What to do BEFORE going to Walt Disney World
If you are dreaming of a trip to see your family’s favorite Disney characters, there are some things to do before you actually go to Walt Disney World. In this article you’ll find helpful tips to ensure a good trip with autism!
A Disney Obsession
My kids really enjoy our vacations to Walt Disney World. No, I mean, they LOVE going to Walt Disney World—as in, OBSESSED! Having memorized many Disney movie scenes and collected various Disney paraphernalia, they get to live out these films in “real-time”.
Since both of my teens have autism, they perceive time, space and the social realm differently. They often need more time and explanation to process certain input, especially auditory.
While many parents like to surprise their kids with a grand “Disney vacation reveal” the day before they go, I think my kids would flip out (and not in a good way) if I did this for our first trip. Despite their love of Disney, they need extra supports to thoroughly enjoy their time.
Maybe your family is like mine.
I’ll tell you from personal experience…a little preparation goes a long way to feeling at ease and thoroughly enjoying your vacation at Walt Disney World.
Top 10 things to do BEFORE you go to Walt Disney World
1. Download the Walt Disney World park maps and study them together as a family.
This is our favorite phase of trip planning—dreaming of new attractions and snacks we’d like to try as well as new characters we’d like to meet. When everyone’s input is valued, it creates a sense of personal investment and family bonding in the process.
2. Watch the movies or read books associated with the attractions.
This REALLY helped my daughter: when she was six she climbed my husband like a petrified cat inside the stretching room of the Haunted Mansion ride and refused to go on again that trip.
After watching the movie about the ride, she became invested into the story and the characters. She now wanted to see where it all “happened”, summoning the courage to go back on the Haunted Mansion ride!
3. View website pictures and videos of the resort where you will be staying.
Seeing what the resort has to offer, such as the pool, arcade, dining, room décor, and on-site entertainment (like movie-nights and campfire s’mores) builds excitement and will provide a sense of familiarity when you arrive.
4. Download the MyDisneyExperience App.
You can show your family all of the Fast Pass+ attractions and meal reservations on your phone before you go and during your trip.
It helps those who are exceptionally time-obsessed (like my son) and keep asking to see what’s next…sort of like a digital visual schedule.
5. If your family members are not used to buses that take guests to the parks, try riding one in your town or watch videos.
Play pretend at home: line up chairs and act out how people behave riding a bus.
If you stay at a Disney resort and taking a bus is out of the question, you can always take your own car to the parks (parking is free for resort guest). Or, you can take an Uber, Lyft or Minnie Van as your own private transportation.
6. Practice for the experience at home.
If nearly a week-long trip seems daunting, try local expeditions first.
Take your family to local festivals, sporting events, theme parks or carnivals. Some young children may need to be “eased into” large crowds for long periods of time to get used to the sensory experience.
Take short staycations to get used to staying in hotels.
How your autistic family members do in these settings will give you a much better sense of what kinds of accommodations are needed at Walt Disney World. Develop appropriate sensory-behavioral plans in the event of a meltdown.
7. Map out quiet places for downtime in the event of sensory overload.
One nice place is the circus tent with tables and couches by Pete’s Silly Sideshow (Fantasyland). Tom Sawyer’s Island might be a nice, quiet place to “unwind” and/or stim to self-regulate.
Consider taking a mid-day breaks from the parks at the resort to swim or nap (even older family members benefit).
Planning to rest for a whole day in the middle of the week is extremely helpful to avoid exhaustion before the vacation is over.
8. Print out your daily itinerary schedule to take with you into the parks.
Put the days and times for Fast Pass attractions, Table Service meals, parades, fireworks, shows, etc. (You can find the anticipated events calendar here.) Be sure to include places to take breaks and the First Aid station (especially helpful if an older adult needs bathroom assistance).
Feel free to add pictures into the form of a visual schedule and laminate it. You can even attach them into a mini-book or key-ring.
9. Make social stories for different aspects of your trip.
Consider making one for each park, the resort, transportation options, dining, buying merchandise, etc. as you feel is needed. These may take some creativity and time to make.
But for some that already rely on these to make it through their daily schedule at home, these will be incredibly beneficial for those who have a hard time with routine interruption in a new place.
10. Create a sensory packing list.
Start gathering the tools needed not only to prevent sensory overload (i.e. sound-reducing headphones) but also in the event of a meltdown (i.e. food, toy, sensory soother, fidget, etc.). Brainstorm items that would be good diversions to help with waiting (i.e. electronic games).
Other important items to bring in advance (that many don’t often consider) are autograph books and retractable Sharpie pens. Unbeknownst to me, the trip highlight for my TEENAGERS was meeting the characters and getting their autographs. I thought they outgrew this, so I didn’t anticipate packing these.
The long lines for meet-n-greets didn’t seem to bother my autistic kids as much as long ride queues with nothing much to see. Watching other park guests meet and take pictures with their favorite movie characters only fueled their own excitement.
One more bonus tip!
Perhaps one of the most important things you can do before your trip is to review the Walt Disney World policies regarding disability accommodations. Be sure to download their Planning a Trip to Walt Disney World Resort: A Resource for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).
So, there you have it!
With the right planning before your trip, and knowing your child’s sensory needs and accommodations well, you will be on your way to creating long-lasting memories together at the most magical place on earth!