Any parent with a special needs child or family member knows that traveling can be a nightmare, especially when your child’s disability might be one that people can’t see. You may be planning for children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder), Anxiety, or even just a child that is very sensitive to new environments. The key to traveling with any of these things, and many more, is “prep.”
Prep is how you prepare yourself, your child, the rest of the family, and your itinerary to accommodate the needs of your group for the most successful outcome. Here are a few of the prep necessities for successful traveling with my special needs family.
Choose a calm place to sleep:
There is a lot of sensory overload when it comes to theme parks in general, however, trips to Disney take it to the next level. Disney will theme everything. All that branding and cheer will continue throughout recreational areas, transportation, and hotel rooms. For some people, it can be too much and can detract from the experience. If your child is sensitive to sensory stimulation, choose quieter, less intensely-themed hotel rooms where they can have a break from the loud sounds, bright colors, and the relentless theming that can turn your magic into a breakdown.
Prep your child for questionable rides:
If you have a child that is sensitive to loud noises, the feeling of moving quickly, or dark spaces (which can be normal for any child, not just special needs), use all possible resources to give them an idea of what to expect. YouTube is a fantastic way to let children see and hear what an on-ride experience may feel like without the confrontation. Watch some ride videos with your child and then let them decide if it is too much for them. In my experience, if done with repetition, this creates a sense of familiarity for them on arrival.
Take advantage of park events; when they zig, you zag:
Everyone knows to take advantage of early mornings and late evenings, however, for some of the bigger attractions in the main parks, the best events to work with are parades and fireworks. Your family may not be interested in the parades or fireworks and if not, this can be the best time to head to the bigger attractions and take advantage of the crowds drawing in towards the parade routes. With the exception of Paradise Pier in Disney California Adventure (soon to be Pixar Pier), which closes the surrounding attractions for World Of Color, this can be the best time to hit-up Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain (okay, admittedly a little bit of a pattern there); basically any of the rides that draw hours of crowds to their line.
Have a backup plan and talk about it:
We all know that plans can change. Rides break down, weather rolls in, crowds shift unexpectedly, there are just some things that are out of our control, even for the most in-depth planners. This is why it is important to have a backup plan and to share it with your more anxious-minded kids. Prepping them for change keeps them feeling comfortable and less as though it will pull their highly-strung, overstimulated environment to pieces. Some kids feel as though they are having fun but barely holding it together at the same time, so it is important that they don’t have a meltdown because of a slight change in the plan.
Create a picture book:
This one requires a little bit of creativity. Take all the main points that you discuss with your family about the trip, like hotel stays, maps, even rides, and use images online to create a picture book that gives them a visual guide. With the hotel room, try to use several different images of available rooms so your more anxious ones don’t become fixated on the specifics of one particular room.
In our everyday lives we barely experience the need to wait for anything. We self-checkout when shopping, we grocery shop online, we don’t even stand in line at the bank anymore. So it stands to reason that our kids don’t know how to cope with it when they are suddenly confronted with a 30-90 minute wait before they can experience something they have been looking forward to. If you have children that are anxious or have difficulty standing quietly for long periods of time then practice waiting before you leave. Choose the slightly longer line at the shops or sit through the ads on the DVR instead of insta-wishing them away. It might sound silly, but children struggle to understand time and waiting. Some kids can even benefit from watching videos online of ride queues just to check-in their expectations.
I hope that helps to give you a few ideas of how you can prep your way to success on your next vacation. In the coming weeks, I will be discussing how to help your special needs family settle into your holiday routine, what to do if disaster strikes, and making the most of the Disney Parks, in each location, for families with sensory and anxiety struggles.
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.