Save up to 30% on WDW Hotel Rooms

How to Help Your Special Needs Family Settle into Vacation Mode

How to Help Your Special Needs Family Settle into Vacation Mode Kids - Ask Zoe

You’ve done the prep; now it is time to get the Disney adventure underway. The problem you face now is how to take that calm routine you have spent years cultivating at home, throw it out the window, and expect everyone to cope. The answer is, you can’t. You can, however, find a few ways to bring a little of that peace and security of home with you.

Let’s begin with your special needs child(ren) and stimming. Stimming is a self-stimulation behavior that regulates the feeling in one’s body. This is usually a physical repetition that is soothing to the individual. It is important not to deter the stimming behaviors but to help the person feel comfortable enough that they do not escalate into more destructive ones. With older children, spend time prior to leaving discussing with them what makes them comfortable and how they control feelings of anxiety and frustration. Let them guide you as to what will help. Younger children are a little more difficult to predict. Plan “check-in time” every few hours on your journey so you can sit down and talk one-on-one with them. If you are traveling, ask them to draw a picture of how they are feeling. This may bring a surprising amount of insight into how they feel that might otherwise not be able to be communicated in words.

When traveling with sensory disorders, be mindful of the things used at home to regulate feelings and behaviors. Some children may be comforted by certain smells from home; those with sleeping issues that use essential oils or scents may want to bring a travel-size version of that same scent with them to develop that bedtime continuity. Kids who gain regulation from deep pressure may want to bring along a compression vest (after practicing at home) to give them that pressure and calmness they seek. If a particular texture helps, such as reversible sequin pillows, try and get a smaller version to travel with (try Mermaid Pillow Bracelet). If chewing is helpful, remember to pack chewable bracelets, necklaces, or an oral vibration device (try ARK Z Grip). Make sure to bring these things with you. After all, would Pooh ever leave home without his honey?

How to Help Your Special Needs Family Settle into Vacation Mode Honey - Ask Zoe Honey - Ask Zoe

When headed on a Disney Vacation, any child that struggles with anxiety may start to feel uncomfortable not knowing what to expect. Involve them in planning and give them an outline of what you have on the agenda for each day. Buy a notebook and add one day per page with the following (or similar) info:

  • Mark the date at the top of each page.
  • Note the intended park or destination for that day.
  • Mention the transport you might take to get there.
  • Write down any Advanced Dining Reservations you might have locked in.
  • If you are planning on visiting more than one park, add those details in as well.
  • Leave room below for them to write in their own feelings or notes at the end of the day.

Try not to make it too detailed, so they don’t feel unable to cope if the plans unexpectedly need to change. Add a map at the front of the book as well, so they can have a look through the different areas you will be visiting.

Give yourself extra time. Many people recommend adding a resort day to the middle of your park days; however, families with special needs children may also want to consider a settling-in day as well. Allowing this extra time lets your family settle into the new room and the environment prior to being confronted with all of the sensory shock of the parks. Take a day to enjoy the resort grounds, explore the area, and get your bearings. Check out the transport area where you might catch the bus the next morning. Have a snack or a drink in the food hall that you are planning on visiting in the mornings for breakfast. Unpack.

How to Help Your Special Needs Family Settle into Vacation Mode contemporary-resort-02 contemporary-resort-02

If your child has a particular snack or food that is eaten on a regular basis (such as the same cereal for breakfast every morning) bring it with you, or source it locally. The more of that “home routine” you can continue during your stay, the better.

Sleep during your vacation is a vital part of how enjoyable your trip will be. Before you leave, discuss a bedtime routine and what it might look like while you are away. It might be a shortened version of what you do at home with a warm shower and a quick story. Talk about how everyone sleeping in the same room might feel strange, and perhaps consider a practice night at home where everyone “camps out” in the lounge room. If your child is used to a special type of bedding at home, lycra sheets, or something that won’t be available on-site, practice without it prior to leaving. Make use of websites such as The DIS, YouTube, and the official Disney site to show your family images and videos of where you will be staying. It may help them visualize the change in advance.

How to Help Your Special Needs Family Settle into Vacation Mode contemporary-resort-tower-room-19 contemporary-resort-tower-room-19

Prepping your family for a successful transition into vacation mode is almost as important as all the planning you did to get there. Cover your bases with all the small, familiar aspects of life at home that you can bring.

Zoë Wood is a travel writer from Sydney, Australia. Since her first visit to Disneyland at the age of 6, she has spent her years frequently visiting Disney Parks and traveling around the world.

Join Zoë as she lets you in on all the tips, tricks, anecdotes, and embarrassments that arise from her family adventures.


Our agents will assist you in booking the perfect Disney getaway, all at no extra cost to you. Get the most out of your dream vacation by letting us assist you with dining and park reservations, provide expert advice, answer any questions, and continuously search for discounts to ensure you get the best deal possible.