Ah, theme parks! Whether it’s Disney World, Universal Studios, or some manifestation of National Lampoon’s Walley World, theme parks are a family vacation hot-spot. But when your child has special needs the crowds, noise, and lines may make this kind of destination seem off limits.
Growing up with a younger sister who has severe autism, I also came from a family that was hesitant to break the theme park barrier, especially after our first attempt posed some challenges.
As a result of extensive research from my mother and even a few cases trial-and-error over the years, my family has devised a specific formula for successful trips to Disney World for the whole family. We often take the three-hour drive from our South Florida home for a weekend getaway and my sister, Jackie, has a blast.
While every child with special needs or disability is different if you’re considering taking your child on to a theme park for the first time, I’ve compiled some of our tried and true tips to make navigating them easier.
Plan a visit for times with low crowd levels
Everyone prefers going to parks with lower crowd levels but visiting during these times can be especially helpful for a child with special needs. Children with limited mobility will have an easier time navigating the park. For those with behavioral or sensory concerns; shorter wait times and other possible instances of over stimulation will be reduced. For that reason, try to avoid weeks like spring break or the week of Christmas—at least for the first trip.
Research the accommodations provided by the parks
Most theme parks offer some form of disability accommodations such as wheelchairs, special access points and disability access passes free of charge. Some parks, like Disney, have other accommodations, such as ride re-entry passes, that you can ask for as well. No matter which park you’re going to, you’ll want to research exactly what these accommodations are and more importantly if they will work for your child.
Disney World, Sea World, and Universal Studios have similar policies for ride access passes. Families may bring the pass to cast members working at the front of any ride and receive a return time.
At the stated time, the family can return and be brought to the front of the line to enter the ride. Although a potentially flawed system (discussed below), these passes are nice to have and they are free. Be sure to go to Guest Services when you arrive to receive any accommodations you may need.
Try balancing provided with accommodations with your own solutions for waiting times
You may have already heard about the disability access passes and the challenges they face. At parks like Disney and Universal, for example, having to go to the ride, leave and then return can be difficult for children who don’t understand why they have to come back later, and parents may struggle to entertain their children in the meantime.
For that reason, you may want to combine strategies. If a ride tells you to return in 40 minutes, that may be a good time to get lunch or to enter a ride with a shorter wait time like 15 or 20 minutes. You may also find that you want to couple the disability access pass with fast passes that anyone can purchase. Combining these two tools may make wait times more manageable.
Find items that may help with overstimulation
If your child has autism or another cognitive disability, he/she may be very sensitive to noise, lights, touch, or even being around crowds. Even if a child is excited about attending a theme park, it’s always a good idea to have tools to help him/her cope with overstimulation if you can.
My sister, Jackie, is very sensitive to sounds. We bought noise-canceling headphones that she can wear during the lines or even on the rides. There’s no rule against having them in the park, and they make the experience more enjoyable for her. For children who are sensitive to light, a pair of sunglasses for rides with bright lights may help.
I’ve even seen some children hold stress balls or their favorite key chain to make them feel safe in crowds. Of course, this will vary based on individual need, but if there’s a certain sensitivity that you anticipate, don’t be afraid to bring a coping tool with you.
Bring food you know your child will eat
If your child has dietary restrictions or only eats certain foods, bring food that you know he/she will eat with you. This is true for the hotel and the parks. So, whether or not the park foodservice offers something your child can or will eat, something familiar will be on hand. When our family visits Disney World, we bring bagels, chips and more in from home.
It’s also a safe back up for children who may be picky about how their food appears. If the chicken nuggets just aren’t doing it for them, at least you have a bagel from home.
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Always have a bottle of water on hand
Making sure your children drink water—whether they have special needs or not —may seem like a given. But for those who aren’t used to being in the heat especially if you’re in Florida or California, it’s very important to stay hydrated in the hot parks.
Especially if your child is nonverbal, I recommend having a bottle of water on hand and having him/her drink even if the child can’t tell you it’s needed. Extra trips to the bathroom are better than a dehydrated child which can lead to other complications.
Don’t force children to go on rides, even if they liked them before
Sometimes while you’re actually in a theme park, it can be easy to feel like your child is missing out if he/she doesn’t ride certain rides. You may also think that if your child liked one ride during one trip, he/she will like it again or may like a similar ride. As a general rule of thumb, if your child is objecting to the ride, don’t force it as there are plenty of other things to do.
Some rides are dark, almost all of them are loud, some have jerky motions, and others have bright lights. Forcing your child to ride a ride when he/she doesn’t want to may cause more of a problem, like crying or a behavioral outburst, especially if the child was unable to say why he/she doesn’t want to ride. If your child seems to want to avoid a ride, don’t be afraid to try a different one.
Take a second to breathe while in the park
There’s a lot going on in theme parks, and it can be easy to overschedule. While you definitely want to plan some parts—like the most important rides you want to go on—don’t be afraid to find a shady spot to sit and take in the surroundings for a few minutes. This can be like a small break for your child if he/she gets overstimulated or it can be an opportunity to recap what you’ve done so far. For Jackie, we usually take a break to listen to some music that they play in the parks while she has a snack.
Divide up the day with a hotel break
Think of this as a combination as the water and take a breather tip—you may want to split up the day with a hotel break. Particularly on hot days, being in the parks can take a lot out of anyone. If you’re going to more than one park, it may benefit you and your child to regroup at the hotel for a bit in between. Whether you hit the pool or just soak up some A/C with a nap, an hour or two in the hotel won’t make or break the trip, and a change of clothes may help everyone feel a refreshed.
Bring one or two of your child’s favorite items from home
Bringing an item or two from home can serve as a distraction, a form of entertainment or source of comfort and is a good idea for hotel nights during a theme park vacation.
This will help your child wind down at the end of the day and may provide a sense of security. For example, with Jackie, we never leave behind the teddy bear that she takes to bed. We also let her play with someone’s phone while we’re in the hotel. This way she can watch videos or play games as she normally would when it’s time to settle in for the night.
What’s most important for your trip is for your child and the rest of the family to have fun! Navigating theme parks may seem intimidating at the beginning, but there are accommodations, practices, and tips that can make the first trip that much easier.
This article was featured in Issue 89 – Solutions for Today and Tomorrow with ASD