How to plan a Disney vacation when your child has special needs

Author of Mouse Ears for Everyone, Amy Schinner, shares tips on how to do Disney with kids who have special needs.

Photo: David Roark, Disney

When you have a child with special needs, the thought of going on vacation to the “happiest place on Earth” might seem overwhelming. Crowds, noise, waiting in lines—these can be difficult to manage for kids with cognitive and physical disabilities. However, this has not stopped regional chair for Autism Speaks, Amy Schinner, from taking her now 19-year-old son Ben, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), to the place where dreams come true throughout his childhood. In the first guidebook of its kind, Mouse Ears for Everyone: A Guide to Walt Disney World for Guests with Special Needs, Schinner shares helpful tips and strategies for planning the perfect trip. Here are a few of our favourites:

cover of mouse ears for everyone by amy schinner

Published by Theme Park Press

Prepare your kids for what to expect
“Many people have an easier time with new adventures if some of the mystery is uncovered,” says Schinner. You can show your kids YouTube videos that feature the parks and attractions, before you head there, so it feels more familiar, when the family gets there. This is particularly helpful for children who experience sensory overwhelm. She also recommends going on long family strolls before your vacation to build the physical endurance needed to make it through a day of lining up and walking from one attraction to another at Disney.

Upgrade your tickets to Park Hopper
Schinner suggests upgrading your tickets from a One-Park Pass to the Park Hopper. Park Hopper will allow you to hop between the four-major parks in one day. This is helpful if your child has a tendency to fixate on one thing. “My son loves Toy Story Mania at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. He needs to be able to get back to that ride in order to enjoy the rest of the vacation,” says Schinner. “If you can only do one park a day, it greatly affects your flexibility.”

Register for Disability Access Service (DAS)
When you first consider planning a trip to Disney, your biggest fear may be those legendary lines. “If you have a family member with a non-visible or developmental disability…that will prevent them from enjoying an attraction without special accommodation, DAS can help you,” says Schinner. When you arrive at Disney, visit Guest Relations. There, a cast member (a Disney employee) will set you up with a DAS pass. Now, instead of waiting in line, you can ask the cast member running the attraction for a DAS return time. This allows your family to continue exploring the park, or to take a break somewhere quiet, before returning to the attraction and hopping into the FastPass line. Tip: guests who require a wheelchair or scooter do not need to register with DAS.

Kids enjoying the rides at Disney

Photo: David Roark, Disney

Take advantage of the Rider Switch Program
Worried that after waiting for a ride, your little one will decide it’s not for them after all? Don’t fret! Many attractions allow Rider Switch. If you reach the front of the line and your child has second thoughts, the adult that stays with them will be given a rider switch pass. The pass, good for up to five days, allows whoever missed the ride the first time to return to the attraction, skip the line, and enter the FastPass queue. This way everyone gets a turn without having to wait twice.

Use your stroller as a wheelchair
Many restaurants and attractions do not allow strollers, but if you are using your stroller as a wheelchair, that’s a different story. “There is an accessibility card for the stroller that allows you to bring it into areas that typically don’t allow them,” Schinner says. Just ask at Guest Services!

Let the characters come to you with character meals 
If your child has a difficult time approaching her favourite Disney characters, opt for a character meal. During these meals, the characters approach families at their table. “I have seen amazing interactions between kids and characters at these meals due to the lack of pressure,” says Schinner. She also notes that this a great option for siblings. “If you have a little one that is very excited to meet Minnie Mouse, but their sibling is unsure, the characters pick up on that and will wave from afar, or ignore them if they are asked to do so.”

Mickey Mouse at Disney World

Photo: David Roark, Disney

Skip the water park
According to Schinner, the water parks are not very accessible to those with disabilities. There are long lines, with no FastPass access or DAS back entrances. Parents are not often allowed to ride with their children or wait for them at the end of the ride. “A lot of independence is required,” she says. Instead, if you’re in need of some water action, spend the day at the resort pool.

Take a moment to chill out in Disney’s sensory spots
“These areas are good for taking a break and calming down,” says Schinner. If you find your child is feeling overstimulated and stressed, there are many quiet spots to just take a break. In her book, Schinner runs through a list of these areas for each park. For example, if you are visiting the Magic Kingdom and someone needs some quiet, you can visit the space by Adventureland, across from the Swiss Family Treehouse, where you’ll find benches and air conditioning. Ask any cast member, and they’ll point you in the right direction.

Mouse Ears for Everyone: A Guide to Walt Disney World for Guests with Special Needs is available at Amazon.ca. 

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