Writers’ Note: This article is printed in the pages above, complete with links, but is reprinted here for the benefit of the search engines. Thanks for your patience. :)
1. Know your Child! Then do your homework with a website like www.allears.net or the Disney Moms’ Panel, or books like PassPorter’s Open Mouse for Walt Disney World and the Disney Cruise Line, which examines all the parks and Disney resorts in detail to explain potential trouble spots based on a number of criteria such as noise, wait times, crowded spaces, etc. If you know your child doesn’t like rides with a lot of dark spaces, or enclosed waiting areas where things echo, or the possibility of having to share space with strangers—here’s where you’ll find the answers.
2. If it’s at all possible, visit in February or October. These are the months when Florida residents are encouraged to go, because the crowds are much smaller while the school vacationers aren’t there. We noticed a world of difference between going in June three years ago and going in February this year—most popular rides had about a 20 minute wait, as opposed to 60 or more minutes in the summer.
3. Get a letter signed by your doctor delineating your child’s issues specifically, so you can get a Guest Assistance Card. This is a lifesaver. With a Guest Assistance Card, you often have the ability to enter rides through an alternate entrance, like the Fastpass Returns, keeping the waiting time for your child to a minimum. Here is the text of the letter I used for Little Miss:
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing concerning Little Miss who has been diagnosed with autism and sensory integration disorder. These problems cause an inability to stand in crowded spaces, wait for long periods of time without disrupting those around her, and she finds it uncomfortable to wait in places where sounds echo and/or are amplified.
This will severely impact her ability to wait in lines, especially the lines in the interior of buildings where there is music as well as many people talking in an amplified atmosphere. Please provide an alternative whenever possible that will minimize her sensory overload as well as her waiting time so that she may enjoy the benefits of the Disney experience.
I took the letter to the Guest Relations desk the first day of our visit. Even though on the phone, Disney folk had been pretty cagy about the ability to get a card, as soon as I said “autism” the young woman at the desk smiled and nodded and stamped us on our way. The card allowed all five of us to enter a ride through the alternative entrance, not just the diagnosed child/ren, for our entire stay at Disney. We only used the card once or twice per visit to EPCOT, Disney Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom because the lines were fairly short. After all, it is part of life’s lesson that sometimes you have to wait for things. But the Magic Kingdom was not designed to serve so many people at once, and we used it for many rides there. Often we had less than five minutes’ wait, even for the most popular rides. Without this, our children would probably have had to pass on many activities other kids can enjoy.
4. If your child has sensory issues, like ours, and can’t deal with noise, about half of Disney will be painful for them, particularly in the Animal Kingdom and EPCOT, where much of the activity has background narration, which is always very loud. (The worst place was in Rafiki’s Conservation Station at Animal Kingdom, where the restrooms not only have the autoflush toilets that permeate Disney, but ALSO animal sounds–talk about overstimulation!) Fortunately, ours knows how to protect herself and immediately covers her ears when the overhead speakers go on. Consider earplugs or even headphones to block some of the noise.
5. Of the parks, the Magic Kingdom is likely the one that will be most stressful, because it’s built in a much more compact space, making it particularly crowded. Some of the rides based on cartoons (Stitch’s Great Escape, Buzz Lightyear’s Rangers) are very bright, with strobe lighting and loud noises. We found that a visit to Tom Sawyer’s Island helped de-stress a bit as there was a quiet boat ride over and then unstructured play and stim space.
The Animal Kingdom has a similar spot called The Boneyard in Dino-land, where there are slides and caves and tunnels and places to dig in the dirt. At Disney Hollywood Studios, we used the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground for an oasis in the middle of the day, and EPCOT has several places where there is open space, or where there are water fountains to play with, and even misters, where a soft spray of water can help the sensory child refocus. Little Miss also found a quiet moment between shows at The American Adventure in EPCOT where she had the Rotunda all to herself and could spin to her heart’s content:
6. Break up your day. There is way too much to do. Period. You can tell the parents who are trying to survive marathon days because their kids are in exhausted hysterics by evening. Our best schedule was to go to our chosen Park early in the morning, then return to the hotel by noon, taking a break in the pool or just relaxing at the resort till mid-afternoon and then going back.
This is when being a Disney Resort guest really pays off. Not only are the hotels fully staffed with free boat and bus transportation that run every 15 minutes or so to the parks so you don’t have to pay the $12 parking fee per park, but there are Extra Magic Hours each day when the Parks are open to Resort guests only. These occur either from 8-9 a.m. or after the Park closes, as much as four hours extra, where the crowds are much smaller. Note: Not every ride is open during these extra hours, so check with the Park when you arrive to make sure you will not miss something your child’s heart is set on.
7. Be organized without being Commando. Our Aspie son found it comforting to carry a map of each park and plan the day’s activities. He was a little rigid, which made it uncomfortable for the rest of us from time to time, but I think it was a lesson for him in the necessity to be flexible at the same time we learned that he functioned best out of his usual routine and environment if he had a substantial amount of control. Even with seven days in our Disney visit, meaning two days in some of the Parks, we did not see everything. The world did not come to an end. There’s always next time.
8. Take advantage of Fastpasses if you have to go when the park is busy. You pick these up at kiosks at rides through the Park, then come back at the pre-designated time, when you can have near-immediate access to the ride. This way you can spend your time on other activities and not waiting in line. Once you use your Fastpass for one ride, you can come back and get a new one for another ride.
9. Whatever you need, in the hotels, parks, dining areas or anywhere on Disney property, don’t hesitate to find a Disney employee—called “cast members”—and ask. Disney is all about details, and we have never found anyone not willing to go out of their way to make sure your needs are accommodated. See a cast member for best seating for the parades (but be aware they’re noisy!), for special dining arrangements or foods, or even for a card allowing you to classify your stroller a wheelchair so you can take it on rides to contain your active child—usually strollers are required to be left outside ride pavilions and everyone must continue on foot. But ask.
10. Even at Disney, not everything runs as scheduled. Prepare your child with social stories ahead of time on what to do if a ride breaks down, or happens to be closed for rehabilitation. We received a letter three days before we were scheduled to leave that the huge island in the center of our resort, the one the kids had been all excited about, with the slides, etc., was going to be closed the week of our visit. Big letdown! But it was a good starting place for the discussion that sometimes we can’t get on the ride/activity that we want right away, but we can find other rides to make us happy, or we can come back later and try again. Either way, it’s all good. It’s Disney, after all! Have a wonderful time!