Autism, Kids and Disney World – One Family’s Journey

Several years ago, my wife and I took under our wing a single mom with two high-functioning autistic kids that we had met at church. Over time, we all developed into a wonderful, loving family. Having been long time Disney fans and frequent Walt Disney World (WDW) guests, we both wanted to take our “adopted” daughter and her kids to the World to share the Disney magic with them. We discussed the possibility with several people and were met with mostly skeptical responses. We were determined however and were encouraged after we met with the kid’s counselor and teachers from the local Special School District. They unanimously agreed that it was a wonderful idea so we set out to make it happen.

Let me say from the outset that both my wife and I are trained and work as scientists and engineers and have no medical training so what I am sharing here is our personal experiences, what went right and lessons learned. You know your child best and only you can decide how you want to proceed. I hope that our experience will encourage you.

We made the decision to start planning about ten months in advance of the trip dates. This was a little earlier than our usual planning of about eight months. With the eight month timeframe we had time to plan out where we wanted to stay and also plan out what restaurants we wanted to eat at so when the six month window opened up we were ready to make our ADRs (Advance Dining Reservations in Disney speak). We planned on using the extra time to lay some ground work with the kids who would be seven and nine years old at the time of the trip.

The kids were already familiar with some of the Disney animated movies so we continued to familiarize them with others so that they would have some background in the storylines of attractions associated with the movies. The other plan was to make the characters familiar to them so when they saw the characters at a meet-and-greet, they would not be afraid of the larger ones. We also took guidemaps from previous trips and showed them the various theme parks so they would get more comfortable with what would be unfamiliar surroundings.

We planned the trip for late May since the weather would be mild and the crowds still low before the summer season. The location of where to stay took some thought. We are Disney Vacation Club (DVC) members and our initial thought was to stay at Bay Lake Tower, which is one of our favorite places to stay. It is on the monorail, close to the Magic Kingdom, you can watch “Wishes” from your room or on the top floor. Our major concern was that this area around the Contemporary is busy most of the time and thought that if we needed to go back to the hotel to decompress, we would want one that was somewhat less crowded. In the end, we selected Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort. We reserved a two bedroom villa so we would all be close together but still have some privacy. It proved a good choice for us. A couple of afternoons when we returned to the resort, we were able to enjoy the pool all by ourselves.

We took a mid day flight from St. Louis to Orlando and used Mickey’s Magical Express (MME) to get to our resort. This was the first flight for the kids and they were excited about it and very interested in what was going on. We took the usual assortment of diversions for the kids to enjoy on the flight like coloring books and other favorite activities as well as some snacks. I also loaded up some Disney movies and cartoons on my iPod so if one of them tired of everything else they could watch it for a while. Both the flight and trip on MME went very well with no problems to speak of. At the resort, I had arranged to have Guest Services place two plush Sorcerer Mickeys in their bedroom. The kids loved them and carried them all over the parks the entire trip.

We got up early each morning since the kids are early risers anyway. We took advantage of it to get to the parks early to avoid crowds. We also took advantage of the Morning Extra Magic Hours for the same reason. The first day at the parks, we got an autograph book and pen for each of them. After a couple of misplaced pens, mom carried the books and pens until we got in line for the meet-and-greet. They very quickly got into the idea of collecting autographs. So much so that we spent more time at character meet-and-greets than we had planned but they really enjoyed it.
One of the keys in visiting the parks was to take it slowly and not try to rush anything. Based on the counselor’s advice, we were careful to manage expectations as to exactly what and how much we would do. For example, when the kids asked what we were going to do next, we replied that we were going to visit another attraction rather than something like “we are going to Peter Pan’s Flight”. The kids have difficulty with transitions so this avoided a problem that if we got to Peter Pan and the wait was more than 15 minutes we would select another attraction. If we had told them specifically what attraction we were going to they would not want to change despite the wait. They would get impatient with longer waits so it was best to avoid them. There was one exception which I’ll describe later.

Days hiking around the Disney Parks can be tiring for anyone. We took several breaks each day and had something to drink and also had some snacks as well. Mickey Bars were the biggest hit of the trip with both kids and adults. Which brings us to meals. This was one of our lessons learned and one area I would do differently than we did.

Our initial thought going into the plans for meals was to use mealtime as a means to relax somewhat and rest. For that reason we selected the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan, which equates to 3 table service meals per day plus snacks. This sounded good in theory but not so much in practice. This actually presented us with several problems. First, none of the group were big eaters and three table serve meals is a LOT of food. We found that we never actually were hungry for most meals. To make matters worse, since these table serve restaurants book up fast, we had ADRs for EVERY meal. This meant we had to be at a certain place at a certain time whether we were hungry or not and also dictated which park we needed to be in. Even if the park was getting crowded we couldn’t Park Hop because of the ADR. This made the kids rather restless to sit in a restaurant when they really didn’t want to eat in the first place. My suggestion is to have no more than one table service meal per day and usually reserve that one for dinner. That allows you the flexibility to grab a quick breakfast then eat a quick serve lunch where and when everyone gets hungry. Snacks, especially for the kids, works well whether they are brought along or purchased at the parks. We like to purchase at least one snack a day and let the kids pick what they would like after we introduced them to our favorites cough…cough…Mickey Bars… cough…cough.

Keeping the sit down meal for the evening meal worked well because if we took an afternoon break we could just return to the hotel for a while and then return to the park where we had the ADR (or other resort). One evening our nine year old “princess” dressed in her Cinderella costume at the hotel and we went back to the Magic Kingdom where we had an ADR for Cinderella’s Royal Table. We have a memorable photo of her with Cinderella that we will always cherish.

Following our planned strategy, we were able to avoid any serious meltdowns with the kids. One afternoon at Disney’s Hollywood Studios the kids were getting tired but didn’t want to go back to the hotel since they were still excited despite being tired. We took a break to sit in the shade across from Indiana Jones. After a cool drink we let them lie on a bench with their heads in our laps and they promptly fell asleep for a short nap. They woke up refreshed and ready to go.

As far as the rides and attractions, we stayed away from some of the roller coasters except for Big Thunder. After letting the kids look at it for a while, we asked them if they wanted to try it and they gave us an enthusiastic “YES!” We followed that plan anywhere we could with rides we thought questionable and it seemed to work out pretty well. I think they got more adventurous as the trip went on and they gained confidence that the rides were fun rather than scary. We avoided Space Mountain and Rockin’ Roller Coaster (RRC) since it was hard to give them a preview and I was concerned that since they were in the dark that might be too much. On the last visit to DHS however, after quizzing me at length about what the ride was like, our nine year old asked to go on it. Neither my wife nor our daughter are fans of roller coaster that go upside down so they stayed behind with the seven year old boy and she and I got in line. Now, RRC is my FAVORITE ride so that was no problem for me but I will admit I was concerned how she would do. In line I pointed out to her the cars, how we would be both strapped in and have the shoulder harness and what would happen when we were “launched”. She still wanted to go so we got on. I get giddy as a schoolgirl when we get to the countdown point and I think it rubbed off on her. At that point, I thought oh well, there’s no turning back now (with apologies to the Haunted Mansion). The ride is over almost before you know it and I looked over at her in the seat beside me wondering what I’d see… She had a grin from ear to ear and asked me “Can we do it again ?!?!” Whew, success! That must have inspired her and she then asked if she could go on the Tower of Terror which is right next door. On the way over she was talking a mile a minute to her brother and by the time we reached the queue, which turned out to be short, he wanted to go also. He met the height requirements so we all decided to give it a try. We sat in the back row with the idea we would be removed somewhat from the edge when the door opened. Well, this ride worked out very well also. Both of the kids had huge smiles on their little faces.

That really brings me near the end of this story. Disney is all about making memories and we all made a ton of them on this wonderful trip. Oh, one last thing. I said I would mention one exception we made to the longer wait time rides. Looking back to the first trip we made to WDW with our small son at three years of age, I had read in a guide for taking kids to Disney that once they saw Dumbo, you might as well get in line because they won’t want to go anywhere else until they get to ride it. I walked through the Castle arch holding his little hand and as soon as he caught a glimpse of Dumbo, he raised his other little arm, pointed and said one word “DUMBO”. I thought to myself well they sure called that right. Needless to say, we got in line and rode Dumbo. Now, flash forward twenty years. I am walking through the Castle arch holding our little “grandson’s” hand. Although he didn’t talk much, as soon as he caught sight of Dumbo, you guessed it, he raised his little hand, pointed and said “DUMBO” Guess what we did next…..

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4 thoughts on “Autism, Kids and Disney World – One Family’s Journey

  • March 8, 2012 at 9:52 AM

    An excellent story Ron, thanks for sharing! On your next visit with the ‘grandkids’, if I may make a recommendation based on our experience with our autistic son Ben, you can visit “busy” attractions and avoid long lines by stopping in at Guest Services on your first day and requesting a Guest Assistance Card. Disney is wonderful at helping families with autistic children and they are very accommodating.


    • March 8, 2012 at 5:54 PM

      Thanks Mark, I didn’t realize that they did that. Though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised as no one is more customer er, “guest” friendly than Disney. We’ll try that next time!

  • March 8, 2012 at 5:38 PM

    Beautiful story, Ron. Its a great description of your concerns going into the adventure as well as how to adapt to changing situations as they arise. I’m sure this story will inspire others to challenge themselves and their families to take some risks and then reap the rewards. Thanks for sharing.

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