Creating Magic and Special Needs
Hope you are enjoying a most fabulous holiday season! I’ve just returned from the Walt Disney World Resort and let me tell you, what an incredible dose of holiday cheer our trip really was.
Specifically, this blog post is about traveling with someone who has a diagnosis of autism and the things we did in particular to make our trip a smooth and enjoyable one. Just a little bit of background first. My son Kevin, is 24 years old and has a diagnosis of Asperger’s. He is on a further end of the Asperger’s spectrum and by that I mean that he’s well spoken, does not have any severe mobility or adaptive issues. Challenges he sometimes needs to work through are anxiety, especially in busy places and with social cues in social situations. He likes to be on the move and appreciates a heads up kind of routine- knowing a plan before we actually execute it. He has grown up going to Disney, including the time we lived practically next door and spent several years as Annual Passholders.
He and I have never traveled just the two of us and I am honestly not sure where the idea originated, but I was thrilled it did. We had a lovely time planning our vacation- I let him have at it when it came to planning meals and our resort/park choices. Some persons on the spectrum do not do as well with open decision making- so as with everything I detail here, please know that it’s entirely possible all the things that worked for Kevin may not work for someone else.
The first consideration I took into account was our journey there. We fly typically and Kevin tends to be a nervous flier. As with anything else, I gave him as much info as I could- including our itinerary and the types of planes we would be on- he likes to do research on the computer, so he had at it watching videos. He’s flown before, but he tends to do this each time we fly as part of a preparation process he works through. One thing we did decide to do for this trip is enroll him in TSA PreCheck. If you aren’t familiar with this program- it allows you to skip the main security screening at most airports and get an expedited version in a separate line. Typically, you do not have to remove shoes, liquids or electronics. These things have stressed him out in the past, so we thought the PreCheck enrollment fee of $85 would be money well spent. Precheck requires an identification interview, which he had to provide documents proving identity and answering some questions. I was allowed to go with him and he had no issues whatsoever. A few days later we got his Known Traveler Number and he was good to go.
PreCheck made our journey through our regional airport and Orlando International a breeze. No lines, crowds or worrying about getting all his belongings out. I have PreCheck as well and it is an incredible service- for anyone. PreCheck enrollment is required for those 18 and up. If you have younger children, typically as long as an adult has one, minors on the reservation with that adult can use the PreCheck line as well. This is the information I have at the current time and what I’ve seen- as with anything in travel, it could change. The best resource is the TSA website at www.tsa.gov.
Most airlines allow preboarding for those with disabilities. I asked Kevin if he wanted me to call Delta and request it on our reservation- however, he declined. When he was younger and we traveled with all our kids, including his sister, who is much deeper on the spectrum, it was a no-brainer and we never had an issue getting a preboard from any airline.
Both of us downloaded the My Disney Experience app and I found he used it quite often. He liked to know wait times in advance and even though we know our way around backwards and forwards, he still used it to map out our steps in his head, ahead of time.
At Port Orleans Riverside, we booked a preferred location room- mostly because I felt like it would be better and easier for him to make solo trips to refill his mug or get snacks. We would have done fine in other locations- as he is definitely able to make his way around just about any familiar place, but the goal was to try and make things that much easier. He ventured out solo many times for snacks, drinks or just to go look around in the gift shop.
Sometimes adult interactions with truly socially appropriate cues need a little bit of coaching. Before we would meet a character, I would remind him of keeping it short. I can’t blame him for wanting to stay forever- when I am meeting Princess Tiana, I just want to pull up a chair and stay the whole day. If someone shouted out Go Cowboys as we were walking by, noticing his hoodie- I would encourage him to respond.
We prebooked as many FastPasses as we could- but for his must do’s primarily. He would have probably done fine if we weren’t able to get on his favorite attractions but I didn’t want to risk it. His definitions and my definitions of must do’s are different. I would have much rather had a FastPass for Space Mountain over Buzz Lightyear, but knowing to adjust expectations and make an alternate plan for my ride on Space Mountain was worth it. Test Track was also on his list- it is a big must do for this Chevy lover of mine. Also helpful- some time limits, so we could keep moving. "Kevin, let's plan on 15 minutes in the showroom!" Just a simple cue like that made it easy to keep going- and it helped me keep in check as well.
Both Disneyland and Walt Disney World are extremely accommodating to guests with special needs of all sorts. When it comes to cognitive and sensory disabilities, we have found the DAS (Disability Access Service) to be a tremendous help in reducing anxiety, sensory overloads and other issues that may arise around loud noises, crowds and other factors that persons with autism may find challenging.
The basic premise behind the service is this- giving the guest an alternate place and way to wait their turn in a stand by line. It is not a free or automatic fast pass nor is it an immediate jump to the front of the line. The system has been modified to the current procedure because of abuse by some park guests and tour companies.
Getting a DAS accommodation is not hard at all. Our first day of park going is in the Magic Kingdom and we headed to Guest Services at Town Hall. We were directed to an alcove just to the left where two cast members were available to assist. Had we not been asked by a Guest Relations host what we were needing when we entered the line, we most likely would have waited for nothing- so if you are asking about this service, I would confirm if you can that the line you are in is in fact where you need to be.
Now that Kevin is an adult, he discusses his needs with cast members himself, obviously, we did this for him when he was younger. The person requiring the service must be present as their photograph is taken. When Kevin approached the cast member, he politely informed him of the nature of Asperger’s, what is difficult for him about being in the park and asked if DAS was available. We never demand it, or not explain specifically our needs. In the past, some guests provided doctor’s notes but be advised they will not be accepted- due to privacy laws. The cast member took Kevin’s photo, scanned both our Magic Bands and that was the extent of securing the DAS. The DAS is typically good for your length of stay and Annual Passholders have other options for longer extensions of time.
If we wanted to experience an attraction, we simply went to the FastPass Cast Member and politely asked for a return time. If it was an hour or more, we usually headed towards other areas of the park, if it was less than an hour, we tried to stick relatively close. You can return any time after the designated time you are given- it is not an hour long window, you have until the end of the day. Another wonderful feature of this generous service is that the FastPasses we selected 60 days prior were still accessible to us- getting the DAS does not invalidate others. For this reason, we didn’t even come close to using the DAS for every attraction. If the wait time was 30 minutes or less, we would go to the regular standby line- that’s about Kevin’s sensory limit.
When using the DAS, the person with the disability must scan first and then other members of the party can scan after. At second FastPass points in an attraction- the order of party members scanning does not matter. In addition, when the initial scan is done, the Mickey head on the post will turn blue, then green- the first few times take a bit getting used to but just be patient and it should quickly change from that blue flash over to green, and you are good to go.
Another option, although will involve additional cost is to take advantage of either Early Morning Magic or the Disney After Hours events. These are ticketed separately. At Magic Kingdom, we tried out the Early Morning Magic- which for $79 per person- got us 75 minutes of time in Fantasyland along with a hot breakfast between 8-10 am at Cosmic Ray's. We walked on to just about everything. No lines, no waits. Plus, the breakfast was extremely good and hearty. KP loves food as much as Disney- so it was a big hit on both counts.
One thing to note is that DAS works slightly differently at Disneyland. The first difference is that the DAS return times are secured at different information stations throughout the park- not at individual attractions themselves. We have found this to be a little more convenient and requires less backtracking. Also, since Disneyland does not have a Magic Band system- the DAS is attached to ticket media- so it is very important to keep track of everyone’s tickets.
My best advice is to treat this service with the respect and gratitude it deserves so that those that need it can be served in the future.
There were times that Kevin needed a break and I am very fortunate that when he does, he has the ability to say so and can be proactive about that. So many other families are not as fortunate. My best advice when planning for your trip is to get access park maps online on My Disney Experience or in your app- and find spots that might be best for your family member to take a break. Areas around restrooms usually have seating and some open space. Cast Members at Guest Relations in each park can also point out some good locations, depending on your loved one’s needs- do not hesitate to ask.
Walt Disney World is also introducing a sort of mobile street team to deliver guest services. They will be stationed around the park in blue shirts and these are also cast members who can assist you. This is a brand new program that is being introduced and should provide extra help throughout the park should you need it.
Kevin and I had a truly wonderful, relatively stress free and memory filled trip thanks to some forethought on our parts and the amazing services provided to us by Disney Parks and Resorts. So many folks with disabilities of all kinds, truly find the Happiest Place on Earth to be a respite from challenges that they face on a daily basis, made possible by the support in place. As a mom of special needs kiddos, that is about as magical as I can imagine.