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Planning Your Disney Vacation With Children With Additional Needs


My first post on this site was over five years ago and the one where I really took the saying to heart write what you know. Back then, my world centered around adjustments for my children, who both have additional needs, and the steep learning curve of learning what makes things earlier for them and for me. Being a frequently traveling family, I’ve learned many lessons the hard way, so I’ve always appreciated the power of sharing information, because you never know who you might be helping along the way. It was certainly me who was helped in the early days of the diagnosis, which means that, for me, it is very appropriate to pass on these experiences.

This first article was How to Plan Your Disney Vacation for Children with Special Needs, part one of a longer series that started my way here at The Dis. Now, in 2022, when my kids are older and know each other better, I thought it might be time to revisit this topic with an updated perspective on solving some of the more recent issues facing families with additional needs.

Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

Involve your family in the process

We’ve all seen those YouTube videos of families surprising their kids after school and taking them to Disney on the same day. Well, it’s safe to say that won’t be enough with kids like mine with ASD and ADHD. In our house, successful everyday life revolves around preparation and everyone is on the same page. Be sure to involve your family in your planning process. I have found that my children have brutally honest reactions, and sometimes, while that may not be the reaction we want, it will be your best indication of how good an attraction or experience is at course of the day.

If you’re watching POV videos and your child seems overwhelmed, chances are it won’t improve with the sensory overstimulation of being there during the day. On the other hand, they might surprise you and feel excitement watching these videos, one that resonates with them when you’re actually on the ride in person. I like to make planning a family affair and assess how new experiences might come out of that initial discussion. Turn it into a fun night or two and ask everyone to contribute to the discussion.

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Discuss differences in travel conditions

Families with additional needs will know that much of what we find successful is based on a solid routine with clear expectations for each individual. If you are familiar with pre-pandemic travel, take the time to work through the changes with your family and make sure you familiarize yourself with the new requirements and regulations. For example, while the airport may not be, many airlines still require face masks on board. If you’re no longer used to doing it at home, knowing masks are a possibility ahead of time and having one ready that isn’t a sensory trigger could be a lifesaver.

It would be worth talking to your family about always keeping a mask with them. Just because it’s not a requirement at Disney doesn’t mean you might not be in a situation where you’d be more comfortable wearing one. A friend of mine recently went to the parks and found herself on “it’s a small world” with a gentleman behind her who had a terrible cough and didn’t cover his mouth. I’ll spare you its description, but it included the words “droplets” and “shower”; very uncool. It’s a situation where, if you feel uncomfortable and choose to do so, you can put this mask on and feel a little more protected from any illnesses behind you. You can also decide not to, but as long as you have one with you, it’s still your choice, not a situation you’re stuck in that could leave you in bed and missing the rest of your vacation.

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Managing sensory overload in parks

We’ve talked about sensory overload a few times over the years. It’s a big part of what can blast your perfect Disney vacation for neurodiverse and neurotypical kids. Disney is a place where you can quickly feel overwhelmed, thanks to the sensory stimulation. The same thing that makes the place so magical and immersive can trap some people in a loud, intrusive environment that they can’t escape. The way the crowds are right now, noise and the invasion of personal space are high on the list of triggers, which is why I highly recommend noise canceling headphones or noise canceling earplugs. We use Vibes which are efficient, unobtrusive and easy to use, although there are many other brands that can simply tone down this sonic sensitivity.

Another aspect that might surprise you is how bright Orlando’s parks are. Of course, we’re all used to the sun, and it may seem silly to those who’ve never had to think about it, but the sun can be a very serious element when it comes to overwhelming your vision. If this is something your family has struggled with in the past, it will be much worse in the Florida sun, so be sure to take sunglasses to help your vision adjust.

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Plan downtime

I know that goes against everything you are encouraged to do. Disney says pack as much as you can, although personally I can tell you the opposite is true. Be sure to schedule breaks. Filling 80% of that activity time and successfully ticking everything off is far more productive than filling 100% and being caught in a mid-run meltdown. Besides ticking the boxes, you want everyone to feel good; just getting there is not the goal.

Add that downtime to your planning, whether it’s an afternoon at the resort pool or even a leisurely stroll to a quieter attraction like the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse; space out those chaotic breaks to keep regulations in check. Sit-down lunches at table-service restaurants can be a great way to get in the atmosphere, but also take some time to reset inside. During this time, you can regulate the temperature, rest, recover from noise or inclement weather, refuel and concentrate. It also gives you time to talk, check in with everyone, and see how people are feeling. The information shared during these breaks could be just what your afternoon needs to tweak your plans in the right direction.

Photo by Katherine McAdoo on Unsplash

Always have items that help with regulation

The best way to solve problems that arise is to get them under control before they become a bigger problem. Always carrying items that encourage regulation is an essential part of regulation planning for a favorable outcome. Oral stimulation like chewing gum can keep frustration away if things get too intense. Anxiety or nervousness may benefit from keeping hands occupied with small, fidgety objects. Try anxiety rings or stimulation bracelets for older children who want something more discreet.

You can even bring this idea into the resort room with you by having items that are familiar to you and that make your family feel comfortable in an unusual place. Pillowcases or Calm Sleep Stories, whatever makes them feel peaceful.

Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

Am I a professional? No, not by far; but I’m a mom (Aussie for mom) who has lived and breathed the troubleshooting aspects of international travel with kids facing different challenges for 15 years now, and I can promise you I’ve banked a few solutions along the way.

Of course, the Disabled Access Service Pass is another option for families who need help queuing, though there are new application protocols for that as well. You can find more information about DAS here.


Feature picture: Photo by Steven Lozano on Unsplash

#Planning #Disney #Vacation #Children #Additional

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