Taking Your Autism Spectrum Disorder Child
to Walt Disney World

FAQ with Tips and Ideas

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Traveling to WDW with an Autistic Child

Tips for Autistic Children at Walt Disney World

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Traveling to WDW with Someone who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder?
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FAQ: Taking Your Autistic Child
to Walt Disney World

By Stacey Dunn

We have traveled to Walt Disney World four times with our daughter, who is autistic. A trip anywhere with an autistic child is sometimes a challenge, but there are few places better able to handle the challenge than Walt Disney World

Should you go?

The first question you should ask yourself is, "Should I go?" If your child is hyposensitive, has a Disney perseveration and needs a lot of stimulation to learn (like ours does), you'll have a great time, provided you plan ahead.

On the other hand, if your child is hypersensitive, afraid of crowds and noise, and afraid of large, stuffed characters, think about it carefully. If you think it will work out, though, give it a try. Disney World made a lot of miracles for our child--it may do the same for yours.

How should I plan ahead?

First, decide what you can afford in the way of lodging. My recommendation is to try to stay either on the Boardwalk or the Monorail if you can afford it. It makes it MUCH easier to get out of the parks in the middle of the day. If you are a teacher, I have heard that you can get discounts at the Swan and Dolphin hotels with rates as low as $129/night. If you are not, you can try to get a Starwood Hotel Club discount, or an Entertainment club discount at the same resorts. Entertainment books (and, by extension, the card) can be purchased through their website, or they are often sold as fundraisers by schools and clubs. Also, you may want to call about annual passholder discounts--the discounts may be enough to offset the expense of one member of the party getting an annual pass. This will usually get you a rate between $150-$175. This will probably be about your lowest price on the Boardwalk.

http://www.mousesavers.com/ is another good source of discounts; if you are traveling during the holidays, the Swan and Dolphin usually offer very good rates to everyone, particularly if you need two rooms.

You can also sometimes get Disney Club discounts at some of the resorts, but it really depends on the season.

The Boardwalk Resorts are:

Yacht & Beach Club
Boardwalk Inn & Villas
Swan & Dolphin (not owned by Disney, but with most of the same amenities)

The Monorail Resorts are:

The Grand Floridian
Shades of Green (although it's not a monorail resort, it's very walkable to the Polynesian)

I would not stay at the All-Stars with an autistic child. From everything I have heard, their transportation is not very good and there are long lines for the busses in the morning. Having gone by there once, it looked scary enough that we canceled a reservation there.

On the other hand, we have stayed in the Courtyard by Marriott at Downtown Disney when it was a Howard Johnson's, and it had decent transportation (as well as being walking distance to Downtown Disney), and was about the same price or lower than the All-Stars with most of the same amenities. It will still be a bit more of a challenge to leave the park in the afternoon, but probably easier than with the All-Stars.

What else should I do before leaving?

Make sure you speak to your child's psychologist and get a note stating that your child is autistic (or has PDD or whatever). This will allow you to get a pass that will greatly shorten your wait time for rides, and will also allow your child (in most cases) to avoid unwanted personal contact in the lines.

Also, my suggestion is to prepare some business cards describing your child's condition and asking people not to make eye contact, attempt to jolly the child, etc. because they are making matters worse. Keep these in your pockets for tantrums. My husband and I jokingly call them "buzz-off" cards, (or sometimes other names when we're really in a bad mood, but it would change the "kid - friendly" rating.) They are also useful to give to hotel detectives if your child has a really off day.

A picture schedule of the whole trip, including a picture of your airline's itinerary and the hotel, and any interim stops can be useful, particularly if you have some kind of icon or sticker your child can move when s/he gets to the destination/completes the action. Many airports have websites so you can determine what restaurants are there and set your child's expectations accordingly, or bring food if necessary.

With the events of September 11, 2001 now a part of every trip, it makes the airport a more difficult experience both for autistic and typically developing children. Be sure to familiarize yourself with your local airport's restrictions. I would recommend getting copies of every one of your child's prescriptions, if s/he takes any kind of regular medication. It will probably make your trip through the airport more speedy.

If you, like us, need to have a lot of stuff on hand to get your child through an extended plane trip, please remember to allow plenty of time to get through the checkpoint, and in addition to goodies for the plane, make sure you take enough distractions to get them through the endless lines at the airport. As to the question of whether or not you should travel during these troubled times, that's something you will really have to answer for yourself. All I can say is that I'm going to Disney World.

Obviously, bring all important lovies and toys. I recommend starting your packing list at least two weeks before you go, then if you find you've forgotten something important, you can add it before it becomes a problem.

What Should I do Once I Arrive?

The first thing you should do when you arrive at the first park of your choosing is to go to Guest Services with your doctor's note and with your child. (Don't leave the child with a parent while one goes in to get the pass. Apparently, there are some unscrupulous people who have used the disability passes even though they do not have disabilities.)

As of our last trip (December, 2001), we were told to use the FastPass entrances, if any existed, otherwise the Disabled entrance, if it did not put us in the regular queue, otherwise we were to use the exit. Let me make clear, you will not get on immediately, no matter what! However, this does make it a little bit easier.

I was also told to show the pass to the handlers during the character visits, so that the characters know the situation with the child-- it gives the character a better idea of what to expect.

Some cast members, apparently, are given some training with regards to autism, so don't be surprised if they're more aware of what's going on than most theme park employees.

I have not had a big problem with this, but I have heard other parents complain that sometimes people will glare at them (or make rude comments) when they use the pass. I only had this problem once (and never at Walt Disney World.) After the rude shouted comment, I turned to the shouter and said, "I'll make you a deal. Your child can be autistic and my child can be healthy, and then you can have this pass and I'll stand in the longest line this park has to offer and like it." He made no further comments.

My Child Shows Great Improvement When We Go--How Do We Reduce The Cost?

We found that our daughter made great improvements whenever she went to WDW. As such, we now go every year and I've developed a few strategies to help out with the expense.

Since there are only two times a year--February and December--when my daughter has at least a week off, the temperature is comfortable in Florida and she doesn't have other therapies, we've set it up so that, rather than going once a year, we put between 10 and 14 months between visits. Here's what we do:

Buy a Premium Annual Pass (say, in this case, in February, 2001)
Use my old Starwood Rewards Points (or get the Entertainment discount) and make a reservation at the Dolphin or Swan. (Usually for about $160/night). If I can't or my budget won't allow, stay at the Downtown Disney Courtyard (or other Downtown Disney hotel).

Go during my daughter's February week off.

Using the Starwood Points I just earned or old ones I had for that purpose, make reservation for Christmas. (for the purpose of this example, 2001). (or Courtyard if I'm on a budget)
Use my same annual passport for this visit (no new tickets this way, and I get the other annual passport discounts.)
Wait until February, 2003 to go again, and repeat the process.

Any Shoulds/Should Nots?

Under no circumstances spend the whole day in the parks! You'll be really sorry by 5pm. There's a lot of stimulation here and your child will need some time to process it. We usually try to go early, come back in the afternoon and then go back in the evening when you can. This is much easier if you're staying at a Boardwalk or Monorail hotel.

Do: Get out of the park in the middle of the day. Don't spend your whole day there or your child will be in full tantrum mode by afternoon.

Do: Get a copy of the Walt Disney World Official Guide for Kids. It has really useful information about noise levels and darkness in the rides, so you can judge whether or not a ride is appropriate for your child.

Do: Leave yourself open to miracles. My daughter's first words, first snuggles, great vocabulary improvement and first full use of the toilet all happened at Walt Disney World or on the plane ride back. Something about the place has been magical for us, at least.

Do: Call in advance for reservations. A hungry, waiting child can get cranky, and short waits for mealtimes are useful. This is especially true if your child wants to attend Cinderella's breakfast (a difficult reservation to secure), or if your child is on a GFCF diet, so that the restaurants know. (Thanks to the many parents who wrote in about their GFCF diet experience.)

Do: Bring earphones or earplugs if your child is noise-sensitive--it can really make a difference. (Once again, thank you to the parents who made this suggestion.)

SPECIAL NOTE: If you are traveling with an adult who has autism or Asperger's, as well as a child, be even more sure to set up some breaks from the crowds and noise.