How to Plan a Great Trip to Disney World With Special Needs
A trip to Disney World is supposed to be fun for the whole family, including your child or teen with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Identifying the potential trouble areas and activities and preparing in advance will make a significant difference for your whole group and allow you to navigate the parks with ease.
Since the parks and attractions are actually designed to provide sensory experiences and are packed with sounds, scents, visual distractions and other people, kids and adults with autism may feel overwhelmed by the experience. Doing some research and planning in advance can help your whole family navigate the parks and hotels with ease and ensure you have the best possible vacation. From cutting the risk of elopement to ensuring your ASD family member enjoys the trip as much as the rest of the family, these tips are designed to help you prepare for your Disney vacation.
Make guest services your first stop
All of the big four theme parks have a guest services window; this should be your first stop. Speak with a cast member there about your child’s special needs and the accommodations needed. Do you need a quiet place to wait in line? A pass to return to a ride later in the day and board without a wait? Do you need your stroller to be treated like a wheelchair, allowing you to take it anywhere? Let a cast member know, and he/she will set up disability access as needed.
Your magic bands or park tickets will be modified to add the Disability Access Service (DAS) pass which will allow you to access select attractions right away and to wait in a quiet area for others. You’ll also receive a stroller/wheelchair tag if needed, so cast members allow you to retain your stroller when you are in lines. For this program, you need only state the accommodations needed and do not need a proof of diagnosis or special paperwork. Your special needs family member needs to be with you when you visit guest services, and the DAS pass is good for the duration of your visit.
Use Clothing Labels and Identification
Kids go missing every day in the Disney theme parks and are rapidly reunited with their parents. According to Disney VIP Tour Guide Maria M., every cast member is trained in what to do with a missing child, and the cast member the child approaches will stay with that child until he or she is united with her family. When a neurotypical child is lost, they can tell the team details that will help locate parents swiftly, but a child with autism may not be able to relay these details.
Providing your child with identification in the form of clothing labels, shoe tags or even a temporary tattoo can help the safety team reunite you quickly. Whatever form of simple ID your child is willing to wear will help you get reunited if you become separated in the parks. Snap a daily photo to show what your child is wearing, and you’ll have an up to date image to share if you do become separated.
Notify your Hotel
Letting the hotel know you have a family member with a disability could enhance both safety and comfort. Depending on where you stay, you could be given a room away from the noisy lobby; a room on a secured concierge floor also prevents wandering, and these areas have extra staff on hand that can keep an eye out for a wandering child.
Drive or Rent a Car
Disney does have a free bus system, but buses can be very crowded and noisy; they also take up to an hour to arrive at your destination, even if that destination is just a short drive away. Your own vehicle or a rental vehicle large enough for the family, gear and a special needs stroller will make it easy to get around in comfort. Each Disney theme park has medical parking; if you have the Disabilities pass, ask for the medical lot so you can park close enough to walk to the entrance.
Rent a Special Needs Stroller
Even if your child is too big for a regular stroller or does not typically need one, renting a special needs stroller can help you navigate the parks safely. Several agencies in Orlando rent Liberty model special needs strollers, which hold older children. A pull-down hood, jogger style wheels and a defined space can make it easy for your child to retreat to a secure and comfortable sanctuary, away from sensory overload.
An oversized stroller can accommodate most kids, and even small adults and teens and delivery to your hotel is included in the cost. Disney treats these oversized strollers as wheelchairs, allowing your child to stay safely seated until you actually board a ride. Their large stature makes them comfortable, but you will need a vehicle with plenty of space to hold this item.
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Disney has become increasingly allergy friendly; for restaurants that require a reservation, listing any dietary needs in advance ensures the chef can create a gluten- or casein-free meal for your child. Virtually every quick service location offers some kind of gluten-free option; theme park maps also identify dining locations with gluten-free options for easy reference.
Each hotel also offers packaged food options in a gift shop setting, but the actual offerings could vary. If your child only eats specific brands or foods, the easiest thing to do is to bring these from home, have them sent to your hotel or ship them to the hotel yourself. The front desk will hold packages until you check in and you’ll be able to have a stash of the preferred food items on hand for your entire trip.
Expect to pay about $15 per day for this piece, a little less than you would pay for a child’s stroller in the parks. These strollers retail for over a thousand dollars each but are affordable for most families to rent and worth the expense for the comfort they can provide.
Choose the Right Attractions
The rides that work best for one child with autism may be totally terrifying and disturbing for another. Knowing your child’s triggers and sensory needs goes a long way towards planning an itinerary that works. A good guidebook that details what to expect on each ride can help you determine which attractions work for your family and which do not. The “child switch” pass option is available for many of these attractions, allowing one parent or adult to stay with young or disabled party members—once the first group is done, the “waiting” parent can ride without going through the line. A few rides in each park that may be ASD friendly are listed below:
Love spinning? Choose one of these rides:
- Prince Charming Regal Carousel
- Dumbo the Flying Elephant
- Magic Carpets of Aladdin
- Triceratops Spin
Love Knowledge and Information? Choose one of these attractions
- Living with the Land
- Kilimanjaro Safaris
- Turtle Talk with Crush
- Sea Base
Sensory overload! The following rides are designed to be fully sensory experiences and are overwhelming for some neurotypical children – enter with caution:
- Mickey’s PhilHarMagic
- Journey into Imagination with Figment
- It’s Tough to Be a Bug!
Practice Pool Safety
Disney made sad headlines several times in the past decade; drownings at hotel pools can and do happen, and kids with autism are at a higher risk than typical children. Disney has taken action, surrounding each pool with a fence and employing extra lifeguards, but being aware that the pool could be a tempting distraction can help you safely enjoy your hotel.
For kids who are drawn to the water but can’t swim, each pool has lifejackets that range from size XS- XXL; you are also able to bring your own life jacket, but not your own pool toys.
Set a Curfew
Getting enough sleep will help everyone – but every Disney theme park has a closing show that incorporates loud music, booming fireworks, and huge crowds. Leaving the park before these festivities start is essential if your child does not like loud noises or is overwhelmed by crowds.
Picking your don’t miss attractions, taking advantage of Disney’s disabilities access programs and planning ahead for meals and more can help you make the most of all Disney World has to offer.
Samantha McNesby is a travel and business writer who covers the Orlando theme parks for a variety of publications. She is a lifelong Disney fan and has two children on the autism spectrum.
This article was featured in Issue 77 – Achieving Better Health with ASD