The Disney World Resort in Orlando bills itself as “The Happiest Place on Earth.” But if your child has difficulty with loud noises, crowds, lights and the physical sensations associated with amusement park rides, is there still magic to be found at one of Disney’s theme parks? The answer is a qualified “yes,” and perhaps my family’s experiences at the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT can help you plan your own Disney vacation.
The most important tip is to set realistic expectations for yourself, your child and any other family members with you. Understanding our son’s capacity to withstand the onslaught of sensory information tempered our thoughts of hours and hours of rides, parades and fireworks. Set smaller goals and build on the success of each day. Our first day we spent in the hotel pool and talked about what we’d see and do. The second day we walked around EPCOT for two hours and rode the ferry boat between our hotel and the park. Each day we planned to do a bit more, and on our last day we spent almost seven hours at EPCOT and rode six rides, including “The Test Track,” a roller-coaster style ride that simulates car endurance tests.
Disney is very welcoming to all of their guests, especially those with special needs. We learned to obtain a “Guest Assistance Pass” before our first park visit. The pass was a golden ticket to a great trip: flashing the pass before entering any ride queue grants special access for your child and family members, cutting waits from hours to minutes unobtrusively. To get the pass we went with our boy to a Guest Services booth, located at the entrance to any park, explained our situation and let them know how long we’d be at the resort. Bring a doctor’s note to help ease the process. One pass covered our entire stay, it cost nothing and was an absolute godsend. Also, keep in mind that quiet rooms and medical stations are hidden around the park and available in an emergency. Just find a uniformed employee—or “cast member”—and let them know what you need.
Pack a bag with snacks and water. This is more economical and easier than concession stands or restaurants, which are often very crowded and always very expensive.
Plan ahead for meals. Our son has a limited diet, so we brought food to Florida and learned the hard way that getting an in-room microwave may come at a steep cost. We stayed at The Dolphin Hotel, and after several phone calls to the concierge we were presented with a microwave and a room service bill for nearly $400! After a few more calls to the concierge the matter was settled amicably. Overall the Dolphin Hotel was a great option: cheaper than a Disney resort and close to many Disney attractions, so please check it out. But next time we’re buying an inexpensive microwave on Amazon.com—about $70—and having it shipped to our attention at the hotel. You may be able to do the same with your child’s favorite non-perishable foods to save space in your luggage and prevent an expensive and unwanted cab ride to a local supermarket. If your child has a wider diet, make sure to make reservations each day for lunch and dinner. During peak times the wait for meals at walk-up eateries can be long, and in the case of sit-down restaurants you may not even be able to get in without a reservation. While this may appear to limit your fun, nothing is less enjoyable than standing in a line with an unhappy kid.
Rent a stroller. The Magic Kingdom covers 107 acres. EPCOT is almost three times larger, and the other attractions are also quite large. Kids we saw melting down were usually on foot. One- and two-kid strollers are available for rent just inside the park entrances, and buying a multi-day ticket brings down the per-day price to about $30. You can’t take the stroller outside the park, but can get another at no additional cost by presenting your receipt if you leave and go back to a park later.
Take frequent breaks. If you can, get an early start and head back to your hotel mid-morning. If you can’t, camp out in a shady spot away from the crowds (there are quite a few!). The parks get especially busy in the hours leading up to lunch and again after dinner. However you and your child recharge your batteries, take extra time to be rested and prepared for the crowds, noise and myriad distractions back at the parks.
Lastly, take time for yourself and your partner. Disney offers tons of activities for kids and adults, from scuba diving to wine tasting to garden tours! Swap shifts watching the kids for some time on your own. Hire a babysitter for an evening or two. Since our son is stand-offish with strangers, our babysitter arrived after he fell asleep (the going rate is about $17 per hour plus tip and parking). On certain nights the parks are open into the wee hours of the morning, so make the most of your time there to capture some magic of your own.
For more stories, info, resources, facts and tips, go to www.thespiralfoundation.org