Autism Mom Disney Traveling Tips (Original post to my director Facebook page on 10/28/2016):
So we just returned from a 5 day stay at Disney World and many of you have asked “how in the world do you take Griffin to a place so over stimulating?” or “how does Griffin handle it?” or “Does Disney have things kids on the spectrum can enjoy?”. I think you will be surprised at how fun a Disney vacation can be for your special kiddo if you plan and prepare for it.
I thought it would be best to give out some tips that have worked for Griffin and our family when traveling to the most magical place on earth. Please note that because every child is different, your situation and experience may not be the same. This blog is more about helping you, the parent, know all the offerings for your special child to better plan for your trip.
Here is some of my favorite tips (not prioritized by number)
1) Stay on Disney Property: By staying in a Disney hotel you will not have to worry about loading up in a car, finding parking, etc. during your stay. Disney will even pick you up from the airport for free. During your stay your hotel has a bus pickup/drop off area for all the parks and shopping to take you to and from your resort. Your hotel will also a restaurant and a Disney store, plus many activities for you to choose to participate in while not at the parks.
2) Strollers: Take advantage of renting a Disney stroller for the day at the parks. Their wheels can handle the terrain of any park and drive easy. They are low to the ground for your child to crawl in and out of themselves. It fits older children as well so they don’t have to walk as much. Consider getting a double stroller so they have more room. Plus the stroller has a shade to hide under for comfort and to block the sun or rain. Your stroller ticket allows you to leave it and retrieve another when you switch parks or ride the train versus having to haul your stroller by folding it down every time.
3) FastPass- Disney has this wonderful tool that allows you to book rides in advance so you don’t have to wait in longer lines. You can book up to 3 attractions in advance. Once you use those you can add more. For special needs children, visit the client services area on the first day at a parks. They will add a DAS (disability pass) to your bracelet (ticket) so that you can have an additional 1 fastpass at any time. This is good for your entire stay. This means that you can go to a ride and scan your ticket and get a return time for later. Once you use that one you can have another. This is unlimited during your stay and saves on having to stand in lines for your child. Some character greetings have fastpasses as well.
4) Travel dates- Late October/early November or late January/February are the less crowded times to be at Disney. This may mean missing school but saves you on dealing with larger crowds, heat, and long lines.
5) Companion restrooms. Almost every restroom area has a companion restroom as well where you can go to have a room to yourself to help your child during potty breaks, diaper changes, or meltdowns.
6) Sensory needs- I didn’t use this during our trip but Disney is known to have a sensory room in Magic Kingdom near the first aid room for children on the spectrum. My advice is to go with your child’s mood. If you know it’s getting close to lunch then make plans to eat so you have time to wait in line, find a table, etc. We often looked for tables that are in a corner or further away from where you order which can be loud. Same for nap times, find a quiet spot and relax, go to a dark show that maybe interest you vs. child (hall of presidents for example). Remember you can leave the park and go to the room for breaks as well.
7) Fireworks: while we love a good firework show I want to mention that they are crowded, loud, and everyone tries to rush to the buses to leave as soon as it is over. This means you are stuck in lines and crowds for a while. I recommend leaving before the fireworks and heading back to your hotel. You may get lucky and be able to see from your hotel or on the bus anyway.
8) Rider Swap: For those of you who want to ride attractions that may be too much for your special kiddo Disney offers rider swap. This is where you let the attendant know that you are doing a “rider swap” and they will allow one of you to wait by the exit with your child while the other is riding and then you swap out when that person returns. This works great for families with multiple children too.
9) Special diets: Disney has lots of options for eating. There are healthy choices as well as gluten free and dairy free menu items at most locations. Remember that you are allowed to bring your own snacks and drinks with you to the parks too.
10) Disney Experience App: This wonderful creation made our last trip even more organized. By using your smart phone you have access to all of your reservations and fast passes. There is also a great map feature that allows you to find the closest restaurants, bathrooms, etc. and you can filter by type of food even.
11) Comfort items: When traveling with Griffin I always take extra comforts with us. We take an anxiety medicine before going to the parks and carry it in our bag should it be needed during the day. While he didn’t take his ipad with him to the park each day we did have it when we got back to the room to allow him time to “zone out” for a few mins before going to bed. You may want to have your iphone or tablet with you should you need it during waits or to help with over stimulating experiences. HEADPHONES are a must for us due to the loud noises everywhere. Griffin carries his and puts them on before every ride. We also allow him to take one comfort friend (elephant) each day to the park to keep with him. You may want to consider a small blanket, stuffed toy, or whatever helps your child . 12) Financial Tip: Disney is expensive. However it is completely worth it in my book. When planning for Disney our family likes to give gift cards for every birthday or holiday leading up to the trip. The past two years we have given gift cards as part of birthday presents, stocking stuffers, easter baskets, etc. Then we combined all the cards prior to leaving. In 2 years we had saved over $1100 towards our trip. Our hotel was able to use those cards towards our bill since everything is charged to your room on your wrist band.
13) Savings: I use every discount I can find. (Comes from working in the travel industry for years prior to the clinic). I usually check with work related discounts. Sometimes your company offers travel discounts, like Tickets at work website or others. Sign up for a My Disney Experience account which is free and will be used for your planning anyway. Then they will email you discounts or percentage off your stay. As far as the dining plan goes it really depends on your family and your eating preferences. I found that it wouldn’t really save my family by having the plan so we used our gift cards towards food. This is mainly because we either eat more or less each day based on what we are doing so it doesn’t fit us. You can google or look on the Disney website and I believe there is a calculator that helps determine if it is worth it for you.
14) Memory Maker: You can purchase all your photos in advance. This is one of the brilliant things Disney does. Instead of paying for all those precious photos and the ones taken on the attractions you can buy a memory maker in advance of your trip. Then while at Disney you will be able to use all photographers throughout the parks to take those beautiful and fun pictures. They will scan your bracelet and before you know it is linked to your app and all yours. Plus they add fun details like video and character enhancements that you and your kids will enjoy.
15) Like anything else you do it is important to keep your child in the loop on the plan. Tell them what is happening (even if they are non-verbal). Example: you will have to sit in the stroller, we are going to ride this ride and then get lunch, time to go to the potty then meet Elsa, etc.) By not explaining what is happening you can set yourself up for meltdowns. Remember this is new to them too.
16) Patience: Use extra patience when traveling. It is different and new and over stimulating to our kids and us. By allowing for extra time and giving yourself plenty of breaks until you know how your child is doing that day can set you up for success.
17) Ask Disney: This place is known for their award winning customer service and great attitudes. They are overly helpful and easy to talk to. If you have a concern, need, or question then all you have to do is ask!
I hope that this helps you in planning a trip for Disney. It is truly magical! Our family compares every vacation to going to Disney World and they are always asking when we are going back. I find that properly planning can make it a lot easier. Don’t get me wrong, we always have something that is difficult or over whelming but because we have planned for everything else we are usually able to stay calm and help Griffin through whatever situation quickly and easily.
I also highly recommend visiting my friend Tara Hood (Autism Travel Expert) facebook page for Autism Traveling with Disney at https://www.facebook.com/disneyplanningforautism/
Lori Frederick, Executive Director