vomited just inside the door. Sigh. We cleaned that up and comforted the poor pooch and finished getting everything ready.

disney first visit
Phin with his “1st visit” pin

With their Service Dog in Training vests on, Pumpkin sporting her martingale collar and Phin sporting his Gentle Leader head gear, both on our favorite convertible leashes, with Dan loaded up with the treat bag (that has a built-in poopy bag holder) and the empty dog water bottle/bowl clipped to it, we headed toward the park entrance. We cleared the temperature checkpoint and security and the entrance itself and then used both the people bathroom and the Service Dog Relief Area

Public bathrooms

Pumpkin’s had enough socialization and desensitization in public bathrooms now that we are past the drama and we don’t make a scene. She’s just got a heightened awareness of what’s going on around her and an eagerness to be done and get out. We realized Phin has a different experience in public bathrooms since he always goes in with a male rather than a female, so he doesn’t experience tucking in to a tiny stall or all of the toilets flushing. Dan and I made a plan that Dan will specifically work on those skills during public bathroom visits so that Phin is prepared for the challenges of women’s restrooms as well as men’s restrooms. We filled up the dog water bottle and let them each have a drink.

service dog under a bench
Pumpkin “under” a bench waiting for the men to get out of the bathroom

Service Dog Relief Areas

Once again we struggled to find the Service Dog Relief Area, even though we could see it marked on the map and had indeed walked right past it twice. It wasn’t grass, which I think threw me off, but rather a layer of wood chips. It was also a very small strip. Neither dog could be convinced to use this designated area but both pottied right next to it in the deeper vegetation, which is fine. We were a bit disappointed that neither dog pooped for two reasons. 1. Someone (we think perhaps Pumpkin) had been emitted unpleasant smells periodically during the drive so we knew someone needed to eliminate. 2. While Pumpkin is a pro at going potty and poop only upon invitation, Phin will still sometimes poop outside wherever and whenever, rather than waiting for the invitation. We would rather avoid having him do this in the middle of the street or sidewalk at Disney. So now we had a heightened awareness as we headed deeper into the park.

service dog relief area at Disney
Phin going potty in the Service Dog Relief Area

Sharing a Crate

On our way to Galaxy’s Edge, we stopped at the next Service Animal Relief Area which was bigger and easier to spot but had the same wood chip surface. It’s just more opportunity for socialization and desensitization. Both dogs once again preferred the deeper vegetation next to it but we were relieved that Pumpkin went poop when asked to. Now we didn’t need to worry about offending anyone in a queue with her gas. Phin still just pottied. We continued on and got in the queue for Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run. We may have stopped and posed for a few tourist photos on the way, like two dogs with two Stormtroopers in front of their TIE fighter and two dogs in front of the Millennium Falcon. Both dogs were unfazed by the crowds and the Stormtroopers. They also went through the queue without a problem and with the few minutes we had to enjoy exploring the inside of the Millennium Falcon, we trained “under” at the chess table seating area from the movie. The dogs entered their shared crate easily. Pumpkin had used a crate at a ride on our last visit but this time they went in together. They don’t share a crate at home so we were pleasantly surprised that neither of them questioned it here. We rode and returned and no one was any worse for the wear.

socialization and desensitization with Stormtroopers and TIE fighter
With the Stormtroopers
socialization and desensitization at Millennium Falcon
In front of the Millennium Falcon
service dog training under chess table Millennium Falcom
Training “under” the chess table on the Millennium Falcon

Riding an Attraction

Next we walked back toward Toy Story Land and used the same Relief Area. We danced a happy jig once Phin pooped because we knew we could relax now and not worry about when he might need to go. With this pleasant thought, we got in the queue for Toy Story Mania. This is one of the attractions the dogs can ride. The cast members filtered us from the main line to the accessibility entrance so we had as much time as we needed to get the dogs loaded. It turns out we didn’t need it. Both dogs walked right onto the ride vehicle without questioning it. This was a real improvement for Pumpkin who had balked at loading onto a dark ride last time. Chalk one up for socialization and desensitization! She also rode it quite calmly without seeming as upset as last time. It was a rough ride and they bounced around a bit but didn’t seem to mind and the loud noises helped with our socialization and desensitization plan. They exited the ride without any fanfare as well.

Pumpkin exiting Toy Story Mania
socialization and desensitization toy story mania
Phin exiting Toy Story Mnaia

Rest and Hydration

Bolstered by this success, we headed to Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. On the way, we stopped to give the dogs some more water and we took the opportunity to have some soda and popcorn ourselves. The dogs took the opportunity to nap when the opportunity presented itself. Once fully hydrated and somewhat reseted, we went through the queue and approached the vehicle loading area. Phin marched right onto the train vehicle but Pumpkin balked and had to be cajoled a bit. She eventually got on and they both did just fine during the rough and loud ride. We finished our attractions by enjoying the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror while the dogs waited in the shared crate.

Taking a rest and hydration break
service dogs in crate at tower of terror
Pumpkin and Phin sharing a crate at Tower of Terror


In addition to sharing a crate and riding some dark rides, we had intended to try the dogs out on the Skyliner for some flying socialization and desensitization. Before we left the park, we all used the facilities again and gave the dogs some more water. To my surprise, although Pumpkin balked gently a few times in the queue for the Skyliner, she walked onto the ride vehicle with no hesitation (as did Phin). Every attraction we’d ridden up to this point had a static entry but the Skyliner buckets are moving (slowly) and you step in from a static platform. Once on board, I don’t think they even realized they were flying. However, at the transfer point, when we got off and then back on another bucket, Pumpkin flatly refused to get back in so she had to be physically loaded in. She didn’t mind the flight again, though. 

dogs flying on Disney Skyliner
Flying on the Skyliner

Dining and a Boat Ride

We got off the Skyliner at the back of EPCOT’s World Showcase and passed security and ticketing back there. That put us close to France where we enjoyed baguettes and cheese for dinner while the dogs practice “under” and “down-stay” while we ate. There was even a spilled bag of Cheezits which Pumpkin smugly ignored when told to “leave it”. After the meal, we left the back of the park again but decided to take the boat back to Hollywood Studios for even more socialization and desensitization. Nobody balked at entering the boat and they both went right “under” and stayed (ok, slept) for the 20 minute boat ride. Phin even got a foot rub because Dan wanted to pamper him for being such a trooper on his first theme park visit.

socialization and desensitization eating at France in EPCOT
Restaurant practice “under” the table
leave it tempation
The “leave it” test
Pumpkin relaxing on the boat ride
desensitization foot rub
Phin gets a foot rub

Back at the parking lot of Studios, we found a patch of grass by the bathrooms and everyone relieved themselves. We gave the dogs some more water for the drive home, but of course we stopped for Pup Cups at Starbucks on the drive home as well.

Starbucks pup cup
Pumpkin’s post-park Starbucks pup cup
Starbucks pup cup
Phin’s post-park Starbucks pup cup

If you think you might want to Join Our Cause, please check out our opportunities for fostering puppies, training dogs, and donating to our nonprofit, ELLAS Animals INC, which supports a network of volunteer trainers developing rescue dogs into Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Dogs.

Note: We live in Florida, where state law extends the federal public access rights from the ADA to Service Dogs in Training. Click here to check the state laws where you live to see what public access rights Service Dogs in Training have before you head out to any no-pets-allowed stores or restaurants.

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