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By Erica Colmenares
Here at Magically Speaking, we often get questions from families with children who have special needs. Honestly, almost every family has some kind of special needs, from mild to challenging, from easier obstacles like picky eaters to more serious situations involving health issues.
Two specific issues that come up a lot are taking vacations with children who are on the autism spectrum, and visiting the World with kids who have ADHD or ADD. Books could be (and have been) written on this topic. This article covers basic information and some tips on how to successfully plan for a Walt Disney World vacation, with these special needs in mind. Some tips may apply more to children with autism, or to children with ADHD or ADD. And many are just plain good advice for anyone planning a vacation in central Florida. Read on, and use the information and tips that will help you plan a successful WDW stay.
Before You Go
Picking your vacation dates comes first. If at all possible, try to aim for less crowded times. While this isn’t always an option for a wide variety of reasons, if you can avoid the super-crowded times (the weeks before and after Easter and the week between Christmas and New Year’s), that’s a plus. While Disney is never “dead” anymore, late August and all of September, early December, and January (after the first week) are good bets.
If you can schedule your travel in such a way as to limit stress and upset, that will help begin on the right foot. If you are flying, select a departure time that ensures you can easily get up and out of the house to catch your flight, without rushing. If at all possible, try to get a non-stop flight. If you can’t get a non-stop flight, be sure that there’s plenty of layover time. If your family will need special accommodations from the airline, be sure to let them know in advance.
Many families recommend having your own transportation while at Disney. Disney transportation is reliable, yet it may not be waiting for you right when you need it. If you want to ensure you can leave a park or resort when it’s right for you and yours, consider renting a car if you are not driving to Disney.
Once you make your travel plans, think through each step of your trip, not just the WDW portion. How will your child handle leaving home, pets, or his/her things? What situations might you face during your travel from home to Florida? Security checks, airline flights, picking up a rental car, or taking the Magical Express bus — what elements of your trip may be a challenge? For many children, it will help to talk through what is going to happen, in advance of your vacation starting. Every child is different, and you know best what situations you and your child will need to prepare for ahead of time.
When you turn to the nitty-gritty of planning your visit, there’s no end of useful resources out there to help you and your child(ren) get familiar with Orlando and Walt Disney World. For the adult planners in the family, here are three resources we recommend:
- Disney has an online guide for guests with disabilities, with descriptions of attractions and their accessibility — these descriptions could be helpful in understanding whether any certain ride is going to be difficult for your child to handle. The guide also lists the locations of the first aid stations and the companion-assisted restrooms in each park.
- The book Passporter’s Open Mouse for Walt Disney World and the Disney Cruise Line – Easy Access for Travelers with Extra Challenges is fast becoming the classic resource for those planning Disney trips with special needs in mind.
If feasible, it pays to do some of your research and planning with your child(ren). Here are our top picks for kid-friendly info on Disney World:
- The Disney vacation planning DVD is full of information and fun to watch. You can get your free copy by visiting the Disney World website request page.
- Birnbaum’s Walt Disney World for Kids is chock-full of photos, and rates each attraction for its scary factor, the noise involved, and if it’s a dark ride. Kid contributors offer their personal takes on many of the rides.
- You Tube is a near-infinite source of attraction videos of Disney attractions. Use their search function to find ridethroughs of attractions you are planning, or ones that you aren’t sure will go over well. You can see which rides have loud noises or dark sections, and also watch the videos with your children so that they can see, ahead of time, what they want to try and what looks outside their comfort zone.
- The Travel Channel often runs specials that cover Disney World. Keep an eye on your television schedule, or check Disney Theme Parks TV for the Week.
Planning Your Days
Once you feel like you have a basic handle on what you’d like to do during your trip, it pays to have a basic overview plan. You can find advice on picking the least crowded parks fromThe Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World or by subscribing to TheMouseForLess affiliateTourGuideMiKE’s paid trip-planning service on how to plan Disney park days with minimal lines. Keep in mind how much your family can tolerate, and leave time both in and out of the parks for blowing off steam.
Try to build a structure for your vacation that is similar to your structure at home. If you can keep meal times and bedtimes that echo your regular routine, that can help. Aim for getting food before everyone’s hungry, and rest before everyone’s exhausted. It’s not always possible, with nighttime events and unexpected waits, but the more you plan for a predictable schedule, the smoother things may go.
If you are going to be eating table-service meals, be sure to call well in advance and make Advanced Dining Reservations. These are available up to 180 days out (and if you are staying on-site, you can book up to ten days of reservations 180 days out from your check-in date). When deciding which restaurants will work best for your family, keep in mind that buffets will give you more control of how quickly you get food, and that some children aren’t comfortable with character meals. Familiarize yourself with options and menus at TheMouseForLess.com. If your child has a special diet, have that noted on your reservations.
As you get closer to your trip, you might want to have a conversation with your child’s physician about any behavior medications that your child is taking. Whether to continue behavior medications during a vacation is very much a personal family decision that should be made in consultation with your physician. The majority of online advice seems to favor continuing normal meds, as well as many other normal routines as possible. Bring more doses than you think will be needed, to be safe. Also, be sure that you have the prescriptions you need available during travel, and bring a paper copy of needed prescriptions, in case you need refills during your trip.
You’ve planned ahead. Your child has a list of the attractions you are going to do, and in what order. But keep a watch on what’s going on with your child. It’s very likely that something at WDW will strike his or her fancy. If you find yourself repeating a certain attraction, over and over, or playing in a fountain, instead of sticking to the plan, so be it. If you can go at your child’s pace, and accommodate whims as they strike, everyone will be happier in the end. Of course, if you have multiple children, you may have to split up. Sometimes, a one-size-fits-all touring plan just won’t cut it.
Hopefully, you have breaks built into your schedule. You can take breaks inside the park, but much better yet is to leave the park mid-day and have time away from the noise, crowds, and stimulation. Many children who don’t nap at home will nap at Disney. And even if they don’t nap, a dip in the pool and a respite from attractions will make the rest of the day more manageable. If napping is in the cards, consider bringing a white noise machine, which will block out disruptions from other guests, Cast Members, or cars. If you feel you can’t leave the parks for a break, scope out the quiet areas in the parks ahead of time, so that your child will have a place to get away from the hustle and bustle for awhile.
If you did research in advance, you will have heard of Disney’s Guest Assistance Card. Disney offers a Guest Assistance Cards to help fill the needs of guests who require special accommodations. The first day you visit a Disney theme park visit Guest Relations, with your child, and explain what your needs to help him or her enjoy the Disney parks. Here’s the down and dirty on the GAC:
- The GAC is given to make accommodations for needs related to any guest’s disability. Information on limitations and difficulties will help the Cast Member more than details of your child’s condition. Think about what will confront your child during a theme-park day that could be difficult (noise, dark, waits, etc) and share that information with the Cast Member.
- Your child must be with you when your request the GAC.
- You do not need a doctor’s note. If you do bring one, it should focus on your child’s needs, not on their diagnosis.
- The GAC is good for up to six people.
- Your GAC will be good for the length of your trip, in all of the parks.
Dealing with Waits
It’s almost impossible to avoid any kind of waits at the Disney theme parks. And waiting in line isn’t fun for anyone. By planning ahead, you can avoid many lines. One great option that Disney offers is FASTPASS. Be sure to make good use of the system. For more information on the Disney FASTPASS and how it works, read the FASTPASS FAQ article we ran last year. Getting to the parks early is a great way to avoid lines. And to avoid waiting in lines to meet characters, if your child enjoys them, character meals are a fabulous solution. Let the characters come to you!
For when you do find yourself waiting in line, here are a couple ideas to help you through:
- Think of visual games to keep occupied in lines — who can spot someone wearing polka dots, or eating a Mickey bar.
- Consider investing in a Pal Mickey, a plush toy sold all over the place at Walt Disney World. Pal Mickey has electronic programming that includes jokes, games, and theme park information.
- Focus on what you are about to do. Talk about when you rode it in the past, or what will be interesting or exciting about it — what you like, or what might be scary.
- Talk about what you’ll do after the attraction you’re in line for. It can help to have park maps to look at, to visualize what you could do next.
- Look for Hidden Mickeys. A good resource on Hidden Mickeys is Steven Barrett’s Hidden Mickeys Guide.
Other Tips for the Parks:
- If your child is sensitive to noise or external stimuli, noise-reducing head phones can be a godsend. Earplugs may also do the trick.
- Use the family stations at each park as a quiet, air-conditioned getaway.
- Bring a squeeze toy or other object that your child can hold on to during waits, rides, or shows.
- Give your child a park map and find the next attraction together — involving him or her in locating the ride may head off arguments about what that attraction is.
- Some families swear by having bubbles to play with while standing in line. This can work wonders for some kids, but just be certain that your bubble-blowing doesn’t negatively impact on other guests in the vicinity.
- If your family wants to see the fireworks but you’re worried about the noise, consider watching Wishes from the beach at the Polynesian for all the splendor with only a faint echo of the explosions.
- Dress your child in something easy to see, if he or she wanders. Think neon-colored, or an easy-to-see hat or jacket. If possible, be sure your child knows what the plan is in case he or she gets lost. Introduce your child to a Cast Member and point out the special Cast Member badge so that your child knows what to look for if you get separated.
- Most of the toilets in the Disney parks have automatic flushing. The noise of the flush is fairly loud and scares some children. Some families bring Post-It notes to cover up the flushing mechanism, so that they can control when the toilet flushes. Others avoid the problem of all the toilet flushing and hand drying noises and use the more private, quiet family bathrooms located in each park.
Share Your Own Tips
We hope that you have found some information here that will improve your Disney vacation. We would love to hear from you, if you have tips to share with our readers about how you’ve planned and enjoyed a Disney vacation. Send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and we can include your advice in a future Worldly Tips section. Thanks, and happy planning!