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A Disney Parks Vacation with an Autistic Child

Hearing a diagnosis for our two year old son Andrew, ten years ago did not stop us from continuing our much anticipated vacations at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Since our first visit in 1998, for the grand opening of Animal Kingdom theme park, we were bitten by the Disney bug and have now proudly completed twenty-three trips to Walt Disney World and Disneyland, a trip to Disney's Aulani in Ko Olina, Hawaii, seven cruises with Disney Cruise Line with another booked to celebrate my childrens' birthdays this August on the Disney Fantasy. Nothing stops my family and I'll tell you why.

Walt Disney World is the BEST place for anyone. A lot of people may think it's sensory overload, especially for an autistic child, but for us it proved to be a place where we could feel like a 'typical' family and be welcomed and made to feel at home. We never expected our son to make so many developmental milestones while there either.

Even from our Disney resort, Cast Members always ensured our needs were met so that our son was comfortable at all times. At the theme parks, Cast Members are very well versed on the needs of people with special needs, thus making our visit  easier and stress free. We bring along, (although it's not mandatory), a Doctor's note explaining his diagnosis. Approach a Cast Member at any Guest Services window at all theme parks and you will be issued a Guest Assistance Card, which enables you a more comfortable, less stimulating area to wait your turn for attractions. This convenience helps my son feel at ease. It really helps us out a lot. Simply show it to the Cast Member at each attraction and they'll direct your family to a quiet, comfortable waiting area until it's your turn.

At Walt Disney World they allow six guests including the person who the Guest Assistance Card is for. At Disneyland, I am not certain of limits, because we ran into groups that had as little as two in their party and as many as twenty. It's best to give Disneyland's Guest Relations a call for certainty.

Our past Guest Assistance Card.
 
 
PLEASE TAKE NOTE:

As of October 9, 2013, this system will no longer be in place, but instead be replaced by the Disabled Access Service Card.  This new system will offer Guests a return time for an attraction based on the current wait time. Kiosks will be set up in each section accordingly and it is my understanding that once you receive your DAS card at Guest Services, you then approach the respective Kiosks that will be manned by a Cast Member, who will then offer you a Fastpass for the attraction you wish to visit with a return time.

Here is how I will handle the situation:

You'll need a playbook of some sort. Create a photo album with pictures of the attractions significant to you, add in pictures of the Kiosks at the different sections. As you are given your Fastpass for the attraction, pull up the attraction picture and show it to your child immediately followed by the reinforcer as you make your way to the attraction. Once you arrive in the Fastpass lane of the attraction pull out the playbook and open the reinforcer. The reinforcer could be anything you like that is right in your playbook (Andrew likes the touch drawing, racing, etc.,). This will keep him occupied while we wait. If that doesn't work, then use concrete stimulus such as those portable fans, little squeeze toys, Nintendo's, small snacks, whatever works for you. When the ride is over it would be time for water, a rest or restroom break because for us, the gift shops are a little too stimulating with all the people and gadgets and gizmos. Pull out the photo of the Kiosk that you plan on heading to and follow the same course.

 I am thinking that this new system will indefinitely require us to be in the parks for longer periods so I hope to utilize the Extra Magic Hours whenever possible. I am also hoping that this new system will allow us to also use the regular Fastpass because I know that I will encounter a request to ride the same attraction again. I am hoping we will be allowed to do this. If this gets built into the Magic Bands, then life will be even better because I can build an entire schedule board for that theme park on that particular day. This way he can see what his day will look like. We are at the point where Andrew creates his own daily schedules with my supervision.

 Furthermore, the Cast Members at the Kiosks should be made aware in their training that autistic children operate on reinforcement systems, hence, as children and their families are lining up for the Kiosk, upon being greeted, they should be given a high five, or a sticker or even a lollypop....something for waiting in line, along with the parents constantly offering praise and tokens for proper waiting in lines. I also think that the Fastpass handed out should look really cool, so that the children can even have that as the reinforcer so that they look forward to receiving it, subsequently making going to the Kiosks a 'good thing'. Everything will be fine, put in the extra work and time at the beginning and the day will flow nicely.

Staying on Disney Property

My advice on how to visit the World with someone with special needs will begin with booking a resort on Walt Disney World property. Your conveniences begin before you leave home as soon as your Magical Express luggage tags arrive. By informing your Travel Agent or the Cast Member at Disney's Central Reservations of your flight information, you will arrive in Orlando and not have to worry about retrieving your luggage from baggage claim. All you have to do is follow your easy to read, Magical Express booklet directions to the Magical Express Welcome and Check-In Center. There, you'll be greeted by Cast Members who'll direct you to the proper resort line, from which you'll be transported right to your resort in the comfort of an air-conditioned motor coach.

On the motor coach, you'll enjoy a fun welcome video by Mickey and Friends, graciously instructing you on your resort check-in details. Fear not, for there is a restroom on the bus. Car seats and strollers have to be loaded underneath the bus and there are no seat belts on the older buses but the newer ones do indeed have seat belts.

Visiting Disneyland Resort is a little different. I would strongly advise you to fly into John Wayne Airport because it's easier to navigate than LAX and a little closer to Anaheim. Book the Disneyland Resort Shuttle on-line. This will pick you up from the airports and take you back again, but they do not deal with luggage at all. You have to go to Baggage Claim yourself and there is no Resort Airline Check In Service at Disneyland Resorts....this tweaks those who frequent Walt Disney World Resort because the Magical Express is very comprehensive and extremely user friendly.

Not the case in Los Angeles.  If you fly into LAX be prepared to deal with a lot of commotion, getting your own luggage and waiting on the ever so precariously dangerous, narrow Center Island for the Disneyland Resort Shuttle which comes around every half hour or every hour depending on the time of day. You will also encounter a lot of hotel shuttles stopping there too. There is no one to assist or direct you as in Orlando Internationals Magical Express area. You're on your own and with a special needs child, LAX is not easy.  Also, during check-out from your Disneyland resort, you have to arrange a pick up time with Bell Services for the Disneyland Resort Shuttle. Google them and pre-pay and print your travel vouchers, which the Bus Driver will ask to see when he stops at the Disneyland Resort, have them handy.




To make my son comfortable on the bus, (which really took no effort at all since he loves being in anything that moves), I brought along his Nintendo and i-Pad, which was loaded with favorite movies and games, and a headset so that he could listen to his movies and games and not disturb others around him. Even though he never got motion sickness, I always had Zip-loc medium sized bags on hand which are great because they can seal up any nastiness and I always carry wet wipes.

Be sure to pack a small day bag with first day items you may need, such as medications, sunscreen, bathing suits (pool towels are provided at all Disney resorts), important travel documents and identification. Your luggage usually arrives at your resort a few hours after you check in and you might not want to be captive until it does. This way you are free to swim at your resort, go grab a bite or even visit the theme parks. If you want your luggage with you, simply do not tag it from home. When you de-plane at Orlando International, simply go to luggage claim, pick it up and take it with you to the Magical Express Welcome and Check-In Center and Cast Members will happily help you load it in the baggage area of the motor coach. It's no problem at all.

Your Disney Resort:

When you book your Disney resort, if you call to reserve, this is the time to make your special requests which will be 'noted' on your file. Nothing is guaranteed, but great efforts are always made to help you out and having the 'note' on your reservation really helps.

I always request a room location that is convenient for my family, which is usually near the main building because of the Food courts/buses/ main pool. It's easier for my family that way. I try to   request a room near the elevators because if my son sees a long corridor, then it's time to bolt. Closer room proximity to elevators diminishes undesirable behaviors. I show my son many pictures of the actual surrounding areas at home in preparation for our trips, in order to acclimate him. Now that's not necessary because he's a veteran Disney traveller.


At Wilderness Lodge, during August 2011, our room was right above the Concierge Desk and we had a rocking chair right outside our door. There is my son, in motion, what could be better. Late at night, I would sit there with a cup of hot cocoa and people watch, I love doing that. Early in the morning, I would enjoy my coffee on this rocker while reading the paper, I was in paradise and in complete bliss.


I would never request ground floor rooms, because I did not want him sneaking out the patio doors. Many patios are not enclosed by rails, making it very easy for him to head out straight to the pool. He would always figure out how to unlock those sliding patio/veranda doors, so for us it was a little easier if we were a little higher up. The balcony could have been a potential hazard, but someone was always within reaching distance and the rails of the balcony would block him, until someone could get to him.



Having a net book was amazing because he could stream You tube, play games or watch downloaded movies which gave us a chance to relax and enjoy the fireworks right from our balcony. Yes, these rooms cost more, but this way I could take my son back to the room, let him unwind, not be disturbed by the loud fireworks noises, and I could sit on the balcony and enjoy them in bliss. It was hard being separated from my husband and daughter (who would be back at the park) but that's what worked for us at that time. Now, we all enjoy fireworks with my son who does not cover his ears anymore.

At the resort pools, I would always inform the Lifeguards of my sons situation and they made sure to include him on any suitable activities and made some allowances for him. For example, on the water slides, they would allow one of us to be at the top of the water slide and the other of us to wait at the bottom, ensuring the well-being  and safety of my son and those around him. This was really convenient, and now he can go down the water slide all by himself. Another milestone reached....at Disney!

I cannot say enough about our vacations at Disney with our son. People always question why we keep coming back and my response is because we feel like a completely normal family there, our daily stresses vanish, our son has language and developmental bursts on every trip, his compliance is incredible and the visual and auditory stimulation he receives have only strengthened him and brought him back into our world. On our most recent trip, last September 2012, my son reached his personal best score on Toy Story Mania and came out of the attraction and for the first time in his thirteen years asked me to give him a kiss. Can you imagine how I felt?

 

You should have seen the look on his face when he asked for more soda and they brought this!!

Big sister being annoying, yet he's still happy.


Playing at the same table with other children was not a reality many years ago.
 

Guess who that is riding the Disney Dream AquaDuck? My precious, precious son Andrew.

I LOVE DISNEY!!




Comments

  1. You are the first person I have seen that came up with an action plan instead of just a list of complaints. Thank you for your ideas, I will be sharing them with my readers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my post, Kuleen. While it may not be perfect in catering to everyone's needs, if it helps a few then that's enough for me. I welcome more suggestions to try to accommodate as many people as possible.
      Best regards,
      Jackie

      Delete
  2. Jackie, you never cease to amaze me! What a way to turn this whole change into a positive adventure your family. Make sure you paten your idea because I am sure people with other disabilities could benefit from this. Great job mama!!

    Suz

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is a fabulous post! I'm going to bookmark it as a resource to share with families who may be traveling with autistic children. Thank you for your positive spin on the recent changes too! I appreciate it! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Beth, thank you for taking the time to read my post. I recognize that my tools might not be helpful to all, but if I could help even a few, that would be wonderful. I appreciate your feedback!
      Best regards,
      Jackie

      Delete

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