“Be Their Guest” Disney Trip Perspectives from Several Autism Parents
It’s one of those things that is a dream for every parent–a check mark that most of us feel like we need to have at some point–that Trip to Disney with your child. A few years ago, we almost reluctantly made our own trip with our then 11 year old son mostly because 1) we stopped thinking that somehow it was going to eventually get easier as he got older and 2) we were already planning to be in Florida for the wedding of a dear friend who asked that our son be there since she used to work with him.
So, we mustered our strength and did the trip with accommodations so that we could do that big check mark off our parent list.
One of the things we wished we had realized sooner rather than later was that we should have gone when our son was younger. That his anxiety at being around that many people was really pronounced as he was getting closer to puberty and that perhaps a few trips in youth might have really made this the magical journey we were always told it would be.
Alas, we still made the best of it but in this blog post, I wanted to invite two other perspectives so that if you too have been thinking of making that magical journey with your family you know what to do and can make the best of it.
Like us, one of these families was originally waiting for “the right time” to go and we discussed it and I’m glad they finally did go and had the time of their lives.
First Time To Disney: A Short and Sweet Tale of Making the Dream Come True
The Sneed Family
Going to Disneyworld was a first for my entire family. Prior to the trip, my husband and I thought it would be extremely difficult to take our son Quacey. As with any kiddo on the Spectrum, change is impossible so we needed to be well organized.
For many reasons, we decided to opt out of taking an airplane and thought it would be best to make it an Ol’ Family Roadtrip from Lancaster to Orlando!
Once we arrived inside the park, we immediately headed over to Guest Relations. They were extremely helpful and familiar in servicing children with Autism. That made me so comfortable!
At that point, we were given a complimentary double stroller & Disability Pass that allowed Quacey (and family) to cut down on the wait times of rides as well as experience the “Magic” without the fear of the long lines, crowds, etc. If your child experiences sensory related issues like my son, the quiet zone would be a plus. We were able to wait in a much quieter area until we were ready to ride. With all these wonderful amenities, Disneyworld makes everyone feel EQUAL. With the support of The Tommy Foundation, Quacey could see Mickey at the age of 7. Because of our TTF family, my family and I got to enjoy this magical experience at Disney, together!
Thank you TTF for Everything! – The Sneed Family
A Longer Tale From A Disney Family Expert
The Magee Family
We traveled to Disney for the first time in January 2011 to celebrate my birthday. Our son Liam was only 18 months at the time and had not been diagnosed yet with Autism. He was at the time and still is non-verbal.
Our trip to Florida was just to get away from the PA winter. We were trying to travel to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale and found that Orlando had more family friendly resorts. We never thought our first trip to Disney would turn us into Disney Fanatics.
The first thing to do when planning a Disney vacation is figuring out the best time of year to go. You can google “When is it the best time to go to Disney World” and you will find calendars that list every day of the year and the crowd sizes. This will help greatly, when you plan your trip. It is very hot and humid in the summer time starting in June, so be aware of that fact too. Since that original trip we have been to Disney six more time and just did a day trip to Disneyland while we were visiting our oldest son in California last month.
It has turned to our go-to family vacation. We have gone as a family of three all the way up to a family of six, which included our older children and Grandparents. We have always rented a car and stayed off the Disney property at an area timeshare or condo unit. There are tons of these properties that are only a few miles from the various Disney parks. We have rented via Southwest Airlines Vacation, Costco Travel and Air BnB. There are two reason why we do this: one is that it is much cheaper than staying on Disney property and the other is the large amount of living space that we love to have on vacation. These resorts have big pools, restaurants, and children activities just like at Disney Resorts.
We like having multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchen areas. We like Liam having his own bed/bedroom to sleep in so that he can go to sleep at a decent time. Then us parents can stay up late and not disturb him. Having a condo also allows for more space for Liam to play in, when we are not spending time at the Parks. We always pack his trains, balls, and other beloved toys, so he can play during down times. Liam is very particular about what he eats. Having a fully function kitchen allow us to have all of the foods that Liam likes to eat. It also saves money for eating all of your meals out. We always pack a lunch, drinks and snacks for Liam to take with us into the park.
It just makes it easier to know that he is content with all of his favorite foods. Disney allows you to bring drinks and foods into the parks. They check all bags, but we have never had any problems at all. We also pack frozen bottles of waters during hot months. I just hate paying $3.00 or $4.00 for a bottle of water, when you can by a case for a few dollars more. Snacks also help with waiting in lines for shows and to go on rides.
Disney offers a Disability Pass to help you get on rides faster. If you are familiar with the Disney Fast Pass system, it is like having an additional Fast Pass. You can pick one of these passes up at any Guest Services Desk at any Disney Park. It allows to either to enter the Fast Pass line and wait a few minutes or sometimes it allows you to go and get on at the end of the ride. It just depends on the ride. We always use it for the most popular rides, because sometimes the normal Fast Pass for those rides will be booked. This is the first thing that we do, when we arrive at the Parks. It only takes a few minutes. I just let them know that Liam has Autism and then they take his picture and set him up with the pass. You do not need any written documentation about your child’s condition. The pass lasts for the length of your stay. When you use this disability pass the child must be on the ride with you. It also allows up to six people to go on the ride including the person with the disability pass.
There is a Disney World App that you can add to your phone. We use that a lot to look at wait times for rides, shows, and character meet and greets. It also helps to keep track of your Fast Pass times. It is a great tool to use.
On a side note, both Dutch Wonderland and Hershey Park have disability passes. Just ask about getting them as soon as you enter the park. It also never hurts to tell a Cast Member, another name for a Disney employee, that your child has Autism and the special pass. They will sometimes let you get right on a ride or do a meet and great and not wait in a big line. It seems like it is up to the personality of a Cast Member.
When we were at Disney at Christmas time in 2015, the Cast Member could tell I was having some issues with Liam as we were waiting in line to get our picture taken with Santa Claus. She let us walk right in front of everyone in line and we were the next family to get our picture taken. She explained to Santa our situation and Santa spent so much time with Liam, even though Liam doesn’t talk. It was a great experience and I will always remember what that Cast Member did for us. We probably have 20 pictures of Liam with Santa. Just “talking” to him, Liam touching his beard, and just hanging with him. It was truly a magical experience.
I was concerned about taking Liam to the Parks on our first visit, because in my mind you never know when he may have a bad moment or day. The way we deal with this is working around his schedule. If we know we have had a couple of busy days in a row, then I make sure that we have a pool day to break it up. If we know that we are going to stay late in the Park for a parade or fireworks, then we will get to the Park later in the day and enjoy the pool in the morning. Planning out your day in advance is a lifesaver.
If we know Liam needs a break and needs to just relax, then we stop and don’t push him. This may be sometime on the IPad or we usually buy an ice cream snack and that always puts him in a great mood. I think you have to let your child be your guide.
Liam is full of energy, we are usually the ones that get tired before him ☺. As I have said earlier, our older children and Grandparents have all traveled with us to Disney World. When Liam’s older siblings, who are now 22 and 19, have traveled with us, we always make sure everyone got on the rides that they really loved. So if that meant splitting up in order to do so, then we would do that. I don’t like roller-coaster or scary rides, so I would go on the smaller rides with Liam and my husband would do the more adventurous rides with our older children.
If your children are older and can be on their own, then we would let them go and give them a time to meet back with us. You can always keep in constant contact on your cell phones. When we have just Liam with us, then it is all about him and the rides and shows that he loves to do. We have done some of the various restaurants that Disney has to offer. We only go to places that we think Liam will eat from the children’s menu, since he can be picky about his food.
We love the Winnie the Pooh Breakfast Character Meal at the Crystal Palace in Magic Kingdom. Liam really loves the Pooh characters. So we try to make sure we visit them, since he actually recognizes them. When Liam saw Pooh and Tigger on our last trip, we actually waited in line for about 40 minutes at a normal meet and greet. We were there during the Thanksgiving time period so the Parks are much more crowded. Liam hung on with his snacks and playing some games with us as we waited in line. When it was his time to go up, I always like the photographer and the characters know that Liam has Autism and it may take him a little bit of time for him to look at the camera and warm up. Pooh and Tigger were so great with him and spent a nice amount of time with him. He was jumping up and down just like Tigger with a huge small on his face. I swear it was the best pictures we ever had of him and we didn’t have to even work hard to get them. Liam was simply in heaven.
If your child loves any particular Disney character, then those would be the ones that I would make sure I visit. These lines can be long, so don’t waste your time if your child may not be into certain characters.
From when we started to take Liam to Disney at 18 months to now, he definitely recognizes the Parks as soon as we arrive. He just starts jumping up and down and wants to run right in. Liam will be 8 in May and is quite tall for his age, so he can get on most rides now.
During our last two trips, we have taken him on more “non-kid rides” and he has done great on them. His adventurous side opens up so many more opportunities for us to go on more rides. We have discovered that he loves 3D rides and shows and wearing the special glasses. Liam loves the fireworks shows, but the noise still bothers him. So now we bring headphones for him to help with the loud noises.
As I said, let your child be the guide for your Disney Vacation. Disney World has turned into a true blessing for our family. It has become very familiar for Liam and we know he recognizes the Parks as soon as we enter. It is our home away from home.
Even though he cannot talk, I know Liam would say “I Love Disney”!!!!