12 Tips for Autism Families Planning a Walt Disney World Vacation

Disclaimer: We received Walt Disney World 2-day park hopper passes. No other compensation was received. All opinions are our own.
Planning a Walt Disney World vacation takes time for any family but when your child has autism – a vacation like Disney takes a little extra planning, careful preparation and a lot of understanding.

Luckily Disney strives to create a magical experience for everyone. The Disability Access Service card is a fantastic accommodation for many special needs families. But a Disney vacation requires so much more than a modified wait time for rides.

Do Your Homework. I cannot stress this enough. You don’t just show up to Disney with an autistic kid without a game plan. For our first Disney vacation in 2011, The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2014 was a great resource for me. (I had the 2011 edition. It gets updated every year.) The book was like my bible. (I still have it and used it as a reference.) It noted height requirements, rated each ride by age group, duration of ride, when was the best time to go and described each ride in detail (dark, scary, loud etc.) – for all four parks: The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom.

Other Walt Disney World resources include: Disney Parks Moms Panel (official Disney site) and http://disneyparks.disney.go.com. Search around the site or order a Disney Vacation planning DVD and for every Disney destination there is always a number you can call to  talk to someone about planning your Disney vacation. They are always nice and more than happy to help. Another site I found quite helpful, is The Disney Files.

Our Autism Family Tip: A great time to go on rides is right before, during and immediately after Parade Times and/or Firework shows. While using the DAS we found that most kids and families are gathering to watch the festivities – and the wait time for other attractions eases up.

Create Customized Maps. Not only will this help you while at the Parks but it makes a nice keepsake. Go to Disneyworld.disney.go.com to highlight your favorite family attractions. You can select attractions based on: preschoolers, big kids, teens and all ages. Once you create your map, you may print it or order one to be sent to your home. Either way, study it. The Walt Disney Parks are huge, crowded and overwhelming. In case your child has a meltdown or in case of an emergency, you will want to be completely aware of your surroundings.

5/2015 UPDATE: As of year end 2014, Disney no longer offers the option to create a customized map. However, if you download the My Disney Experience app – you can select attractions as your favorites and use filters to plan your day.

MUST KNOW: the 2 Important Places in Every Park. If you have a child with autism, the 2 most important locations in Disney are: Guest Relations and the Baby Care Center. You will need to visit the Guest Relations office to obtain a Disability Access Service card. And in case you are separated from you child, notify a Disney employee immediately before heading to the Baby Care Center – that’s where all lost children are taken. Note: The Baby Care Centers is also “a convenient place to feed, change and nurse little ones”  for more information click here.

Autism Awareness/Safety. Upon my return, an autism mom friend gave me this great tip. She often dresses her son in Autism Awareness t-shirts when out in public places like amusement parks and such. She says it provides awareness without having to explain anything. Norrin had a few meltdowns while on vacation and some people did stare. I think a cute statement t-shirt (like this one on Esty) would have helped people understand rather than judge. [For more tips, check out my Safety Measures To Take While Out & About With Your Special Needs Kid – HERE]

Download the App. The Disney World app was great! I loved that I could make/view my reservations, make FastPass+ selections, search character locations/times, check wait times for rides, view maps of each park and so much more. It’s everything you need to know about Walt Disney World at your fingers. The customized map is perfect for preplanning and if you don’t have a smart phone (or when your phone loses its charge) and the App is ideal when you need information quickly without fumbling with a map.

Make Reservations in ADVANCE. The second you book your flight or buy your tickets to Walt Disney World – make reservations for restaurants and/or other special attractions like the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique or The Pirate League. I think you can make reservations up to 180 days in advance (yes, it’s that serious). When you make reservations, consider the time and really plan out your day. We made reservations (3 days before our vacation) for The Pirate League and the only time available was 3pm. We had been in the park since early that morning, by the time we ran across the park for our Pirates League appointment, Norrin was having a complete meltdown and I had to cancel. They were nice enough to cancel without charging me a fee.

NOTE: Ask about cancelation policies! You may be charged a fee if you cancel same day.

Stay at a Disney Resort. If you can. I know a Disney vacation can be expensive. (Trust me because I do not roll like that.) But Disney offers hotels at all price points. We’ve been to Disney World twice. The first time we stayed at a non-Disney hotel and this trip we stayed at The Art of Animation Resort. And after experiencing both – I have to say, I prefer the Disney Resort experience. There are so many benefits to staying on property!

Get the Magic Band. Our Magic Bands made navigating the parks and the hotel so easy. Your Magic Band is your hotel key (if you stay at a Disney Resort), your credit card (you have to link it up), your Memory Maker and your park admission. If you plan in advance, you can personalize your Magic Band with your favorite color and name – and once you get to WDW you can buy charms to dress up your band. Norrin had a hard time keeping his Magic Band on, so I wore his on my alternate wrist.

Order the Memory Maker in advance and if you are doing a park hopper and/or visiting for more than one day. I love taking pictures and capturing the  moment especially at Disney. We have so few family pictures together, that at Disney I hunt down every photographer to take our picture. You can save $50 when you order the Memory Maker in advance. If you choose not to order it at all, it can get pricey when you pay per picture. With our 2-day park hopper we took close to 200 photos. Another bonus with the Memory Maker is that you have access to all of your photos online, make edits, add stickers or borders and download them.

Family Picture Taking Tip. Pictures are tough for us. Norrin doesn’t always want to smile. I spend so much time focusing on Norrin’s smile, that I’m captured in motion or not smiling. The photographers at Disney are super nice – they will take more than one picture to get a nice shot. But then I started asking photographers to take additional pictures with our backs turned to them (see below). You don’t see our faces but it’s still a family photo that captures the magical moment – especially when looking at the iconic landmarks of Walt Disney World.

Be Prepared. Disney tests the best of any of us. Even your high-functioning ASD could have the ultimate meltdown. So be prepared. I took Norrin’s headphones for the plane ride but didn’t think of taking it to the Parks because we don’t usually go out with them. Of course, our first night at the Magic Kingdom, he asked for them. I didn’t have them. (Fail!) So take a bag filled with the essentials that may soothe/comfort your child.

Top: Us at Hollywood Studios | Middle: Norrin’s reaction to seeing Woody & Buzz Lightyear |
Bottom: Us at Epcot and The Magic Kingdom
{photos taken using Memory Maker & added stickers/borders}

 

Accept. Your kid will have a meltdown. And it’s okay. I saw many kids – atypical and typical – crying, kicking and screaming their way through Disney. It’s comforting to know you’re not alone.
Also accept that you will not be able to see and do it all. I know, I know – easier said than done. If it’s your first time, you will feel pressured to see everything and get the bang for your buck. But trying to do everything can be exhausting and overwhelming for your kid. And chances are, your kid is not going to want to see and do it all.I had my Disney wishlist of things I wanted to see and do. And I didn’t get to do everything I wanted. I love Disney. As a kid I remember seeing the commercials and yearning to visit. We just couldn’t afford the vacation. It became this dream for me, something on my maternal bucket list of things to do with my kid. It was this sense of accomplishment, that I had given something to Norrin I never had. But what he wants and what I want are two different things. What’s fun and exciting for me, isn’t always so great for him. I had to listen to what Norrin wanted and accept it. (It wasn’t always easy.) And I have to hope that we’ll have other opportunities for more Disney magic.

We stayed at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort 
Watch our little tour of the Resort on YouTube – click HERE
Read about the 7 things we loved – http://bit.ly/1BRxqnm
Pin for later!  http://bit.ly/1ojIj7b

Read more about our #FamiliaTravels to Walt Disney World:

Disclaimer: We received 2-day park hopper passes. No other compensation was received. All opinions are our own.

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  1. […] our Disney parks memories or the hope to visit. I talked about our family experience and offered my tips on how to plan and navigate the parks with a special needs child. As I handed each guest their goody bag, their raffle prizes (Club Penguin game card, pin & […]

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