November 24, 2015
How to Get the Most Out of Your Disney Trip with an Autistic Child
I am a planner. There will never be a line in my obituary stating how often I “winged it.” It’s just who I am. And never did my Type A personality flourish more than when it came to planning for our latest Disney sojourn.
I will begin with sharing with all of you that I consider Disney a “working vacation,” and whether you’re considering a trip with disabled kids or not I strongly suggest having wine on hand at the end of the day.
Lots of wine.
In addition to the grape I’m also strongly recommending you have a plan, and I’d like to share my tips with all of you today (including times when Disney broke the rules for us, woohoo!) so you can have THE BEST DAMN TRIP TO DISNEY EVER.
Which thankfully, is what we had.
I went into this trip with (for me) fairly modest expectations for our eldest son with severe autism, as the last time we went he spent the entire trip grabbing me every five feet and uttering the syllables “aha,” which translated into “Damnit take me home woman.” Florida being a wee bit far from Jersey, we couldn’t accommodate his wish for three days, and his displeasure was made known. The poor kid was also under the weather a bit, and that coupled with being in an entirely new state (he only leaves Jersey to go to CHOP) and sleeping in an entirely new bed (which happens exactly never) he was a mess. So as we boarded the plane two weeks ago with a healthy child I kept every extremity crossed and hoped for the best.
This time, Momma got her reward.
He was delighted, and delightful, and I attribute much of this to his (thank God) innate desire to be happy, and to precision planning that rivals Martha Stewart.
And it all began with a phone call.
In the last few years Disney has changed their disability pass program at least two times that I know of, and added the additional perk of offering three free fast passes with every ticket, a wonderful option not available to us two years ago. The fast passes you can book sixty days in advance if you’re staying on a Disney property, thirty if you’re not ( you would need to have your tickets in advance and create an account on “mydisneyexperience.com” or speak to a live person at Disney to do so.) You can also walk up to kiosks in the park and add or change a fast pass selection, which I would only rely upon if the park was not crowded as the wait times may be long. There is also an app you can download onto your phone that tells you all the wait times of the rides (so fabulous!). I did find the fast pass lane to be longer than it was two years ago when not everybody had them, but even on the one day we were there that the park was at a 5 for capacity (it goes up to 10,) that option was doable for us.
The disability pass program is set up so that in order to gain access to the fast pass lanes on rides for which you are not using your fast pass, one person in your party must walk up to the desired ride, and get an attendant to put a ride return time on the pass which has been issued to the person with the disability (the person with the disability does not have to be present too.) At Magic Kingdom we acquired this pass at Guest Services in Town Hall, and all members of our party had to be initially present to be included. The time to return to the ride will automatically be assigned to every member of your party who is on the pass.
And then the fun begins.
Prior to actually heading to Florida I mapped out an idea in my head of what rides would need a fast pass or disability pass time, and I tried to match them up geographically so my husband (who was our designated runner, he was so cute) didn’t have to traipse all over the park all day. I had a plan, but decided to talk to a live person when we were thirty days out from our trip just to make sure I would be maximizing our passes to their fullest potential.
I spent an hour-and-a-half with a mom of an autistic son (bonus!) and discovered how many ways I’d been wrong.
My lovely contact was able to look at the projected capacity for each of our two days at Magic Kingdom (there’s an app for that too,) and as such was able to plan with me which rides really needed the fast passes (totally different from what I had thought),) which rides would be a good call for the disability passes, and which I’d probably be able to walk onto (which had not been an option the last time we were there due to the crowds.) She helped me coordinate so we weren’t running all over the park to get our disability ride times, and helped me build in lunch and bathroom breaks so that we weren’t stressed. I was also told that with the fast pass you have a one hour window to complete your ride, but with the disability pass you can go on that ride any time after your assigned time, there is no expiration. She also informed me that you can’t keep booking disability passes continually, that you have to complete one disability pass ride before you book the next.
With all of that information, on our first day in the park we were able to eat a leisurely lunch, take potty breaks, actually enjoy the park, and go on twelve rides in seven hours without stressing out.
Yes, I’m trotting this out now- it was magical.
We had a few nice perks happen to us while we were there as well. The first day we acquired the disability pass in Town Hall (and this only works on the first day) the lovely Disney rep actually booked our first disability pass ride for us although she technically wasn’t supposed to, which meant my husband didn’t have to hoof it to Fantasyland when we were planning on exploring Tomorrowland first. Our last day there we actually added three more people to the pass even though the capacity is supposed to be six (we had to physically add them to the disability pass when they arrived.) The people at Guest Services could not have been more accommodating, and our wait time each time we went there was minimal.
In other words, they broke the rules a bit for us, and it really, really helped.
Here are a few other tips that helped make our trip great, particularly for a child with severe autism. My youngest son has a gluten allergy, so we researched which restaurants had gluten-free options and hamburgers (which he can eat without the bun) in all five sections of the park so we would have options no matter where we ended up. We also ate at eleven each day (I know that’s early, but Justin had me up at 4:00 AM each day ready to go (woohoo!) so frankly I was starving by then.
I can miss a few hours of sleep, but not a meal too.
Since we were not staying on a Disney property we avoided going to Magic Kingdom on the “magic hours days” (when Disney opens the park either earlier or later or both for guests staying on property) and just made it to the gates about half an hour before each day’s scheduled opening. We also looked at the traditional crowd capacity for each week in November (a great month to go,) and picked days that were generally less crowded (Veteran’s day was the exception, but even that day wasn’t too bad.) We had been contemplating going to Hollywood Studios so Zach could try to make it into the Jedi program, but checked it out ahead of time to make sure it was still operating and found out it wasn’t, which changed our entire plan.
Thank God I checked. Nobody tells Zach he can’t be a Jedi.
And finally, if you’re traveling with a kid or kids with autism or any other disability, I can’t recommend enough speaking to a live Disney representative to have them help you plan your trip. It made our experience so much better, and saved me the stress of having to ask myself every five minutes where we were going next and where was the wine.
Just kidding on that last part. Sort of.
If you’re planning a trip to Magic Kingdom in the near future I hope these hints help, and I hope you have a wonderful time. We worked hard to plan for this vacation (including taking Justin on a flight simulation years ago before our first trip,) and it really worked out.
We laughed, we made indelible memories for our family, and we didn’t lose either of the kids. It was simply fabulous, and I’ll throw this out there one last time.
It was magic.
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