Your guide to visiting Disney World with a child on the autism spectrum
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If you are planning to visit Disney World with a loved one on the autism spectrum, it can feel overwhelming. Although the autism spectrum is broad, one thing is for sure: theme parks are full of triggers that can induce a meltdown. As a parent of a child on the spectrum, the first thought may be to count theme parks out altogether, but I would urge you to reconsider.
With a lot of planning and a bit of pixie dust, you can plan a memorable Disney vacation. This guide will help you make the most of your Disney World vacation when visiting with a loved one who has autism.
Know before you go
Budget & dates
Let’s face it, a Disney World vacation can get pretty expensive. A clear budget will help you decide how many days you want to spend in Orlando, what hotel you choose, and what experiences you can add to your vacation. When crunching numbers, be sure to include the cost of airfare or gas, but also parking (if staying off-site), food, stroller rental and souvenirs.
For a lot of families, vacations revolve around school calendars, which can limit your date availability. When looking at your available dates, also think about the weather. While Disney is the Happiest Place on Earth, it can be challenging for a neurotypical person when it is too hot or too crowded, so imagine this 10x feeling for a person on the spectrum. As a general rule, I recommend avoiding Disney World during the peak summer months and over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
Tickets & park reservations
If you visit the parks for at least four days, I vote that you should visit all four parks. Each is uniquely different, offering different theming, food options, attractions and shows. We aren’t supposed to have favorites, but we always visit the Magic Kingdom for our first day of a Disney vacation. Magic Kingdom is quintessentially Disney (to us). After that, all of the other parks are fair game, but I will say that we often leave Epcot as our middle-of-the-trip park. It is currently undergoing construction, and due to the pandemic, the play areas are closed. So while it is the home of the Frozen Ever After ride and Finding Nemo, smaller kiddos may find it less exciting.
Also note that on a given Disney day, we walk close to 8 miles, and it can be challenging for younger kid on the autism spectrum to keep up at that pace if it’s not something they are used to.
Remember, you are not required to use multi-day tickets consecutively. This can prove helpful if your loved one has a hard time in the parks and needs a day off just to relax. You can hang out at your hotel and then try the parks again the next day. Unfortunately, you can’t save the days for later in the year (unless you have a military ticket), but it does allow you to break up your days at the parks.
As of 2020, Disney World requires a valid park ticket and reservation to enter each park. This is all the more reason to try and plan ahead for as much of your vacation as possible, but this can also affect what days you go to which theme park. So before you dive into ride planning, I highly recommend securing your tickets and park reservations.
There are literally hundreds of lodging options near Disney World; this is when your budget and travel preferences come into play. It is also essential to consider how your child on the spectrum reacts to new environments. If your child has a harder time adjusting to a hotel room versus a home, you may want to consider a vacation home rental.
If your child is a Disney fanatic who enjoys theming, you may want to consider a Disney on-site hotel. The beauty of Disney World being so large is that you have endless options for customizing your vacation to your family’s needs.
If you are looking at Disney properties on-site, be sure to evaluate how far will your room be from desired amenities, what mode of transportation can you catch from your hotel, and the size of the rooms.
If you are staying at an on-site Disney World property, you can ride the Magical Express bus to your resort. While Disney parks have accommodations for special needs, sadly, these accommodations start once you are in the parks. The wait for the Magical Express can be long; it is crucial to prepare your child for this potential wait and have activities to keep them busy if waiting is hard. If standing in line for long periods is difficult for your child, you can talk to a cast member for assistance. (Note: Disney has announced that they will be ending their Magical Express service at the end of 2021.)
If you choose Disney’s Art of Animation, Disney’s Pop Century, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resor or Disney’s Riviera Resort, you will have direct access to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and the International Gateway at Epcot via the Skyliner. The Skyliner is an efficient way to go between the parks, and it is convenient because you don’t have to fold up your stroller.
However, you need to prepare your loved one with autism for the bumps the Skyliner makes throughout the journey. My daughter had a meltdown her first time on the Skyliner because she was terrified. I hadn’t considered that it would trigger such a strong response. I found that explaining that the ride would bump and make a weird grinding noise allowed her to brace herself.
Alternatively, the Disney Bus Transportation comes with its own set of difficulties for a person with autism. Due to the pandemic, there have been many changes to the resort transportation service, increasing wait times. This can prove incredibly challenging when your child is anticipating getting on the next bus, but there is not enough room due to social distancing measures. It is also important to note that depending on which hotel you are staying at, your walk to the bus after a long park day or visiting Disney Springs can be quite the trek. Be mindful of this when deciding when to leave the park for the day.
When riding the tram, you will be required to collapse your stroller, and it is important to know that trams load quickly. This can feel very chaotic and overwhelming for a person on the autism spectrum, and it helps to have your things prepared before the tram arrives and talk loved ones through the chaos that may occur.
What to pack
If your loved one with autism has difficulties with communication or is non-verbal, it is vital to have a contact card or band prepared before your trip. It can be helpful to put this card inside of a Disney lanyard with their favorite character on it to help encourage them to wear it. If your child has sensory sensitivities with things on their neck, you can also have a medical alert bracelet made for them to wear.
Speaking of sensory sensitivities with autism, it is essential that you think about how your child responds to different temperatures. Regardless of the time of year, I pack a light sweater/hoodie for my daughter because she tends to get cold either on the airplane or watching the evening fireworks show. If you are buying a lot of cute Disney-themed clothing, it can be helpful to cut out all of the tags and wash them before packing. This can cut down on irritation and can increase the softness of new clothing.
Kiddos under 13 are allowed to wear costumes to Disney World, which in my opinion adds to the magic of the experience. However, be sure to pack a change of clothes. Costumes are often very scratchy, and if your child has sensory sensitivities, this can make their day miserable. Or, dress them in cool clothing underneath their costume, so they have the independence to ditch the costume when they are ready.
We utilize noise-reducing headphones as a preventative measure for my daughter. I found out the hard way that if we wait until she is nearing sensory overload, the headphones do not have a significant effect. So instead, we put on headphones as soon as we are on our mode of transportation to the parks. If your child is not used to noise-reducing/canceling headphones, it is best to prepare them a few weeks ahead of time by wearing them for short periods. If your child dislikes wearing their headphones, you can also factor in headphone breaks throughout the day when in quieter areas. Note: Your child may have to take them off for some fast-moving rides, like Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster or Space Mountain
If your loved one with autism has a favorite luvvie, be sure to bring it with you on vacation. It can be helpful to have their comfort item in the hotel room with them. If the comfort item can be secured to your stroller or your child, you could bring it into the park. Alternatively, you can bring a fidget toy for your child to hold while waiting in line.
I want to be frank: a stroller can make or break your Disney trip. As I mentioned earlier, the average Disney goer clocks between eight to 10 miles each day at the parks. This is a lot for adults to manage and can be very hard for children to keep up with. My daughter utilized a stroller well into her sixth year at the Disney parks. This was due to some mobility concerns at her age and her not having the stamina to maintain that much walking. Ignore the ideas of what someone “should” be able to do and consider their developmental needs. If your child has significant mobility concerns or a cognitive disability, you are also able to designate your stroller as a wheelchair through Disney’s Disability Access Service (DAS) program (discussed later in this story).
You can bring your own stroller, rent one from an off-site company, or rent one from the Disney parks. If you cannot bring your own, I highly recommend renting from an off-site stroller rental company. Not only are they much more comfortable for your child, they typically have very spacious compartments that allow you to pack snacks for the day and other essentials. They will also deliver your stroller rental to your hotel, and you don’t have to turn it in each day.
Planning your day at the park
Create a plan — with breaks — for each day
I found that if we have a sense of familiarity and routine, even on vacation, my daughter tends to respond better. For example, this can look like having the same meal for breakfast everyday that they have at home.
While planning, it can be easy to get all wrapped in the wonder and excitement and fill your day with nothing but rides. Instead, have a healthy balance between going on rides, seeing shows/parades, having meal breaks and decompression breaks. Visiting Disney World with autism is complex, and allowing zero room for decompression can make for a disaster.
When utilizing planning apps, several have built-in rest indicators for your day, but you can also include bathroom breaks in your schedule. The companion (family) restrooms can be helpful so that you can assist your loved one with bathroom needs. The Disney map has all of the bathrooms listed, but you can also ask a Cast Member if the bathroom is manual flush or automatic for those with sensory sensitivities. My daughter has difficulty determining when she has to use the restroom, which can prove challenging when about to board a ride and the urge hits her. If you build in frequent bathroom breaks, this can help keep everyone happy!
Prioritize your ride choices before you head to the park. For example, we must ride Flight of Passage, but it’s ok if we can’t get to Kilimanjaro Safaris.
Make a list of rides that align with your loved one with autism’s interests, but be sure not to overlook their limitations as well. Your visit to Disney World is not the time to try and test the boundaries of sensory sensitivities. If your child is terrified of the dark or doesn’t like drops, it should all factor into your ride decision.
While making your ride list, be sure to check height requirements. There is nothing worse than preparing your child for a ride, and when you get to the line, they are too short to ride it. Trust me, I have been there, and it was an epic failure.
Don’t forget to consider the not-so-popular rides and attractions. Some autistic people enjoy trains, and The Walt Disney World Railroad in Magic Kingdom offers a relaxing train ride, with the option to get off at certain stations or make the loop back around. (Note that the train is currently closed.) Also, consider the large paddle boats, Tom Sawyer Island, or the Swiss Family Treehouse. These attractions rarely have a line, and they are usually a great way to take a break as they are calm attractions.
There are two different types of characters at Disney World: The “human” character (think Princesses) and fully costumed characters (think, Winnie the Pooh). Be sure to gauge how your loved one with autism will do with characters that are in full costume. These characters are life-sized and can be jarring for some children. It may be best to interact with a “human” character before transitioning to a character in a full costume.
It is also important to note that you should not skip these experiences because you are concerned about your child’s social skills or mannerisms such as hand flapping. The characters that interact with guests are well trained to interact with guests with autism. If your kiddo is working on social skills, this is an awesome opportunity to have them stretch that “muscle” by encouraging them to ask the character for their autograph
When planning your Disney World vacation, it can be helpful to also research the restaurants at each park. You can include the locations in your trip plan for the day, and you will also be familiar with what is on the menu and whether it will fit your loved one’s dietary needs or food aversions.
Disney World has come up with an exciting way to help make our lives a bit easier, especially when traveling with a loved one with autism: My Disney Experience App, where you can order food ahead of time. When we are approaching our designated mealtime in our schedule, we head to our next desired ride and obtain a ride “return time” with our DAS (more on that below). Then while we wait for our return time, I head over to grab the food I ordered through the app. This eliminates waiting in another line for food and allows us to stave off the hangries.
Let’s talk for a moment about character meals. Character meals are the perfect opportunity to get up close and personal with your loved one’s favorite Disney characters. You will not be able to see all of the characters in one location, so if your loved one with autism must see Goofy, then ensure that Goofy will be making an appearance at your character meal before booking.
Large restaurant character meals can be HECTIC, and sadly they do not have sensory time slots. The restaurant is very loud (bring your noise-reducing headphones), but also characters move around the restaurant (in pre-COVID times they would hop from table to table, that option has yet to return). You can see them around the restaurant, and we found that my daughter was often too anxious to eat because she is so excited about seeing her favorite characters. The best plan for character meals is to book your reservation during a non-peak time of the day. As soon as you arrive, grab your first plate of food (note that some buffet restaurants, such as Chef Mickey’s have moved to family -style dining during the pandemic). If you anticipate your loved one will be anxious about seeing their favorite character, we have found that a croissant or small plate of fruit is something they can nibble on while they wait. Once they have interacted with all of the characters, have a plate of food ready to go for them to eat.
Shows, parades, fireworks & special events
Disney shows are fantastic, but they are often not on our trip plan for the day. It can be challenging for my daughter to sit still, and because the shows are unpredictable, she has a difficult time managing her emotions. However, we love the Festival of the Lion King at Animal Kingdom because it has some of her favorite Lion King songs in it. When we do watch a show, I try to sit near an exit to make a quick exit if need be.
Disney parades — and the more scaled down pandemic-era cavalcades — are magical, and if you have time to squeeze them into your daily plan, I highly recommend them. However, it important to note that the DAS pass does not cover character meetings, parades or shows. The temptation to scope out a primo parade spot is so hard to ignore when you see all of the other families doing it; however, it is important to consider how well your loved one with autism can wait. The pop up nature of character cavalcades makes it hard to plan in advance (although you can find information on Disney fan sites about routes and timing). If parades are really important to your loved one with autism, it may be helpful for another member of the group to hold a spot. If you are having a tough time locating a spot to see, ask a cast member for assistance.
Fireworks can be challenging for children who have sensory sensitivities, so it is best to understand how your child will respond before staying to watch the fireworks show. Remember that Magic Kingdom fireworks can be seen away from the park as well, so mapping out a location where you can see them but not feel them is the best route. When my daughter had a hard time with fireworks, our go-to plan was to time our ferry ride when the fireworks were set to start, then we had a great view on the ride back to the transportation center and could watch the rest of the show from the dock.
Disney special events are what I like to call “Introductory visits to Disney.” Special events typically occur later in the evening, and they are ticketed separately from regular park admission. This means that even if you are in the Magic Kingdom that day, you cannot stay past the designated time unless you have a ticket for the special event, as well as having purchased park admission.
Events such as Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party allow you to better understand how your child will do at the parks while saving you some money and offering reduced crowds. The awesome part about special events is that you can enter the park up to three hours before the official event start time so that you can have a full day’s worth of rides and experiences. Due to the decrease in crowds, the DAS pass is typically disabled for special events; however, if you speak with a cast member, they can assist you for rides with longer waits.
The Disney Disability Access Service (DAS) pass is intended for guests who have a disability that prevents them from waiting in line — autism or otherwise. It is important to note that the DAS pass does not allow you to “skip” the line. Instead, it serves as a virtual line, where you are provided a return time. Even if you are visiting the Disney parks on the lowest possible crowd day, I still recommend having a DAS pass just in case.
How to request a DAS
When you arrive at the park, head to guest relations. At Magic Kingdom that’s next to City Hall, at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios that’s near the main entrance, and at Epcot that’s behind the left side of Spaceship Earth. You must articulate the reasoning behind needingDAS — stating that your loved one has autism is often not enough; the DAS pass is for guests who have difficulties waiting in line, so be specific.
If it is your loved one’s first time using DAS, the cast member will take their photo and scan their Magic Band or ticket card. In addition, everyone in your traveling party will need to be present this first time for their band to be scanned as well. This pass will be good for 60 days, so if you visit again within that timeframe, you won’t need to do this step again.
How to use the DAS Pass
Let’s say that your loved one with autism wants to ride Peter Pan’s Flight. When you approach the ride, you notice that the standby time says 60 minutes. With the DAS pass, you would go to the cast member near the wheelchair entrance (they usually have a tablet in their hand) and request a “return time.” They will scan your Magic Band or ticket, ask which members of your traveling party are riding, and then give you the time you can return to the ride based on current wait times. For example, if there’s a 60 minute wait time, you would be given a time 60 minutes from the current time. You’re free to explore, see shows, eat or go on other rides without wait times during that time. When 60 minutes have passed, you will come back to the cast member, they will scan your Magic Band and typically enter the FastPass+ entrance (it is the exit or handicap entrance for some rides). The DAS holder MUST scan their Magic Band first. Then the remaining members of the traveling party will scan their Magic Bands. After you’ve used your DAS return time, you’re then free to make another one, but you can only hold one at a time.
A DAS pass will cover any ride that has a FastPass+ option. However, if you speak to a cast member at rides that don’t have FastPass+ entrances, such as the Mad Tea Party, they will often accommodate you after a few ride cycles. DAS DOES NOT cover restaurants, character meet-n-greets, parades or shows (unless they have a FastPass+ option).
DAS covers the whole traveling party, as long as the person with autism is also riding. So, if your loved one loves Space Mountain, everyone in your party will get the added benefit of being able to ride with them using the return time. This can really help the family make some great memories, and it removes the isolation of a loved one riding alone.
You can have one DAS reservation at a time, so use them strategically. This is the perfect opportunity to grab a snack, use the restroom, or find another attraction with a short line.
If the wait time is under 25 minutes, try it out and see how your loved one with autism responds. I typically download a couple of interactive games on my phone that allow us to pass the time; a fidget toy also helps in these situations.
Prepare your Children
A Disney vacation is often filled with laughter, smiles, and excitement, but Disney also includes an abundance of sensory stimulation that can be overwhelming for children on the autism spectrum. If your child has difficulty with crowds, loud noises, and smells, it is best to start preparing months before your vacation. Taking short trips to places with variable crowd levels, such as the mall, can be an excellent way for you to get a deeper understanding of how your child responds. It also allows you to anticipate adjustments as you get closer to your Disney vacation.
Before our trip, we watch a variety of Disney movies to get familiar with characters, but we also watch the POV ride videos on YouTube so that my daughter can determine if she wants to add them to the ride list. This also allows me to start memorizing the ride for my daughter. Every child is different, but it soothes my daughter for me to warn her before a dip in the ride.
If your child loves charts or lists, create an itinerary that they can carry with them. Allow your child to be the “navigator” while in the park and help lead you to your next destination. This can help give children a sense of independence and ownership of their choices in the midst of a crowded place.
Disney World is a sprawling resort that spans four different theme parks. You may be the type of traveler who is up for the challenge of trying to see everything possible, but I want to let you in on a little secret: You can’t do it all!
You may notice big changes in your child, such as wanting to run up and hug characters, eating foods that they typically won’t try or wearing those adorable Mickey ears all day. However, your child may decide that every ride you agreed on prior is a strong “No.” They may have an emotional reaction to a favorite character, or they can have a meltdown in the middle of Main Street. Those moments can be so hard, but accepting the unexpected can help.
This brings me to the “Call it” agreement. My daughter and I have an agreement that when either she or I notice that she is having a hard time, we stop what we are doing and check in. This can be thinking about when the last time we ate was, if she needs to use the restroom, or if her feet are hurting. From there, we look at our itinerary and decide if we should just “call it” and pack it in for the day. When you are in the middle of the Happiest Place on Earth, thinking about how much money you spent on this magical vacation, it can be hard to call it. It can feel like giving up. But trust me when I say calling it can help your child feel empowered, and it allows you to preserve the magical memories you have already made.
Photo courtesy of Disney Parks
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