How to Enjoy Disney World With an Autistic Child

In general, theme parks and special needs don't mix well. Noise, lines, crowds, new foods, and unpredictable interactions with strangers can all be tough to manage, but Disney World, while it does include all of the same challenges as other theme parks, is a completely different experience for most autistic children. The key to a positive Disney World experience (for anyone, but especially for autistic children) is planning ahead.

Statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse
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Why Disney Is Special

Any parent (and most adults without kids) is well aware of the impact that Disney has had on international culture. Everyone has a favorite Disney movie, and children with autism are no exception. For many children (and adults) with autism, watching and re-watching Disney movies is not just a pleasant way to pass time: it's a visit with dear friends whose lives, loves, and happy endings help to bring order to a chaotic world.

In 2015, Ron Suskind wrote a book about the ways in which Disney helped his autistic son, Owen, to reclaim his voice and his ability to interact with the world. Suskind's book, Life, Animated, was turned into an Oscar-winning film. In a New York Times article, Suskind describes his son's experiences at Disney World, one of the few places where he truly feels at home. While not every person with autism will have the same experience, many do.

Tips for Making the Most of a Disney Visit

A visit to Disney World isn't cheap, but it can be easy even with an autistic child in your group. Here are some tips for making it work.

Plan Ahead

This is good advice for anyone visiting Disney World, but it is particularly important when your group includes a person who has little tolerance for changing plans or spontaneity.

Start by choosing a time of year that is unlikely to be terribly hot or crowded (avoid summer, Christmas, and New Years at all costs). Next, make good use of the plethora of information and planning tools available to plan not just your hotel and tickets but also your meals (many include characters), activities, "must-do" rides, and character meet-ups.

Stay "On Campus" to Maintain Schedules and Take Breaks

If you can, consider staying at a Disney World resort, ideally in a suite where there is room to spread out. There are many advantages to this for families of autistic children:

  • You will have access to a "downtime" location where you can relax without leaving the area.
  • You will have a kitchen where you can prepare your child's expected and/or needed meals and snacks.
  • You'll have the ability to maintain your child's usual routines rather than spending entire days in the parks.
  • You'll have easy and immediate access to concierge services, food, and resort activities for yourself and your other children.
  • You'll have the ability to use Disney's transportation system to get back to your hotel quickly (or to the park) if you need to.
  • You'll be able to take a break during the day but still return to a park later if your child is up to it.

Make Good Use of Early Reservation and Fast Pass Options

You can reserve restaurants 180 days in advance and three Fast Passes per day 90 days in advance, and you should do so. This will give you time to review menus with your child, make special requests of chefs (who are happy to oblige), and watch videos and/or make visual planners with your child to prepare her for the experience.

Ask for and Use Special Services and Cast Member Help

Disney World management is well aware of the appeal their parks have to people with autism and other developmental and cognitive disabilities. Quite a few policies are in place to support disabled visitors, and "cast members" (staff) are trained to "sprinkle pixie dust" whenever possible to make visitors feel more comfortable and less stressed. Here are just a few ways to make use of Disney's services:

  • Read up on Disney's Disability Access Service and use it in addition to Fast Pass to get onto rides without having to wait for long periods.
  • Download and read Promedia's disabilities guide which includes a huge range of hints, tips, and ideas for helping your child and your whole family enjoy Disney.
  • Use family/companion bathrooms as needed; maps of these bathrooms are available on the Disney site.
  • Ask in advance or on the spot for meals that accommodate special diets and picky eaters. Don't worry about having an older child or adult ordering from the child's menu or asking for something that's not on the menu.
  • Never assume that something is not available at Disney. If you have a need or problem, ask a cast member for help. The staff has a surprisingly wide range of options available to them to help you out in terms of lines, seating, food, heat, crowds, and more.

Choose Rides and Experiences With Your Child in Mind

A visit to Disney World is probably not a good place to test your child's limits (unless she has visited so many times that she feels at home). In other words, if your child is afraid of the dark or doesn't like the sensation of fast motion, it's probably best to avoid rides like the Haunted Mansion (which even spooks some adults) or Space Mountain (an indoor roller coaster ride in the dark). Instead, consider the wide range of options available and choose those that your child is likely to actively enjoy.

If you're concerned about your child becoming overwhelmed, consider taking some time out for less intense experiences. Options include time at a resort pool or beach, a boat ride (or fishing trip), a visit to the horses at Fort Wilderness, etc.

Expect the Unexpected

You've lived with your child for years, so you know what to expect from them. At Disney World, however, you may be surprised. Your child who walks away from every human encounter may run to hug Baloo the Bear from Jungle Book. Your picky eater may decide that anything is delicious so long as it has Mickey ears. Alternatively, your child may reject a ride based on her favorite movie because of issues such as darkness, loud noise, or surprising effects. No matter what happens, you'll have to take the unexpected as it comes.

Don't Neglect Character Meetings

Most autistic children (along with the rest of the world) have favorite Disney characters. Actors who play these characters in the parks are well trained to interact with many different kinds of people, including children with autism. Not only will your child have the chance to make their dreams come true by meeting their favorite character(s), but they'll also have a chance to build their social skills by asking questions, shaking hands, posing for a photo, and asking for an autograph. If you're concerned that your child might have a tough time, mention this to the character's handler, who will help make the experience easier.

Hint: most characters appear in parks on a regular schedule. Check the schedule ahead of time, and be at the head of the line when the character appears. Alternatively, if waiting is an issue, consider taking your child to a character meal featuring his or her favorite characters. For example, Winnie the Pooh and friends are always at the Crystal Palace restaurant and visit each table in turn.

Explore Outside the Box

Many first-time Disney World visitors are unaware that the Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, EPCOT, two water parks, and a huge shopping destination are all part of the World. These experiences are in addition to sports venues, an old-style boardwalk, fishin' holes, stables, woods walks, and much more.

The Animal Kingdom features untimed strolls through Africa and Asia, while Hollywood Studios offers uncrowded movie previews and EPCOT is home to several "hidden" gardens, a relatively mellow aquarium, and other venues that are very different from the ride-intense Magic Kingdom.

Some children with autism enjoy rides that are less popular, so no Fast Pass is required. Consider spending extra time on the train (always popular with autistic children), on the Liberty Belle paddle boat, on Tom Sawyer Island, or climbing the Swiss Family Robinson's treehouse. Not only are these easy to get on, but they are calm, undemanding, and take a while to enjoy. Alternatively, if your child is a sensory craver, you might want to consider getting a Fast Pass for at least one of the many Disney roller coasters or water rides.

A Word From Verywell

After all your planning, there's still one thing left to practice that'll make your Disney World experience truly joyful: leave your self-consciousness at the gates.

One of the challenges faced by parents of autistic children and adults is the reality that their child may behave in unexpected or childlike ways. It can be embarrassing to have a 16-year-old who wants to watch Spongebob or a 20-year-old who still has meltdowns. At Disney World, though, everyone of every age loves Mickey Mouse, and there is no age limit for meeting and greeting Ariel the mermaid. That means your child is just like everyone else. For the parent of a child with autism, that is a huge gift.

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