Planning for Disney Parks with Special Needs

Planning for Disney Parks with Special Needs vitaliy-paykov-373314-unsplash

It occurred to me the other day that my next article would be the 100th I’ve written for The DIS. Although I had other ideas in mind for the next few weeks, I wanted to write something special for this one, something that represented who I am and what I came here to do.

While I usually pivot between information-based planning and sarcastically-driven Aussie humor, today I wanted to look at something a bit more meaningful to my own story and how I came to be a part of The DIS Contributor team.

For those of you who don’t know, my children both have special needs. Between my 12-year-old daughter and my 10-year-old (next week) son, we work our way around the challenges associated with Autism (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Language Disorder, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia & Dysgraphia. Just to level up the challenge, we also work around a nut allergy, sesame allergy, salicylate intolerance, and gluten intolerance.

Planning for Disney Parks with Special Needs anna-kolosyuk-4R6pg0Iq5IU-unsplash Photo by Anna Kolosyuk on Unsplash

Some of you will read that list and have no idea what I am talking about. But others might relate to some or all of these hurdles and know precisely how lonely things can feel when living with the therapies, behaviors, and excessive planning that comes along with it. And it is there, in that very sentence, what I wanted to come here and do.

I wanted to write about the things that people didn’t write about: the difficulties of additional needs, fear, dysregulation, anxiety, sickness, arguments, social dynamicsheat, allergies, and everything in between. I wanted people to feel like they weren’t alone, and I wanted to start conversations about those un-instagrammable moments where real life infiltrates our Disney experiences.

When you’re visiting Disney parks with additional needs – whether they are food allergies, mobility issues, or the invisible disabilities like the ones mentioned above – forethought and planning are the keys to making your vacation successful and enjoyable. Disney parks do have assistance programs in place, such as the DAS pass (Disability Access Service), but many of us know that you will need more than that to keep your day on track.

The parks come with an overload of stimulation that, if not able to be processed in the moment, can lead to feelings of anxiety, apprehension, and dysregulation. Let’s reflect on a few things to keep in mind when planning your Disney vacation with additional needs.

Planning for Disney Parks with Special Needs brian-mcgowan-2F27qIGtIN8-unsplash Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

Visual Planning

If you’re like me, you have notebooks filled with flights, hotel reservations, notes, travel times and just about everything else when you are making your travel plans. But, if your children have additional needs like mine, then sometimes those written words don’t translate into travel prep for them the same way they do for you.

Try a visual guide or social story that shows them exactly what is happening. A few things you might want to include:

  • A map that shows the journey from your home to your destination. Try also marking local, familiar places on the map so they can understand the scale of your trip if traveling a long way. For instance, it is 2 hours to Grandma’s house marked with a colored dot, and 10 hours to drive to Walt Disney World, marked with a different dot.
  • Add in images of where you will be going and where you will be staying. I like to include resort photos and room pictures from websites, as well as anything that might be relevant, like a hired car or buses. They need to know that this might look and feel different from what they are used to at home, and that is okay.
  • Include social story pages that depict what sensory input they might experience such as, some rides may be noisy, but they won’t last long, and you can cover your ears if it is too much for you. Or, we will be walking a lot outdoors on our park days, so it might feel extra bright when leaving dark rides or shops into the sunlight – we can take sunglasses to help our eyes adjust. 
  • Add an itinerary for each day that shows them what the plan is and when things are happening. Be sure to add a bolded line in on every page that says something like – these plans may change; this is a rough idea of what we will aim to do today – as some children will get fixated on the schedule and struggle if you deviate from it.
Planning for Disney Parks with Special Needs cesira-alvarado-1phYq98rfBk-unsplash Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

Watch Ride Videos

Ride videos on YouTube are a great way to help prep your child for some of the experiences in the parks. While they may not have a fear of scary rides in general, you can help them understand that they can expect a loud noise here or a flashing light there.

Simply knowing that the drop is coming on Tower of Terror and that after a few up and down motions, you will come back down, or exactly when during the Splash Mountian ride that big slide at the front will occur, can save a lot of nerves and make them feel more in control.

Most kids are great at letting you know if they are interested in the experience you are showing them. Be guided by them, and don’t push it if they react poorly to the video. The real-life experience is sure to be much more intense, and has the potential to throw off your entire day if not well received.

Another option is to leave your more questionable rides until the end of the day when you could make a quick exit if things go awry without missing out on everything you had planned.

Planning for Disney Parks with Special Needs photo-1521302200778-33500795e128 Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

Set Realistic Expectations

This one is hard, and applies to you as much as it does to them. Prepping our children for the unexpected is just as important as showing them the sights and the sounds of where they are going. The sudden dread you feel when the ride you are waiting for breaks down or the character line you are in closes off before you meet your favorite princess can feel so much worse for a young person who doesn’t understand what is happening.

Make sure that you discuss these things ahead of time, and reiterate them over and over while in the park. Doing so will help keep expectations in check, and if disappointing moments like a weather-related fireworks cancellation or a ride closure right as you’re about to board do occur, it isn’t hitting them like a ton of bricks.

Now it is time to prep yourself for the Disney days ahead. We want everything to go well and tick off all the boxes on our to-do list, and sometimes it can be hard to see the signs of needing to leave early and not try to push your luck a little bit further. Our last trip to the Animal Kingdom was cut short when I saw the clear signs that my daughter was dysregulating and needed to be in a more structured environment to regain her composure. That meant that we needed to leave the park on our last day and the only day in that particular one. I could have pushed her further, yes. Right out of her comfort zone and into distress, and yes, it would have checked a few more of those boxes. But I have learned the hard way that my Disney days are about quality, not quantity. So, we went on our way.

Understanding your limitations as a family or group is incredibly important when planning your vacation, and even though you can often be tempted to pack as much in as possible, sometimes the smoother route is to play it safe and leave something for next time.

Getting out of the parks before the going gets tough can help you to both avoid a meltdown and keep all of your days on track for an enjoyable vacation.

Planning for Disney Parks with Special Needs brian-mcgowan-xbuPLebT0ZY-unsplash Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

Are you planning for other needs, mobility challenges, or disabilities?

No problem, The DIS has many great contributors and articles that can help, such as these:

Last but not least, I wanted to thank you all for coming along on my journey. I am always extremely grateful for the opportunity to connect with you all and have learned so much through the process. If I can encourage you all to do one thing, it would be to talk about your struggles. What you’ve faced, how you’ve gotten through it. Share tips and tricks, and anything you have found success with. I promise you: someone is sitting in their living room desperate for that advice, as I have previously been. You will never know who it could help, but I can assure you that it will help someone.

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.


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