Advance planning is helpful for a successful theme park vacation in Orlando for guests with autism. Your vacation will include a plethora of sensory stimulation, from crowds to lights to noise, so prepare your child in advance. Practice trips to the mall, create and practice social stories, go on weekend trips, and perhaps a local fair will help your child get used to the stimuli, and will allow you to determine what will and will not be appropriate for your child.
Research the rides, shows, and attractions offered at Universal Studios in advance. Universal’s free guide, “The Rider’s Guide for Rider Safety and Guests with Disabilities,” is available for download on their official website. The Guide outlines the specifics about each attraction, from height requirements to health restrictions. The Guide is quite detailed and can be invaluable in making your touring plan.
Get your child involved in planning as much as possible. Have him view the movies that are related to the attractions he will experience. Make a visually interesting graphic layout of your day-by-day plan, and review it with him frequently prior to departure. The more familiarity the child has with the parks prior to your vacation, the more successful the trip will be.
Speak with your child’s doctor and other specialists before your trip, and ask for their suggestions on making the trip successful. Also, request a note from the doctor that outlines the child’s disability. Although not strictly necessary, the note will minimize the time and effort required at Guest Services. If your child has specific dietary needs, or if you use food as a behavioral reward or a distraction, you will love the flexibility of the Universal Meal Deal. For a reasonable price per person (half price for children), your family can eat all day at selected counter service restaurants. You can also add a Universal sipper cup at a small additional charge, which will allow free refills on fountain beverages all day.
When you arrive at the parks, you should first rent a stroller or wheelchair if required. Then proceed directly to Guest Services. Take both the doctor’s note and the child with you. Due to recent incidents with disability fraud, the Guest Relations Team Member will want to see the child, just to ensure that he or she actually exists. You will be issued one of a variety of passes, depending on your exact needs. If you need additional accommodations, such as a place to wait out of the sun, let the Team Member know that as well.
With pass in hand, you are ready to explore the parks. None of the passes will grant you immediate access to attractions, so be prepared to entertain the child during the wait. Books, games, and snacks may help. Be sure that you are following a tightly organized touring plan, but be ready to change it at a moment’s notice should your child require it. If you do not have a plan in place, invent it on the fly, but keep the child moving and interested. Meltdowns happen more frequently when the child is kept waiting while the adults try to figure out what to do next.
Do not plan to spend the entire day at the parks. If you are visiting on multiple days, and your child does well in the morning and afternoon, you may gradually add more in-park hours. Be aware of restful attractions and quiet places that will allow your child to regroup. Both parks have first aid stations and rooms for nursing mothers, either of which will do nicely in an emergency. Additionally, play areas (if not overly crowded) and sidewalk cafes provide a nice break from the sensory stimulation.
Islands of Adventure is a more sensory-heavy park. Each island is carefully crafted to represent a certain theme, and oversized props are the norm. Depending on your child, this may prove to be a wonderful experience or a disaster. Monitor your child’s reactions and respond accordingly.
If you have any doubts whatsoever about an attraction’s appropriateness for your child, have someone in your party ride it first. Team Members are wonderfully understanding about this and will engineer a Child Swap-type arrangement to avoid your party having to wait in line for a second time.
Discuss any and all concerns with Team Members. Most are at least somewhat familiar with autism, and they are happy to answer any questions. They may also have suggestions or ideas that you have not yet considered on any topic from the best row in which to sit, to where to have lunch.
Universal Studios Orlando is a wonderful vacation destination for families of every description. Autism is becoming more common, and families who live with autism visit Universal Orlando every day. A plan, a bit of flexibility, and a sense of humor, along with a willingness to ask for and accept assistance are all that are required for a successful vacation.