Visiting Disney Parks with Special Needs Children

When most people visit Disney theme parks with their kids, their biggest worry is the 3PM meltdown due to the lack of nap. For those of us who have children with special needs, approaching any family vacation takes a bit more planning and consideration. Visiting a place like Disneyland or Disney World may be harder with a special needs child but the rewards can be incredible. Thankfully, Disney recognizes these obstacles and has created the Disney Parks Disability Access Service Card.

My son is on the autism spectrum and I credit many of his advances to the incredible early intervention therapy he has received as well as our family’s commitment to travel. Travel allows children to take a step outside of their normally scheduled programming (aka: the happy place for most autistic kids), helping them learn to adapt to a variety of situations outside the norm. It also allows these children to experience the same things that typical children get to experience, with those same ear to ear smiles of pure joy.  

I have never been a fan of keeping a special needs child from experiencing life just because the logistics might be more difficult. Many children have breakthroughs while experiencing the Happiest Place on Earth and many parents realize that their kids are capable of so much more than they imagined. Here are some tips to get you ready for your first Disney trip with your beautiful, huggable, perfect-the-way-God-made-him special needs child.

 

Photo courtesy RachelColeman.com

Read about all the fun Rachel’s adorable daughter had at Disneyland.

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Before You Go

Packing for Disney World
Photo by: Bigstock
  • Pack a copy of your child’s diagnosis in the bag you will be taking to Disneyland and Disney World. Disney cannot legally ask you for proof of diagnosis but I believe it can only make life easier when speaking with Cast Members at Guest Services.
  • Bring a recent picture of your child with you. Nobody ever plans to have a child wander away but it does happen.
  • Don’t over plan your day. It is better to go into the parks expecting to take it slow with plenty of breaks and then be pleasantly surprised when your child is up for more fun.
  • Pack things that will comfort your child. Special blankets or lovies can help calm a child in the event of overstimulation, familiar snacks will placate the picky eater, and games or toys can entertain a child while in line.
  • Those with food allergies or intolerances are allowed to bring food items into any Disney theme park. Most table service restaurants and many quick service restaurants are able to accommodate food allergy issues. Friends who have visited the parks with a child with severe food allergies have been pleasantly surprised by how many food options their child had. Trekaroo also has a great guide to traveling Disney Parks with food allergies.

When You Arrive

Head to Guest Relations First

Disney Disability Pass City Hall
Photo by: Flickr/ToursDepartingDaily

 This is where you will able to pick up your child’s Disney Disabled Pass Access Service Card. This replaces the Guest Assistance card that was in use prior to 2013. Be sure to bring your child to visit Guest Relations with you because you will need to prove he or she actually exists (again, another side effect due to those who have tried to scam the system in the past). A Disney Disability Pass (DAS) is valid for 14 days.

Note: Guest Relations is at City Hall in the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland Park. 

Ultimately, the key to a successful trip to a Disney park with your special needs child is communication. Disney is less interested in what your child’s specific diagnoses might be and more interested in which specific concerns you might have while visiting the park.  They want to help guests with disabilities have the best experience possible.

Be specific about your child’s needs and limitations. If your child has issues regulating body temperature and can’t tolerate waiting in long lines in the heat or can simply only spend a limited amount of time in the park per day, let the cast member at Guest Services know. If your autistic son only wants to ride Pirates of the Caribbean three times followed by Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters two times because he is prone to ritualistic behavior, share this information. If you use your child’s stroller as a wheelchair or as a safe zone to keep her comfortable when she is prone to sensory overload, explain it to the employees so that they can give you a special sticker which allows you to push the stroller through all ADA accessible queues.

Communication is ultimately the key to making sure your child’s needs are met so be sure to clearly communicate what specific restrictions your child may have to better help Disney appropriately accommodate guests. If you have a service animal, it will be allowed in the park and special guidelines will be given. If you would like a sign language interpreter, one can be provided with two week’s notice.

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Visit the Disability Service Kiosks

Disney Vip Tour
Photo by Sarah Pittard

Under the new system, if the wait for a ride is longer than 10 minutes and you do not want to stand in line with your child, Disability Access Service (DAS) card holders must go to one of the various Disability Services kiosks located within the park.  You will be given a return time for the attraction your child wishes to ride. You may bring the other members of your party (up to 6 people) on the attraction. A DAS card cannot be used by a family member- the person with the DAS card must always be present to use the card. 

In order to be given a new time for a new ride, you must return to a Disability Service Kiosk to be given a new time. All of this will be explained to you at Guest Services, along with a map highlighting kiosk locations.

Note: if your child has a physical disability and only needs ADA access, you will not be using the kiosks. Guests with mobility issues will simply be going through the ADA entrances to rides that are not accessible. Also, note that FastPass may be used in combination with the DAS system.

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Embrace Your Child’s Excitement

Disneyland toddler with Minnie Mouse
Photo by: Sharlene Earnshaw

Head to the area of the park your child is most excited about first. If your child loves Buzz Lightyear, take him to the Astroblasters. If your daughter loves music, let her sing along with dolls from around the globe in It’s a Small World.  Something familiar and beloved will help ease any apprehension your child might have about this new experience.

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Avoid Sensory Overload

Monorail at Disneyland
Photo by: Flickr/Cazatoma

If sensory overload should occur, ask a Cast Member for the nearest quiet location. A meal in a quiet corner of the park or a ride on the monorail may be great places to slow down and reload.

Remember to have fun! Expect the unexpected and enjoy the moment. If things get difficult, take a deep breath, address the situation, and then get back to experiencing all the Disney magic. Oh- and take lots of pictures. They are only little once!

Do you have an upcoming trip to Disneyland planned with your special needs child and still have concerns whether or not Disney will be able to accommodate his/her needs? Send an email with your specific concerns to disability.services@disneyparks.com and include your phone number and the best time to reach you. A Disney employee will be happy to return your call and address those concerns. Disney also recently put a wonderful Disneyland Resource Guide for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities on their website which is definitely worth a read. 

Explore our ultimate guides to Disneyland and Walt Disney World!

Ultimate Vacation Guide to Disney Parks for Families

Our Ultimate Disney Guide is our go-to-resource for everything you need to know when planning the perfect family-friendly vacation. Explore our ultimate guides to the Disneyland California Resort, Walt Disney World, and other Disney properties, resorts, destination vacations, and cruises.

 

Lead Image by BigStock/FamilyFotographer

About the author

Sharlene Earnshaw is Trekaroo’s Editor in Chief. She lives in sunny Orange County, CA, with her husband and 10-year-old son and daughter (twins!). She is a self-proclaimed National Park junkie and has the goal of visiting each and every one with her kids. When she isn't traveling to places like Norway, Peru, Disney World, and Hawaii with her family, she enjoys hiking, beach days, obsessively rooting for the San Francisco 49ers, and planning her brood's next trip.
11 Responses
  1. Amelia

    I’m excited to share this article with some of my friends – I wouldn’t have come up with these tips and am sure many moms will be relieved to see their are ways to make Disney easier!

  2. AEPaul

    Another great new resource is AllergyEats Disney World (www.allergyeats.com/disney).

    Using the same peer-based rating system as parent AllergyEats (the largest online guide to allergy-friendly restaurants), you can see which Disney World restaurants are more or less food allergy-friendly based on the experiences of other food-allergic diners that have come before you – because while Disney IS the gold standard in serving guests with food allergies, even they aren’t perfect.

    AllergyEats Disney World is a great compliment to the wonderful tips posted in this article. Use it in advance when making dining reservations or, if necessary, on the fly while in the parks with a hungry child dying to eat at Restaurantosaurus.

    Hope everyone can have as much fun as our family (5 kids, 3 w/ food allergies).

  3. Mama Bub

    Great tips! And honestly, I think these are great idea for any family visiting Disney for the first time!

  4. Allergy Free Mouse

    We have a website for Disney fans with food allergies, at AllergyFreeMouse.com. The site has tips for planning your trip, restaurant reviews and advice for avoiding food allergy exposure while on your trip.

    The site also has a great section with tips and reviews for dining on Disney Cruise Lines with a food allergy.

  5. Tina

    The gorgeous little boy in the picture with Minnie Mouse looks so happy that the picture gave me goose bumps. 🙂 Great post!!

  6. Caryn B

    Great tips. This is a very valuable post for all parents, but esp. parents of children with special needs. My son suffers from food allergies so I really liked learning about the fact that I can bring food in

  7. Shelby Barone

    What a great post. I am going to share with my friend who has a special needs daughter. Thank you

  8. Kim M

    We have a grandson who is Autistic. We took a family vacation to Disneyland with our children and grandchildren almost 4 years ago. Our grandson was only 7 months at the time and no signs of being autistic. His parents had annual passes so they went to Disneyland quiet often for a year. At the end of that year they were seeing the signs of autism. They pushed to get him diagnosed before he was 3 and have given him all the help he can get. My husband and I took him back to Disneyland when he was almost 3 years old. He does not smile much but when we came through the tunnel his eyes just light up and it is a memory I can never forget. We quickly realized he had no patience for lines. On our next trip later that year to Disneyland we had no problem getting a special pass for him. We have never needed to show paperwork. A few times we have been asked which one in the party is Everett and we point to the one laying on the ground or trying to get away. He is now 4 1/2 and we buy him a pass. We love taking him to Disneyland and will always have blessed memories. Thank you for the tips. Disneyland is our favorite family vacation.

  9. MakeItWithMissy

    Thank you for this detailed article. I have a special-needs child, and I’ve been worried about how he’ll handle Disney.

    I know this is an old article, but I have a question if anyone is still around lol. What do I do if my special-needs child has siblings? Do they get the same accommodations by default? My kids are too young to let them all go their own way at Disney.

  10. Sharlene Earnshaw

    Thank you for the question. Everyone in your family (up to 6 people) will be allowed to join your child on the accommodated attractions.

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