Traveling to Disney with Children with Disabilities
Traveling with two children with disabilities can often be challenging; traveling to Walt Disney World with children with disabilities may seem completely overwhelming. Before our first visit to Walt Disney World in 2022, we had only attempted one holiday abroad. We quickly realized that a European holiday to a villa with a pool and not much else to do for two small children with extra challenges was not the way to go! We have spent the last seven years playing it safe by spending almost every holiday camping. We are from the UK, and although we love camping, we needed a break from the rain, so we decided to go for it and book a trip to Walt Disney World. Both our children have disabilities and are huge Disney fans; our eldest, who is 8, is autistic, and our youngest, who is 6, has epilepsy. Holidays, therefore, can be particularly challenging. I spent a great deal of time researching how to make our holiday a success and keep everyone happy and healthy and decided it was too good not to share, especially for other families that face the challenges we face when booking and planning a holiday at Walt Disney World.
1) Rent DVC points for a bit more room
For our first visit, we stayed at Port Orleans Riverside. We booked an all-inclusive package, which often seems attractive to UK visitors as the package includes flights, tickets, and accommodation. While we had an amazing trip, we could have used extra space. Food can be a challenge for my autistic son. He really struggles to adapt to new food, so we spent a lot of time making breakfast and lunch in our room, which was tricky with limited space. When we booked our next trip, I came across the idea of renting DVC points. Our friends are DVC owners and suggested David’s Vacation Club Rentals. We watched endless Vlogs on all the different resorts and room layouts and decided that Disney’s Old Key West Resort was the place for us.
Staying in a deluxe studio meant we had extra bathroom space and a small kitchenette with a fridge, toaster, coffee machine, and microwave, which made making our own breakfast and lunch a lot easier. My 8-year-old can become easily overwhelmed in the parks, so having somewhere relaxed, quiet, and laid back to come back to is essential. We requested a room through David’s Vacation Club Rentals, and the process could not have been easier. It also allowed us to book our own flights, which were quite a bit cheaper, so we saved quite a bit of money compared to the package deal! We requested the room during what is normally a busy summer period and had doubts on whether there would be much availability, but we quickly had an offer come through and were thrilled when we confirmed the booking!
2) Plan, Plan, Plan
As we come from the UK, we have to factor in a long travel day and the dreaded jet lag. For this reason, UK visitors often book for a 14-day trip. This is a great length of time to make the most out of the parks, but can seem like a lot of time to fill. My youngest has epilepsy and suffers from fatigue. Heat, fatigue, and sleep deprivation are all triggers for an increase in seizures, which causes a lot of anxiety for us as having a seizure away from home and our local doctors is always quite scary! Having a plan in place to make the most of the time in the parks while also building in essential rest time is an absolute must for any family with a child with any disability. Our eldest copes better if a plan is in place and becomes extremely anxious when we are working without a plan. Visualizing our day and knowing exactly what is coming helps him feel in control and secure, which in turn decreases any meltdowns or overwhelm in the parks. It also means that we can schedule an afternoon rest and aircon time at shows or rides for our youngest. Jet lag means that at the start of our trip, we are up early in the morning, so we make the most of this by visiting the parks with the earliest opening times, starting with Animal Kingdom. Having our park bookings is the first step, and once those are booked in, we focus on a few areas of the park at a time. As the days go on and we adjust to Orlando time and have a few later nights enjoying evening entertainment, we struggle to make rope drop! We visited during the summer when park hours are generally longer. Renting DVC points means you are eligible for early entry, which is also a massive help.
3) Preregister for DAS
Both our children are eligible for DAS. We can also visit guest services at the start of our trip and get a tag for our stroller to tag it as a wheelchair for our youngest, as he has reduced mobility. We preregistered for DAS 30 days before our first park day. We did this following the steps on the Disney website and were then able to make two DAS advanced selections per day. Having a timetable and our park bookings already in place meant that we knew exactly where we would be and what area of each park we would be in, so selecting the right rides at the preregister stage meant we weren’t tackling lots of different areas of the park at once. Having this information on hand when preregistering for DAS makes it a lot easier. Tagging our stroller as a wheelchair is an absolute must for our youngest. He gets fatigued quickly, and being able to stay in the stroller meant we could pace him as much as possible to prevent him from becoming so tired that he was at risk of seizures. If he needed to rest in any of the ride queues, he could, which made a massive difference. Although both children are eligible for DAS, we only registered our youngest in 2023, as we booked all our rides via the My Disney Experience app as one party. Disney now only allows one guest per party to have DAS.
4) Use early entry with DAS
Early entry to the parks for resort guests is great, but it can be a bit overwhelming for autistic people. The crowds that gather for rope drop quickly get quite large, and the rush forward from the crowd can feel claustrophobic. You also can’t use DAS during early entry, so rope drop wasn’t something we did more than once. We did use early entry every day, though. We always tried to get to the parks half an hour before early entry started, as they normally allow you into certain areas of each park. This enabled a calm start to the day, and we could wander around the park with reduced crowds. After the rope drop madness calmed down, you can typically walk on several quieter attractions. Things like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Prince Charming Regal Carrousel, Astro Orbiter, or Dumbo The Flying Elephant are walk-ons in Magic Kingdom at early entry. This meant we could enjoy the park, maybe grab a coffee, and occasionally even manage a few quiet rides while the park was less busy. Then, when the park opens, you can select your first DAS. We always selected the busiest ride first to reduce the wait time and used this time to get a drink, go to the restroom, and be ready for the fun!
5) Researching POVs and Food is a must
As any parents with children with any disability, we spend a great deal of our time figuring out accessibility requirements for our children to make days out or holidays easier. For Walt Disney World, where you will encounter shows, rides, experiences, characters, various food options, and queues, knowing exactly what each entails makes things so much easier. Our children, particularly our eldest, have sensory challenges and can become triggered by certain situations. I spent a great deal of time looking at the attractions for each park and then watching a POV online to see if they were suitable for our children and what we would experience. Each disability is different, but being able to say to my children, there is a drop coming now, or this bit is dark but only for a minute, this character is wearing this outfit, this queue is in the aircon, or these are the options for lunch meant that I was armed with information to reduce their anxiety.
6) Access disability sections – but get there early!
Each park has different disabled sections for parades, shows, and fireworks. Using these can make a huge difference, especially during busy fireworks shows. But get there early to ensure you don’t miss out, as they fill up quickly.
7) Comfort is Key
Florida summers are uncomfortably hot, and the heat can be a real danger if you don’t prepare properly. This is even more important for kiddos with health conditions and disabilities. To make it easier, we took a variety of things in our park bag: portable clip-on fans, cooling towels, refillable water bottles, caps, a bag of ice (we filled up a Ziploc bag at the resort and stashed it in a cool bag with extra water bottles). Having all this on hand and organized on the stroller was a lifesaver. We also bought puck holders for the children’s magic bands, which I wore on a lanyard, which made tapping into parks and rides quick and easy, and they didn’t get lost. Preparing to go with the flow and heading back to the resort if they become overwhelmed with the heat is also a priority.
8) Don’t forget to have fun!
Walt Disney World is one of the only places in the world where we feel we can totally relax and have fun together as a family. The cast members make every moment magical, and there are so many different things in place to ensure that anyone with a disability can make the most of the parks and have a magical time.
About the Guest Blogger: My name is Ruth Edwards, and along with my husband Tom, are parents to George, 8, and Peter, 6. We live in a small, thatched cottage in Worcestershire, UK. I have been a Disney fan for as long as I can remember! I have wanted to visit Walt Disney World since I saw an advert on the TV at five years old, but I didn’t make it for another 30 years, and we finally visited after much saving in 2021. We have been lucky enough to visit twice. We hope to make it back one day soon in the future! Our dream would be to eventually one day become DVC owners ourselves.