As it turns out, Walt Disney World -- although fraught with opportunities for sensory overload and behavior meltdown -- is often remarkably engaging and enjoyable for children with autism, many of whom develop a particular affinity for Disney characters, music and movies. (For five year-old Billy it was Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger.)
As a result, our special needs family has been vacationing at Walt Disney World for the past twelve years. In 2012, I realized that there was no online resource dedicated to the interests and concerns of Disney guests with special needs and health issues. Special Mouse was created to fill that void. I am thrilled to join with the SpecialGlobe team and community in empowering special needs families to access the wonderfully therapeutic and enriching experience of family travel!
And so, I will celebrate the start of our relationship by sharing with you the top five reasons why I believe a Walt Disney World vacation is perfect for Autism Spectrum families:
#5 - The sheer number of planning resources available
Our families are accustomed to thoroughly preparing our children with ASD for new experiences and a Disney vacation is no exception. It is vital that fears, sensitivities and special needs be anticipated and managed – otherwise no one will have fun!
Because of its immense popularity, there are more planning resources available to the Disney traveler than for any other vacation destination on the planet! These include official and unofficial websites, blogs, discussion forums and mobile apps which can help the planner avoid situations which would be upsetting or frightening to the person with ASD. Preparation is everything!
People with ASD are often intensely attracted to visual media, so the official planning DVD can be put to good use, allowing the person get an idea of what ride vehicles, shows and resort rooms will look like. (Just be prepared for him or her to watch that DVD over and over!) Now that my son is getting older, he
enjoys watching Disney fireworks and parade videos posted on YouTube .
As the four Walt Disney World theme parks have changed and expanded over the years, I find that exposing my son – who has a strong affinity for “sameness”, to video footage of new areas and attractions helps to significantly reduce his stress and anxiety.
#4 - Guests have the ability to create a daily “schedule"
A week of family time spent relaxing under a beach umbrella and swimming in the ocean sounded like a great idea at the time, but my son hated it! Schedule and routine are very important to the person with ASD, often to the point of rigidity.
Without it he could not cope and began to act out, which pretty much drove the rest of the family crazy!
Thanks to the planning resources above, a Disney vacation can provide needed structure to each day: “First we’ll go to Adventureland, then Frontierland, and thenwe’ll have lunch.”
There are enough things to see and do in the theme park environment to keep the person with ASD fully engaged and interactive. The My Disney Experience mobile app has several features that appeal to those on the Spectrum, namely, the ability to explore the resort with an interactive, GPS-enabled map and to visually access all reservations and activities organized in My Plans.
That said, it can be tempting for families to squeeze too much activity into one day. Walt Disney World can be overwhelming for anyone. Staying at a resort on Disney property makes it convenient to build in time for sensory decompression with a nap or a swim during the day.
#3 - Dietary accommodations are not only available, they are easy to procure
Many travelers worry about food allergies and that special diets will not be accommodated while on vacation. Many children, especially, who have ASD follow gluten-free and/or casein-free diets. These and all dietary requests are welcomed by the chefs at Walt Disney World and there are numerous dining and snacking options available.
Guests can contact Guest Services prior to and during their trip for dietary information and to make special dietary requests.
There are also unofficial websites that are wholly dedicated to assisting the Disney guest with special dietary requirements. Here, Google is your friend!
#2 -The Disability Access Service Card can be a helpful tool
Individualized accommodations can be granted to eligible Disney guests based upon their specific needs so that the entire family can enjoy their vacation together.
The Disability Access Service Card (DAS) can be obtained from Guest Services, located in each of the four theme parks. The DAS card is used in conjunction with Disney’s FastPass+ reservation system and provide an “alternate waiting experience” for guests with invisible disabilities like ASD who aren’t able to wait in a conventional queue environment due to cognitive or sensory challenges. The DAS card is used in conjunction with Disney’s FastPass+ reservation system.
One of the more commonly requested accommodations for children with ASD is that they be allowed to use a stroller as a wheelchair when waiting in crowded, noisy lines for shows and attractions. Many children find it easier to avoid sensory overload (read: MELTDOWN!) when allowed to remain in the snug, secure environment of the stroller.
And now… the #1 reason why Walt Disney World and Autism are a perfect match:
Cast Member Magic!
Disney employees, known as Cast Members, are trained to treat every visitor as a guest and to make every guest feel special. The vast majority of Cast Members are kind, helpful individuals who genuinely care about guests and strive to make their Disney experience the best that it can be.
If your family member’s special needs are invisible, don’t be afraid to ask Cast Members for assistance. Once they realize that you require accommodation they are usually ready and willing to help. In my own experience, many of them have gone “above and beyond” my expectations in order to help my child fully experience the Disney magic!
Living with the daily challenges of my son’s autism can sometimes be quite difficult. I’ve often remarked to my husband that Walt Disney World is the only place where we can enjoy a vacation “like a normal family.” That, in itself, is a truly magical feeling!
The Special Mouse podcast and blog are devoted to the concerns of Disney travelers with special needs and health challenges of all kinds.