My first article on this site was well over five years ago and one where I really took to heart the saying write what you know. My world back then was centered around making adjustments for my children, who both have additional needs, and the steep learning curve of learning what makes things earlier for both them and myself. Being a family that travels frequently, I have learned many lessons the hard way, so I’ve always valued the power of sharing information because you never know who you might help along the way. I certainly was the one being helped in the earlier days of diagnosis, which means that, to me, it is only fitting to pass those experiences on.
That first article was How to Plan Your Disney Vacation for Children With Special Needs, part one of a more extended series that started my path here at The Dis. Now, in 2022, when my children are older and know themselves better, I thought it might be time to revisit this topic with an updated perspective on tackling some of the newer issues facing additional needs families.
Involve Your Family in the Process
We’ve all seen those YouTube videos of families that surprise their children after school and whisk them off to Disney on the same day. Well, it’s safe to say that isn’t going to cut it with kids like mine with ASD and ADHD. In our house, successful day-to-day life revolves around prep and everyone being on the same page. Be sure to involve your family in your planning process. I’ve found that my kids have brutally honest reactions, and sometimes, as much as it might not be the reaction we want, that will be your best indication of how well an attraction or experience will go down on the day.
If you are watching ride POV videos and your child seems overwhelmed, it’s likely that won’t improve with the sensory overstimulation of being there during the day. On the other hand, they might surprise you and feel excitement when watching these videos, one that resonates with them when you are actually on the ride in person. I like to make planning a family affair and gauge how new experiences might go down from that initial discussion. Turn it into a fun evening or two and have everyone contribute to the discussion.
Discuss the 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 have acquainted yourself with new requirements and regulations. For example, while the airport may not be, many airlines are still requiring face masks while on board. If you aren’t used to doing this at home any longer, knowing masks are a possibility in advance and having one ready that isn’t a sensory trigger might be a lifesaver.
It would be worth talking to your family about always keeping a mask with them. Just because it isn’t a requirement at Disney doesn’t mean that you might not be faced with a situation where you would 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 wasn’t covering his mouth. I’ll spare you her description, but it included the words “droplets” and “shower”; very uncool. That’s a situation where, if you feel uncomfortable and choose to, you can put on that mask and feel a bit more protected from any sickness behind you. You might also decide not to, but as long as you have one with you, it remains your choice, not a situation you are stuck in that might leave you in bed, missing the rest of your vacation.
Manage Sensory Overload in the Parks
We’ve talked about sensory overload a few times over the years. It is a significant part of what can send your perfect Disney vacation spiraling into meltdown for both neurodiverse and neurotypical kids. Disney is a place where one can quickly feel overwhelmed, thanks to sensory stimulation. The same thing that makes the place feel so magical and immersive can result in trapping some people in a loud, intrusive environment they can’t escape. The way crowds are at the moment, noise, and invasion of personal space is high on the list of triggers, which is why I highly recommend noise-canceling headphones or noise-reducing earplugs. We use Vibes which are effective, discreet, and easy to use, though there are many other brands out there that can just take the edge off that sound sensitivity.
Another aspect you might be surprised about is how bright the parks in Orlando are. Sure, we are all used to the sun, and this might sound silly to those who have never had to consider it, but the sun can be a very serious element when it comes to overwhelming your vision. If that is something that 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.
I know it goes against everything that you are encouraged to do. Disney says, pack as much in as you possibly can, though personally, I can tell you the opposite is true. Make sure you plan breaks. Filling on 80% of that activity time and ticking everything off successfully is way more productive than filling 100% and being caught out by a meltdown halfway through. Outside of ticking the boxes, you want everyone to feel good; just making it through isn’t the goal.
Add that downtime to your planning, whether it is a resort pool afternoon or even just a calm walk through a quieter attraction like the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse; space those breaks in the chaos out to keep regulation in check. Sit-down lunches at table service restaurants can be a great way to stay in the atmosphere but also take some time to reset indoors. During that time, you can regulate temperature, rest, recover from noise or weather, refuel and focus. It also allows time for you to talk, check in with everyone, and see how people are feeling. Information shared in these breaks might be just what your afternoon needs to tweak your plans in the right direction.
Always Carry Items that Help Regulation
The best way to tackle issues that arise is to get on top of them 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 at bay if things become too intense. Anxiousness or nervousness can benefit from keeping hands busy with small fidget items. Try anxiety rings or stimulation bracelets for older kids who want something more discreet.
You can even bring this idea into the resort room with you by having items that are familiar and make your family feel at ease in an unusual place. Pillowcases or Calm Sleep Stories, anything that gives them a peaceful feeling.
Am I a professional? No, not by a long shot; but I am a Mum (Aussie for Mom) who has lived and breathed the troubleshooting aspects of international travel with kids that face different challenges for 15 years now, and I can promise you, I’ve banked a few solutions along the way.
Of course, the Disability Access Service pass is another option for families that need assistance with waiting in line though there are new application protocols for that as well. You can find more information on DAS here.