Families with special needs children may find the idea of traveling daunting. Vacation planning should be a fun time and something to look forward to, not fear or dread.
As a travel agent, I have been blessed to find families with special needs very open about their unique situation and the dynamic elements required to make a dream vacation.
No amount of reading and researching could ever give me the knowledge even close to what the family knows and lives with every day. It’s a task I don’t even attempt to undertake. I’ve found the best way to plan a vacation for children with special needs is to prepare the parents. No one knows a child better than his parent, and knowledge is power. Combining Disney parks knowledge with parental knowledge and you’ve got the answer to virtually any potential vacation problem.
Parents are often very anxious at the prospect of bringing children with sensory issues to a place like Walt Disney World. It can be crowded, noisy and it’s certainly overstimulating, these things seem like a formula for disaster, but rest assured your vacation can be just as magical as you imagine, you just have to do a little prep work.
Individually, special needs can vary quite broadly and it would be impossible to address each one of them. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) are broad disorders that can have the following effects: impulsiveness, hyperactivity, inattention, ultra-sensitivity to noises, lights, smells and objects. ASD can also include: impairments in thinking, feeling, language and social interactions repetitive movements, abnormal reactions to sound, touch and extreme emotional responses.
Regardless of what your family needs are every family will experience certain standard things on vacation: eat, sleep and play. So let’s combine what we know about special needs and standard vacation elements.
Eat: You have to eat and if you are in the parks you are most likely eating in the parks, which could raise a whole new set of challenges.
Make Advanced Dining Reservations at “off” dining times. Even with a reservation you could still have to wait for your table to become available, eating at an “off” time will be less crowded and will be less sensory overload. You’re also more likely to be seated quickly.
Pick your place – When you make your dining reservations make notes of your special needs, if your child has issues with being touched, request a booth (if available) you are less likely to be bumped or touched by strangers. If sitting with strangers is a problem for your child, be cautious of places like Biergarten in Epcot, The Spirit of Aloha show, or Hoop-Dee-Doo Review, if you are interested in these experiences ask the dining reservation-ist if you can have a separate table. Disney does try to accommodate special requests, of course nothing is guaranteed; but explaining there is a medical issue will help.
Sleep: Being on property could be the best decision you could make. Consider your resort wisely, if you prefer quieter calmer environments consider a moderate or deluxe resort in a room that’s in a more secluded location (not facing the pool, etc). These rooms are more likely to be affordable, available and apt to fit your special needs. View pictures of your choice resort online, familiarize your child with what the rooms will look like, etc.
Consider your transportation options when choosing your resort. If your child won’t be able to handle a bus ride consider a deluxe resort on the monorail system or with water access.
Play: This could be the most difficult vacation element because the variables are endless. There are a few preparations you can make to prepare for your park time. For children with ASD and ADHD structure is very important.
Although you are on vacation and might not want to stick to a stringent schedule set a pattern of park touring that works for you follow it daily, regardless of what park you are in. For example, set breakfast for the same time each morning, try to accomplish a certain amount of rides before your mid-morning break, and a certain amount after, set lunch at the same time each day, etc and decide what you’re going to do after dinner. Although the daily experiences will change your pattern will be the same.
Before you start touring the park, stop in guest services and get a Guest Assistance Card. This card will be issued to someone in the party and is valid for 5 people in the party (for example, a single family would most likely only need 1 pass if everyone is touring the parks together). Explain to the cast member at guest services you’d like a GAC, and what your special need is (an alternate entrance, a quiet place to wait for your turn on the ride, etc.) and they will accommodate you. It’s not necessary to parade your child into guest services and put on a display of what you need and why. One member of the family can obtain the card and you simply show the pass at the attraction and the cast member will give you instructions from there.
Give your childrenand let them get familiar with them. Some children find that knowing where they are going is empowering and they’re less likely to have a meltdown. Order the planning DVD and watch it, as many times as it takes to work out the kinks and questions that your child might have about your vacation.
Share your plans if you think your child can handle it (we’re going to have breakfast then try to do rides in Fantasyland, then after lunch we’re going to try to rides in Frontierland, etc.). This will give more structure and having a set pattern may help keep the stimulation under control and ease anxiety.
Your vacation should be a magical experience from start to finish, including planning. If you find the process overwhelming or would like assistance, find a reputable travel agent that specializes in Disney travel, like Pixie Vacations. An experienced agent will be able to assist you with reservations, touring plans, itineraries, and take the planning and preparation pressure off of you. Have fun at the happiest place on earth!
For more detailed information, try Passporters “Open Mouse”. These are just a few of the issues and tips for the ADHD/ASD spectrum, we’d love to hear your tips and tricks!
- Tips for Choosing your Walt Disney World Resort (chipandco.com)
- The 7 Deadly Sins of Disney World Vacationing (chipandco.com)
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