Traveling with Special Needs

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By Susan Kirby

Walt Disney World is one of the most magical places on earth for many people. Most of us take the sights and sounds for granted as we soak in the atmosphere, but for some there are extra challenges presented by the logistics of navigating the crowds and attractions. For those of us who don’t deal with special needs on a regular basis, it’s important to remember all disabilities are not visible. Is a vacation to Walt Disney World worth it for visitors with special needs? Most families and individuals who have made the effort to attempt it would say “yes!”

There are many types of disabilities and a variety of ways that Disney can deal with them. While planning for any Walt Disney World vacation is important, it becomes even more so when you’re traveling with special needs. Disney offers information about traveling with disabilities to Walt Disney World. There are resources for guests with mobility disabilities, visual disabilities or hearing disabilities. Guest Services, which can be found at all of the parks, is more than willing to help you with your specific needs, or those of anyone in your party. If you have any questions when you arrive, or special issues that you hadn’t anticipated before arrival, that is the place to get your answers.

One of the methods Walt Disney World uses to assist families with special needs is the Guest Assistance Card, or GAC. While many mobility issues are readily apparent because of wheelchairs or other aids, there are a host of disabilities that are not readily visible. The primary need addressed by the GAC is autism or similar disorders that are not immediately apparent. The GAC will allow your family to use alternative waiting areas for the attractions instead of the standard line. Depending on the ride or show, GAC holders and their travel party may enter through a Fast Pass line, wheelchair entrance, or through the exit. Simply show the pass to the Cast Member and they’ll direct you to where you need to be. If you have a family member that would benefit from the GAC, it’s a good idea to bring a note from that individual’s doctor stating what the disorder is and why that diagnosis will cause issues for him or her to wait in line. When your family arrives at your first park go to Guest Services with the note and ask for the Guest Assistance Card. It may be beneficial to make sure the family member is with you as well.

There are several things Walt Disney World has done for the hearing impaired, ranging from technological devices to interpreters. For people with a moderate hearing loss there is an Assistive Listening Device that can be used in the four major theme parks. It requires a refundable deposit and must be returned to Guest Relations on the same day to receive the refund. These use a radio or infrared signal from transmitters throughout the parks to amplify sound. For those with more severe hearing loss, there are various captioning devices: handheld, reflective, and video. The Handheld Captioning Device has a screen similar to a Palm Pilot and is about the size of an older portable cassette player. Reflective Captioning is used in some of the theater attractions on property. To use it, ask the cast member host or hostess. The Video Captioning Device is activated by remote control. The activator for it and the Handheld Captioning Device both are picked up at Guest Relations in the four parks. Only select attractions are enabled with the various technologies throughout the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney – MGM Studios, and Animal Kingdom. Many of the shows and special events in Walt Disney World also have American Sign Language interpreters available on a rotating basis. If you want to take advantage of this, check with guest services and ask for a printed schedule for the interpreters. Cast members can direct you to the seats reserved for hearing impaired guests.

While not as extensive, there are also special services for the visually impaired visiting Walt Disney World. There are Braille guide books and walkman’s available with audio tapes (although it’s probably easier to read through or listen to these when not actually walking through the parks). If you are traveling with a visually impaired friend or family member, be prepared to offer descriptions since the guides do not go into a lot of detail. Service animals for the blind as well as other needs are allowed in the theme parks, hotels, restaurants and stores on Walt Disney World property, but are restricted on certain attractions.

Mobility issues are also taken into consideration at Walt Disney World. Most of the transportation around the resort is accessible by wheelchairs and ECV’s, although you may have to wait for a bus with a lift. Water transportation depends on the water level and conditions. Wheelchairs and ECV’s are available for rent at each of the four major theme parks, although they are limited in supply. If you are staying on site, a limited number of wheelchairs are available at the hotels for your length of stay. These require a charge against your room, which will be reversed when you return the chair. Perhaps your best option to guarantee availability of either an ECV or wheelchair, though, is to rent one for your vacation from an off-site vendor. Inside the parks, many of the lines are able to accommodate a wheelchair or ECV. Those that aren’t though will have a separate entrance, but this does not mean your party will not wait the same amount of time to board the attraction. It is also important to note that some rides require you to transfer out of the wheelchair or ECV and cast members are not allowed to assist you in transferring to the ride vehicle.

Special diets can also be a concern. If you know your family will need to eat at a certain time to avoid problems, planning Advanced Dining Reservations (ADR) to get out of the crowds and have a meal can become a life saver. With a schedule loosely framed by meal times you can also provide structure to those who need it. At the very least you can determine what counter service restaurants would work best for your group by finding copies of menus and restaurant descriptions online. A good place to start is Disney restaurants are amazingly accommodating for all sorts of special diets. Make sure that your needs are noted when you make your ADR and when checking in at the restaurant. In some cases, chefs need 24 hour notice to ensure that they have suitable ingredients on hand and they will often discuss your needs directly with you before preparing your meal.

Beyond planning meals though, know the limitations of your traveling companions. If someone doesn’t have the stamina to last from open to close in the parks, don’t plan on it. Either know you’ll be leaving earlier or take a break in the middle of the day. This is made even easier if you stay on site. Another alternative would be to consider using a wheelchair or stroller even while you’re on vacation. Many trip reports mention an average day at Disney consists of five to eight miles of walking.

If you’re looking for a guidebook specifically for special needs, consider buying Passporter’s Walt Disney World For Your Special Needs. Once you are on vacation though, make sure you stop by Guest Relations in the parks and pick up Walt Disney World’s Guidebook for Guests with Disabilities. Then be prepared to soak up the magic that is a Walt Disney World vacation.

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