Jessica Thomas considers herself to be the kind of person who can handle almost any situation. The attorney has established her own law firm in Florida and sits on multiple boards, and she's also the mom of two young kids, David and Julia. But Thomas struggles with claustrophobia and related panic attacks, and those fears almost derailed a recent trip to Disney's Animal Kingdom until an amazing employee stepped in.
"I hate rides, I really do," Thomas told TODAY Parents. "I've been claustrophobic my whole life. It stems from all sorts of crazy things — being trapped in an elevator once ... but it definitely is a harder experience now that I have kids."
The family had evacuated to a Disney hotel to avoid Hurricane Dorian. Thomas had hoped to work and didn't plan to go on any rides, but her kids were insistent, and she wanted to make sure they had the best memories possible during their first visit to Disney. The first ride she and her family went on was a safari ride, which she handled well until the doors closed. She almost got off, but managed to get through it by riding in the larger handicapped space.
The next ride was the Na'vi River Journey indoor boat ride, based on the James Cameron movie "Avatar." She found herself terrified and went to get off the ride.
"It is a cave!" she said. "It is a scary, tight cave. I was terrified, and, just, I couldn't. I tried to get off; Julia starts crying. ... This is something beyond my control, and it makes me feel horrible that I am not able to do something for my kids."
While heading toward the exit in tears, she ran into Disney employee Samantha Burns.
Burns immediately picked up on her distress and offered to let Thomas spend time getting comfortable on the ride before it began. While Thomas was initially resistant to getting back on the ride, Burns continued to offer details about the ride and then offered to ride with Thomas and her daughter, an offer that completely took Thomas by surprise.
"It did not even occur to me to ask that," Thomas said. "You wouldn't think — I'm sure my husband would be like, I could have rode with you, I was with you! But it was different, how she said it. So I'm like, 'OK,' and I asked — and I know she was probably like, 'This weird lady' — I'm like, 'Can I hold your hand?' And she's like, 'Yes!' She did not skip a beat."
For the duration of the ride, Burns held Thomas's hand and pointed out relaxing details, like nearby exits, the fact that the water was shallower than it appeared to be, and a turn that meant the ride was nearing its end. Simultaneously, Burns also entertained Julia, pointing out the animals and exciting details on the ride and tickling the toddler.
"She's like, 'Look, Julia!' and then at the same time, 'Are you OK? Are you OK? How are you doing?'" Thomas explained. "Just amazing, all that support. ... I am a family law attorney. I deal with people's emotions all day. All day, I deal with emotions and calming people down and walking them off the ledge ... so to have someone doing that for me was just indescribable."
The duo hugged after the ride, and posed for a brief photo. Thomas shared a detailed post on social media about the experience, including the photo.
"I wanted Samantha to get recognition," Thomas said. "The second reason I put it on and went into detail was I was hoping another mom could see it, and not feel bad like I do, all the time, when I can't get on the ride."
Before long, the post went viral, and Thomas got reconnected with Burns. Burns messaged Thomas over Facebook Messenger.
"She said, 'Hi Jessica, thank you so much for taking the time to write that post. Guests like you are the reason I work at Disney. I'm so happy I could impact your vacation in the slightest. I hope you had a great rest of your day, and safety during the hurricane,'" said Thomas, reading the message to TODAY Parents. "I wrote her back saying, 'You're the reason it's going viral, everyone loves you!' and she said the same thing that everyone is. She wrote, 'You are the sweetest, you are viral for your bravery. I am so humbled to have come across paths with you.'"
Thomas said the outpouring of kindness from Burns and so many strangers has been inspiring.
"Moms are giving me support and encouragement," she said. "One of the comments was, 'You left out the part where you had the courage to get back on the ride, and showed your daughter that you can face your fears.'"