Walt Disney World is the most magical place on Earth. You can visit this fascinating resort just outside of Orlando, Florida, and all in a day’s time, you can be a princess, meet a prince, have lunch with Mickey, fly to Neverland, mine diamonds with the Seven Dwarfs, voyage into space and kiss Cinderella’s Castle goodnight! And Disney was designed so that anyone can experience this kind of magic.
In fact, there’s so much magic at Walt Disney World, that families who have children with special needs are not only welcomed to join in the fun 365 days a year at the parks, but they are wholly encouraged to visit, celebrated while they are in the parks, and accommodated in ways that let you know that this most magical place on Earth is truly that—nothing short of magical.
But if you’re the parent of a special needs child, how do you plan for a trip in the parks with your child? What do you need to know? Who can you talk to? Where do you start? And once you’re in the parks, how do you know which attractions to enjoy?
If you’re asking these questions, you are off to a great start toward the trip of a lifetime! Here are 12 tips to consider for not only going to Disney with a special needs child, but for soaking up the very excitement and thrills that will truly make the Magic come alive for you and your family. Because not every attraction at Walt Disney World is handicap accessible, the following tips will apply largely to families who have children with Down’s Syndrome, Autism and other developmental or cognitive disabilities.
12. Make your child comfortable with the idea of travel.
If you have a child with special needs, you know that he can sometimes feel threatened by unfamiliar places, people and scenarios. Every child is different, but it always helps to create opportunities for your child to anticipate new environments and expectations. Make your child aware of the upcoming travel that will take place before you see Mickey. If you are traveling by plane to the Orlando area, begin to make your child comfortable with the idea of an airplane ride. Talk to him about the airplane, and if your child is non-verbal, use pictures to begin to allow him to associate an upcoming trip to Disney with a fun ride on an airplane. If there’s time and an opportunity to do so, consider taking him to the airport so that when it’s time to leave for your trip, he will have already seen the airport, and it won’t be completely new to him. If you are traveling by car, allow your child to participate (at his comfort level) in purchasing items for the car ride. These might include snacks, travel games, a travel pillow, a comfy new blanket or DVDs to watch on the road.
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11. Communicate with your child about Disney World.
Depending on your child’s level and method of communication, there are many ways to “show” her what Disney is all about before she ever gets to Cinderella’s Castle. Purchase a fun DVD documentary that shows her the attractions she can enjoy, the characters she can meet and what the parks look like. You can access the Disney Parks YouTube channel for current, up-to-date videos of the latest attractions and other opportunities to experience the Magic. If your child reads, make available to her current brochures from the parks, maps of the parks and other materials she can read to familiarize herself with the parks at her own pace and in her own way. Your local library or bookstore will also have a myriad of books about the parks—most with full-color pictures and maps to help her understand the fantastic trip she’s about to take.
10. Plan your trip purposefully.
Planning for a trip to Walt Disney World is many things—fun, very involved, exciting—but it is not optional, and it is not something that happens haphazardly, and this is especially true if you will be visiting the parks with a child who has special needs related to Down’s Syndrome or Autism. That is because the Disney World Resort is massive. There is so much to see and to do, to experience and to be a part of, and that is a wonderful thing. But because Disney is also very well attended, you will want to have a plan for which park you want to be in, and on which day(s). Make a list of rides and attractions you’d like to experience with your child, and include any attraction that your child has let you know he wants to experience, as well as any attraction that centers around his favorite characters. Once you know which attractions you hope to enjoy, you can access the My Disney Experience app on your smartphone and reserve FastPass+ selections for those attractions. Be sure to do this early, as this increases your chances of getting the FastPass+ selections you really want. You can reserve them 60 days in advance if you are staying on Disney property and 30 days in advance if you are staying off property.
9. Download the Guides from Disney’s website.
If you’d like specific information from Disney about how to make sure your child has an amazing experience at the parks, as well as about services Disney offers to share the Magic with everyone, there are some helpful guides Disney has published, and they are available for download at www.disneyworld.disney.go.com/guest-services/cognitive-disabilities-services/. You can also download Disney’s “Attraction Details for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities.” This guide gives detailed information about the attractions at each of the four theme parks so that you can decide which attractions are best for your child.
8. Allow your child to wander through the resort/hotel/house in which you are staying.
Once you get to your Disney World Resort hotel, your hotel off property or your rental house, let your child get used to her new surroundings by exploring her “vacation home” for a little while once you get your things unpacked and as you are settling in. This will mean different things for children of different ages, so always look for cues from your child. Let her tell you what she’s curious about in the hotel or house. Show her things that you know will interest her. If she is verbal (and comfortable in doing so), allow her to ask a Cast Member (if you’re staying on property) about activities offered for her age group, where the pool is and where the resort restaurants are. If not, allow her to accompany you as you ask around about the resort.
7. Sometimes it’s good to take it easy.
You’re on vacation, after all. That alone gives you a free pass for taking things easy. But remember that some children on the Autism spectrum can become overstimulated when too many activities are taking place, or when they feel rushed or pushed to do things—especially things that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable for them. This isn’t the case with every child on the spectrum, so be sure to listen to your child and proceed through your day with him in mind. Walt Disney World is so big and offers so much to its Guests, that you may already find it difficult to see everything you want to see in each park in only one day, so don’t be disappointed if you have to take some parts of your day at a slower pace so that everyone can enjoy the day. You’d rather take some breaks here and there and have a great day than to ignore your child’s cues or comments and have just an “okay” day because you tried to fit too much into one day.
6. Make use of Disney’s DAS Pass.
Disney World is so accommodating of Guests with special needs, that they even offer something called a DAS Pass. DAS stands for Disability Access Services, and it is for Guests who have a disability that can make it difficult for them to wait in a queue for an attraction or ride. On the first day in the parks, head to Guest Services, and simply request the DAS Pass from a Cast Member. The Cast Member will take a digital photograph of your child and then link the DAS Pass to your child’s Magic Band. Let the Cast Member know the size of your traveling party as well. Once you have your child’s DAS Pass, you’ll be able to approach the podium at many attractions and rides and request a return time for your party. Just remember that you can only have a DAS Pass selection for one attraction at a time. Once you enjoy that attraction, you and your family will be able to get a DAS Pass return time for another attraction. It’s great because not only does your child not have to wait in a queue for the attraction at which you have a DAS Pass, but you’ll be able to use your FastPass+ selections in addition to the DAS Pass.
5. Reserve dining experiences in advance.
If you are hoping to enjoy one or more dining experiences with your child, it’s best to reserve those experiences long before coming to Disney World. It’s very simple with the My Disney Experience app on your smartphone. You can also reserve dining experiences at Disney’s easy-to-use website. Go to www.mydisneyexperience.com, and you’ll be able to choose which restaurants you want to enjoy, look at available times for your party size and book your reservation online. There is also a space for explaining any food allergies or special requests you may have. Utilize that space to be specific about your child’s needs, and Disney will do its best to accommodate you, within reason. Reserving dining beforehand ensures that you and your family don’t find yourselves with little choice in which experiences to have, and it also increases your chances of getting to eat at a time that best suits your family’s preferences. Some children with special needs can have particular food aversions and affinities, and booking dining reservations before heading to the parks helps you to have more choices in what your family will be eating.
4. If your child expresses fear of a ride or attraction, don’t push him.
What’s thrilling for one child might be frightening for another. You are the expert on your child, and if he is expressing angst or fear of a ride or any part of the queue, verbally or non-verbally, don’t force him to experience it. It could end up being a negative experience for him and for you. It’s better to forgo that particular attraction at that moment. Your child may feel more comfortable with the idea of the attraction later in the day or on another day. This is another reason the DAS Pass is so helpful. It can allow you to enjoy an attraction for which there may not be a FastPass+ time remaining.
3. Utilize Disney’s rider-switch option.
If you approach a ride, and your child has made it clear to you that she has no interest in riding, or if she has expressed a fear of riding, you can use Disney’s rider-switch option. This option allows you to enjoy a ride while your spouse or other member of your party waits with your child. When that ride is over, you can “switch” places with your spouse or family member, and he or she can experience the ride while you wait with your child. That way, those who want to ride can do so, and your child isn’t forced to be uncomfortable or fearful on a ride.
2. Make use of Disney’s less-stimulating areas.
Each of the four parks within the Walt Disney World Resort have attractions and rides that tend to be less stimulating (and even more calming sometimes) than other attractions might be. Some examples are the Tommorrowland PeopleMover at Magic Kingdom, Living with the Land at EPCOT, Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and the Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park. Again, no two children are just alike, but depending on the child, his disability, age, strengths and comfort level with his surroundings, it can sometimes help to know there are less stimulating attractions to enjoy if your child wants them or could benefit from them. If it’s a quieter environment you need, each of the four parks also has a First Aid Center. The centers are air-conditioned, and when you get there, you will be greeted by a nurse. Tell him or her about your child and your need for a quiet space, and they will do all they can to accommodate you and your child.
1. Talk to the Cast Members.
It is not uncommon for the unexpected to happen with a child with special needs, especially if your child is younger. And chances are that most of the Cast Members you meet have had extensive experience in helping families just like yours to make the most of the magic at Disney. But you’re sure to get the best, most tailored assistance if you communicate your child’s needs with the Cast Member at a specific attraction. For example, if your child has a fear of moving sidewalks (again, not uncommon), but he wants to ride the Finding Nemo and Friends attraction at EPCOT, at which he must step onto a moving walkway to board the ride vehicle, let the Cast Member know about your child’s apprehension. They are actually able to slow the walkway so that your child is more comfortable about stepping on and boarding so he can enjoy the ride. Disney’s Cast Members are second to none when it comes to accommodating Guests with disabilities of all kinds, and they can help you so much more if you are open and clear about what your child needs.
A vacation at Walt Disney World is not like any other vacation on Earth! It is a magical place where you can meet your favorite characters, ride on a magic carpet, observe wildlife only a few feet away, eat amazing food, see spectacular fireworks displays and completely forget about the world outside the parks’ gates. Everyone deserves a vacation to such a place, and Disney’s Cast Members are the experts when it comes to making sure everyone, regardless of their abilities and disabilities, gets to experience the Magic every time!