We were off to Disneyland! The happiest place on Earth.
It had been two years since we had made the trek, and this time we were going to celebrate my 5-year-old's birthday.
On the last trip, we briefly lost my oldest daughter while standing around Downtown Disney trying to decide what we wanted to eat. She wandered off, in search of a large Mickey Mouse balloon, and my husband and I and my parents frantically tried to find her.
We decided then to come up with a plan for amusement parks or crowded areas. When one person is going to go a different direction — to ride a ride, or use the restroom — they are to say to another adult, "Do you have — ____?" And then we wait for that person to respond: "Got her."
So we thought we were prepared.
All was well in mouseland until the end of the day. Everyone was tired and eager to get back to the hotel. We were heading out of the park when my mother told us she wanted to go into a jewelry store to look for a necklace for my 5-year-old.
All of us — Mom, Dad, husband, myself and two kids — headed into the store.
At first, my 2-year-old was content to view the jewelry from her stroller. But the shiny jewels were beckoning, so she got up and grabbed a few necklaces. At this point, my mother was watching my oldest and once Aubrey bailed from her stroller, the plan fell apart.
Everyone thought someone else had her.
People get distracted in stores. And toddlers don't like to shop.
All of a sudden, she bolted through the entryway to another store and she was gone.
The store on Disneyland's Main Street led into a larger store, which led into a larger store. They were all connected.
I saw Aubrey run out of the jewelry store, and I didn't see where she went after that. I entered the larger store and panic set in when I didn't see her. She was not on any of the aisles.
I then gasped when I saw that the store just kept on going.
At that point, I informed an employee about our lost child and my husband headed to park security.
My safety plan hadn't worked.
Nancy McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said my plan wasn't that efficient because no one really had responsibility for the child. Just having one parent ask another if they have the child doesn't cut it.
"It's better that one person take that responsibility," she said.
One adult should be in charge of one specific child at all times.
McBride suggests getting familiar with a theme park's system for dealing with lost children before you arrive, or certainly when you enter the park. Find out where lost children are taken, and where park security is located.
Teach your child, if he is old enough, to ask an employee, a security officer or a mother with children for help. You can role play this at home and have them practice what to do if they got separated from a parent, McBride said.
"The one thing that we don't want kids to do is to leave the general area," she said.
She also said families should consider dressing in the same color to make it easier to spot each other in a crowd. Another idea is to tuck a piece of paper with the parent's name and phone number on it in the child's pocket or shoe.
McBride stressed that parents should never wait to call the police if they can't find their child within a reasonable amount of time.
"It's a judgment call. Get as much help as fast as you can," she said.
In our case, my husband was mobilizing security, my mother stayed with my 5-year-old as my father and I searched for Aubrey. Finally, after about 10 minutes, the employee I had notified of my missing daughter went to check the bathroom.
She was in a stall, and had pooped in her diaper. Apparently she needed privacy.
When she ran from the jewelry store, she headed straight back into an area that looks like it is an employee-only door. It actually was a small, unisex bathroom and just interesting enough to capture a 2-year-old's attention and send her parents into a complete tailspin.
Time for a better plan.