Disney World is supposed to be the happiest place on earth, but as I was preparing for our family’s recent trip, I admit I was dreading parts of it. It would be the first trip for our youngest daughter, who has cognitive special needs, and I had no idea how we were going to pull off a week of Disney magic for everyone, without being totally stressed out.
The idea of waiting in long lines was haunting me, not to mention, the fear that she’d get separated from us, considering she’s non-verbal and a different race from my husband and me.
As we got closer to our departure date, I really was worried that this expensive trip would be a total waste of money.
But, of course, Disney has thought of everything. They want your vacation to be magical for everyone, kids with special needs included. So I’ve put together my BTDT tips for planning a stress-free Disney vacation with a child with special needs.
And yeah, it actually was pretty magical.
CMP is an rstyle affiliate.
Note: This was a self-funded family vacation, no sponsorship or coordination with Disney. (Which we would always disclose anyway, if there were one). All opinions here are, as always, are completely our own.
Related: Everything you need to know about a family vacation at Aulani: A Disney Resort and Spa
My top 10 tips for a happy Disney vacation with children with special needs
1. First thing: Get a DAS card
Disney offers a Disability Access Service (DAS) card designed specifically for guests with both physical and non-apparent disabilities who have difficulty waiting in lines in the park. It’s different from wheelchair or scooter access, which allows someone with a physical impairment to wait in a regular line for a ride.
Instead, DAS lets you basically skip the long wait times in line and, instead, you are free to do what you want until it’s your designated time to return and ride the attractions.
Having the opportunity to utilize this system literally saved my trip. If we’d had to navigate standard lines with our daughter who couldn’t manage all the waiting, I imagine my husband and I would be so worn out that we’d have headed back to the hotel around lunchtime each day. Maybe even before. But because we had the freedom to visit a playground, get a snack, change a diaper, or just let her just run around while we waited for our turn, both of us had the energy to actually enjoy our trip.
(At least most of the time, ha.)
Check out my other post to learn more about how exactly the Disney DAS card works, from where to pick it up (i.e. not where we were originally told!) to what you’ll need to get it, how it functions, and more.
Related: 13 really smart tips for ensuring a great Disney World vacation with a baby
2. Use your stroller as a wheelchair
While you’re at guest services checking in, you can also get a “stroller = wheelchair” sticker for your stroller. This allows you to keep your child in the stroller while you wait in line instead of parking it nearby.
For almost every ride, we parked our stroller right next to the load-in area, then we were able to put our daughter straight back into it as soon as we unloaded. It was invaluable!
Related: 10 of the world’s most simple tips for enjoying a Disney vacation with kids
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
My mother-in-law is fearless about asking for what she wants, especially when she’s dropped the kind of money you drop on a trip for your whole family to go to Disney. So, when we were told our return time for our last ride of the day was an hour away, and our daughter was beginning to lose it, my mother-in-law asked (nicely) if it were possible for us to could go ahead and ride it right then.
Because customer service is king at Disney, we got a yes!
The cast member gave us a “magical moment” and sent us through the FastPass+ line right then. It meant we were able to experience the only ride my daughter could enjoy at Hollywood Studios, and still get back to the hotel in time for lunch and rest time without a total meltdown.
Now this may not always work, but it can never hurt to ask.
4. Look for handicap-accessible entrances to rides
Some rides, like It’s A Small World, have a handicap accessible entrance separate from the FastPass+ line. This enables you to walk straight on to that ride without needing to use the DAS card to skip the line.
Keep this in mind in Fantasyland in particular, which has lots of accessible entrances, generally at the exit points.
Every time we needed a calm, air-conditioned moment, we knew that handicap-accessible entrances meant a ride we could get on quickly.
5. Ask to ride again. Seriously!
If the load-in process is more challenging on a particular ride, and the wait isn’t particularly long at that moment, don’t be afraid to ask the attendant if they’ll let you ride a second time. Because those rides have loading and unloading zones that are constantly moving, and it’s easy for you to jump back on without interrupting the flow of the ride — permission willing.
For example: We had a chance to ride Kali River Rapids in Animal Kingdom, and when they pulled our raft to the side to unload, we noticed that the next DAS group was small meaning there would be enough room for us to ride again. So they let us!
The awesome special-needs dad that joined us just stuck his finger up in the air and did that circle motion signifying “one more time!” after their first ride, and we all ended up riding three times in a row together!
Related: A Universal Orlando vacation for younger kids? Totally.
6. Know where the playgrounds are.
Sitting on the sidewalk and waiting while your family rides a roller coaster can be miserable, especially when the weather is brutally hot.
Since our daughter is preschool age, this happened to us a lot. Luckily, I’d found Jill Krause’s brilliant post on the best playgrounds at Disney near all the big rides.
While our big kids rode Splash Mountain, Thunder Mountain and The Barnstormer, I enjoyed the shade with my daughter — and a nearly-empty playground full of sensory stimulation all to ourselves.
A favorite was this incredible air-conditioned play space in the Dumbo line (above) where parents literally slept on benches while kids played.
But, Disney, if you’re reading this: why in the world did you not build a little kids’ playground in the new Pandora World of Avatar? Why?!
7. Don’t be afraid to find a calm space to take a break when you need it
If you need a place to chill, Disney World has calm, quiet rooms available throughout the park in the event your child is having stimulation overload and just needs to settle down for a while.
Usually these double as the nursing and baby care rooms, but if you find yourself nearing a meltdown just ask a cast member where the nearest quiet room is and they’ll help you get there quickly.
I think sometimes parents feel like they aren’t “getting their money’s worth” if they aren’t go-go-go through their entire trip. But when you’re traveling with children with special needs — or any young children, really — allowing yourself to take breaks will mean enjoying more of whaat you do see and experience.
8. Feel free to skip the parks
Our daughter’s favorite part of our entire trip was actually…playing in the hotel pool.
She was able to get all the sensory stimulation she could possibly want in the huge splash pad, and my husband and I were able to relax more just playing with her in the pool.
If you’re staying on property, take advantage of the amazing hotels at Walt Disney World Resort, and enjoy all the amenities! We stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and loved the free face painting and cookie decorating activity every afternoon. And “free” isn’t something you hear often at Disney.
Related: 6 fantastically fun things to do in Orlando without kids. Hey, it’s your vacation too!
9. Pack the items that let you be prepared for…anything. (But, you already know that.)
If you’re reading this, you’re likely already a pro at navigating the world with a child with special needs. But take a moment to sit down and think through your child’s triggers and what items calm them down, then keep those things nearby.
Small details like packing an extra outfit in your daypack can turn an “oh no, she’s getting soaked right before dinner” moment at the golf course into a joyful, stress-free, favorite family memory. Here are a few others ideas:
Pack the right stroller
As for strollers, I’m generally able to get through a normal day at home with a small umbrella stroller, but for our Disney trip we borrowed my neighbor’s Nuna Mixx, which sits much higher and lets my daughter could see more than the backs of people’s knees. It also has a huge basket underneath for us to store our stuff.
It was the best stroller I’ve ever taken to Disney — and this was our fourth trip.
Pack a blanket or swaddle
I wouldn’t have thought to pack a blanket in 90-degree heat, but I saw parents who’d draped thin blankets or muslin swaddles over strollers to block some of the overwhelming stimulation for their kids. So smart!
Consider packing a carrier
Our daughter is a squirmer and my biggest fear was that she would try to climb out of a ride.
So even though she’s four, and we don’t normally use a baby carrier with her at home, we brought our LÍLLÉbaby carrier (shown here) that holds a child up to 60 pounds. We used it on every single ride, and it was a life saver.
If you go this route, bring one that’s both forward- and backward-facing, so you have options!
Pack toys…and tethers for toys
I saw one child with their favorite toy hooked to a lanyard around their neck. This way, they could fidget to their heart’s content without dropping it on the germ-covered ground a thousand times. Yes, mama! Good call!
Do not fear the fanny pack
Yes, I wore a fanny pack. It was just what I needed for quick, easy access to mandarin oranges, an extra straw (my daughter needs one to drink), and a backup battery charger for my phone, in case she needed some quiet time with her favorite app.
Any lightweight daypack will do of course, but having the hands-free convenience of that little zippered compartment in front of me at all times was just so convenient, that I will not apologize at all for loving my fanny pack! Or hey, call it a belt bag if it makes you feel better.
10. Be prepared for a difficult re-entry to normal life
Getting back to our regular routine at home post-vacation has been harder than I expected.
My daughter’s sleep routine has been disrupted and we’ve had a more meltdowns than normal. While I thought she handled all the overwhelming sights, sounds, and crowds at the parks like a champ, it’s possible that she was just storing that overstimulation for later.
I still think Disney is worth the trip if you’re traveling with a child with special needs. Just be prepared — as with all things — to work a little harder to keep your child in their regulated place once you’re back home. Especially if they have sensory processing issues.
But you’re a strong, warrior parent, so I know you can do it!
The bottom line…
A trip to Disney World is meant to be magical for kids…and their parents. Sure, it can be more challenging if you have a child with special needs, but it was so nice to feel like we had an entire team of people who were willing to accommodate us, knowing that life is a little different with our daughter.
Besides, the entire Walt Disney crew seemed more than happy to do just that, every moment we were there.