Solutions for Sensory Needs during a Disney Park Trip
In this article I will break down the different challenges and provide solutions for those with sensory needs when they take a trip to a Disney park.
Take my autistic kids to Walt Disney World? Are you CRAZY?!
You mean, take someone who has meltdowns when overloaded by crowds and intense sensory stimulation to a place that is crowded and full of intense sensory stimulation? HA! Very funny…
Actually, I am NOT kidding…not one bit.
Okay, just hear me out!
Maybe you think a trip to the see the beloved Disney characters and princesses is out of the question. Or maybe you’re considering resigning yourself to the fact that a trip to Walt Disney World will be just like any other trip to the grocery store where the meltdown is inevitable…
…and you’ll just deal with it.
But there is HOPE!
Many people–children and adults alike–have gone to Walt Disney World and had a wonderful time!
The trick is…know your loved one’s sensory needs and triggers well!
Knowing what kind of experiences your autistic loved one can handle in other settings will help you prepare for the very sensory-stimulating environment of Walt Disney World.
Is your loved one hypo-sensitive (seeks out) or hyper-sensitive to (avoids) large crowds, visual stimulation and noise?
Even if someone that craves stimulation finds Disney parks to be a dream-come-true, he or she may suddenly have a meltdown when tired.
Here is a breakdown of things to do by the types of sensitivities and the sensory solutions for a trip to a Disney park:
1. For SOUND sensitivity…
This is perhaps the most common sensitivity among those with autism.
Bring soothing tactile devices and sound-barring headphones (for those loud parades, attractions and fireworks).
Map out places where there are quiet places to recharge (Guest Relations can help with that).
2. For TOUCH Sensitivity…
Those that crave physical interaction will LOVE the character greetings. Even Tigger will hug you, the parent, without warning!
If your loved one doesn’t like strangers touching him or her, alert the character handlers (regularly clothed cast members who stand beside the costumed characters). Tell the about his/her tactile needs, particularly whether light touch and a hug is okay or would prefer no touch at all.
3. For TASTE Taste Sensitivity…
Get familiar with the restaurant menus at the parks.
Disney is very good about accommodating diverse dietary needs. But it’s a good idea let them know in advance at dine-in restaurants through the My Disney Experience app or by calling (407) WDW-DINE.
At quick service ask them what is available. (You can always recruit your personal travel advisor/planner like myself to help you with this.)
Another option is to bring your own meals in a small cooler (no glass bottles).
4. For SMELL Sensitivity…
Certain attractions will have artificial scents that add to the immersion-factor. The most common is a low-intensity water scent on boat rides. But a few attractions give off more potent smells. (Soarin’ has “pleasant nature scents” while Journey into Imagination with Figment at Epcot has a stinky scent).
Of course, the most common outdoor scents will come from food.
If your loved one has an absolute aversion to certain scents, it’s good to know where in the park they come from (feel free to ask questions below in the comments section).
5. For SIGHT Sensitivity…
Is your loved one extremely sensitive to certain visual elements? Are strobe-light effects potential harmful? Certain attractions have intense flashing lights (Flights of Passage at Animal Kingdom and Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom).
If darkness is a problem, as many attractions are dark rides, consider having your loved one watch “point-of-view” videos of the rides in order to see if they would be willing to try it.
Other Special Needs Challenges
For those with LANGUAGE challenges…
Does your loved one have issues communicating through words?
Bring a visual schedule or augmentative communication device so he or she can adequately express his or her needs.
If your loved one is non-verbal and gets separated from you, it would be very wise to have a plan in place to locate him or her.
For those with SAFETY AWARENESS challenges…
Is autistic loved one a flight risk?
Consider having a bracelet, lanyard, sticker, badge or a GPS Tracker (like Angel Sense) with your name and phone number in case he or she gets lost. This will greatly help Cast Members locate your loved one.
Consider telling Guest Relations know this is a potential risk when you get the DAS.
Is your loved one prone to full body meltdowns around a mass of people?
Any cast member will help you with these issues, including helping you find an out-of-way place to calm down and getting the word out to other cast members that your child is missing.
The First Aid station is an option (located between Crystal Palace and Casey’s Corner restaurants near the Main Street and central hub).
For those with BODY-SPACE AWARENESS challenges…
Does your autistic loved one have a hard time understanding the social or safety impact of standing too close to others?
This is a hard one! Everyone stands so close to one another in lines that the normal “arms-length distance” rule between people flies out the window.
We had to constantly pull our son back because he either stood a few inches too close to people (one person told him to “get back!”) or he is so determined to get to that ride that he practically cuts people in line.
When verbal reminders are not enough, a visual cue or a potential reward for keeping a good distance from others may be warranted. Sometimes having our kids stand behind us and not in front of us helped. Then, it’s up to the people behind THEM to stand an adequate distance.
For those susceptible to MELTDOWN TRIGGERS…
What are situations that bring on a meltdown?
Everyone, not just those with autism, has their own “tipping point” before they go into “shutdown mode”.
Don’t rush your autistic loved one all over the parks. You may be risking a meltdown by trying to get all the rides done in one day—most people without sensory can’t do that.
Waiting in line for more than an hour can be a meltdown trigger. Sometimes having something to occupy your child (videos/games an iPhone) may be helpful.
But having the DAS will be a lifesaver, allowing you to wait “outside the line” and do other things (watch a parade, meet characters, eat, etc.) before riding the attraction.
For those with TRANSITION challenges…
Does your loved one have trouble grasping a sense of time, waiting, or moving from one event or setting to another?
If a child has NEVER been to Disney before, they have no idea what to expect. If they LOVE Disney, then the familiarity and associations between movies and rides might be enough to help them get through the park without much prepping.
Prep Your Child Before Your Disney Trip
However, if a child has even minor issues moving from one task or place to another and is rigid in their use of time in the “real world”, then I STRONGLY SUGGEST that you prep them about the parks before travel!
Watch attraction videos.
Creating social stories about your overall trip or individual park days.
Have them help plan places to visit and dine.
Watch Disney movies and tie them in to certain attractions.
Study the park maps together.
Take Advantage of Disney Accommodations for Autism
Walt Disney World and Disneyland have a wonderful accommodation in place to help with those who have a hard time waiting and understanding time.
The Disability Access Service—or the DAS—serves to allow those with cognitive-sensory differences like autism to wait “outside the line”. You can get that at any park Guest Relations.
Even though this is incredibly helpful while at the parks, it’s still a very good idea to establish a sensory plan BEFORE traveling. That way, you can pack the items needed and know exactly how to handle any sensory issues that suddenly arise in the parks.
These sensory-based solutions will ensure everyone’s safety and peace-of-mind for a more relaxing and memorable trip to a Disney Park!