Can a trip to Disney World help treat anxiety & depression?

disney world
Photo credit: Steven Diaz/Disney World

Medicine is a science — undeniably and unequivocally. If you come down with the flu, any doctor or nurse you talk to will advise rest and fluids. If you break your arm, the process for setting and casting the bone will be basically the same, no matter which hospital you visit.

But when it comes to treating mental health, there’s an element of art mixed in with the science. Some doctors advocate medication, while others — even within the same specialty — are hesitant to write prescriptions. Some mental health experts are big believers in talk therapy; others prefer a structured approach, like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy. Some recommend mindfulness meditation and still others look for alternative approaches and emerging research.

The first time I talked to a doctor — my general practitioner at the time — about struggles with anxiety and depression, he scribbled out a prescription for antidepressants, but emphasized that his real recommendation was something a little more outside the box: joining the Sierra Club. It wasn’t environmental activism that he thought might cure my mental illness, but the group’s regular nature hikes.

MORE: Why are people forest bathing? Here’s everything you need to know

This might sound like a New Age approach to treating mental illness, but there’s plenty of science to back up the recommendation. According to the National Institutes of Health, there is growing evidence to suggest that exposure to natural environments can bring mental health benefits. Just being close to greenspace (parks, forests, lush grassy areas) can lower stress and reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, and interacting with nature has been shown to improve cognition in people struggling with depression. What’s more, moving from a place with very little access to nature to a place with more green spaces can lead to sustained improvements in mental health, suggesting that just having visual access to nature may be good for our mental health.

Even city dwellers can find ways to connect with nature, whether it’s a walk around the local park or a weekend camping trip. Another great opportunity for a little one-on-one time with Mother Nature? Vacations. You don’t have to book a stay in a remote cabin or an African safari to reap the benefits of greenspace and interacting with wildlife. In fact, there are even ways to connect with nature in the least natural, most man-made of tourist destinations. I recently put that idea to the test in the Most Magical Place on Earth, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

When you picture a trip to Disney World, you probably think of eating churros and wearing mouse ears in front of Cinderella’s castle in the Magic Kingdom or sampling foods from around the globe in EPCOT. Or maybe you’re very current on your Disney Parks news and all you can think of is embracing your inner Jedi at the new Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge area in Hollywood Studios (aka the theme park formerly known as Disney-MGM Studios). If you’re looking to use your trip to Disney World as a mental health boost, however, spring for the Park Hopper pass and plan to spend some quality time with the animals and nature-scapes in Animal Kingdom.

Animal Kingdom, which opened in 1998, is the newest park at Walt Disney World. In addition to being a theme park full of rides and attractions, just like the rest of its sister parks at Disney’s Orlando resort, the Animal Kingdom is a remarkable achievement in nature and animal conservation. The park is home to hundreds of species of live animals and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which speaks to its high standards in education, conservation and research.

Disney World’s attractions also offer some of the most immersive nature experiences in the country — and they’re a great place to put theories about the impact of interacting with nature on mental health to the test. That’s exactly what I did during a recent press trip to the park to celebrate the home video release of Disney’s photorealistic CGI reboot of The Lion King, which was inspired, in part, by real animals in residence at the Animal Kingdom. Here are the best, science-backed tips for using the magic of Disney to boost your mental health.

1. Go bird watching on the Kilimanjaro Safaris

One of Animal Kingdom’s main attractions is Kilimanjaro Safaris, an open-sided ride that recreates (as well as a theme park in central Florida possibly can, at least) the experience of going on an African safari. The safari features a range of African animals, including lions, giraffes, spotted hyenas, wild dogs, rhinos, cheetahs, African elephants, zebras, wildebeest, buffaloes, crocodiles and antelopes. While they might not be the flashiest draws on the marquee, the safaris also highlight ostriches, flamingos and several other species of birds.

The birds should be of particular interest if you’re looking for a mental health pick-me-up. A 2017 study from researchers at the University of Exeter found that bird-watching can pack a huge mood benefit. Don’t book your Kilimanjaro Safaris FastPass for the morning, though; the study found that lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress were associated with the number of birds people could see in the afternoon, specifically.

2. Don’t sweat the Disney World crowds

This might seem counterintuitive, but the crowds at Disney World might actually contribute to the ability of a trip to Animal Kingdom to help lower your stress and increase your mental well-being.

How is that possible? There’s an emerging body of research on the positive impact of group walks in nature. According to one report from the National Institutes of Health, “Group walks in nature appear to ‘un-do’ or dampen the effects of at least one stressful life event on depression, positive affect and mental well-being. This suggests that group walking schemes in natural environments may be an important public health promotion intervention for mental health.”

And, if you’re worried that the recreated environments in the Animal Kingdom don’t “count” as nature for the purposes of boosting mental health, fret not. A study into the positive psychological impacts of outdoor walks in different nature environments found that “there were no significant differences between the effect of any environment types on depression or positive affect.”

3. Embrace your inner child at the Affection Section

Petting zoos are usually considered an attraction for the youngest of guests at a zoo or park, but don’t get too hung up on #adulting if you’re looking to improve your mental health on your Disney vacay.

During your Animal Kingdom visit, make sure to set aside time to visit the Affection Section in Rafiki’s Planet Watch. This is the park’s official petting zoo and it gives guests the best opportunity to engage in up-close animal interactions in the park. Animal interactions have been shown to have positive effects on mental health, particularly among people who suffer from depression.

Interacting with animals has been shown to trigger the release of oxytocin, which is commonly referred to as the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone” because it plays an important role in social interactions and bonding. Oxytocin also counters the effects of cortisol, the stress hormone, and makes us feel calmer, more relaxed and loving — all of which improve mental health and well-being, at least in the short-term.

4. Learn about preserving the planet at the Conservation Station

Rafiki’s Planet Watch is also home to the Conservation Station, where Animal Kingdom guests can learn about animal habitats across the globe and about the health and care of the animals in the park. Scientists have recently started studying the impact of working on environmental enhancement and conservation projects on mental health — and the early results are promising and indicate that being in and caring for nature is good for humans’ health.

While the jury is still out on the quantitative mental health benefits of conservation work, early reviews have found significant qualitative benefits. In other words, there isn’t much evidence (yet, at least) that learning about and working to protect the environment brings measurable, objective benefits, but, when interviewed about the perceived impact of conservation work on their mental health and emotional well-being, many people report that they do feel like it makes a difference. So, while the positive impact of dedicating your time and/or brain power to keeping Mother Nature healthy might be something of a placebo effect, the feel-good vibes are widely reported and researchers are looking into the positive impacts of conservation work for older adults, specifically.

Other add-on experiences and attractions at Animal Kingdom, like Caring for Giants, the park’s elephant experience, also offer conservation education, if you’re looking to max out this particular mental health boost.

MORE: Do you have depression? How to know & what to do

5. Let yourself experience awe

One of the most prominent theories to explain the positive mental health effects of spending time in nature and around majestic wildlife is the awe factor — the feeling of being in the presence of something greater than ourselves. A recent study found that awe was the greatest predictor of how beneficial a nature experience is on a person’s mental and emotional health. Researchers who worked on the study hypothesize that experiencing awe may have a profound impact on our sense of perspective and that experiencing the feeling that comes with being in the presence of something truly awe-inspiring, like the masterpieces of the natural world, might help make our own worries and stresses seem small in comparison.

There’s no shortage of awe-inspiring glimpses of nature at the Animal Kingdom — I personally recommend the Caring for Giants, the Wild Africa Trek and the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail for achieving peak wonder at the park.

When it comes to mental health, there’s no such thing as a quick fix. A single day at Disney’s wildest park isn’t going to reverse the effects of a lifelong battle with depression or anxiety — and neither is a trip to Africa for a real safari, for that matter. But until medical science makes some serious advances, treating mental health issues will remain what it is now — something of an art, requiring a lot of patience, trial and error, and a nuanced approach capable of being tailored and tweaked for different individuals.

While I didn’t follow my old GP’s advice and sign up for a Sierra Club membership years ago, the advice did inspire me to pay special attention to my time in nature and the positive impact it has on mental health.

During my Animal Kingdom trip, I noticed my stress levels decreased and the awe factor was definitely real — reveling in the beauty of something you can’t quite explain does act as a grounding force that prompts mindfulness, even if only for a moment or two. The biggest takeaway: Once you start being mindful of your time in nature, you’ll find opportunities for fostering that sense of awe everywhere you go — even in the most unlikely (albeit magical) of places.

You may not be able to get to Disney World, but you can bring nature to your home. Check out our video on vertical tower gardens to learn more.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please don’t wait to get help. You can start by visiting The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or by calling 1-800-273-8255.