First off, going to Disney World with a toddler is hard enough. The lines, the heat, the rides they can’t do, keeping them happy through the walking and waiting… You get the idea… But then add in a toddler who isn’t verbal, so communicating his wants, his needs, or even his excitement, a toddler who doesn’t like to be touched by anyone other than immediate family members. A toddler who has to touch everything, and can’t handle crowds, lots of noise or loud sudden sounds, and well Walt Disney World sounds like it could be a nightmare for this kid. And if not done properly, it can be.
We have now been at WDW for an entire month, and while we came here with some knowledge of doing Disney with a disability, we didn’t have it all figured out. It took some imagination, and loads of patience from everyone to finally get a good Parks routine. A routine that allowed for kid rides, adult rides, fun and laughter for everyone. Yes I said everyone, including our little Carson, who if you are new to our family, is on the Spectrum. How is probably what you are asking yourself, well let me tell you that it took a couple of weeks of trial and error, but eventually we found the way that works best for us.
First and foremost – The minute after you walk through the turn stiles into your first park, immediately head to Guest Relations. This is where you will get a Guest Assistance Card (GAC), this card will be your life saver! They will ask that the child/person for whom the assistance is needed be present when you are requesting this. Also if your toddler is still using a stroller, be sure to bring that in with you. If they don’t offer a stroller = wheelchair sticker for you to use on your stroller, ask for one.
Now that you are armed with your GAC and your stroller doesn’t have to be left behind, you are ready to get going. I will go through Park specific tips in separate posts, for now lets go through some general tips to make the trip better.
We have found that going to parks for no more than 4 hours at a time is key. In the Florida heat, it makes it uncomfortable for our little guy to go much longer than that, and he seems to start to melt down right around that point, even at night. No matter if we arrive first thing in the morning or late evening, we only stay for less than 4 hour time blocks. During our “off” park time, we either head to our condo/hotel and either let him play or go swimming. We also will take him to one of the water parks. Anything that gets him out of the crowds, and allows for him to be cooled off while not having to be in the stroller still.
Because we have the luxury of going to the parks daily, and not within a certain number of defined days, we typically let him sleep in, and when he wakes, he eats, plays, watches Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and then we start the process of asking him if he wants to go see The Castle (if we are going to MK), the Big Ball (if we are going to Epcot), Buzz and Woody (if we are going to HS) or all the Animals (if we are going to AK). Sometimes he is ready and jumps up and runs to the door to go, other times he tells us no. When he tells us no, we take our time getting ready and start talking about all the things we will see and do at the park. Eventually he is ready to go and just as excited.
Once we get to the parks, we make sure the first ride is something he can do. That way he can immediately get out and do something. Now even with our GAC there can be waits with some of the rides, usually less than 15 minutes. But for certain rides, if it is longer than 5, we don’t stay. We have learned that he gets too excited and starts to melt down in the line if we aren’t moving. If the line stops and we are in a crowd it can go either way. Sometimes he is fine, other times he can’t do it. We watch for his clues. As you know, each child on the spectrum has little things they do to show you it is too much. For us it is either twisting our hair if we are holding him, covering his ears, laying on the floor, or flapping his ears. When we see the tell tale clues that he is overstimulated, or that the situation is too much for him, we either start on redirecting him or leave the line all together.
Food – If your toddler is anything like ours, then eating is a big issue. Who knows if that day he will eat, or what he will choose to eat and the parks just don’t carry enough variety to cover the game of what will he eat. So to battle this, we take a cooler bag in with us and pack it with ice and single serving of foods for him. We take everything from crackers, to apples, to go-gurts, to chips. We get into how we eat at Disney in another post, but for an ASD toddler, making sure you are prepared for their food needs is important!
Keep him happy – We find what he likes at each park and be sure to allow him ample time to truly immerse himself in the experience. After all, he is making memories as well. He sees the world differently then we do, and taking the time to enjoy the parks from his perspective makes for a great day for everyone. Yes we spend too much time touching the castle, or watching the birds walk around, and walking all the lines in the road at the parks, but we get to see the wonder of Disney from the eyes of our ASD toddler.
Feel free to come do Disney with the ASD glasses on with us, just watch for the family walking the railroad lines at MK, or the white lines on Hollywood Blvd, and join right in!