The Disney Parks are a sensory experience like no other. When you’ve got a neurodiverse kiddo, this can be a really great thing. They’ll be able to experience Disney magic in their own wonderfully unique way. It can also mean that you’ll want to do some additional planning for your Disneyland or Walt Disney World vacation to make sure everyone has a great (and not-too-overwhelming) time.
My five-year-old son, Simon, is autistic. When we planned our Disneyland trip last year, I tried to keep in mind that Simon is much more comfortable in a situation where he knows what to expect. Disneyland is loud, exciting, and exhausting. It’s a good idea to be ready for all of that.
We prepared Simon and our daughters, Maddie and Cecily, by talking about the things we planned to do. I made a reservation for dinner at Goofy’s Kitchen and told them all about it. “We’ll meet Mickey, Goofy, Minnie, and some of their friends. They’ll dance around to music, and they’ll come to all of the tables to say hi! They’ll sign your autograph book and we’ll take pictures.” I showed them the menu. “They have peanut butter and jelly pizza!” I read them all of the details about the restaurant that Disneyland provides online. This amped everyone up (I might have been the most amped of all).
After we arrived in Anaheim and settled into our hotel room, we headed to dinner at Goofy’s Kitchen. It was such a fantastic experience! The kids loved it. Their parents loved it (again, especially me). Their grandparents loved it, too.
Simon has always been a Cars guy. He loves Lightning McQueen. I knew Cars Land in Disney’s California Adventure would be right up his alley, but I also knew it would be crowded, noisy, and hot. Is it just my imagination, or is it actually the hottest part of Disneyland? I was melting. Mellllllting. So, we watched some great family vlogs where various YouTuber families went to Cars Land. Simon watched them with so much interest, and for weeks before our trip, he kept saying “I want to go to Cars Land!”
Prepare yourself to take breaks. Simon didn’t need to be prepared for breaks. Maddie and Cecily didn’t need to be prepared for breaks. My kids all knew when they’d hit their limit, and they knew it would be a good idea to find a shady spot to sit down.
I, on the other hand, wasn’t prepared for the breaks. I’ve been to Disney Parks many, many times in my life. But this was the first time I’d been with my children, and it was such different experience. Better in many ways, but also just different.
My normal Disney Parks pace is fast, and I’m not talking about roller coasters here. I get kind of intense. I like to see and do as much as possible. I want to get to the parks early and stay late. I want to soak up every single second of Disney while I’m there.
You can’t do that with three small children.
When we’d been in California Adventure for two hours, the kids were sweaty and clearly ready for a rest. We stopped for frozen lemonades. Simon spent a good half hour stimming in front of the impressive model of Radiator Springs in Sarge’s Surplus Hut. Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior. Flapping, jumping, spinning, and repeating words or phrases are all types of stimming. Autistic kids and adults might stim to process their surroundings, and as a calming strategy.
After our break, we rallied and went on more rides. We shopped. We met Dapper Mickey (my second favorite Mickey, after Sorcerer Mickey), and we took another break as soon as we needed it.
Breaks don’t have to feel like breaks, either. When we were all tired and hot in Disneyland Park, we took churro breaks at a shady table near King Arthur Carrousel. We went into The Enchanted Tiki Room multiple times. We ate Dole Whips under a tree surrounded by a family of ducks. Breaks don’t necessarily mean missing out on something fun – they just mean doing something more low-key, and allowing your family to recharge. It was a new Disney pace for me, but it worked really well. Take breaks. Lots of breaks.
Our Disneyland trip was so much fun. We’re now planning next year’s Walt Disney World trip, and we’re using a lot of the same methods to prepare Simon. We’re reading about the different rides, restaurants, and shows online and in travel guides.
And I’ll be prepared to take breaks. Lots of breaks.
Renee Beauregard Lute is the author of The Exceptional Maggie Chowder and the Winicker Wallace series. She lives in the Seattle area with her husband, three children, two cats, and one cockapoo.