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Planning a family vacation to Disney World takes time and patience for every mom, but when you’re the mother of an autistic child it takes even more time and consideration. I know, because I parent a child with autism and my family of five just returned from a week long vacation where we toured The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom.
It was fabulous.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was a fantastic trip that we’ll remember forever.
Here are a few tips to help you make your Disney World vacation magical!
First, let’s get real.
Make sure your expectations aren’t too high. I’m about to tell you to plan, but if that plan gets out of sync don’t freak out. It’s vacation!
Be sure you consider your child’s interests before you book the trip! I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer here, really, I’m not! One of my friends took her children to Disney one year only to discover that they were deathly afraid of all of the characters!
Now, I can tell you firsthand that Disney World is a fantastic place to take kids with autism, but you do need to know how to navigate the parks and know all about their Disability Access Service before ya go!
More on that later.
PREPARE & PACK
Most kids on the autism spectrum need routine, so you’re going to want to prepare them for the trip.
Disney offers a free planning DVD that you can get right here that gives an overview of each park. There are also tons of videos of Disney World attractions online that you can watch with your child that may help.
Don’t forget to pack the essentials. My kids have called my purse the pill purse, but I don’t mind. I’m prepared for anything including a trip and fall, headache or any other pain related experience with Chewable Tylenol, Advil, liquid Ibuprofen, and a medicine dropper.
I always pack a spare outfit just in case a major spill occurs. If your child is still in diapers you should bring two spares! Be sure to pack all the stuff they just can’t live without like the iPad, some noise cancelling headphones to make the loud and unfamiliar sounds more bearable, a few chargers (gotta have a back-up charger), maybe a pillow and blanket or a favorite stuffed animal.
Make sure you pack a busy bag with snacks and activities for the plane! Your electronics will not work at certain altitudes, and you do not want a hungry traveler!
Pack as many snacks as possible in checked luggage to save money at Disney!
Some airlines are making travel easier for families with autism by allowing you to pre-board with your child if that will suit your needs. That did not work well for us-at all. We found that being the last ones on the plane worked out better.
My son doesn’t do well waiting. As in, he melts down.
When we boarded first, we put him in a situation where he had to wait around 40 minutes in a small and cramped area-which resulted in a full-blown panic attack for him, and a bad mom moment for me because I felt unprepared.
Let me tell you, the flight attendants on Delta airlines were terrific! They brought him snacks (I ran out) and coloring books and crayons (his iPad games didn’t work due to airplane mode.)
VIP TIP: CALL THE TSA
TSA CARES is a program that helps families with kids with autism, but you need to let them know you’re coming. Here’s their number!
Then, when you get to the TSA line, you have to request a Support Services Agent.
Trust me. You do need this! I learned the hard way!
If you don’t already have one, consider getting an ID bracelet for your child if he’s prone to running or wandering. This one has a watch-style clasp and is engraved in all caps.
The AngelSense GPS Tracker has a runner mode designed to help find your child with live 10 second updates. AngelSense is a tracker (for the child) and app (for the parent) that allows you to know where your child is and listen in to monitor their well being.
It’s easy to get separated from your kids at Disney-it happens all the time.
My daughter Lylah Kate got separated from me when she was seven and I panicked-hardcore style.
She doesn’t have special needs-she just didn’t pay attention to instructions and got turned around with our group in line at Space Mountain. When she didn’t come off of the ride with everyone I got scared, but I was still calmly looking for her. I didn’t panic until I asked the Disney cast members for help and they asked me for a description of her clothing.
That’s when I lost it. In that moment I couldn’t remember what she was wearing. It was awful.
By the way, she was found within ten minutes. (Ten long-agonizing minutes.)
To be super safe-take a photo of your child every day before you enter the park. Just in case you have a moment like I did.
Another safety measure to take-just in case your child wanders-is to write his name on a piece of duct tape with your cell number and place it on his shirt every day.
Speaking of shirts, I’d plan to dress my child in brightly colored shirts like this one so I could pick him out in a crowd! On our last trip to Disney World, I noticed most of the people were wearing gray and black so I would definitely avoid those colors!
I know that’s a lot of safety info, but I’d rather be safe than sorry!
Plan Your Days At The Park
If you are on the fence about staying at a Walt Disney World Resort Hotel let me save you some time.
Stay at a resort hotel.
You need the convenience.
Chances are, your child is going to need to go back to the room a few times during the day and staying on site makes good sense here. If you can afford to, stay at one of Disney’s Hotels.
We have stayed at the Yacht Club and the All Star Movies Resort. Obviously, The Yacht Club is a nicer hotel, but Disney makes it easy on their guests to travel to and from their hotels to the parks. You need this as a special needs parent.
Also, as a resort guest, you will be able to book your Fast Passes up to 60 days in advance. If you need to stick to a schedule then this is a must have!
Download The App!
The My Disney Experience App will be your sanity saver! It keeps track of everything! From photos to dinner reservations to Fast Passes-this is a MUST HAVE!!!
Fast Passes allow you to reserve your place in line at most rides and attractions. You still wait in line with a Fast Pass-but not nearly as long as Stand By. You can read all about them right here.
Talk to the Cast Members at each line and explain your situation if you feel like the wait is too long for your child. That was what I did and I promise it helped us-a lot.
When you’re a guest at a Disney Resort Hotel, then you are allowed to book your Fast Passes up to 60 days ahead of time. This is a definite advantage if your child has difficulty waiting and you need to stick to a schedule.
Now, guests are allowed only 3 Fast Passes per day.
Disney offers a Disability Access Pass to people with special needs.
To get it, you must go to a Guest Relations Office at any of the four parks. You need to be prepared to have your child with you and tell the cast member (Disney employee) about your child’s special need.
You will not be asked for any documentation here, and no one asked me any specific questions about Nathan’s autism, but I do tend to over-explain so that could be why.
Next, they will take your child’s photo and scan his magic band along with the rest of your family’s. The DAS works like a Fast Pass and you can use it in addition to your Fast Passes, but you can only have one ride in play at a time.
For example, if you planned and scheduled 3 Fast Passes, you could use the DAS to get a return time on another ride and have four rides that day with less of a wait time.
As soon as you have get off of that ride, you may “schedule” another wait time with the DAS by going to another ride and scanning your child’s magic band.
You are not limited to a certain number like the Fast Pass.
Disney also offers places to go if your child needs to take a break and calm down in every park.
These are not marked with big signs so you won’t notice them.
You may have to ask a cast member where they are, but rest assured-they do exist!
Here’s a list of a few spots where you can calm down in case you need to! (We did!)
MAIN STREET, USA First Aid-Side Street by Crystal Arts
ADVENTURELAND Swiss Family Treehouse-Corridor to the left of Pirates of the Caribbean
LIBERTY SQUARE Behind Ye Old ChristmasShop
FANTASYLAND Pathway behind Cinderella’s Castle
TOMORROWLAND Near The Carousel of Progress
HOLLYWOOD BLVD First Aid
ANIMATION COURTYARD Near the restrooms to the left of Magic of Disney
SUNSET BLVD Couryard outside The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
COMMISSARY LANE Outside ABC Commissary
FUTURE WORLD WEST First Aid
FUTURE WORLD EAST Near Ellen’s Energy Adventure
Mexico: Outside pavilion near backstage
Germany: Near Glaksundt
Japan: Garden Area
First Aid Next to Creature Comforts
Africa Next to Gorilla Falls
Asia Next to Tiger Treki
Our favorite park was Magic Kingdom.
Nathan loves roller coasters! He rode Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Splash Mountain, and Space Mountain several times.
Pirates of the Caribbean was also a hit.
It’s A Small World was the best of them all.
Be sure to have your camera ready at the end for a little Disney magic!
I’m going to tell you something. Nathan is not very verbal. We have to pull the words from him. I don’t know if it was the second or third time we rode It’s A Small World, but I know it was that ride-I remember the song playing in the background. I was watching Nathan as he was watching the children on the ride.
He looked at me very deliberately and he pulled my face into his and gave me a kiss. It was the sweetest moment I’ve ever experienced in my life.
He was saying Thank You.
That is a moment I will never forget.
That’s what Disney World gives us.
I hope these tips help you prepare to take your child with autism to Disney World. Plan ahead and be prepared so you can worry less when you get there….and enjoy every moment with your child!
Have a wonderful trip!
**This morning Nathan was playing It’s A Small World on the iPad. I don’t know how he found the video, but he did. We may be back in Orlando sooner than I thought!