Visiting Walt Disney World is a non-negotiable rite of passage of many American families. Parents dream of giving their children the magical experience of The Happiest Place On Earth.
For some families, though, this dream seems impossible. Once upon a time, I believed that too.
Henry began asking to see Mickey’s Castle when he was 4 years old. (Don’t tell him it’s Cinderella’s Castle. “I do not like princesses!”) The beginning of every Pixar movie shows a train in the distance approaching the sparkly castle, so it was really no surprise he wanted to visit. Unfortunately, at that age he still had limited control over his emotions and was only beginning to comprehend self-regulation. Keith and I knew Disney was not yet feasible.
A year or so ago, we realized Henry was capable of a short introductory trip. If we did our homework, made a plan, and prepared him well, we believed we could do it. I’m thrilled to report we were right! Just a couple of weeks ago, the Dangels did Disney!
Here’s how we made it work for us:
Do your homework.
I used Pinterest as well as the tried-and-true Google search to find maps, guides, and tips from Disney travel experts, but the site I found most helpful was WDW Prep School. Shannon has resources for planning your daily itinerary and packing your park bag, as well as crowd calendars, tips by month, special event advice, and podcasts. I used her suggestions plus this map of the Magic Kingdom to plan out our day and organize our Fast Passes. (The site has maps of the other Disney parks as well.) I typed out a tentative itinerary for each day, including food in each area we might want to try, and laminated it in case of rain.
I recommend taking a look at the WDW resource on planning a trip for those with cognitive disabilities and autism. This guide will give you information on each attraction and will also answer the ever-popular question on where to take sensory breaks on p. 43! Keep in mind, sensory breaks look different for every individual. For Henry, it wasn’t so important to search out the suggestions on Disney’s guide. Finding all the available toy trains in the gift shop was a great break for him. (You’ll read more about that below.) So was sitting on a bench and watching the cars at Tomorrowland Speedway.
In choosing our resort, we looked at pros and cons of each to determine what best fit our needs and budget. Your priorities will help you decide. Do you need quick access to your hotel in case of an emergency rest period? A hotel on the monorail system might be best for you, if you can swing the cost. (My friend booked the Contemporary because it was the closest.) We chose the Art of Animation resort for two reasons: it is a Value resort and it immerses you in some of the most popular animated films. This leads me to point #2.
Note: We are AAA members, so we did utilize their Disney experts to make planning and booking a bit easier, but this is certainly not necessary.
Involve your child in the planning.
When we decided on Art of Animation, we allowed Henry to see pictures of the different room options. He chose Cars. (The resort is organized into different areas with multiple buildings.) We were thrilled to arrive and see the landscaping around our building was even designed to look like Radiator Springs. This may seem like a small thing, but it made Henry’s experience even more special.
This idea works regardless of the resort you choose. Allow your children to see photos ahead of time. Point out features you think they’ll enjoy. Let them know where they will be sleeping. Henry is always very interested to know what kind of bed he will have. What we take for granted is of vital importance to them.
Youtube proved to be especially helpful in involving Henry as well. Many parents want their children to experience the rides they remember from childhood, and I am no exception, but we autism parents know that flexibility is the name of the game. The trip is about the children, not us. Henry watched many videos of rides to see what looked interesting to him, as well as to prepare him for what he would see. The added benefit is boosting your child’s excitement for the trip!
Get Disability Access Service.
My original plan called for us to obtain DAS as soon as the park opened. Because we were there at a low-census time, we decided Henry probably wouldn’t need it and we would simply come back for it if we were wrong. MISTAKE.
We realized we needed the pass when we were standing in a 35-minute line and he began perseverating on the monorail train he wanted to buy. We had already promised he could have this souvenir, so that wasn’t a problem. Waiting in a line (even an interactive line like the one for Winnie the Pooh) allowed down time for his brain, and he couldn’t get his mind off the train. As most of you know, the autistic brain is much different than ours; when perseverating begins, reasoning can’t make it better. His lip was trembling, his body was becoming tense, and I knew a meltdown was in our future if we didn’t find an alternative plan. After that ride, we went straight to guest services. Unfortunately, the line was very long. Henry and I looked around in the gift shops as Keith waited in line. He sent me a text when he was almost to the front, because the disabled person must be present.
My advice: Go to the guest services first thing and have the pass in case you need it. Read more about the pass here. Essentially, if the ride you want has a long line and you don’t have a FastPass, the attendant gives you a return time to enter without wait. (On one occasion, we were allowed to enter right away.) In the meantime, you have a snack, take a break on a bench, ride something else, people-watch, or whatever your child needs.
Set realistic expectations.
You may have noticed my word “tentative” under point #1. While I had attractions I wanted to see and food I wanted to taste, I knew this trip was about Henry. The itinerary was made with him in mind, of course, but with children it’s important to remember that altering the plan is not an “if” but a “when.” Go with the flow and follow the child’s interests and needs!
We intentionally planned a short trip to gauge Henry’s interest and ability; we knew we could come back if the trip was a success and Henry seemed to want more parks. With that in mind, we planned to spend two days in Magic Kingdom to allow for an un-rushed, Henry-led visit. By afternoon on the first day, we realized Henry had done all he wanted to do. When we went to guest services for the DAS, we also asked if we could change our second-day tickets to Magic Kingdom to a different park; they said yes!
It’s important to set realistic expectations not only for flexibility, as illustrated above, but also with the meals and events you book ahead of time, the length of your day in the park, and more, which leads me to our last point.
Remember: If it works at home, it works at Disney.
If your child needs something at home, he needs it everywhere. This might mean headphones, hand fidgets, visual schedules, social stories, therapeutic routines, afternoon naps, or early bedtimes. Only you know what your child requires to be regulated, to be healthy, and to be happy.
Henry has always been early to bed, early to rise. Staying up later doesn’t make him sleep later. We also know if we don’t respect his need for rest, after a few days he is physically ill. We have seen him grow lethargic and even vomit when overstimulated and overtired. What that meant for our Disney trip was no Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom. I hear you – so sad! We all wanted to do it. Henry especially wanted to see Tinkerbell “fly” out of the castle window. Unfortunately, the Wishes performance that night was at 10:00pm. (It is not the same each day.) Not only did we know he couldn’t stay up until 11:00pm, but Henry was requesting to go back to the hotel at 7:00.
Disney is totally doable with autism! In sum: Do your homework, involve your child, get DAS, set realistic expectations, and remember what works at home will work at Disney. Have more questions? Feel free to comment below or drop me a line at meredith(at)meredithmdangel(dot)com.