If you’re planning a trip to Walt Disney World and you have a child with the Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, Asperger’s, or a similar condition, the whole experience can seem a little daunting. The lights, noise, and crowds at Disney can certainly be a challenge, and you want to give everyone a great experience at the House of the Mouse.
I’ve got three children, two of whom have Asperger’s, and one with severe anxiety, Tourette’s and OCD. We live close to the parks, so we visit fairly regularly. I have a seizure disorder and a high sensitivity to light and sound, so the accommodations we’ve made for the kids also work well for me. Here’s what you need to do to make your vacation a positive experience for the whole family.
Plan and Prepare!
First, download a brochure and map of the park(s) you’re going to visit. This helps in a few ways: you can decide ahead of time which rides are the “must sees” and plan your day accordingly. Also, it familiarizes you with the locations of different rest areas, which are essential for a bit of decompression. Additionally, it helps you decide on a plan of action.
Some attractions have generally short lines while others are always long. You will want to consider whether a FASTPASS, Disney Access Service Card, or the Rider Switch program will work best for you.
Register for My Disney Experience
Visit My Disney Experience, a free online app that allows you to customize your trip. It’s also available as a mobile app. The phone app is especially handy for updating you on wait times on rides and keeping your reservation numbers handy. It will become your best friend for this entire vacation, I promise.
Dining Reservations are Essential
Map out your meal options before you get to the park. View restaurant menus online (they include ingredients and prices) and make reservations. We always have lunch at The Plaza, as it’s air conditioned and relatively quiet, and you can see the castle and eat a healthy meal.
If you’re going to cancel a reservation, do it in a timely manner — some of the more popular venues require a deposit, which you won’t get back if your plans change.
Meet Disney characters without waiting in line. Some of the most beloved characters will visit your table if your dining venue includes this option. Reservations fill up fast, however, so consider planning 4-6 months in advance. Tip: refine your dining reservation search to include “character dining.”
Perks of Staying at a Disney Resort. Any purchases you make in the park can be checked in and held for you at the Guest Relations desk on Main Street’s City Hall, and, in most cases, delivered there for you directly from the shop. Take advantage of Extra Magic Hours at the parks on certain days if you’re a resort guest; it’s less crowded and the lines are shorter.
How to Pack for the Park
- If your child is very sensitive to noise, pack earphones. Even if you aren’t watching the parades from the sidelines, the speakers, located all around the park, are loud. The nightly fireworks show is a pleasure to watch, but is also very loud and directly overhead. You can check them in at guest services before you enter the park.
- Bring your own snacks. Your kids (and your wallet) will be glad you did.
- Include a favorite comfort item, whether it’s a blanket, a stuffed animal, or even a favorite sippy cup.
- Buy ponchos or raincoats before you leave home. As a lifelong Florida resident I can tell you that, especially in the summer, it rains in the afternoon almost every day. Shelling out fifty bucks after a mad dash in the rain to the nearest shop for ponchos isn’t fun.
Important tip: Travel to the park and park admission procedures, especially during the summer or around the holidays, can be stressful and time-consuming. Try to get a hotel the night before to minimize your commute. Sleep well, and get a good breakfast before you tackle the lines. Expect waits of an hour or more before you even enter the park (even if you’re staying in a Disney Resort), buying your tickets/getting your pre-purchased tickets validated, visiting Guest Relations for your Disney Access Service Card or other assistance, going through the mandatory security bag check, and then waiting in the queue to enter the park. You can read more about the admission process here.
Locate Spots for Quiet Time
This has been a game changer for my family. Whether you need a shady spot, an open area, an place free from lights and crowds or all of the above, Disney Cast Members know them all. Ask and they’ll direct you to a place that serves your needs best. Visit the First Aid Station, located next to the Crystal Palace restaurant and to the left of Main Street.
If you have questions about accessibility or other services at Walt Disney World, visit www.disneyworld.com or call (407) 939-5277.