Friday, November 11, 2011

How to Navigate Disney World with One or More (or 4) Autism Spectrum Children

Last post I talked a bit about the challenges I've faced taking my children (four of whom are autism spectrum disorder) on vacation to an amusement park--specifically I talked about Disney. 

In this post I will break down things we did that drastically changed our experience in the parks and made it enjoyable for everyone.   You can apply some of these suggestions to other parks as well. 

(Updated intro Feb 2013)  First a brief summary if you are new to this blog.  I'm a wife and mother to six kids--four of whom are ASD.  I love all things crafty, though I don't have a lot of time to work on any projects.  My dream list of projects is a mile long . 

The kids:  Firstborn is a teenager and has Aspergers.  Whirlwind is also a teenager (barely) and has been diagnosed ADHD, Aspergers and at one point Oppositional Defiant Disorder (another post on ODD at another time).  Lawboy  has been diagnosed Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD).  Princess Ballerina has no issues.  Acroboy (he loves gymnastics) has PDD as well.  Baby Girl was not born as of this last trip.  My children who are on the autism spectrum are all high functioning--though we definitely have sensory issues we deal with and lines/waiting are really hard.  Whirlwind is a teenager and can wait in a line a little longer than he used to, but it is still a challenge for him. 


Most important suggestion/rule--If you are planning a trip to any amusement park, do a little research first. 

1)  Firstly--figure out what time of year you want to visit.  For ASD kids I recommend picking less busy times of year if you can.  You can do summer and therefore all the water parks too, but you need to know it will make everyplace you go more crowded.  It will also be hot.  Very, very hot.  Some kids don't do as well in the heat.  We personally like the off season times because they are cooler and less crowded. 

No matter what time of year you go, sites like will have crowd calendars.  To me it's worth paying the membership fee to access the site in advance to plan out our reservations.  (FYI-they haven't given me any compensation to say that--I'm just a fan).  I pick restaurants in the parks with the lowest predicted attendance.  You can make reservations up to six months in advance which is necessary for some restaurants.  More on dining in a minute. 

Crowd predictions come from historical attendance for the park for the last several years back on that day, the day of the week, magic hours and any special events going on. 

2)  After you've figure out when you want to go, if it is a non-Disney park call customer relations/Guest services and find out if they offer a disability pass.  Find out if it applies to those with nonapparent disabilities as well and what restrictions, if any, apply.  For instance Universal's Islands of Adventure won't issue disability passes if overall wait times in the park are less than 20 minutes.  (We did not find this out until we were in the park).  Their passes are also not good for rides like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (Also found this out after we had paid admission).  This can be a problem for kids whose sole purpose in going to Islands of Adventure is to see the Harry Potter ride.  (When we went there 18 months after the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey opened on a slow day the wait was still 45 minutes).    In our experience Universal was not a friendly park for ASD kids. 

Disney's disability pass (Guest assistance card) is good for groups up to six people.  You also need to  plan on having the child(ren) who have the disability with you when you ask for the pass.  I've read stories that some people were treated rudely when their children's disability was not readily seen.  The Americans with Disabilities Act says you should not have to provide proof or specific information to get your GAC, but you might want to consider bringing a doctor's letter anyway.  I had some information with me and offered to show it to them, but they said they didn't need to see it.  I think the fact I was prepared to prove we needed help was enough to get us the pass.  I understand that their reluctance is to reduce fraudulent use of the GAC.    

3)  Third, think about your accommodations.  When we stay at Disney World we've found it easier to stay on property so we can take advantage of the transit system and easily come back to our rooms for a break.  I've heard recommendations to stay at resorts the monorail stops at (Polynesian, Contemporary, Grand Floridian), but those are too pricey for our family.  We have found the bus rides provide a good bit of down time to start decompressing before you get back to your room.  We've stayed at Pop Century--one of the most economical resorts, but my husband felt a bit claustrophobic there.   As crowded as Pop Century can be, they do have an excellent food court with lots of variety, and we asked for non-preferred rooms which were actually closer to the parking lot than the pools and were quieter for us. 

Our most recent trip we decided to move up to Port Orleans Riverside and were much happier with the room we had.  If we were a slightly smaller family, we would consider taking advantage of the cabins at Fort Wilderness or the new family suites at the Art of Animation. 

For us being able to spread out a little and have personal space to decompress is very helpful.  Again, to make the trip more economical for our large family I look for deals on rooms and/or dining.  The free dining plan is a HUGE bonus for our family and I hope they keep bringing it back.

If you are going to Disneyland there are lots of hotels close to the park, and much more economical than the Disney hotels.  In that case I would recommend staying off property at a hotel with a kitchen/kitchenette.  That would allow you a bit more flexibility with being able to eat more meals without a lot of extra stimuli. 

4) Fourth--Rides.  In addition to doing research into Disability passes and accommodations, do a little research into the rides.  We learned the hard way that "It's Tough to Be a Bug" is a terrible ride to take a child with sound, bug and darkness sensitivities.  So is Stitch's Great Escape.  My children literally thought they were being poisoned and sprayed with acid.  If you want to avoid losing a good portion of your day--do your research. 

Another note on Universal.  Before we left on our 2011 trip I called Universal Islands of Adventure customer service line.  The customer service rep I talked to was very helpful with all sorts of information for me on the type of rides they had.  We found a good many of them (because of lights, sounds, darkness, etc) might disturb our boys who don't like loud, dark attractions.  This included Harry Potter.  We definitely would be avoiding "Twister".  Unfortunately the rep left out the fact they won't issue the passes on days with "small attendance" and that they are aren't good for Harry Potter which would have saved us many, many, many tears that day.   

I've written a separate post about our mistakes and advice for touring Universal Islands of Adventure (focusing mainly on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter).  

Back to rides at Disney--I've been to Disney enough times now and made enough mistakes here are my recommendations to avoid:

It's Tough to Be a Bug
Stitch's Great Escape!
Dinosaur (though Indiana Jones at Disneyland doesn't bother them in the same way)
Possibly Space Mountain
My kids also dislike the Haunted Mansion, and were ducking during the Alien scene of the Great Movie Ride.  We generally skip Ellen's Energy Adventure.  It's about 35 minutes and is in the dark with a few animatronic dinosaurs.  It is a smooth ride, but one we skip.  We also tend to skip Honey I Shrunk the Audience because of their reactions to "It's tough to Be a Bug".

If you decide to brave these rides/shows I recommend you talk to a cast member and try to sit near an exit on Tough to Be a Bug and Stitch's Great Escape!  That way you can leave if it gets to be too much.  I understand you can request seating closer the stay for the Disney Junior show to help cut down on stimuli.  

Prepare your children for what they can expect from the other rides.  Dinosaur and Indiana Jones are mostly dark rides, extremely bumpy with the hydraulics on the jeeps, flashing lights and perceived situations with possible life-threatening danger.  Haunted Mansion is also dark, you travel backwards down a hill at one point and when the ghosts come out to play there is a lot of stimuli.  (Loud noises, singing, popping up figures, flying ghosts in the sky, etc).  I would only try those rides right before you have some planned down time with something pleasant (maybe head back to the hotel for a swim in the pool or a nap).  Otherwise plan on losing a portion of your day to calming your child. 

You can do research from home if you've never been to Disney. Disney offers free trip planning DVD's and there are a ton of youtube videos out there on everything from rides to parades and fireworks. 

Another option--if you have never been on the ride, and if your child can handle it, you might want to consider a reverse child swap.  Go through the line together, then have one of the adults in your party ride the ride to determine whether or not your child/children will be overwhelmed by it.  You know your kids better than I do.  If the ride is acceptable, go on together.  If not, you can all leave.  Be careful and set the expectation that you might not go on the ride at all.  A little bribery might be in order if you have to leave.  I definitely would not do the reverse child swap on the following rides because of their length (Times from the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World):

Ellen's Energy Adventure is a show/ride combination. It is 35 min.
Great Movie Ride is about 20 min.
Kilimanjaro Safaris about 20 min.
Spaceship Earth about 16 min.
Tomorrowland Transit Authority (Some flashing  lights)10:03
Maeltstrom's actual ride is about 4 1/2 minutes with a five minute film afterwards--about 14 minutes wait time total.
These are just my suggestions, because you can always be surprised by your children.  My kids dislike Dinosaur, but they love Space Mountain.  Space Mountain  is also dark, loud and jerks you around, but because they like roller coasters, they love it. 

Go Figure.
In my last post I talked more about how the Disability Pass can work for those with have a difficult time with lines.  However ride are not the only things to generate lines and waiting.  There are lines for meals, character greetings, and even the bathroom.  Waiting for the fireworks or a parade can also be taxing on ASD kids.  You would be wise to prepare your children for some wait times-no matter what time of year you go.  I should mention some rides don't allow you to use any alternate queue if the wait is 20 minutes or less.  Thankfully that is about what my kids can do--20 minutes worth of waiting. Disney has more been introducing more interactive queues which may or may not help your child wait. 
1)  Use smart phones--To minimize the trauma of longer waits we personally have used our Nintendo DS systems in the past.  I think a better alternative would be to use one of the many autism apps out there on smart phones.  There are also some great apps out there that will keep you updated on ride times at the various parks.  You can take advantage of unexpected short lines. 
2)  On rides like Dumbo which have a queue that wraps around we've had one parent get in line and explain to the people behind us that Acroboy and Lawboy would be joining us as we get closer to the front of the line--we are letting them wait somewhere more quietly because of their autism.  Then when the line gets fairly close to the ride (whichever parent is not in line is watching or we communicate via text) we are joined by the rest of our party.  Most people have been understanding if we explain this.

UPDATE 2013--We're thinking about taking another trip to Disney World in the next year.  I spoke with a cast member who filled me in on Dumbo's new "fast pass" system.  They now have TWO Dumbo rides.  You get in line and get a "pager" much like they have at restaurants.  You and your child(ren) are free to explore and play.  When your time to ride comes up, the pager buzzes at you and you report back in line.  I haven't personally experienced this yet, but I LOVE this idea!!  This is  a great way to keep my kids happy, occupied and still get to ride Dumbo.  
3)  You can use social stories to prepare your children to wait or for potential ride breakdowns. 
Meeting Characters

There are three ways to meet characters at Disney.   1) Character greeting spots where the character is there most of the day.  2) Character spots with designated and limited times to greet and 3) Character meals.  Characters are usually accompanied by cast members.  You can explain to the accompanying cast member your child's disability and often times will help the process go even smoother. 

1)  Disney has created character greeting spots where popular figures like Minnie and Mickey Mouse are there pretty much all of the time.  When we were at Magic Kingdom, Mickey had a permanent home at Town Square.  His previous home was in Toontown.  Now that the Fantasyland renovation is done, I believe Mickey is still at Town Square, but the Princesses (which vary as to who is there) have moved to a new permanent greeting spot.  These permanent  greeting places often have wait times posted.  You can pay attention to the posted wait times.  On our last visit we noticed Mickey and Minnie at Town Square had a five minute wait time.  That was within my youngest children's abilities, so we waited in line and got an extra meet in.   

2)  Characters like Snow White, Alice, Peter Pan, etc will have designated spots around the various parks.  At Epcot Alice from Alice in Wonderland appears at the Great Britain pavilion.  Snow White has an area next to the German pavilion.  They won't be there all the time and sometimes a spot will change which characters appear.  Check your event guides for details.  An example of this  type-- on a different day when we were in Epcot and Princess Ballerina wanted to meet Snow White who was the only Disney Princess she had not yet met this trip.  We were eating lunch in China and I noticed on the event guide Snow White would be appearing in the park soon.  I finished eating and left for Germany (where Snow White appears) and got in line.  Actually I started the line.  I waited by the wishing well and texted my husband where I was.  He took his time with the kids and by the time they made it to Germany, there was a minimal wait to see Snow White.   Everyone was happy.

3)  In our experience, even better for kids with ASD (though a bit pricier) are the character meals.  These are where the characters come to each table (often the meal is a buffet which allows you to get what your child wants to eat--a bonus for kids with food texture issues like mine have).  The only line you have is the buffet and then the characters come and pose for pictures, sign autograph books and give your children great interaction without someone else barging in (which happened during my parent's 35th anniversary trip).  This is IMHO THE best way to meet most of the characters.  There is sometimes a wait to be seated at your table, but that is one of the few times we let those pesky DS games back out.  If we time it right, we can watch one of the parades while we wait to be seated at the Crystal Palace.

Character meals can be quite noisy with all the children, noise of the buffets, and giant characters coming around, etc.  If you are worried about how your child will respond you can ask to be seated in a more quiet area or you can try to book reservations near the first or last seatings.  They are often unpopular times and therefore a bit less stimuli in my opinion.  We brought snacks in (like granola bars) in individual fanny packs for the kids to help them last between meals.  
If your child does melt down, don't worry they won't be out-of-place.  Plenty of kids get emotional at meeting their favorite character. 
Cinderella's Royal Table is a popular place to meet several of the princesses, but it difficult to get reservations for.  An easier and cheaper option is eating at Akershus in the Norway pavilion in Epcot.  See the next paragraph for additional information. 
Understanding Dining/Reservations--Disney has two types of meal service within the parks.  1) Counter service and 2) Table service.  Counter service meals are places akin to going inside a fast food establishment then finding a place to sit and eat.  Table service the equivalent of going to a restaurant, and getting seated by the host or hostess.  Table service restaurants require reservations.  You can make reservations up to six months in advance.  Cinderella's Royal table is extremely popular and usually requires as much advance notice as possible to snag a reservation.  If you are lucky you can get a cancellation.  You need reservations at Table service restaurants no matter if you are staying on property or not.  If you have a large group, you can break into smaller groups to increase your chances of getting reservations.

UPDATE 2013:  The new hot ticket for reservations is Be Our Guest.  You can reserve seating for dinner, but not for lunch.  The lunch seating acts a bit more like counter service.  You order at a kiosk and they give you a rose and then the enchanted carts come to your table with your food!  One friend reported to me that the lunch line was already forming at 10:30 am, so if you are determined to eat there you need to plan on standing in line, or you really need to call 180 days out.  
If you stay on property, you can opt to get a dining plan.  if you get the Magic Your Way Plus Dining you get one table-service meal per person per night (which needs reservations) and one quick-service meal per person per night you stay, plus one snack per person per night.  You are responsible for tax, alcohol (not an issue for us), and gratuities.  There are also options for all table service meals or all counter service meals as well.  We like the Magic Your Way Plus Dining because it allows us the best of both types of eating. 
Additionally when you make reservations if you do it by phone you can alert them to any special dietary needs.  We have a gluten-intolerance in our family.  You can also alert them via email when you make your reservation, but I've found more success when I speak to a real person.  If you tell them about your special dietary needs, your reservation will be flagged and the host or hostess will have a red stamp on your ticket.  Depending on the type of meal you have, someone will talk to you about gluten-free options.  At Mama Melrose's we got a gluten-free menu.  At Chef Mickey's a chef came out and took us through the buffet to point out safe options.  Be prepared to wait just a little longer if you have a buffet reservation. 

You can keep calling to get reservations at restaurants until the day you want to try and eat there.  If you are lucky you'll get a cancellation.  Don't count on these though. 
Tips on eating--

1 )  First tip is to use crowd calendar predictions to plan out your park attendance and therefore your dining reservation.  If Magic Kingdom is going to be the most crowded park and Hollywood Studios the least crowded park, I would book a reservation at restaurant in Hollywood Studios. 
There are other factors to look at with crowd calendars, but my advice to focus on the crowd level numbers.
2)  Best tip--If you have a kid with autism, you know anything can happen and your whole day get turned upside down.  I recommend for everyone's sanity and stress levels to overbook (by a couple of meals) your dining reservations if you have the meal plan.  With the meal plan you have to use the dining credit before you leave Disney--they don't keep until your next trip.  If you overbook, it  will allow you some flexibility in eating and avoid the stress of trying to get in all your table service meals.  The first time we went to Walt Disney World and had the Dining Plus plan I did not do this.  We created havoc for ourselves trying to get to reservations when the kids were on edge.  It stressed everyone out more.  This most recent vacation I overbooked our sit down meals by about three meals.  I made reservations for a breakfast AND a dinner on a couple of days.  On the nights we decided to stay late in the parks, as soon as I knew that was the plan I would cancel the breakfast reservation for the next morning (freeing it up for some lucky person who was hoping to score a last minute reservation).  I know my kids move slowly when they are up late the night before and so this helped our laid back pace.  Alternatively, if we made our breakfast reservation I might cancel our dinner one.    You can keep the extra reservations, but you will pay out-of-pocket for those. 
A couple of character meals like Akershus and Cinderella's Royal Table (both have quite a few Disney Princesses) require a credit card deposit which gets charged unless you cancel much further in advance.  If you book one of those, plan to attend.  For kids with food or texture issues--breakfast at Akershus is a better option than lunch.  Lunch has Norwegian fare like cheeses, salmon, and other meats cold buffet style with a few kid friendly items.  Breakfast is more typical American fare.  

UPDATE 2013:  When booking dining reservations for our family's vacation, I found there are more restaurants that require a credit card to hold your reservation now.  Make note of which ones they are so you have plenty of time to cancel if need be. 
3)  Back to the research thing--Check out the menus and quality of meals before you book.  There are so many Disney fans out there you can pretty much Google any menu for any restaurant.  I also highly recommend the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.  They have reviews on restaurants with reader comments.  
4)  If you talk to a cast member and explain some of your issues, you might get some great recommendations.  See the next tip. 
5)  Lastly, don't be afraid to try something new every now and then.  On our last trip, Firstborn (who has the most sound sensitivities), absolutely loved the crazy chaos of the Biergarten in the Germany Pavilion at Epcot.  We would have never tried it had the cast member I talked to not been so effusive in her praise. 

A Few Other Tips
Regarding strollers--we've both brought our own, and rented them at the parks.  Bringing our own full-size stroller was a hassle when we wanted to board trains, buses and parking shuttles at busy times.  Once we were about to board a parking shuttle and while we were in the act of collapsing the stroller, another family zipped on board and took our places.  There were a few times it was more convenient.  In light of all of our experiences, most recently we've just decided it was easier to budget renting them at the park.  You get a discount if you rent for more than one day--you just have to show you receipt and stroller ticket each day.  Additionally we always bring a funky colored bandanna or sock to tie onto our stroller to make it distinguishable from the other strollers. 

 We also get a double stroller so the slightly bigger kids can rest. 
Parades--Disney does some fantastic parades, but they attract a lot of people to them.  Our solution is to pick a spot near the end or beginning of the parade route (we prefer the beginning) and to use our stroller as a buffer for our children.  We put a couple of kids in front a couple in the stroller and some behind it and my DH and I shield them.  The configuration always varies, but it works for us.  The older boys are not always interested in the parades, so sometimes they skip them all together and I view the parade with the youngest kids. 

Fireworks--My kids do like to see the incredible fireworks displays.  We brought glow bracelets to keep us together, stayed a bit further back, and brought earplugs for those who are sensitive to the noise.  If we plan on seeing fireworks, we know it will take a while to get back to our hotel with Disney transportation, so we plan on sleeping in the next day.   After the fireworks you can either rush to the transportation pick-up spots, or you can take your time-possibly do some browsing in the shops (if your kids will tolerate it).  Since my kids don't like being rushed, we take our time walk out slowly and do our best to start the calm down process.  We have allowed them their DS games while we wait for a bus to pick us up.

Fanny Packs--I mentioned my kids each have a fanny pack.  They can keep a couple of treats in them, hand sanitizer and/or wipes (my kids don't like sticky, gross hands), their DS's and a $.98 poncho from Wal-mart.  It's Florida--it rains--ponchos are a must.  We try to keep them pretty light so they don't get tired of wearing them. 

Clothing--This last trip we also wore coordinating Mickey shirts we made.  It was easy to spot the kids who may have had their attention caught by something and were wandering off.  (That has been a problem in the past).  To make our shirts, I got inexpensive t-shirts and tie-dyed them.    There are also cute Autism/ADHD/Asperger shirts out there you could consider wearing.  We did get a few glares/strange looks on occasion when we were using our disability passes.  They probably would have been eliminated if we were wearing our shirts--though frankly at this point I'm pretty used to people giving me dirty looks at some point when we are on a big outing.  My favorite shirt is one that says, "Discipline won't cure my child's Autism.  Thank you for your concern."   It's polite, but gets the message across.  Even if you don't have matching shirts, you might consider everyone wearing the same color of shirt each day. 

Plan some Down Time--each day I would recommend you either plan downtime either in the morning, a mid-afternoon nap, or at night.  My kids are slow to move in the mornings, so we would go later to the parks and stay until closing.  The mornings were relaxed and our downtime.  We brought cereal to our rooms and more often than not--didn't make it to those breakfast reservations I made (We did make it to one).  My kids also have a hard time leaving the park once they get started--especially if they don't know how long we'll be gone.  It is easier for us to have that downtime in the mornings.  If you go to Disney in the summertime, I recommend you have your downtime in the afternoon.  It gets hot and you will not gain anything by trying to run a marathon of all-day events and stimuli with autistic kids.  Just make sure you set expectations for when you will return.  An alternative to leaving the parks would be to hang out on Tom Sawyer Island at Magic Kingdom, The Boneyard at Animal Kingdom, some of the gardens at Epcot or the Honey I Shrunk the Kids play area at Hollywood Studios (not to be confused with the show which we avoid).  At Sea World, the kids have all loved Shamu's Happy Harbor at some point. 

Lastly, set overall expectations for the trip.  One of the best things we've done with our trips is to ask each member of the family what their top three things they want to do at Disney are.  Then we also write down their second tier choices.  Before we pick we check to see which (if any) rides will be closed for refurbishment. We always get the top three things (whether it is riding a particular ride, watching a parade, looking at an exhibit). We try to get the next tier as well, though everything after the first tier we consider to be icing on the cake.  If each person knows we will absolutely get their favorite activity in, it tends to help them be more patient. 

On a humorous note, the older kids have figured out that if the smaller ones say they want to go on Soarin', they don't have to list Soarin' on their "must do" list.  It means our list has gotten a little longer over the years. 

I've always tried to be consistent with my kids in letting them know expectations--this includes how we handle money and the inevitable requests for souvenirs.  On our trips we allow the children to have a set amount of money for souvenirs.  If they want to save additional allowance for souvenirs, they are free to do so.  When they are tempted by every t-shirt, stuffed animal, hat or key chain I remind them they only have X amount of money.  Once it is gone, it is gone.  We've had a few melt-downs over the years--especially when they are younger and don't quite understand how far a dollar goes--but as they grow they grasp the concept more and more.  It works for us and has a bonus of teaching budgeting skills.

Whirlwind--who has issues with impulse control--pleasantly surprised us by saving his own allowance and using his souvenir money for that wand he wanted.  Princess Ballerina, who spent her money on a Belle dress to fit her 18" doll, was the one who had a fit because she didn't have enough money for a wand too. 

So there you have it--my advice for families with children on the autism spectrum.  I hope if you are considering a trip to Disney it will help you have an enjoyable time together.  If you have a comment or question, please feel free to post it below. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences.