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5 Tips for Special Needs Parents Planning a Trip to Disney World

January 14, 2016

5 Tips for Special Needs Parents Planning a Trip to Disney World

A post by AngelSense, a GPS & voice monitoring solution designed for children with special needs.


CLICK HERE to learn how AngelSense can help improve your child’s safety and well-being.

Few childhood experiences can compare to the wonder of a visit to Disney World. For kids it’s magical seeing their favorite fairytales come to life, and this is something all children should have the opportunity to enjoy. But for special needs parents, amusement parks like Disney World pose their own unique set of challenges. Many special needs parents choose to avoid them all together for fear that the experience will be too overwhelming for their kids. However, with enough planning and patience a visit to Disney World can be rewarding, stress-free and the ideal opportunity to bond with your little one.

5 Tips for Special Needs Parents Planning a Trip to Disney World

The great thing about places like Disney World is that they’re more than willing to accommodate children with special needs ranging from hearing problems to developmental disabilities like autism. Disney World offers assistance for children with special needs which includes everything from assistive listening devices and wheelchairs to offering a disability access service that eliminates the need to queue for rides and other theme park attractions. Disney has even released a guide book to help special needs parents prepare and plan for a trip the whole family will enjoy.

For parents who have their hearts set on Disney World, the good news is that it is do-able. Here are some tips to make this trip an enjoyable and memorable experience.

1. Communicate your child’s needs

It’s important to clearly communicate your child’s needs when you get to Disney World. This way the staff will be able to be as accommodating as possible. Start by picking up a Disability Access Service Card which is available from Guest Relations. With this card you won’t need to stand in queues as once you’ve finished one attraction, you’ll receive a return time for the next one based on the current wait time. This will free you up to other things as you wait, and make it easier to avoid crowds. Another handy option is Disney’s FastPass+, a feature which lets you reserve access to select attractions beforehand so there’s no waiting around when you get to Disney World.

Be sure to be clear about any specific needs your child may have. This could include being prone to ritualistic behavior where your little one is likely to want to go on the same ride two or even three times in a row. Or perhaps your child suffers strongly from sensory overload and you use your stroller as a safe zone in these situations. By explaining this to the staff they can find a way to accommodate your needs, and it’s more than likely you’ll be granted permission to bring your stroller into various attractions throughout the amusement park.

2. Plan the day to avoid overwhelm

Planning is the best way to ensure that you and your child get the most out of your time at Disney World. It’s also the only way to beat overwhelm. Spending the whole day aimlessly wandering around is exhausting, and likely to end in a tantrum. By planning your day, you can ensure you don’t spend the whole day stuck at the amusement park. It’s important to give your child’s senses a rest so be sure to divide the day into chunks of time split between the hotel and amusement park. This downtime will work wonders for most children as it gives them the time they need to process these new experiences.

3. Create a customized map

You could spend weeks at Disney World and still not have enough time to see everything. By having a customized map it will be  easier to navigate the amusement park without any added stress. A customized map also helps you plan your time there and can give your child a sense of structure which can be very comforting for kids. One of the best ways to do this is with the My Disney Experience Map. This will ensure you won’t get lost and in addition to helping you pre-plan, it lets you see where different Disney characters are, find events that are happening in real-time and check waiting times for rides.

4. Dress for the occasion

An easily identifiable wristband or t-shirt can be useful for a crowded and sometimes overwhelming place like Disney World. This is particularly the case if your child tends to wander. A colorful item of clothing can make it easier to spot them. Some parents also choose to use things like t-shirts to raise awareness without having to explain anything. Autism awareness t-shirts, for example, are becoming increasingly popular and they’re a good way to stop other people from staring at behavior which may seem out of the ordinary. AngelSense Guardian GPS is also an option, and will make it easier to keep track of your child.

5. Accept that you can’t do it all

Disney World can be a trying experience for all parents regardless of whether you have kids with special needs. The trick to surviving is to be patient, and to accept that you can’t do or see it all. Just have fun, and do your best to enjoy the time with your child. It’s also important that you understand that your little one probably won’t want to see everything, and may even want to leave soon after arriving. Be sure to listen closely and observe how your child responds to the many new experiences. It’s those new experiences that matter more than anything, and will help empower your child in the long run.

But for some kids the sensory stimulation at Disney World is simply too much to handle. For parents concerned about the flashing lights, loud noise and crowds there are other options. Sesame Place, for example, offers a selection of low-thrill rides as well as special access for kids with special needs so they don’t have to queue for rides. Hersheypark is another option for parents looking to avoid bigger amusement parks. They offer a ride accessibility program which gives special needs children access to safe rides which they’re likely to enjoy. Then there is the Knoebels Amusement Resort which offers a courtesy pass for special needs kids. This makes it easy for kids to bypass all queues, and they also have the option to enter rides through the exit gate. I would put this section at the end of the post.

Have you taken your child to Disney World? What was the experience like, and what tips do you have for the AngelSense community? Share your tips in the comments below.

AngelSense is committed to creating a safer world for special needs children. Our cutting-edge GPS tracking and monitoring solution was designed to give parents the peace of mind that their little ones are safe at all times. You deserve peace of mind too. Join AngelSense Today.


  1. GPS Blog | Autism Friendly Vacation Spots to Try This Summer September 22, 2016 at 10:50 am - Reply

    […] this all depends on the facilities on offer. Many of the most popular holiday attractions, like Disney World, offer services for children with special needs to help reduce their anxiety and sensory […]

  2. Susan Wilkinson November 15, 2016 at 4:52 pm - Reply

    We took my daughter to Disneyland. She uses an electric wheelchair for mobility.
    While she had a great time, the only rides she could go on were Small World and Winnie the Pooh.
    But she loved it! She especially loved getting autographs from the characters and having lunch we Ithaca the princesses. Very worth the extra expense

  3. Kari January 23, 2017 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    I’m sorry but it’s not as easy as this article makes it sound. I don’t think the new policies are that great, they aren’t bad but they are great! Fast pass is good for 3 rides per day, if you sign up fast enough. That means days in advance, otherwise you get what you get… time-wise and Ride-wise. The popular rides are usually good fast!
    Then you have the “special needs pass”. Well, it’s ok… you have to physically go to the ride you want and then have them sign you “time of return” (if there’s an hour wait… you can come back in 50 mins to get on the ride). They make this sound great but only if you then go sit down and wait. Because you can’t go sign up for another time on another ride until your current ride is over. That means you sign up for a ride and then you go sit down and wait. After that ride you can walk to your next ride and they give you a time to come back… you again… sit down and wait. I would say if your lucky and the park isn’t crowded you may get to get on maybe 6 rides, but on a busy day… Good Luck! You’d probably get 3 rides per day! For an autistic kid like My son who has mild autism, he likes to go,go,go by doesn’t like to sit still, sit still, sit still!!! So, it’s really really hard. It’s too bad hat they had to change their policy to make it “fair” for everyone. Ya know, it doesn’t need to be “fair” for everyone. I’m sure the kids with disabilities would rather not have the disabilities and wait in line like everyone else. It’s hard enough on the kids and their families… why can’t they get something special like just being able to have the pass and when they get to a ride just go in the “fast pass” lane, like it used to be. I don’t think it was that horrible of a thing and who complained? The families without disabilities? 🙄 They wouldn’t complain if they had to live a day in the life of a family with disabilities. Disney is still Wonderful but it’s sad that they had to make it “fair” (and I’m using that word loosely) for everyone.
    Like I said though…. Disney is still a magical time for kids!

  4. pegyy January 24, 2017 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    very well put kari, bring back the way they handled disabilities 5 yrs ago.

  5. Tammy Vining January 25, 2017 at 12:21 am - Reply

    I agree with you 100 % Kari being the parent of a child with a chromosome deletion and autism it is very hard every day and even more do at parks .I especially hate long lines with pro staring as my child gets upset .We should get unlimited fast passes .I am a pass holder and sometimes you can’t even use your fast pass cause it’s all filled up .Sad

  6. M. Perez January 26, 2017 at 2:11 am - Reply

    My experience was horrible. My daughter was so uncomfortable with the noise and the crowd I felt bad. The wait was too much for her. She has autism, anxiety, depression and selective mutism. She started getting an anxiety attack and everyone was looking at us like it was something out of this world. She was so excited about going to Disney my heart was aching. There was nothing I could do to make it better. We had to leave we did 2 rides that was it. Money down the drain and we’re a family of 4 so it was not cheap. Good luck with their so called passes there no way to beat the crowds there. There is no way to plan on a good day when you have a child with special needs anything can happen all you can do is pray that the child had a good day. God bless.

  7. Deneen February 10, 2017 at 10:56 pm - Reply

    I agree with you Kari,
    It was much easier before the Fair for everyone came into play. Life isn’t always fair and we know that all too well. With the old pass we would be out of the park in half a day and not go back, because of meltdowns over stimulation etc.. At least with the old pass my family did not have to be so regimented and planned. It is actually easier not to have a planned out day for some like mine. We never know what will set my son off, so fast pass + and return times don’t work for us. Actually we have found Universal to be a better option with the express unlimited pass. You have to stay in one of their deluxe hotels to get it included but you can ride as many times as you want. Wish Disney would offer that at least!

  8. Deborah Flora February 11, 2017 at 10:19 pm - Reply

    We have been successfully visiting for years with our now 34 year-old who has autism with very severe sensory sensitivities.
    My advice is to go at the slowest time of the year to avoid the crowds. September Right after Labor Day is great. Or right before in August. Take your children out of school. It won’t hurt them if you only do it a few times over the course of their education. January is slow but usually too cold for pool time.
    The Fast Pass system is wonderful for people who thrive on schedules! You can tell your child exactly what you are doing and at what time! Be obsessive about booking your fast passes as early as your reservations will allow. You will get the prime times that way. You are allowed one fast pass per hour. The fist hour the park is open is slow and you can usually ride a couple of popular rides in that hour without a fast pass. So I book the three most desirable rides for the second, third and fourth hour the park is open. Your schedule could look like this assuming you are going to Magic Kingdom and the park opens at nine:
    8:00-8:30 Travel to MagicKingdom
    8:30-9:00 Eat breakfast (Magic kingdom usually lets people into Main Street early and Main Street has a Starbucks or you can pack a breakfast to be eaten while waiting)
    9:00-10:00 Ride Pirates and the Thunder Mountain
    10:00 (sharp) Fast Pass for Splash Mountain
    See Hall of Presidents and
    Ride Haunted Mansion
    Ride Small World
    11:00-11:50 Fast Pass for Seven Dwarves
    12:00 Fast Pass for Belles Story Hour
    12:15-12:45 While returning to your room for lunch, use your smart phone ( and Disney wifi) to book more fast passes for the late afternoon. That’s right. Once you have used your three you can book more!
    12:45-4:00 lunch rest and pool

    Print out the schedule on heavy card stock leaving room to fill in rides for the afternoon. Use pictures if your child does not read. Give this to your child in the morning. This is very comforting as it eliminates some of the unpredictability.

    Now let’s talk about the worst part of Disney. They do not have enough restaurants for the number of visitors so getting a reservation is a nightmare. And even with reservation the wait can be terribly long. We don’t eat in the parks except for one of two specially selected experiences. We save lots of time and money by staying in a Disney villa which has a kitchen. These can range from bargains at the Disney vphtound to very expensive at the Grand Floridian. But even the most expensive can save you some money if you skip Disney’s overpriced food.

  9. Vicki Liszewski February 12, 2017 at 9:19 am - Reply

    We have a grandson with Autism we have taken him to Disney since his first birthday we have had great times and terrible times at disney with lines our kids with Autism have a very short wait time period .they need to go back to the old way with fastpass for these children and families most of the children do not have the capability to stand still and quiet on a line for anylengh of time with out losing it(melt down).

  10. Ken Miller February 14, 2017 at 8:45 am - Reply

    My wife and I went last June with our 2 sons, our oldest being ASD. It was both of their first time to WDW. We had a very typical park time for any family of 4. We used our FastPass and the “come back later” bka Special Needs Pass with no wait longer than 10 minutes for any ride/attraction and no meltdowns. The two negatives were only when the rides weren’t running at 100% efficiency (they broke down) during operational hours and that sucks for anybody. Our oldest was a real trooper: he walked nearly 7 miles per day, he was awake and in motion from 6a until 9p daily, and he had only three meals (w/ unltd snacks and water.) He was better behaved at each night’s end than his NT younger brother. Maybe we were lucky, and hit all the the green lights, but our experience was great and we’d gladly repeat the trip again. (Forgot to mention it was both of our sons’ first time with air travel; my first post 9/11 flight. No problems!)

  11. Tracy February 27, 2017 at 1:17 am - Reply

    They say it’s because people abused and said there kid was autistic so I said why not have the parent show an iep as proof no iep no pass to skip line. As for all those parents that stop and stare when our kids are having a meltdown get a life our lives are difficult we don’t need your dirty looks. I have a 10 year old with autism and when he would have a meltdown I would say go back to your own lives when people were staring.

  12. Renee March 3, 2017 at 5:30 am - Reply

    They didn’t change it because people complained. They changed it because people abused it! All being punished for the few. My daughter was diagnosed with autism this past summer. We have gone to Disney World every other year since she was 3. Since we didn’t have a diagnosis, we couldn’t get the card, but we knew her limitations, so we planned around them. We went to the parks in the morning and did some shows and watch a couple rides, then go back to the hotel for swimming,tv or just relaxation, then we went back to the parks in the evening for a couple more rides and shows. Every trip we have done something different. Last year we never stepped foot in a park. We rode every mode of transportation and visited every hotel on property. She has always had a wonderful trip. It is all in the planning!

  13. Lalita March 4, 2017 at 2:38 am - Reply

    Wow these comments are making me nervous… I was going to take my kids to Disney world this April and now I’m kinda rethinking it. My youngest is not good at lines at all!!! And I would hate for us to drive 24hrs one way… & spend $5000 Just for him to get upset & have a meltdown. That would he horrible.

    • Sidra @ AngelSense March 15, 2017 at 1:48 pm - Reply

      That’s why it’s important to plan ahead!

  14. Heather Howell March 7, 2017 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    Our Disney World trip was wonderful. We created are schedule before arriving at Disney using FastPass+ and then went to Guest Relations in the Magic Kingdom when we entered the park. We were then able to look on the app and see what rides would work for us to get a returrn time for in between odur FastPass+ rides. We could also add another FastPass+ ride one at a time once we used the 3 scheduled for the day. My son absolutely loved the trip and has asked to return daily for almost a year. The cast at Disney was wonderful as well with helping us out when we needed help. I would definately recommend Disney.

  15. Kelly Grudowski March 9, 2017 at 12:25 am - Reply

    We just came back from a trip last month.
    Starting in January they changed things up again. Used to be when you got a come back time, it was half the wait time for the regular que. now, they only take ten minutes off the wait time. It has made things more difficult for sure.
    I will say that we get our three fast passes set up, then we get our disability pass. But what we always get on top of that are re-ads. Basically it gives you a pass to walk right into the fast pass line without getting any kind of come back time. We always get between two and six of these depending on which park we visit.
    It has made things way more easier for my son.

    • Sidra @ AngelSense March 15, 2017 at 1:25 pm - Reply

      Great tip! Thanks for sharing Kelly!

  16. Jackie March 11, 2017 at 5:45 am - Reply

    Just took our 7 yr old twins to Magic Kingdom. One is NT the other mild CP and on autistic spectrum. We put our cell phone numbers on a slip of paper in their pockets and wrote our numbers on back of their 1st Disney visit buttons. We told them if they got separated from us for any reason, find a mom with kids or someone with a Disney name tag and ask them to call us. Our twin with special needs was in his own world reading the Disney map and didn’t walk in to the restaurant with the rest of us. 2 minutes later we received a phone call from a kind stranger who our son approached and gave the piece of paper with our numbers asking to call his parents. Worst 2 minutes of our lives, but the safety plan we put in place worked!

  17. William Dwight Stewart Jr. November 21, 2017 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    Kari ,
    As much as I would like to kiss the ground that you walk upon for what you are calling for ,
    It also goes back to what you just said about life not always being fair such as it is true with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts
    ( specifically here in good old America the Home of the free ) .
    As much as I secretly wish of all things that the old pass never changed for guests with disabilities and who need assistance
    Keep in mind that they have to be welcoming and serving everyone not just guests without disabilities or guests with disabilities .
    What I am trying to say is that in this day an age with all of these free entitlements that come with park admission
    nothing that Disney does in the parks will ever really be fair regardless if you are a guest who is disabled or not
    whereas in the beginning , if they would have never done away with the A through E ticket system instead of going for the
    all in one lesser expensive system of today the A through E system of the beginning would have stopped all of this mess from the very start because it would have made it more affordable for guests to make space for each other for better and more efficient quality Disney Service in the parks for everyone without the controversy and so much negativity to each other in the parks .

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