Top Ten Tips for a Vacation with a Special Needs Child

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Top ten tips special needs

Traveling with children can be very difficult at times. Traveling with a child that has special needs can be a whole different adventure. My son does not look any different than other children. He’s even a little tall for his age. Like any other child he loves a fun vacation. My son’s idea of a fun vacation might be a little different than other children his age.

With many situations, my son has high anxiety. He is afraid of many things, doesn’t like loud sounds, not a fan of surprises, and only eats limited types of food. With age he is learning to cope and occasionally try new things, but in the meantime, we take great care in planning our vacations.

Here is my top ten list of things to do when preparing to take your child with special needs to Disneyland, Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando.

  1. Make a countdown

Universal countdown

My son will ask everyday how long it is until our trip. The easiest way to get around that is to have a countdown somewhere at home. That way he can look at it every time he wants to know.

  1. Check crowd calendars

If your child gets anxious in heavy crowds, you will have a much more pleasant trip when the crowds are lighter. Check out The Mouse for Less and their planning tips for choosing vacation dates. Some of the lighter times at Walt Disney World include mid-January through early February and the week after Thanksgiving through the second week in December. Our favorite time to go is in September. This year we’re trying a Universal Orlando trip in April, which should be a lighter crowd too.

  1. Look at ride and attraction details

Pull up some information on things you would like to experience and share them with your child. Point of view videos are available for some rides. You and your child could watch and see if a ride would be good for your family. Disney also has a great resource available for guests with cognitive disabilities.

WDW Attraction Chart

There is a chart included that lists aspects of the ride such as flashing lights and loud noises. If your child is like mine, surprises do not make the experience better. It’s best to know ahead of time than have to leave a line when he decides at the last minute he doesn’t want to ride. Sneaking out of a dark show isn’t fun either.

  1. Let your child choose a few details

Let your son or daughter choose a few things they would like to see. I know our day goes a little easier if he knows he got to pick a few of the rides and shows.

  1. Make a plan

Our vacations always run smoother when we have a schedule. My favorite site to use is TouringPlans. I just love all the resources they have. I can choose exactly what we want to do and their computer program will adjust the schedule so that we have the shortest wait in line possible. My son doesn’t get as anxious when he knows what is coming up in his day. I even plan out what restaurants we will eat at and make reservations when needed. That way we can make sure there will be foods available that he will enjoy.

  1. Get a letter from your doctor for a disability pass

Each park has a pass for people who find it difficult to wait in line due to a disability. My son gets very anxious in lines, especially when strangers are in close proximity to him. Any time we visit a park his doctor writes us a note to take with us. We take our note to guest services and it makes it a little easier to get a pass for my son. The note isn’t required, but I find it’s easier than trying to explain my son’s life to the person behind the desk.

(Editor’s note:  Actually, theme parks are not technically able to ask for these types of doctor’s notes, because they violate HIPPA laws.  You simply need to go to Guest Relations and they will ask you a few simple questions to find out which type of pass, if any, will be applicable for your family.  For more information about if the Disability Access Service for Walt Disney World or Disneyland, is right for you, click this link and scroll to the GAC/DAS Update.)

Disney DAS

Disney’s Disability Access Service card and Universal’s Attraction Assistance Pass both work where if the wait time is longer than 30 minutes, they will assigning return times for the pass holder.  Guests will then be able to do other things, and then return when their return time window has opened.

Universal AAP

The times are equal to the current queue wait time. If your situation is an extreme case, on a day you’re visiting Universal, you can ask to speak with a supervisor about the Guest Assistance Pass Entry card.

  1. View pictures of the hotel and park

I find that seeing pictures and videos of where we are going helps put my son at ease.

  1. Bring good shoes

Good shoes in the parks

This is a tip that could be good for anyone. You will do a lot of walking when in the parks. Make sure you have a good pair of shoes. It’s best if you break them in before you go. A child with a blister is bad enough. A child with a blister that doesn’t handle change well, not something you want to deal with while on vacation.

  1. Bring something to do in line

Handheld game to use in line2

There may be times when standing in a line is unavoidable. For these times, bring something to keep hands and eyes occupied. This can be a small toy or handheld video game. Some might enjoy small puzzle books while they wait.

  1. Have earplugs


One of the most important purchases I make before a trip is earplugs. I like to find the ones that have a string attached. That way when my children take them out they can hang around their neck. They usually come with a carrying case too that can fit easily in a pocket.

I hope these ten tips help you and your family have a great time on your next vacation. These were just my top ten. If you have a great tip to add I’d love to see your comment below. Hope to see you in the parks!

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