Vacationing with an autistic child is stressful. Before you worry, a vacation at Walt Disney World can be the magical experience. Of course, there will be hiccups and difficulties – not to mention a meltdown or two. With planning, and preparation, you can minimize those problems and everyone can enjoy the most magical place on earth.
When To Go
Crowds in Disney are unlike any other park. One week is packed shoulder to shoulder and another week is quiet and peaceful. Take a moment, look at your personal calendar, and do your research.
If you have not booked your trip yet and you know crowds can trigger meltdowns, plan accordingly. Typically summer and holidays are the busiest so avoid Christmas, New Year, Easter, Thanksgiving, Presidents Day in that order. June, July, and August are not only the busiest but the hottest. Keep that in mind if your child has trouble with heat.
Quieter months of September, October and early November /December are great times to visit. The weather can be cooler but rainy. January through April works well just avoid the long school weekends and holidays.
If you have to go during those periods, it is feasible. Our family trips were during those peak periods. I could not afford to take my children out of school. We planned and used several apps and websites that charted attendance. If you stay off property, then attend the park opposite the early opening/late closing. Magic Kingdom is always busy no matter what you do so perhaps two days there would ease the stress of seeing everything in one day.
You booked the tickets, paid the deposit, and scheduled time off. Now your real work begins. Take a moment before you crack the Disney vacation guide or watch the preplanning DVD and think about your children. Take an inventory of their triggers. What causes their meltdowns? Is it loud sounds, flashing lights, spinning, heights, food textures, smells, fatigue? Think long and hard about what can trigger a meltdown in light of an over stimulated situation.
My son was only 27 months old on our first trip to Disney. Loud sounds and lights were a definite trigger. We decided early on to divide and conquer. On those rides that advertised sounds and lights, my husband took our older daughters and I pushed our son in the stroller enjoying the scenery. This gave all of us a break. My son could then decompress and sit quietly while the older children would enjoy the attraction. Plus, I needed the break as well!
You have your trigger inventory. Start an interest inventory. The best advice I received was to list the top five rides of everyone in the family. Armed with those lists, we could focus on riding the attractions that the kids wanted most. At the end of the day, if we did not ride everything, no one was disappointed. I also found it easier to keep the kids focused when they were distracted by another ride not on our top list. We were able to plan our route through the park using the interest inventory.
Now you can start reading about the rides for your autistic child. Walt Disney World has an excellent resource online describing every ride. Height requirements, location, age interest, thrill level with links to accessibility information is located on each ride’s web page. You can access the ride descriptions via the attractions link from the Disney home page. Make a list of what will definitely trigger a meltdown and you can plan around them. If an older child wants to ride one, fine – use the divide and conquer method. Take your autistic child somewhere else they would like or use the time as a break.
Guest services have accommodation brochures as well. Stop by and pick up a copy.
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Disability Assistance System
All amusement parks are required to offer accommodations to the disabled in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Disney does an outstanding job of working with people to determine how you can access all they have to offer.
When you first visit a park, any of their four parks, go immediately to guest services. I recommend that you ask your doctor for a letter stating that your child has autism spectrum disorder. Documentation is not required and they will not ask for it. HIPAA law protects you from sharing this information. I have it with me because I believe in preparation. Although, you will need your child with you. A picture of your child will be taken. The child will need to ride the attraction in order to use the DAS. Cast members will verify this using the photo on the DAS card.
NOTE: The DAS card does not cut the lines. I will state this again. A DAS card DOES NOT allow you to cut lines. In fact, if you plan to see the characters the card does not accommodate you at all. Based on current wait times, you will be offered a return time. This sytsem is new and went into effect October 11, 2013. Be patient and ask questions. Please see the article entitled Changes to the Guest Pass for helpful tips and suggestions.
Planning to eat in the parks can be expensive and difficult if you are on a special diet. If your child is on a special diet, then plan! Disney works very hard to provide for those guests with special diets. If you have a food allergy, such as peanuts, then you can bring their food into the park. Again, be prepared with a letter from your physician. Do not bring in more food than your child needs. When you enter the park, inform security at bag check.
Special meals or alternatives are available in each park at select restaurants. Read the lists early and contact the restaurant with your request. Here is a link that will help you with your planning. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/guest-services/special-dietary-requests/
Ride or Photograph
Decide this now and stick to your guns. You have two options to spend your time at Disney. You can ride the attractions or wait in line to see the characters. Our first trip we spent half of each day waiting to see all of the characters that were available. The second trip we planned differently and only permitted select favorites. Our third trip we only saw the characters with no lines – if at all!
Seeing a character is magical and important to the trip. Like the rides, have your children list their favorite character. Make plans to see that character. Or design your trip to see many characters and ride only a few attractions. Either way, decide early.
As you enter park, look for the card that describes the events for the day. Each card will detail the parade times, character meet and greet times, etc. Take note of the time your character will be available and get there early! Your guest pass may not guarantee help when meeting the characters. If you want to avoid the character, then plan your route through the park accordingly. The character wish list will be critical here!
If you do want to see the characters, then read about the photo pass options in advance. This service is expensive but worthwhile. They take excellent photos. Consider an autograph as well. They are reasonably priced souvenirs and become great keepsakes. We used the autograph process as a means to practice social niceties with our son. We practiced hello, thank you and eye contact. He became pretty good by the end of the trip!
Final tip – each time we went to Disney, I packed a backpack with the lists, maps, and guides. I also packed gallon zip bags. The guest pass and all papers were sealed in the bags to preserve them. The guest pass went into a sandwich zip bag I kept in my pocket for easy access.
MOST IMPORTANT piece of advice that I can offer is flexibility. Keep yourself flexible and remember this experience is once in a lifetime and magical! Enjoy!