How To Plan A Disney Vacation With Autistic Child

How To Plan A Disney Vacation With Autistic Child

As any parent can tell you, traveling with children can be stressful. But that stress is multiplied if your child happens to be autistic. Nevertheless, taking a Disney vacation with an autistic child could be worthwhile because there are just so many activities to choose from.

Orlando’s weather is beautiful all year round, so the kids will love being outside and enjoying all the wonderful activities Disney World has to offer. We always enjoy ourselves whenever we take a Disney World vacation with our autistic child, so I thought it would be a great idea to share with you some of the things we’ve found that works best when you go on a Disney vacation with an autistic child.

In order to have a successful Disney vacation with an Autistic child, proper planning and scheduling must be done in advance. Knowing how to travel and getting a Disability Access Service Card once you get to Disney will make your vacation a little easier.

Generally speaking, theme parks and children with special needs don’t mesh very well. The loud noise, long lines, huge crowds, and strange people can be overwhelming for an autistic child.

Yet, while Disney World presents some of the same challenges as other theme parks, it is more conducive to the sensibilities of autistic children. So, the key to a successful and enjoyable Disney vacation with an autistic child is planning.

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7 Best Theme Parks In Orlando

How To Plan A Disney Vacation With Autistic Child

Researching your trip to Disney World can be time-consuming, but that extra effort could be the difference between an enjoyable vacation, or a disastrous one.

So, the first order of business is to find a place that offers the best accommodations for children with disabilities, including hotels, restaurants, and transportation. It is also a good idea to check the weather forecast so that if the weather deteriorates you can have a backup plan in place.

Sometimes a vacation can be even more stressful for the autistic child than the parent, as he may feel more comfortable with familiar surroundings and not use to venturing too far away from home.

On the other hand, a vacation could be a learning experience for him, as it gives him a chance to interact with his family in a different setting, as well as meet new people.

It might also be a good idea to schedule your vacation for the off-season, as long as it doesn’t disrupt your work schedule too much. The park will be less crowded and there will be a lot less noise, things that could easily upset an autistic child.

Some other things you might want to consider are, how far the park is away, and what mode of transportation you’ll have to take to get there. You’ll want to make the journey as comfortable as possible for the child.

Remember, if you go by plane, airport security may have to pat him down, so you’ll need to take into consideration how your child will react to being touched.

You should also discuss with your family any dangers that might come up during the trip. Planning a strategy for such event will help family members maintain their composure if something does happen.

This includes natural disasters as well as man-made. For example, in Florida, you have to worry about alligators as well as hurricanes. We’ve all seen the stories on the news about alligators leaping out of the water and grabbing an unsuspecting child.

Be sure to educate your child on the dangers of talking to strangers also. So many children go missing in the United States because parents neglected to warn them of the dangers of talking to strangers.

If your child has special needs, he might not be able to fully comprehend that danger, so make sure you keep a close eye on your child, so he doesn’t wander off. Remember, it is natural for a child to want to explore, even after you’ve told him to stay put.

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Traveling For A Disney Vacation With Autistic Child

Create a daily routine. Map out what you would like to do each day and stick to that schedule. Children with special needs prefer following the same routine every day. So, keeping it that way will help avoid any unnecessary stress.

Make a daily planner for keeping the activities he enjoys in order. You may also want to use a Disney map to help plan your activities. You can find maps and show schedules on the Disney website.

Knowing your next move in advance will make your vacation a lot less stressful.

You should also create a list of all the things you’ll need before you start packing. This way, you are less likely to forget anything. Pack clothes befitting different activities and weather conditions and take along some toys and games that the child likes to play with at home, just in case the child decides to misbehave. The toy should help calm him down.

It is also a good idea to bring along things that are familiar to his sensory perception, like his pillow and blanket.

Start discussing the trip to Disney with your autistic child beforehand to create interest and excitement in him. Show him pictures or try to create a mental image for him by describing your destination in vivid terms. If he is verbal, ask him how he feels about the prospect of taking the trip.

Make sure you have an ample supply of his prescriptions, and his over-the-counter medicines and vitamins.

Try to adhere to the same bedtime and mealtime schedule you use at home. Remember, autistic children like routine.

Do not try to force the child to participate in an activity if he doesn’t want to. Getting him to participate can be complicated by large crowds and loud noises. If you feel you’re not up to the task, you might want to consider bringing along a chaperone. This would alleviate a lot of stress for you and the rest of the family and give you time to enjoy yourself.

Make sure your child doesn’t suffer sensory overload. If you sense that he is becoming overwhelmed, take him back to the hotel so that he can relax.

If bright lights upset your child, then you might want to avoid those areas.

Another thing, make sure your child has your name and number somewhere on him just in case he gets lost in the parks. If he is verbal, give him instructions on what to do if he does get lost.

Now, this will be difficult because the child is autistic. Naturally, they will find communicating with a total stranger difficult. So, create a plan for when you travel and convey it to him as best you can.

It is also a good idea to take along some video games, movies and books. You can use them to help keep him calm during the trip. What we have found that works best for our little one is using the Amazon Fire tablet. There are so many games, books and videos to keep him busy for a long time. The new Amazon Fire tablet comes with 1 year of Freetime, a kid proof case and a 2 year warranty included.

Don’t be afraid to make hotel staff, cast members, and security, aware that your child is autistic, and could wander off and get lost. This way at least some of them will be aware of his condition and what he looks like if he does wander off.

If you plan on driving to Disney World, be sure to stop for a break every 2 hours at least. Long trips can be physically draining on anyone, let alone autistic children.

If you plan to fly, try to secure a non-stop in order to avoid long layovers. If not, try to fill the layover time with a sensory break by facing him away from hustle and bustle. You could also let him listen to his favorite music through headphones.

Disney Vacation With Autistic Child

Disney World has made a major impact on our culture. For most children with autism, watching Disney movies repeatedly is not just a pastime, it helps them make sense of the world by allowing them to visit with friends who have touched their lives in such a meaningful way.

When you first arrive at a Disney park, go directly to the Guest Relations in order to get a Disability Access Service Pass or “DAS”. If you have a note from the doctor, be sure to take it with you, along with the child.

The park representative at Guest Relations will then issue you the appropriate pass based on the extent of your child’s disability and accommodation level. If there are any other accommodations you need that might impact your child, bring them to the attention of Guest Relations as well.

The Disability Access Service Card is designed to accommodate guests who can’t wait in a conventional queue line due to a disability. This pass will offer guests a return time for attractions based on the current wait time of the ride. As soon as you finish one attraction, you can receive a return time for another. This service can be used in addition to the FastPass system.

The Process For Obtaining A Disability Access Service Card

1. Visit the Guest Relations desk at the Disney park

  • City Hall at the Magic Kingdom
  • The Guest Relations Lobby at Disney’s Animal Kingdom
  • The Guest Relations Lobby at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
  • The Guest Relations Lobby at Epcot Center

2. Explain to guest service representative that your child needs a DAS card because he has a disability that prevents him from standing in line for an extended period.

3. The Guest Relations staff will be able to answer any additional questions or concerns you might have about the accommodations the DAS card covers.

4. Before you receive your DAS card, the child or parent must have his picture taken. Then you will need to sign the card. Remember, this DAS card works at every Disney theme park, so you won’t have to worry about repeating the process.

5. Then the cast member will ask you which attraction you want to ride first and will set your return time accordingly. So, instead of waiting in line, you’re free to do other things.

6. When your return time comes, got to the FastPass line, not the regular queue.

You can now use your Disability Access Service pass for the duration of your stay to set return times. Just let the cast member at each ride scan your MagicBand and the rest will be handled automatically. But you must honor that return time before you can be given one for another ride.

For example, if you have a return time for Splash Mountain at 3 o’clock, you and your family can return any time after 3’oclock until the park closes. In the meantime, you can use FastPass to enjoy the other attractions while you wait. However, you can’t get return time on your DAS card for a different ride until you first ride Splash Mountain.

A DAS pass is good for 14 days on a single ticket purchase and 60 days for season ticket holders. Once it expires, you’ll have to apply for a new one. So be sure to bring your old DAS card with you to expedite matters.

Now that you have your DAS card you are ready to enjoy all the thrills the park has to offer. However, with a DAS pass or not, you will not be granted immediate access to any ride. You will be given a return time first. So, spend the wait time entertaining your child in other ways, like listening to music, or reading a book.

Take some time to brush up on all the rides and attractions the park has to offer. Some of them may upset your child, so you’ll want to avoid those. One way to do this is to purchase a guidebook in advance and familiarizing yourself with it. Or you could use a guide map from the park.

If you’re still uncertain, relate any concerns you may have to a cast member. They will allow you to check out the ride by yourself first and issue you a child swap pass which will allow you and your party to ride without additional wait time.

A detailed plan is necessary when taking a Disney vacation with an autistic child. It is also a good idea to allow for some flexibility, just in case problems arise at the last minute. If a situation arises that you didn’t anticipate, you may have to improvise, but don’t neglect the welfare of the child if it takes a while.

Try not to expose your child to too much sensory stimulation in one day. It could lead to sensory overload. So, take long breaks at the hotel between excursions, or go shopping or dining in a place where it isn’t so crowded. As the child becomes used to it, you can add more park time.

It is okay, even preferable, to let your autistic child ride the same ride multiple times if that is the one he enjoys most, especially if it keeps him happy.

Ask A Cast Member For Assistance When Necessary

Disney World cast members know that people with cognitive and developmental issues find their parks very appealing and enjoyable, so they have structured some of their policies to accommodate their disabled visitors.

The Disney staff also has been given a lot of leeway when it comes to accommodating guests with disabilities.
Here are some of the things you can do to take advantage of Disney services:

  • Read the Disney’s Disability Services manual
  • Use FastPass in conjunction with the DAS card to expedite access to rides.
  • Download the Promedia Disabilities Guide for tips on how to help your child enjoy Disney parks.
  • Use the family/companion’s bathrooms. Maps are available to show you their location.
  • Get information in advance for dining areas.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask a Disney cast member any questions and concerns

Final Thoughts

Planning a vacation with a normal child can be a tedious exercise, as there is a multitude of things to take into consideration. But planning a vacation with an autistic child is even more taxing, as his well-being must be figured into every aspect of the vacation.

With proper planning, your family’s Disney vacation with an autistic child could be both enjoyable and rewarding. If successful, you will have allowed your child to acclimate himself to the idea of traveling.

But, give him a heads-up beforehand by telling him stories about Disney World and all the fun stuff there is to do there. Remember, try to cover all the bases when you plan your vacation.

Drew Thomas

Drew Thomas is the founder of Visit Orlando With Kids and loves going to theme parks with his family. Every year he has annual passes to all Florida's theme parks and loves to share tips and tricks that he has learned over the 35 years living in Orlando.

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