For the past 26 years, Chantelle has been a mom to a son with autism. Creating a happy life for her family makes her heart sing.
Plan, Plan, Plan
If you’ve never been to Disney World before, start planning your trip several months in advance of your stay. Make a schedule for each day of your trip. If you are planning for a younger child or someone with low reading skills, keep the words to a minimum and add pictures that can be easily grabbed from the Internet. An example schedule for a young child might be:
- Breakfast at Chef Mickey’s
- Monorail to the Magic Kingdom
- Train to Fantasyland
- Ride Dumbo
- Ride “It’s A Small World
- Ride Winnie the Pooh
- Train to Main street USA
- Monorail to hotel
- Eat lunch
- Monorail to Magic Kingdom
- Monorail to hotel
Make sure each line item has an easy-to-understand picture. Cross or check off each activity once it is finished.
Make a schedule at home for each day of your stay and read them with your child at least once a day starting two weeks ahead of time. If your child understands calendars and time, by all means, add them to your schedule. It will help with understanding and reduce anxiety.
It is extremely important not to over-schedule. The entire point of going on vacation is to have a wonderful time, but no one will be happy when a child is having a meltdown and you’re a good half an hour away from your hotel. There are many websites that suggest touring plans that are designed so that you can get all of the attractions done during your stay. Don’t expect to get to all of the rides on your schedule, especially if you are a first-time visitor.
When making your schedule, don’t forget to factor in how quickly your child can transition from one activity to the next. There is a lot of walking, and it is hot. Take your time. Focus on the joy and not the speed. You can always come again one day and when you do you will be overjoyed at the progress your child has made handling new and challenging situations. Revel in it.
Make Use Of YouTube To Prepare Your Child
Disney offers a free travel DVD that the kids are sure to love and will help them understand and get excited about their trip. Check YouTube for rides your kids might be interested in riding and see how they react.
If this will be your first visit to Disney, watch as many videos as you and your child can. Don’t show them something they will not be able to ride on as this will undoubtedly become their favorite. Let them choose which rides they want to go on and the order. Giving choices from predetermined options will make him feel more in control.
Pack for the Plane Ride
Make sure you bring—or buy at the airport—your child’s favorite snacks and drinks. If your flight gets delayed you don’t want to find yourself trapped in an airplane with no food. Bring an iPod and handheld gaming device for the ride, books, a story outlining your vacation, or a coloring book.
For the return trip, I always bought some Disney souvenirs and snacks that came out on the plane as a surprise. Going home can be a letdown for anyone so the souvenirs helped occupy my son on the ride home.
When boarding we always got on last minute to minimize the amount of time he would need to sit. People with special needs are allowed to board first, so do that if you think your child would do better getting on early and taking his time to settle in.
We also had a very specific seating order when we flew. There are three of us so we sat in a row of three and my son always got the window seat. Once we flew with my sister who was sitting several rows away from us. My son spent a good hour hollering for her to join us. Lesson learned. Always sit together.
Stay on the Monorail
Staying on the monorail is a must. Disneyworld is always hot and crowded. Being able to get back to your hotel quickly, without standing in endless transportation lines will help reduce your family’s stress level. There are three Disney hotels on the monorail—the Polynesian, the Contemporary, and the Grand Floridian.
- The quietest hotel is the Polynesian and it is good for children who are easily stressed by large crowds and noise. There is more walking as the main building of the hotel has no rooms, simply check-in, stores, and restaurants. The volcano pool is usually a big plus for the kids.
- The Monorail goes right through the middle of the Contemporary hotel. Check-in, stores, and restaurants are all in the main building making it very convenient. This hotel is quite busy and noisy.
- The Grand Floridian takes about 5 minutes on the monorail. It has a very genteel, fancy Victorian feel which some people feel is stuffy. This hotel is very welcoming and family-friendly despite the more elegant feel.
Even at the busiest times the monorail only takes 5–15 minutes. The monorail hotels also have direct bus service to Hollywood Studios and the Animal Kingdom which translates to short manageable bus rides.
My son was a runner when he was younger. At that time he was not particularly verbal and we always worried he would slip off and wouldn’t be able to tell anyone who he was. I put a large sticky label on the back of his shirt with his name, our names, and our resort. At the time there were no cell phones, but now you can put your number directly on the label.
When he got a bit older and more capable we felt the label was overkill so we bought personalized Disney T-shirts in a different color for each day of the week. It does add to the cost of your trip but it makes it much easier to spot the members of your party if you are all dressed in neon yellow. It also really heightens your enjoyment creating a festiveness to your day.
We always carried a current photo of our child to share with authorities in the event we lost him. Thankfully, we never had to use it.
Consider Eating in Your Hotel Room
Meals in your room will provide a much needed “break” from all the activity. If you child is a picky eater or on a special diet it will be much easier for you to have all their favorite foods available rather than search for restaurants and snack stops that can accommodate you.
Garden Grocer offers a shopping and delivery service. You can order your groceries online ahead of your stay and have the groceries delivered to your hotel room. Disney does a wonderful job of accommodating special diets, too, but they cannot give you a nice cool, calm place to eat.
Disney does allow people with special diets to bring in their own food. Your challenge then becomes where to find a cool, calm, quiet place to eat. If you do want to experience restaurants at Disney, your best option would be to lunch at one of the hotels. Most people eat lunch in the parks so the restaurants will be relatively empty. The sit-down and fast food options at each of the monorail hotels are pretty good and offer standard fare. They also can accommodate special diets like GFCF and vegan.
If You Do Eat Out
Fast food establishments all have ingredients list on their menu they will share with you so you can determine if the food is safe for your child. Whether your child has allergies or is on GFCF, the labeling will let you know exactly what’s in each food item. When placing your order at the cash register just let them know you are on a special diet and they will have binders available for you to peruse.
If you decide to eat at a table service restaurant, make your reservation ahead of time online and specify any dietary restrictions as well as seating preferences. We have had no problem having a table reserved at a quieter section of the restaurant.
Visit During Low Season
If this is your first time at Disney, visiting when crowds are lowest may help your child cope. (I say may because it is always somewhat crowded). During high season we have waited in line for 90 minutes for some of the major rides. During low season rides averaged a 20-minute wait. So going during the low season may mean the difference between pleasure and agony.
Don’t Wait in Lines
Waiting in lines is difficult for many children but can be especially challenging for some children with autism. Make use of Disney’s Fastpass system whereby you can bypass the lines on three rides. Also, consider getting a disability pass from the customer service areas at each park. Bring a doctor’s note outlining your child’s condition, explain to the cast member the types of accommodations your child will need, and they will give you a disability pass which you can show to cast members at each ride.
Make Time for Special Interests
Many children love video games but possibly not as much as a child with autism. Each hotel has a standard video arcade where a child can play for hours. DisneyQuest, located at Disney Springs, has several floors of games and is very popular. If the parks are proving too much at any given moment, a trip to DisneyQuest might be fun. It is cool and dark and crowded, however, if you go early in the day the crowds are the lightest.
If your child doesn’t feel up to going to the parks at night, most hotels air Disney movies free of charge. They are not usually very well attended and your child might love that.
Each hotel also has a quiet pool in addition to their featured pool. The pools can get busy in the afternoon, however, the quiet pools are usually manageable.
Remember to Enjoy Yourself
Some children need more structure than others. Some are extremely sound sensitive, others not so much. Irrespective of where your child falls on the spectrum, at times with the schedules, special foods, routines, and obsessive interests it can feel very hard and lonely. Consider treating yourself without the kids.
Maybe mom would enjoy a couple of hours at the spa. Maybe dad would like to play some golf or get pointers from a tennis pro. Indulge yourself, you deserve it.
The most important thing to remember is to have fun. Disney is the happiest place on earth. Let yourself enjoy it.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Chantelle Porter
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on June 24, 2018:
Your advice in your article is both helpful and useful for parents traveling with children with special needs. I like the advice on choosing a calm place to eat. I enjoyed reading your informative work.