Tuesday, June 26, 2012

10 Tips for Tackling Walt Disney World with Autism

Brenda over at Mama Be Good recently posted a description of her not so magical day at Disney World with her son Jack. I was saddened by her & Jack’s experience, but not terribly surprised. Although Disney does an excellent job in many ways when it comes to disabilities and allergies, there are some gaps in staff training and accommodations, particularly when it comes to non-apparent disabilities. I am not going to get into the whys and wherefores of those gaps here, but what I’d like to do is make a list of things that people with autism or with kids with autism can do to make a Disney trip successful without being completely at the mercy of accommodations that may not be adequate. Walt Disney World and Universal Studios were incredible experiences for our family (so much so that we are going again this year! Yay!), and I would hate for anyone to miss out or to have a negative experience when having certain strategies available may have made it possible or successful.

First of all, it is optimum to start planning your trip upwards of 6 months in advance, and to do as much research as possible. For useful, but non-autism-specific planning advice, I would highly recommend the book “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World”.*

10 Tips for Tackling Disney World with Autism

Note: the first three tips are crucial, and the rest are dependent on your own particular needs.

1. Choose the time of year for your visit carefully. For our sons, we have to avoid heat and crowds. This means summer time and other holidays are absolutely out, no matter how convenient that would be.

2. Get to the parks before rope drop (opening). For the first couple hours of the day, especially on a week without heavy crowds (see #1) and if you tackle them in the “right” order (see #3), the rides are virtually a walk on –no GAC required. This is so very important if your child struggles with crowds and waiting in line! Also a GAC may shorten your waits (although it is not intended to do so) or give you a quieter area to wait in for rides, but it does nothing to mitigate the stress of crowded walkways, shows, restaurants and shops. You need to beat those crowds!

3. Follow a touring plan. This will minimize waits and pointless walking, and give your child structure. My absolute favourite is Ridemax.
It is software that allows you to plug in which rides you want to do, then creates a detailed plan for minimizing waiting and walking. My sons love the detailed plan, but we did have to do some flexibility work before we went (as in we may ride Peter Pan’s Flight at 8:52am instead of 8:47am and that will be OK).
Other popular touring plans:
http://www.easywdw.com (this one is free)
The last two also have crowd predictions for choosing the least crowded park for the day from among the 4 WDW parks, and info about whether or not to avoid Extra Magic Hours, which is also important.  I used a combination of all three to plan our last trip, we rode everything the boys wanted to (favourites multiple times), and never waited more than a few minutes.

Just outside of Pirates of the Caribbean and having fun. These are the crowd levels you want!

4. Know where the quiet places are. This way you can get away from the stimulation without necessarily having to leave the park.
There are also first aid stations in each park that are air conditioned, and have private rooms available.

5. Take a midday break outside the park. The parks are the most crowded during the afternoons. This is a great time for swimming, napping, therapies etc. Then you can return to the park when it is cooler & quieter in the evening if your crew is up for it.

6. Bring ear protection. The parks are sooooo LOUD! (as well as any other fidgets, stuff for chewing etc. that you would normally use.) 

7. Create space in the herd. Many people use a wheelchair or stroller with a blanket to create a safe space for their ASD child while in line (you have to stop by Guest Services to get a “stroller as a wheelchair” tag in order to be able to take a stroller in line). For older or more active kids, two or more adults can create some space using their bodies.

8. Stick with the familiar. Bring familiar foods. Guests are allowed to bring food items, such as snacks or foods that do not require heating, into any Walt Disney World Theme Park (no glass bottles). Stick with usual bedtimes and sleeping arrangements. For our family we have to rent an offsite villa so that each of our sons can have their own beds & bedrooms, and so we have access to a full kitchen where I can prepare familiar foods, and we can eat some quiet, non-challenging meals as a break from the restaurants.

9. Do your homework. There are holidays where you can just kind of show up and go with the flow (or so I've heard?), but WDW isn't one of them. Even for families with neurotypical kids, this is a holiday that requires some work and research to make it the best it can be. Find out as much as you can about each show, attraction and restaurant before you attempt it (pre trip). Some rides and their queues are a lot more over stimulating and claustrophobic than others, some are more difficult to board or exit with mobility issues like hypotonia and dyspraxia. Some restaurants have live entertainment, “antics”, shared tables and character interaction- all big no no’s for our sons.
Detailed info on each park:
Disability related info on various rides (posts 18-28):
There are also many ride videos on youtube such these:
Restaurants & menus:

And don’t hesitate to ask lots of questions while you are there about things you may have missed or forgotten. My son grilled the CM outside of Dinosaur at Animal Kingdom at length when he just wasn’t sure about riding. He needed to know as much as possible before deciding, even after watching videos and reading descriptions online multiple times.

10. Consider a GAC. Go to guest services and state your child’s needs, and diagnoses. Tell them what you think your child will struggle with in the park. If you’ve had a GAC before and it met your needs, bring the old one with you to show. Your child needs to be with you for this. If there is a problem, ask for a manager. Show the GAC to the CM’s as you enter attractions, be prepared to restate your needs and concerns. If the GAC isn’t meeting your needs, return to guest services with your concerns and questions.
Accurate GAC info:

Please note how the GAC was the very last tip in order of importance; it is nice to have as an insurance policy, a back up if plans go awry and lines are longer than expected, but it is in no way as useful for ASD needs as having a good touring plan and going on a day with low to moderate crowds, in combination with the other tips. 

There are other tips that I could have included. Stuff like using social stories and other learning tools to prepare for all unfamiliar aspects of the trip, and to slow down and go at the pace of the ASD person(s) in the group (or to speed up as the case may be!), but I always find those kind of tips a little redundant and condescending. We already do those things every single day don't we?

The bottom line is that although Disney World is an incredible place that does often work hard to create magic for their autistic and other differently abled guests, the onus is on us to make the choices and find the tools that will make it a truly wonderful experience for our kids. I like knowing that the success of my precious & expensive day of theme park-ing isn't utterly dependent on a limited accommodation system, or a poorly trained staff member having a bad day, or even a well-trained staff member who has seen one too many disability fakers and is put in the position of having to gauge the non-apparent disabilities and needs of complete strangers at a glance.

*The fastpass related information and touring plans in the 2012 edition may be out of date due to some policy changes at WDW. Check the websites listed under #3 for current touring plans & fastpass info.


  1. This is great! I'm going to share this.

  2. Geezum crow, lady! your brains are bustin' with this stuff! quit swingin' your hoohaw now and start postin' some paintin'!
    (this message to be read aloud with a corny Yosemite Sam accent, please!)

  3. Thanks for sharing your tips! Bringing your autism child in Disney would help him in developing his mentality and ability but my sister never believes me. I'll gonna make her read your post so she would have no doubts in bringing her child in Disney

  4. Thanks Maggie.

    And craigh -you so crazy!

    Jane, I am so glad you found my post helpful. Disney can be an incredible experience for ASD kids and their families, and really can spark some confidence, growth and openness that surprises everyone. It can also be a terrifying total sensory assault, and not all ASD kids can enjoy WDW even with all the best strategies and tips in place. I hope your sister finds my post helpful too, and that it can help her make the best choices for her child in regards to WDW. And if she decides that your niece/nephew (?) can handle it, I bet you guys will have an amazing time!


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