For many parents the thought of a Disney Vacation brings visions of apocalyptic temper tantrums, crying, hungry and over-tired children.
For parents of children with special needs top that with a tenfold of anticipated stress and anxiety that accompanies the thought of maintaining a manageable environment while "doing Disney."
Our main goal was to make this trip as easy and enjoyable as possible. Thinking through the many catalysts that could trigger a breakdown and the tools that we could use to manage them, here's how to take away the cringe-worthy worry, survive Disney with special needs, and keeping everyone smiling.
12 Ways to Survive Disney with Special Needs
1) Teach Spontaneity
I know this sounds kind of ridiculous but kids with Special Needs (especially ASD/Autism) thrive on routine. Yet life doesn't adhere to a particular schedule no matter how hard you try. We spent a lot of time prior to the trip working on "what if's" and "Big deal ?or little deal?" scenarios. Our goal was to get the kids ready for plans not working out the way they should and keep expectations of routine low.
2) Be Strategic
As we started planning, we looked at the busiest traffic times of Disney and chose one of the lowest of the year. This allowed for low volume line-ups and often discounts on packages and accommodations. We think this is one of the MOST important parts of being able to survive Disney with special needs.
For the record, we went Sun-Thurs the first week of November which rarely saw a line-up over 20-30 minutes & allowed us to experience many more rides in a day.
3) Make it EASY
We booked our flights and hotel using Expedia, which offered comparisons and made choosing simple and quick. To save money, we flew out of Buffalo to Orlando, and then took the Magic Bus to Disney. This direct and comfortable shuttle system took our luggage straight to our hotel, and our bags were delivered shortly after we arrived directly to our room. This made getting through the airport a snap, which is rather incredible and definitely something I recommend for anyone travelling with children, special needs or not.
4) Stay on Site
We chose The Polynesian Resort for a couple of key reasons. The first, is that it is one of three on-site resorts that connect to Disney via the Monorail. We got an incredible deal for a multi-family room making access to and from the park quick, easy and fun throughout the day. It is also the best resort to watch the fireworks nightly with a perfect sightline to the show without the overwhelming loudness and crowds inside the park.
5) The Magicband
Staying on site also gives you access to the Magicband that goes with booking at any Disney World Resort. Truly one of Disney's smartest additions to the park and makes life so simple with customized Disney experience. Your Magicband is everything. From your hotel room key, FastPass+ access, your wallet throughout all the resorts and Disney World. You are able to purchase food, drinks & souvenirs in Disney using the Magicband which made walking around so much easier.
6) The FastPass+
The FastPass is a god-send for special needs parenting as it allows you to pre-book 3 rides in advance each day. This can be done via the Disney app, and provides a specific time you are "reserved" to head to the ride. Any opportunity where we can prevent angsty waiting is incredibly powerful in our world.
*FastPass+ bookings can be done 30 Days in advance.
7) Disney Parks Disability Access Service Card (DAS Card)
The DAS Card allows persons with special needs, be they apparent or not, to arrive at a ride and receive a time to come back. So instead of standing in line for an hour, we could leave and come back later, which reduced our wait time in the actual line considerably, and gave us the flexibility to do other things that would contribute to our Disney visit in a positive way. We got ice cream, saw characters, took a bathroom break, shopped and occasionally just sat down for a rest till it was time to go back to the ride.
8) Take Breaks
Staying so close also allowed us to choose when we were going to take some "breaks", heading back to the hotel pool to refresh and regroup, providing some peaceful downtime before we headed back to the park. With the Monorail 5-7 minutes to the park, it allowed us the flexibility we needed to manage those moments where we thought we were hitting our limit.
9) Use meal/snack times as distractors
One of the most difficult and often stressful parts of traveling with a special needs child is eating out, with unfamiliar foods and lack of routine, so we opted out of the meal plan to avoid the food lines, choosing instead to rent a car and drive to a nearby Target for familiar and healthy lunch/snacking foods. The fridge in our room allowed for us to start every day with a quiet, calm breakfast and we used food in the park to keep the kids busy while waiting.
10) Noise cancelling headphones
A number of the rides at Disney can be loud and jarring, so we packed a pair of noise cancelling headphones in the event that things got too much. This gave our son a chance to deeply cushion the incredible sensory experiences going on around him.
11) Have a flexible plan
Getting to the park early and choosing the most popular rides first was our strategy and we were able to enjoy them without ridiculous wait times. We tried to keep the rides balanced to reduce sensory overload, and if we did a closed, fast paced or loud ride, we would follow it with an open and slower ride that would be more relaxing and lower growing excitement levels. There will be moments you need to adapt. Just stay checked in with your kids and see what they can handle.
12) Breathe & Enjoy
The attendants and everyone we encountered at Disney were amazing, with customer experience obviously a priority. This is supposed to be fun for the whole family. So do as best you can to plan ahead, let routine go, let it flow, enjoy the moments and you too can have a Magical Disney vacation.
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