Our son Carter is 8, and up until this past Friday, despite the fact that we live in Florida, he had never been to Disney World. Of course we’ve had good intentions of taking him there, but first it was “we have to wait until baby Collin is old enough to enjoy it too” and then it was “we have to wait until baby Rory can” and then we’d finally picked a date for our first trip when I got pregnant with baby Owen and had the world’s worst morning sickness that made us postpone it again, then another year while he was tiny, and then finally we decided to surprise them with tickets for Christmas and make 2018 our first family trip to meet the Mouse. After much debate, we got the three-day Florida resident passes, but we decided that starting with just one day at the Magic Kingdom with no hotel stay involved was probably the smartest thing to try, and after our first attempt at Disney World with special needs, I believe that was an excellent decision.
Our hesitation, if you don’t know us already, is because we had another unwelcome visitor on our trip with us: our daughter Rory’s apraxia. And her sensory processing disorder tagged along for the ride, too. And the idea of having these neurological disorders joining us for our family vacation scared the bejesus out of me because I knew that it was going to make a complicated and stressful trip much more complicated and stressful.
As with everything, I crowdsourced some tips from my Facebook friends before we went, and the most helpful one was teaching me about the DAS: Disability Access Services pass which is designed to accommodate guests who aren’t able to wait in a conventional queue environment due to a disability (including non-apparent disabilities). Now I will start by saying that without this pass we would not have survived the day, but there are also a few things that I think could have worked a bit better and that it would have been helpful for me to understand before we went, so I wanted to write this post to hopefully make other people have less stressful trips to Disney World with special needs.
Lucky 13 Tips for Surviving Disney World With Special Needs Kiddos
1. Let’s start with actually getting the DAS pass. You can’t book it ahead of time, so the first thing you have to do upon entering the park is head to the City Hall building to request it, which involves…standing in line. Does anyone else see the irony here? So of course while we were waiting, Rory had a huge meltdown, which at least did its purpose of proving that she needed the pass without anyone questioning me! They enabled her pass with DAS and linked it to the rest of our cards so our whole party could use it. You can have one DAS ride scheduled at a time and if you get another one, it bumps the first one.
2. Make sure they set up your first DAS ride for you when you get the pass. I’m told that the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is a good bet for this one if your kid is tall enough because it has the longest waits, but I didn’t think Rory was ready for it, so we skipped this one and did the Tomorrowland Transit Authority race cars as our first DAS.
3. Rory, as the DAS holder, had to be going on the ride we were using it for, so on the rides she wasn’t tall enough for, like Space and Thunder Mountain, we couldn’t use the DAS and had to use FastPasses instead. I thankfully had FastPassed Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain.
4. To reserve the DAS benefits after that first one they set up, you actually have to go in person to the ride you want to go on and check in with someone, and they give you a time to come back that is equivalent to the wait time on that ride (we found it was actually a few minutes less than the current wait time). Now that sounded easier in practice than it did when we were at the park, because it was reasonably busy and crowded and there were significant wait times for pretty much everything. So we had our three FastPasses set up throughout the day but since you could only have one DAS set up at a time, it required some brain power. The first one I set up on my own was for Jungle Cruise. Glenn took Carter (8) and Collin (6) on Space Mountain, which we had FastPassed, while I grabbed a free cup of water (another good tip!) at one of the refreshment stands, went back and got our stroller from where we parked it (because this is often not the most convenient location in the world), then hoofed it from Tomorrowland over to Adventureland pushing 55 pounds of kid in a double stroller in the 80 degree weather, got the pass, then hoofed it back across the park to meet up with the guys when they were done with Space Mountain. This was exhausting, but it was worth it to have another ride waiting for us. Note to Disney employees on the off chance you actually read this post: if we could submit some sort of documentation/diagnosis ahead of time to book the pass and use the Disney app to book each DAS like we use a FastPass this would have made my life a little bit less stressful on Friday. So grateful that DAS even exists, but removing a few of those hoops would make it even better.
5. Choose your rides carefully. Since we still had a while before our DAS for Jungle Cruise was ready and I was sweaty from my hike, we went on the Carousel of Progress in Tomorrowland, which was not the best idea for Rory because we were essentially trapped in a rotating tin can with no escape. And it’s QUIET! So when your kid is melting down, it’s a full audience experience. That was the one time during the whole day that we resorted to looking at pictures on my phone to help her calm down a bit, and I also nursed the baby, so two birds with one stone there. But next time we will do the People Mover instead if we have some time to kill between passes.
6. When you are planning your day, understand that you have to use ALL THREE of your original FastPasses before you can book another one. I assumed you could use one, then book another one, but that was NOT the case and our 4:30pm FastPass for Thunder Mountain made us less efficient until that point. I will plan differently next time!
7. For both the FastPasses and DAS, you don’t actually get to walk right on, you still have to wait for about 10 minutes before you actually get to the ride. If your kiddo is anything like mine, this is no small task and 10 minutes might seem more like the 150 minutes that some of the actual wait times climbed to (thank you Disney gods for not making us stand in any real lines with our daughter!). Rory tried every time to leave us in her dust and just shove her way to the front of the line and get on immediately, which of course we never let her, but there was quite a bit of screaming and scratching from the Princess. I’m sure everyone on the lines just thought we have a really bratty kid, but part of her disability is that she doesn’t understand HOW to be patient. (She is the same way during television commercials.) If your child is easily distracted, bring something to snack on, play with, etc.
8. Let’s talk about sensory issues. Thankfully Rory doesn’t get too freaked out by sounds or light, but if your kiddos do, the day might be even more difficult for you. Even on a less busy day like the one we were there, the park is hugely crowded and claustrophobic at times with the sheer quantity of bodies around you…even Glenn and I were wigged out by this. Carousel of Progress aside, every other ride we went on was LOUD. And many of them have bright, flashing lights (Buzz Lightyear, Space Mountain) or periods of darkness (Space Mountain, Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean) that I can see being problems for a lot of kiddos. Even Small World, the most innocuous of rides, has bright colors, lots of motion and loud music. Noise reducing headphones might be a good idea if your kiddo has sound issues.
9. Disney seems to be pretty awesome about food allergies from everything I read ahead of time. I scoped out the menus everywhere ahead of time since Rory is allergic/intolerant to pretty much everything and realized that we could get her some rotisserie chicken at Cosmic Rays Starlight Cafe in Tomorrowland, so we hit there for lunch. We didn’t go the separate kitchen route (which you can do if you have some extra time) but it was nice knowing it was an option, and if you want to do it, they will assign someone to oversee your meal. If you are just allergic to one or two things like a normal person, you should be able to eat pretty much anywhere and have an awesome experience. Because her allergies are not anaphylactic we could be a bit more relaxed than some people can be, but Disney seems pretty committed to working with you, so either contact them ahead of time or ask someone when you get there and they will help you. For dinner, I looked at the Pinnochio Village Haus menu and saw that they had penne pasta and marinara sauce, which I had just made her the other day. When it came and I looked at the order, I realized that DUH, it was REGULAR pasta, not gluten free pasta like she has to eat, so I passed it off to the boys, gave her some of the grilled chicken from my salad, a fruit cup I’d brought in, and some extra snacks and we called it a day.
10. Speaking of snacks, you CAN and SHOULD bring in a ton of them with you. We brought applesauce and other fruit pouches, Larabars, granola bars, almonds, cereal, juice boxes, water bottles and sippy cups and we went through almost all of the food that filled the bottom half of my diaper bag. Don’t forget some snacks and drinks for the grownups because I was starving between meals too. Our snack stash prevented quite a few meltdowns from everyone.
11. Rory is pre-verbal and if she got separated from us, she couldn’t follow the same plan we had with Carter and Collin (find a mommy or someone with a Disney name tag, tell them you need them to help find your mommy and give them my phone number, which they have both known for years). We got her a little pink bracelet with our phone numbers on it, but she HATES it and we didn’t want to add that stress to the day. So we used a label to write “I can’t talk yet.” with both of our phone numbers and stuck it on her back where she couldn’t rip it off. One of the low points of the day was when Glenn overheard some 20-somethings making fun of her “kick me” sign and then giggling and mocking her when they read that she couldn’t talk yet (which brings tears to my eyes as I’m typing this), proving that some people in this world are assholes. But otherwise we didn’t get any negativity during her less-than-fabulous behavior, so I still do believe that most people in this world are kind.
12. Know that even with all the planning in the world, if your child is anything like mine you are bound to have at least a few meltdowns. People will stare and give you dirty looks, but try hard to keep your cool as much as possible, escape if you can, and if not, distract, distract, distract. Our worst moment of the day was on Small World.
Rory wanted to sit right on the edge of the boat and dangle her hand over the edge, which I tried to distract her from unsuccessfully so she didn’t hurt herself, but when she wouldn’t knock it off I had to scoop her up and hold her on my lap while she screamed hysterically. I tried to calmly point out all of the funny animals, and what countries we were passing by, but nothing settled her down. And then the boat stopped moving in that last section when everyone is wearing white and all the kids from different countries come together, and she screamed and screamed and screamed while they sang and sang and sang. I tried to cover her mouth without getting bitten or suffocating her, but that was not terribly successful and we just had to wait it out. As I told one of my friends, Small World is one of those rides that some people think is a little piece of hell, and during our ride there on Friday, I totally agree! For us, the day as a whole was not about having rules and following them, it was about making Rory have as good a day as possible so the rest of us could have as good a day as possible. This included following diet restrictions, avoiding sugar rushes and removing distractions. For example, they gave the kids “My 1st Time at Disney” round buttons to wear when we were at the gates, and the big boys put theirs on right away. I put Rory’s on her, too, but she promptly ripped it off but then got mad when we took it away so she didn’t poke herself. Then she ripped off Collin’s. Then Carter’s. So we confiscated all of the buttons and put them away for the rest of the day. The boys were sad they didn’t get to wear their buttons, but it just wasn’t worth the drama that wearing them would have caused. I tried to explain to them that if we had waited until Rory AND Owen were completely ready to go to Disney that it would have been a few more years, and we wanted to take them sooner than later, so sometimes we just have to let Rory get her way.
13. While it’s still very fresh in my mind now, I know that all bad experiences get their edges softened by time, and years from now, when we look back on our first Disney trip, we will remember the fun memories we made, like telling the boys we were going to school, then we have to do some errands, we’re driving to one of Daddy’s projects, sorry it’s just taking longer than we thought with all of the traffic, and finally surprising them as we drove through the huge Welcome to Disney World gates. Rory’s epic Small World meltdown will be something to giggle about. We will talk about how brave the boys were to go on their first roller coasters, and how much fun the Buzz Lightyear ride, everyone’s favorite of the day, was, and how crazy it was to watch Carter DRIVING the car in Tomorrowland and knowing that we are halfway to his driver’s license already. I will remember how Owen fell asleep in the baby carrier as I wore him, and how both Rory and Owen waved to every character and animatronic character they saw with big smiles. Most of all, I will remember that we were brave and we did it even though it was hard. We made one of those big, special family memories that everyone will remember. And even with apraxia and sensory processing disorder tagging along like those ghost hitchhikers at the end of the Haunted Mansion ride (nope, we didn’t even attempt that one!), we survived Disney World with special needs.
- Ferry Boat ride over to the park: we will do the monorail next time because the ferry boat was super stressful for Rory and gave us the first meltdown of the day (also note that it takes a full hour to get from your car to Main Street between the tram, security, ticketing and the ferry/monorail)
- City Hall for DAS pass request
- Buzz Lightyear: FastPass
- Lunch: Cosmic Rays Starlight Cafe
- Tomorrowland Transit Authority: DAS and Ride Swap since Owen was too little to go but Rory was tall enough, so she got to go twice
- Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor: 10 minute wait, but was actually longer since you have to wait for the show to start, too, thankfully Rory handled this one pretty well
- Space Mountain: FastPass (also got the Ride Swap but didn’t use it)
- Carousel of Progress: never a wait
- Jungle Cruise: DAS
- Swiss Family Treehouse: Glenn and the big boys did this while the littles and I went to request a DAS for Pirates, then we watched the little pirate sideshow for a few minutes until it started raining, and then we took a little rest in the shade by Pirates until our DAS pass was ready to use
- Pirates of the Caribbean: DAS
- Thunder Mountain: FastPass, then once we’d used that last FastPass I set up one for Small World, and once we got over to Fantasyland I set up the DAS for Peter Pan
- Cinderella’s Carousel: Rory fell asleep, so I took the boys on this with a “10 minute wait” that must have been at least 20-30 minutes, but Owen LOVED it, so totally worth it!
- Dinner: Pinnochio Village Haus
- Small World: FastPass, end of the world meltdown, so we skipped Peter Pan!
- Souvenirs: had to go to a few stores to make everyone happy, but we survived!
- Monorail out of the park
If you made it to the end, here’s one more bonus tip I just thought of as I was reading through this: if you have a bigger family like ours (there are 6 of us), or even if there are just 4 of you, think about where everyone is going to sit ahead of time so you’re not scrambling when it’s time to get on the ride. Our first ride was Buzz Lightyear and as we were stepping onto the moving sidewalk to get on the ride I was trying to figure out who was sitting with who since it only looked like two people could sit in each car. Thankfully since I was wearing Owen, Glenn and Rory could come in one car with us and Carter and Collin rode ahead of us where we could keep an eye on them, but I made sure to think about this before we got on each of the next rides including Googling Space Mountain before Glenn and the boys went on so he was ready for it too (that one has three individual seats in each of two cars). On Thunder Mountain it looked like only two could sit in a row, but there was plenty of room for me, Carter and Collin.