by Jen Troester
I am the mother of two children on the autism spectrum. I am also someone who loves Disney and going on vacation! As anyone with an autistic child knows, navigating a giant theme park can be difficult, if not downright anxiety-inducing.
Don’t be afraid. You CAN take your autistic child to Walt Disney World!
Every child is unique. What works well with some may not work well with others, but … here are a few things I’ve learned that can help make the trip fun for everyone.
1. Do what works for your family.
When my daughter was a non-verbal, 2-1/2-year-old toddler who bolted,we used a cute monkey backpack leash. Yep, we were those parents — the ones I used to judge before having kids of my own. But our daughter didn’t want to sit in a stroller all day, and this allowed her to have some freedom to explore and gave the peace of mind we needed.
Do not be afraid to use what works for your family, and try not to be bothered by what other people might say, or the looks they might give. I know that can be hard, but it does get easier and, honestly, you will probably never see these people again anyway, so who cares?
For older children who aren’t able to communicate verbally, or who lose the ability to communicate in stressful situations, some families use temporary tattoos with their information in case they become separated, or a medical alert bracelet.
2. Ask for a Disability Access Pass.
The Disability Access Service (DAS) allows you to get a return time from the Cast Member at the entrance of a ride and not have to wait in line. There is still waiting involved, but you are able to find a better place for your child to wait.
Lines can be noisy, with people bumping into one another. Since a lot of autistic children struggle with not knowing what will happen next and not understanding the line has an end, being able to wait in an alternate location can be helpful. You are able to get one return time at a time, and it doesn’t expire like a regular FastPass, which only has a one hour window.
Disability Access passes are available at Guest Services locations within the parks. Click here to learn more about who can use DAS and how it works.
3. Use your FastPasses!
This may seem obvious, but some families don’t like to be tied down to plans while at Disney. While I understand that, trust me when I say: You will want to use the FastPasses. There’s no penalty for not using them, but having them can definitely work in your favor.
Guests may select three advanced FastPasses per day. I like to stack them one after the other. I show up to our first FastPass at the end of its one hour window, so right after we can go to our second FastPass. We usually stop to get a DAS return time at another ride while on our way to our first FastPass, so there isn’t a lot of downtime. Downtime for my daughter is always difficult, as I’m sure many parents of autistic children can understand!
4. Maximize fringe hours at the parks.
Nighttime is our favorite park time! We love to use our Fast Passes in the morning, hang out at the hotel in the afternoon/evening, and then come back to the parks at night, right before fireworks. During fireworks, the line wait times tend to decrease pretty significantly, and then a lot of people leave the parks.
An added bonus: Temperatures are lower once the sun goes down! I know not all kids can stay up late, but if you have one who does, we find 8pm-close to be a really good time to visit Magic Kingdom.
Have an early riser, instead? Hit up rope drop! If your child is able to wait 30 mins before the park opens, you’ll be one of the first to get in. Make a list of 2-3 rides you really want to do and head straight there. It’s a good way to get a few more rides in, with shorter wait times, and less heat. My son and I did Flight of Passage this way, and then were able to ride Everest and the Kilamanjari Safari at Disney’s Animal Kingdom all before 9am!
Take advantage of Extra Magic Hours. These are times the parks open to on-site resort hotel guests only, and the lines can be much shorter! Extra Magic Hours may be offered before regular opening or after regular park close. Be sure to check the MyDisneyExperience app for accurate times and locations for your vacation dates.
5. Stay on property.
I just mentioned the benefit of Extra Magic Hours. You can only get these when you stay at an on-site Disney Resort hotel!
There are many more reasons to stay on property — all point to two things: MAGIC and CONVENIENCE.
When you have to cut and run because your child is DONE, you’ll want the convenience of taking a bus right back to your resort, instead of waiting for an off-property shuttle or making the trek back to your car, sitting in traffic, dealing with exiting crowds and all that craziness.
Staying on property allows you to make FastPass reservations 60 days prior to your vacation start — That’s 30 days before everyone else. You’ll find free entertainment and activities at your hotels, and let’s face it — Disney hotels give you the most magic at your fingertips!
5. Download the MyDisneyExperience app.
While I give this advice to EVERY client, it’s really helpful for those traveling with autistic family members.
Not only does this app give you park hours; interactive maps; parade and activity schedules; and the ability to make additional FastPasses after you use your first three — it also shows you ride wait times. This can be super useful in finding a short wait while in between FastPasses and DAS return times.
The app will also show you when and where to meet specific characters. If your child NEEDS to see someone special, this will help you not miss that opportunity.
6. Set realistic expectations.
You know your child best and how much they can handle. There have been days with my daughter where we’ve had to scrap our park plans and stay at the hotel. It’s important to be OK with that and to be OK with splitting up as a family. Focus on having special meals together and doing a few rides together each day. If you have more than one child, know that splitting up might happen, and it’s not a bad thing! Your goal is to make memories — not to push your kids into something beyond their abilities.
7. Remember your kid may surprise you!
Funny enough, my son is his best self at Disney. He is a sensory seeker, and Disney seems to provide the amount of sensory input he needs to regulate. The first time I took him, I was prepared to get the Disability Pass, and braced myself for meltdowns, but he did great! He even waited in lines. He loved looking at and feeling all the props and other items Disney puts throughout the queues and wasn’t bothered at all by the noise or crowds. We were at the parks from open to close — with me begging HIM to go back to the hotel! The roller coasters were his favorite.
It is completely possible to go to Disney with your autistic child and have a much better experience than you expect! In fact, this trip was with extended family including his neurotypical cousins, and he was the best behaved child out of everyone.
There is no “perfect” Disney vacation for anyone. Don’t be afraid to go. You can truly make it a magical and positive experience. I know we have! 🙂