Families with children comprise a large part of the approximately 20 million people who visit the Magic Kingdom annually. But did you know that many of the children who are walking beside you down Main Street, in line behind you for the Jungle Cruise or sharing the bench with you on the boat at the It’s A Small World attraction, have Autism, Down’s Syndrome, Epilepsy and other conditions that present unique challenges to them?
If you have a child with special needs, you know that the way in which your child communicates, whether verbal or nonverbal, as well as the way he interacts in social situations, can be different from what other children do. And you’re very aware of his need for a semblance of routine and the familiar.
And you’ve thought for years that Disney World was one of those experiences you just won’t get to have with your child because of his unique needs. As a special needs Mom myself, I’m here to tell you that you CAN do Disney World with your precious child—and love it! There’s a recipe for it—one part planning, one part preparation, two parts determination, and one part patience. Mix well, sprinkle with love and pixie dust and you are ready for a fabulous family vacation that you will remember for years to come! Here are a few things to know, do and remember if you’re planning to visit Disney World with a child who has special needs.
- Begin to prepare your child for the idea of a new surrounding long before your trip is to take place.
Because many children with special needs thrive best in familiarity and sometimes shy away from the unfamiliar, it’s important to introduce the idea of a journey to Disney World to your child before ever going to the parks. But if long periods of anticipation make your child anxious, wait until only days before your trip to begin preparing him. If he needs more time to become familiar with the idea of a new setting, share the news with him or her weeks or even months before your trip. You know your child best, so you choose when to share your upcoming plans based on his or her comfort level.
- Utilize available media to help your child begin to feel comfortable about your trip.
The sky’s the limit when it comes to ways to familiarize your child with Disney World. Because we live in the Information Age, we have limitless ways in which to research things and share them with others. There are DVD documentaries about Disney World available at bookstores and at Amazon.com. If your child likes tangible forms of information, call Guest Relations and ask that they mail you copies of park maps and other printed materials that your child can look at. My son prepares himself with YouTube videos uploaded to the Disney Parks channel, as well as other Guests’ home videos on YouTube that show their families enjoying the parks. The Disney Parks YouTube channel is especially helpful because it will give your child a look at the parks, resort hotels, water parks, rides, character encounters, dining experiences and more. The goal here is to familiarize your child with Disney World frequently before it’s time to leave.
- If you have the time, plan to spend 2 separate days at some of the parks.
Magic Kingdom has the most rides and attractions of the four theme parks. Animal Kingdom is the largest park in terms of acreage, and EPCOT is divided into two distinctly different sections. There are more attractions, rides, character encounters and shows that you can fit into one day. Children with special needs can sometimes be prone to becoming overstimulated, which can result in negative behaviors, a lack of interest in continuing and possibly even a meltdown, which might mean calling it a day. Instead of trying to cram as much into a day as possible, spread the fun out over two days if possible, and try not to pack your day too full of activities.
- Without fail, make use of Disney’s DAS Pass.
Disney offers a wonderful accommodation for children with different cognitive disabilities, called the DAS Pass or Disability Access Service Pass. The pass is available for anyone in the parks who has a disability that makes it difficult for him to wait in the typical queue leading up to an attraction. The only way to secure the DAS Pass is to go to Guest Relations at the park you visit on the first day of your trip and request one. It’s a quick, non-intrusive and non-threatening process during which a Cast Member will take a digital picture of your child and assign him a DAS Pass. It can even be linked to your child’s Magic Band. You will also need to let the Cast Member know how many people are in your party so that everyone can be linked to that child.
Once you have the DAS Pass, you will be able to go to the podium at most of the rides and attractions in the park for which there are queues (i.e., Splash Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight, Space Mountain, Haunted Mansion, etc.) and request a return time to use your DAS Pass. The Cast Member will give you a return time and scan your child’s Magic Band. You and your party will then return and be able to enjoy the attraction with only a minimal wait, if any, depending on the FastPass+ line since that’s the queue through which you will proceed with a DAS Pass. Please note that the DAS Pass isn’t usually used at attractions for which the queue moves extremely quickly or for which a FastPass+ isn’t offered. These can include attractions such as Disney’s Philharmagic, The Carousel of Progress, The Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover and others.
- Know the attraction before deciding to experience it with your child.
If your child is fearful of dark places or if he becomes agitated when he can’t see what’s happening in front of him, dark rides might not be the best experiences to share. Space Mountain, the Haunted Mansion, Spaceship Earth and Pirates of the Caribbean are examples of dark rides.
If your child fears loud noises or surprise sounds, be careful at the Mad Tea Party, where there is a very loud sudden brake sound as the teacups stop spinning at the end of the ride. Cannons fire in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Fireworks shows may also be overstimulating or scary to your child. If so, consider leaving the park before the nighttime spectacular, or plan to be in the shops on Main Street or at the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Factory during the fireworks. This can help to buffer and even drown out the boom of the fireworks.
- Take time to enjoy some of the calmer rides—several times over if necessary.
There are some wonderful attractions to enjoy if your child begins to show signs of overstimulation or agitation. These attractions may help to calm, soothe and re-center your child so that he is able to process his feelings and continue with his day at the parks. The Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover usually has a quickly-moving queue and is a very smooth, non-threatening experience that is also fairly quiet and peaceful. It’s also 100% shaded, which is another plus. The Walt Disney World Railroad offers a peaceful, slow-paced and scenic trip around the Magic Kingdom. It’s nice because you and your child can board the train and stay aboard for as many trips around the park as you like. Spaceship Earth is a slowly-moving calming ride, but remember that it’s a dark ride.
- Bring familiar or comfort items with you for your child.
Some children with special needs have an easier time transitioning to, and functioning in, a new environment if they have something familiar in their hands or easily accessible. For some children, it’s an iPad. Others may enjoy a favorite stuffed animal or doll, and for others, it may be a bag or backpack with their favorite things in it. All of these types of things are permissible to bring to the parks at Disney World, and if an item can bring peace and comfort to your child, it’s definitely a good idea to have it with you.
- Bring your child’s favorite snacks and drinks, and even pack lunch.
Aversions to certain foods because of their appearance, texture or unfamiliarity are very normal for children with special needs. If you have a child who won’t try new foods, or who tends to be very protective of his or her palette, make sure to bring food and drinks for your child that you know he will enjoy. Especially when it’s hot at the parks, you don’t want your child to spend the day refusing to eat or drink because food in the parks is unfamiliar or unappealing to him. Lucky for you, there are many, many choices of food for meals and snacks at Disney, but just in case nothing tickles your child’s fancy that day, be prepared with your own mobile pantry, if necessary, stocked full of your child’s favorites.
- Patience is absolutely key, and watch for those cues.
Disney World really is a magical place—unlike any other place on Earth. It’s full of thrills, magical moments, beloved characters, amazing food, shows and more! All these things make for an amazing opportunity for wonderful memories. But don’t be so determined to have the “perfect family vacation,” that you forget to factor in reality. Reality is that the parks can be crowded. Reality is also that any vacation can be stressful if you place too much pressure on yourself or your family members to have fun with absolutely no glitches along the way. But with an added measure of patience, you can be ready for the glitches if they come. Your patience will prove invaluable for your child as well, too, since he has most likely developed the ability to sense your stress level.
Remind yourself that as the parent of a child with special needs, you are already a superhero! Taking a vacation with your family is not only well-deserved, but it will also afford you some much needed time together. Be sure to watch for cues from your child about his or her comfort level and be sure to do what’s best for your child. Sometimes leaving after a few hours and then returning later can be a really good option, especially if your child is giving you cues that he is overwhelmed, anxious, uncomfortable or unhappy.
- Relax and enjoy.
You’re at Disney World. This is your family’s vacation, so tailor-make it to fit the needs of your child and the needs of the rest of your family. Everyone that visits Disney has a different experience with different wonderful memories at different times and in different ways. No two family’s vacations look the same. Remember to relax, enjoy yourself, take some deep breaths along the way, get good rest at night, and stay hydrated so that you can help to provide the best experience possible for your child. It’s his vacation too.
Disney World is one of the best places on earth to have a family vacation, especially for a family who has a child with special needs. Cast members are ready, willing and able to help you and your child have a magical experience. If you need something while in the park, just ask. Chances are they have already been asked similar questions by other families with a child with special needs, and they are very accommodating when it comes to guests with disabilities. Not only do they accommodate our children, but they are well-versed in celebrating them too. So get out there and have a great time together!
And remember—YES, you can go to Disney World with your child!
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