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Navigating Disney World with a Special Needs Child

The services, landmarks and insider tips you need to make your trip equally magical for everyone in your family

Navigating Disney World with a Special Needs Child

Dan Pitman

My family loves Walt Disney World. My wife and I met at Disney when we were working in the Canadian Pavilion in Epcot for a year, and we now have three Disney-loving boys, including our son Walter, who has Autism.  Navigating Disney World with a special needs child can be daunting but we knew we could make it work with the help of the Disney Cast Members.

We were excited to plan our first family trip to Disney World since the pandemic but worried how Walter would manage with the crowds, long lines and loud music at the Disney theme parks.

After a not-so-great first day, we decided to get proactive and ensure a better day two. We went to Guest Relations where some wonderful Cast Members (Disney park staff) helped us. Our trip was amazing, and our special needs son still talks about it every day. Here’s what we learned.

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Author Dan and his family at Disney World Dan Pitman

Sign up for this special Disney service

For kids like Walter, who have what Disney calls “cognitive disabilities,” ask about the Disability Access Service.

Here’s how it works: once it’s set up, you go onto the My Disney Experience App on your phone and click on the DAS button.

You will see wait times for various rides in the park. Let’s say the next ride you want to do has a wait time of 30 minutes. Click to book that ride (for up to six people previously linked), and you’ll be assigned a time, usually in 30 minutes.

Now you can go have a snack, visit the restroom or get an autograph from Goofy until your scheduled time. When you show up at the ride, you’ll be escorted into the Lightning Lane entrance, which usually means a short wait.

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The DAS can be set up between 30 and two days before your trip during a video chat. Your child needs to be present as the Disney staff person will take a photo. A doctor’s note is not needed.

Qualifying is not so much about a diagnosis or label — it’s about what challenges your child has, and what’s needed to make the experience better. And there’s a perk to registering in advance: you get to pre-book two rides for each day.

If you haven’t signed up in advance, head to Guest Relations inside the park (in City Hall if you’re at Magic Kingdom) to get it done. The DAS app is good for 60 days.

Any problems with the DAS or the app? Just look for one of the Blue Umbrella kiosks around the parks — they’ll solve it for you!

Author Dan's son walter sits on a ride wearing noise cancelling headphones Dan Pitman

More Disney accommodations to look into

  • Character meet-up passes: Some meet-ups are on the app, but for those that aren’t, ask the Cast Members for a paper pass so you don’t have to wait in line.
  • Characters fluent in ASL: Some of the costumed characters are also fluent in sign language – ask at Guest Relations when you are there.
  • Special stroller treatment: Also at Guest Relations, you can ask for a tag that tells the Cast Members (Disney park staff) to treat your stroller as a wheelchair. Now you don’t have to leave it in the stroller parking zone but can push your child right up to the ride and pick the stroller up again at the ride exit. (Wagons, though, are not allowed.)
  • Take turns riding without getting out of line: Rider switch (sometimes called “baby swap”) might also help if your child doesn’t want to ride but both parents do. You all go through the line together, one waits with the child while the other rides, then switch so the other parent can ride.
  • Wheelchair-accessible rides: If your child uses a wheelchair, most of the queues are wheelchair-accessible. The few that aren’t have manual wheelchairs to transfer the child to so you can go through the line. Continuous-loading rides can be stopped to allow you time to help your child onto the ride.
  • Parade viewing areas: Ask Cast Members about the special viewing areas for those with disabilities — children with DAS passes can use these as well.
  • Hearing impaired hotel rooms: Ask in advance and Disney can set up your hotel room with a TTY phone, a strobe light smoke detector and other communications equipment. For mild to moderate hearing loss, you can get a Handheld Device with headphones to amplify the sound or provide captioning at many attractions. (Pay a refundable $25 at Guest Relations.)
  • Wheelchair-accessible transportation: there are different Disney World transportation options like  buses, boats and the Skyliner that transport people from the hotels to the park that accept wheelchairs. At bus stops, wheelchair users wait outside the regular line and will be loaded on the bus first.
  • Sign language interpreters: Email wdprsignlanguageservices@disney.com to get the schedule for which shows have sign language interpreters. You can also request interpreters for some special events, tours and dinner shows by contacting Disney at least 14 days in advance.
  • Service animals: If your child uses a service animal, they are welcomed in the park and areas are set aside for them to relieve themselves.
Author Dan and his family standing in front of a star wars landmark at disney world Dan Pitman

Consider packing these must-haves

  • Earphones and ear plugs: Is your child sensitive to noise? Having these helped Walter.
  • Sticky notes or cheap bandages: Cover the flushing sensors in Disney washrooms. Many kids are scared of automatic toilets.

Helpful park landmarks

  • Quiet break rooms: If your child needs a break, the Baby Care centres in every park have quiet, air-conditioned rooms (usually with Disney cartoons playing) where you can chill out for a bit.
  • Companion washrooms: Check the maps for the nearest location in each park.
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Rules and practices do change from time to time, so check the WDW website and the Facebook group DAS Pass at Disney.

Ultimately, the best part for us was seeing how helpful and accepting the Cast Members were. They really went out of their way to make the trip magical for everyone in our family. We’ll be back!

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