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Autistic Children and Family Vacations at the Walt Disney World Resort Can Coexist!

Updated on August 4, 2012

A lot of you dream of traveling to, or have been to at least once, to the flagship land in the heart of Florida called the Walt Disney World Resort. Picture this: you ride the most exhilarating rides like Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, Expedition Everest, Splash Mountain, and Soarin'. You and/or your kids meet your favorite characters whether in animal or human form. You can be a princess or a pirate anywhere at this magical place where about half of Central Florida's theme parks are located.

What night could be brighter than a favorite mouse fighting a huge dragon or a display of colorful fireworks set to Disney music? If you are staying in the resorts-within-a-resort, you expect a massage at the spas and great meals with your character pals.

The Problems with Walt Disney World

But if most of you have autistic children, you might think that many a family vacation at the Vacation Kingdom seems too distant, and it's neither just how far from your hometowns nor how costly it is.

Sensory impairments aside, many of them can't stand a plethora of background noises, from the music piping through speakers to even the humming of florescent lights at their local retail store. Multiply the noise by 4 and they will melt down and ruin your Disney day. But background music and startling noises on the attractions are not just the problems they face.

Every summer and winter, the turismos (groups from South America guided with flags) flock to the resort and carry on with their chanting. Just imagine how your children with the disability would react if a Brazilian tour group sings out loud - they would either melt down or bang their heads!

Other factors that may keep you away from doing Disney (besides bright lights and colors) are the crowds. Not only do they contribute to the noise levels (especially if a chanting Argentinean youth herd with teens in matching bags mingle with out-of-state families), but they make your children uncomfortable with their closeness.

They tend to be very impatient, thus they can't tolerate long lines. (I know - we all have been through miles of long lines there, but it is even worse for junior autistics because they would melt down at a wait time of a minimum of an hour!) Most of the members of the crowds are insensitive to your children's behavior, and if they pitch a meltdown they want you to spank each and every one of them.

With long lines and noise, most of you have to reconsider taking them to meet Mickey, or even worse, just do Disney without them. But there are better ways that allow you and your children to share the magic with less meltdowns.

If you want to find out more on monthly crowd levels at Walt Disney World, read my Hub, "The Many Months of Walt Disney World Crowds."

Big crowds, bad idea: avoid special events in the daytime that can lure huge crowds because it can cause screaming meltdowns. This photo was taken at one of the tapings of a televised event at the Magic Kingdom and it was CRAZY!
Big crowds, bad idea: avoid special events in the daytime that can lure huge crowds because it can cause screaming meltdowns. This photo was taken at one of the tapings of a televised event at the Magic Kingdom and it was CRAZY!

I Hate to Say This, But Plan Ahead!

Again, swells of crowds set your children off, so it is vital to plan your vacations when it is not as crowded. The best way to do this is to avoid the peak seasons: Christmas, New Year's, Easter, and the entire summer. The ideal time, as some experts put it, to go to Walt Disney World is the autumn. Florida typically has fairly hot ones, so you can enjoy the summer weather. The things that are missing are large crowds, because a vast majority of children are suffering classroom fever in their schools.

Mid-January is also a nice month to do your trip because it's typically quieter, but keep in mind that turismo chanting can set them off, so you need to prepare them. If you really want to see what the resort looks like during Christmas, please visit in early to mid-November before the week of Thanksgiving and between the Monday after Black Friday and the week before Christmas. Check with your school if they allow you to go on days when virtually all the kids are already in class.

You can't drive a car directly to the Magic Kingdom, but you can wait for the monorail or stay at a resort with a station. (Don't forget to bring handheld games or toys!)
You can't drive a car directly to the Magic Kingdom, but you can wait for the monorail or stay at a resort with a station. (Don't forget to bring handheld games or toys!)

Book Your Hotels Wisely

The resort's official vacation planning media says it best: if you want to get the most of the magic, you should stay in the middle of it all. But what if staying at an on-property resort is too expensive? All the All-Star Resorts (as well as Disney's Pop Century Resort) offer the lowest room rates of all Disney-owned hotels, but they can be noisy as heck, especially in the summer and winter (with all the turismos and cheerleaders staying there). But if your heart is staying at one of them, go ahead - just call your travel agent and ask for a quieter room.

Do the same for the other pricier hotels as well, even with the less noisy deluxe ones. If the child has trouble waiting for transportation (the monorails, buses, and boats), rent a car if it's worth your money. Just drive to your desired park and sidestep the ever-increasing parking fees.

Keep in mind that there is no direct parking lot to the Magic Kingdom (the Transportation and Ticket Center is the only one for that park) - you have to wait for an available monorail or ferry to get there. To solve this, bring along toys or other things to keep your kids busy. (It also works in even short lines for anything or for waiting for some entertainment - try it!)

Plan Your Method of Travel

Many of you who are out of state fly to the Orlando International Airport, but if with your versions of autistic Juniors on hand, doing so can be stressful. Although it needs a bit of planning ahead, driving to Walt Disney World is a better option. If you use your own car and drive you and your children's butts to Miceland and stay there, you'll also dodge parking fees that way.

But if you are flying, plan ahead. Don't just pack toys, snacks, and games to keep them occupied. Print out cards that let people and flight crew know their disabilities (also works for Cast Members and other normal people who are at the resort). Don't forget to prepare your children for flying - share a social story with them on what to expect.

Always prepare your child before going on a Disney vacation.
Always prepare your child before going on a Disney vacation.

What the Heck Is a Guest Assistance Card?

That card allows a person with a disability to use alternative entrances or FASTPASS queues, but in some cases, one must wait, even in the shortest of lines.

It's Not Uncommon for Autistic Children to Act Like this at Walt Disney World...

Don't Forget to Prepare Your Children Too

One of the big problems regarding young autistics and Walt Disney World is the transition. To ease anxiety because yours will be experiencing a wholly new place, take the time to prepare them.

You don't need to enroll them into therapies to help them deal with sensory issues, but you need some media to let them know what to expect. Share visual schedules (Bring them on your trip!) and social stories so they will know how to act and when they are going. Order vacation videos, view clips of Disney vacations, and borrow media from the library as a family.

Oh, and don't forget to ask your therapist for a note regarding your children's diagnoses so that you will receive a Guest Assistance Card. Call ahead for dining reservations - this will reduce wait times in restaurants and will allow servers to give you gluten-free/casein-free (GFCF) menu offerings if your children are on that diet.

Sure, Handy Manny is a human, but he's a fur character that can intimidate many a child, especially one with autism. Just don't force yours to meeting characters of his ilk.
Sure, Handy Manny is a human, but he's a fur character that can intimidate many a child, especially one with autism. Just don't force yours to meeting characters of his ilk.

When Visiting the Quartet of Parks, Consider This:

Here are some negative traits about the parks when it comes to your kids with autism: loud, hyper-bright, and big.

For the latter one, that means a lot of walking, and their size (even Disney's Hollywood Studios, which is the smallest of the four theme parks) can leave some room for elopement (wandering around for sensory reasons or for that thing that grabs their attentions) or crankiness. No wonder some people still treat Epcot as an acronym - Every Person Comes Out Tired! (Being larger than that park, Disney's Animal Kingdom is even worse at least for walking.)

  • Ask for a flutin' Guest Assistance Card for each child and yourself - I cannot stress that enough! If your children are very tolerant of waiting for longer stretches of time, go ahead and use the FASTPASS system.
  • Rent wheelchairs if you can afford them. Yes, most children with the disorder can walk, but some are prone to elopement. Plus, all the walking can overwhelm them in a pinch. It is best to have them sit on the wheelchairs.
  • Try going to the parks during Extra Magic Hours if you're staying in the middle of the magic (expensive, but beneficial). I suggest the morning ones because going during the mornings with the general public even if you arrive at least an hour prior to gate opening is a sensory nightmare!
  • Space out your park visits - even with quiet spots in the parks, the excessive noise (explosions from shows and the Brazilian tour group chanting) can overwhelm them. It's best to exit the park at midday to your resort for a break (TV, pool, or nap) and then come back at the evening. Consider yourself lucky if you have a multi-day ticket with Park Hopper attached (a must-have) or a year-long pass.
  • Bring earphones or earplugs if the noise starts to settle in their ears too much. Also, bring sunglasses - they're not only useful in protecting their eyes from the sun, but they soften the glaring lights the Vacation Kingdom is known for.
  • Don't force your children on a ride they don't like - the same holds true with Disney characters, especially fur ones. (If you don't know, they are humans in giant animal suits with their human heads covered up. Woody is a good example of this type, although he looks human.)

Sure, preparing yourself and your autistic children ahead of time can make a magical family vacation at the Walt Disney World Resort magical. Spacing out park visits, following schedules, and taking breaks make it all enjoyable. But the most important thing to have on a vacation is fun, and without it, the resort is just another vacation place. Please enjoy your vacation as much as you can, even with your disabled children in tow!


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