No matter which park you choose to spend your day in, there's always something you come out wishing you had known beforehand. Here are my top tips for each Disney Park in the USA, where to stay when visiting and how to avoid the "red-zone" for your special needs children.
California - Disneyland Resort
This is where it all began. So what is your on-the-day secret weapon in Disneyland Park? The FASTPASS Maxpass system. You've heard about it and you might even look at it when you get there, but with a little pre-planning this can be your new best friend. It will leave you wondering why there isn't a MaxPass for everyday life. Suddenly the line at the bank or the lunch shop seems so unnecessary and sad. It doesn't stop you from waiting, it just means you don't have to wait in line — the dream of every parent with a special needs child. We don't want to take away from anyone else, but waiting in line can feel like an impossible task. Want more? It is designed to be used from your mobile device, meaning that you do not have to physically visit each attraction to get your next pass. At $10 per person per day, many people will give this a miss, however, if you are visiting with special needs in mind, consider how much your time (and not waiting in lines) is really worth to your family.
When you are ready to take a break from your day, make the trek around to Critter Country and have an early lunch at the Hungry Bear Restaurant. It is right on the Rivers of America facing the water, so it is quiet and a good spot to take a few moments to decompress.
Disney California Adventure:California Adventure is a fantastic place to go if you have a child that needs to burn off energy. CA is home to the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. Standing in lines and being still can be very hard for some kids, not just because they are bored but because their body wants to move to stay calm. Redwood Creek Challenge Trail is the best place to take your struggling child to let them climb, crawl, slide and zip-line their way back to regulation. If you're spending time nearby at attractions with long wait-times, like Soarin', Grizzly River Run or Toy Story Midway Mania, drop in here for ten minutes for some proprioceptive input before getting in the next big line.
Where to stay in Anaheim:
When visiting Disneyland we recommend staying offsite. Unlike in Walt Disney World, there are no planning advantages to staying onsite. We stay at the Camelot Inn & Suites just across the road. The distance is arguably shorter than staying at the Disneyland Resort itself and the value for money is much greater than any onsite hotel. Check out the Family Suites which have two large rooms with a combined four queen beds. Better yet, missing the fireworks in the park? Step outside your front door and watch them from the balcony.
Florida - Walt Disney World Resort
Known as being the busiest park on Walt Disney World property, Magic Kingdom is full of action and people. Because of this, it's important to have a plan. Booking those FastPasses 60 days in advance will start to shape your days and help you plan your way around the park. Magic Kingdom is a very large park with many of the attractions out in the open, so prepare for different weather conditions with ponchos, hats and sunscreen. Because this park is a little further away than most of the others, you probably won't be as inclined to park-hop during this time. So how do you survive the whole day at Magic Kingdom without a meltdown?
You plan breaks. Not just breaks, but well-timed breaks. Having lunch at "lunch time" is for amateurs. Take advantage of the quieter times at indoor quick service locations to give yourself a sensory reset. Split your lunchtime food into two and take a break around 11 am, and then another later at around 2 pm. These times are going to be far less crowded and much less likely to send you and your family into overdrive.
Ah, Animal Kingdom — the home of the new breathtaking, and FastPass anxiety-inducing, Pandora. Just about anyone who is visiting the Avatar Flight of Passage attraction has spent hours, days or even months scouting out their My Disney Experience app for the best FastPass. Or, any FastPass. For those impressive five minutes on board, be prepared to either develop a panic-induced RSI issue in your fingers from continuously hitting "refresh" on your browser, or, suffer in line for hours on the day. How does this relate to special needs? If you are going in already stressed, your little ones will be too. It may even be worth walking away from the attraction if you don't have a FastPass.
Discuss in advance what your waiting limit will be and use the app to keep an eye on the wait time without having to walk past the attraction and tempt fate. Waiting for hours on end isn't going to be easy, or enjoyable, for a child that is learning to cope with the added pressures of their special circumstances. Given that Pandora's Flight of Passage is one of the most talked about new attractions at a Disney Park around the world, it might feel like you are missing out. Just remember there is a good chance you are saving your whole group from a very stressful and time-consuming mistake. That doesn't mean you should write off Pandora in general. Don't forget to visit (or re-visit) after dark to see Pandora come to life.
Hollywood StudiosHollywood Studios park is about to rock your socks off. Already featuring the hugely popular Tower Of Terror and Rock'n' Rollercoaster, it is now home to Toy Story Land and, before long, the highly anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. With all this excitement come the masses, so prep here to anticipate lots of people. Have realistic expectations of what you will achieve in a day and talk openly with your children about how long lines will be so that everyone has fair warning that this park will be time consuming. Take advantage of Fantasmic dining packages that give you a FastPass advantage for the show.
With futuristic styling and mostly indoor rides, there is a level of sensory over-stimulation that can creep up on you at Epcot. When you stop and think about it, there are virtually no rides at Epcot that are out in the open air. Because of this, you find yourself constantly being hit with dynamic lighting, loud conversations, echoing sound effects and a mild case of claustrophobia.
Take time out to be outside and walk around World Showcase to give your special needs child time to regulate from all the additional stimulation.
If you need a bit of dimly-lit downtime, consider a restaurant like Coral Reef. While the food may not be the best available, when dining at quieter times some children are soothed by watching the aquarium inside and the darker lighting can be a calming influence after the intensity of the rides.
Where to Stay on WDW Property:Port Orleans Riverside: It is a favorite for many, due to its sprawling layout and immersive landscaping. The Port Orleans Riverside Resort offers a more calming experience than most Disney Resorts. The Bayou area has rooms that can accommodate up to five people, offering two queen beds and one Murphy bed; perfect for your littlest Disney fan. These rooms disappear quickly, so check them out a long way in advance. Port Orleans Riverside still carries its share of theming, with the beautiful Louisiana-inspired decor and southern charm, the resort makes you feel like you have stepped into a scene from The Princess & The Frog — subtly, of course. This provides a more calming experience than the likes of Pop Century or the All-Star Resorts.
Swan Resort: Looking for a moderate - deluxe resort that gives you a break from the Disney theme? Try the Swan Resort, located in the BoardWalk area near Epcot. This hotel offers bus transportation to most locations as well as a boat option to Epcot or Hollywood Studios. Both are also walking distance, so you're not tied down to one mode of transport. Many people ask the difference between the Swan and the Dolphin Resorts. While most would have an incredibly detailed response about the pools or restaurants (all of which are shared), I'm here to tell you the truth: it's the beds. The Dolphin offers double beds while the Swan offers queen beds in standard rooms. After a day at Disney when everyone is tired, with sore feet and over-stimulated minds, you need room to lay down, be comfortable and sleep it off, ready to do it all again the next day.
If dining along the BoardWalk, take a stroll to calm things down before heading to bed.
I hope those tips make you feel a little more in-the-know on your next trip into a Disney Park. For more information on special needs and the Disney Parks, don't forget to check out my other articles on planning for our wonderful special needs kids and how to make the most of your time on vacation.
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