Will this be your first time experiencing the magic of Walt Disney World, the thrills and adventures of Universal Orlando Resort or the education and entertainment at SeaWorld? Or was your last visit to Orlando’s theme parks in the previous decade, before the advent of Magic Bands and the DAS, prior to the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter or preceding Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin? We’ve compiled six common mistakes, along with some tips, to avoid making during your visit to Orlando’s theme parks with a family member with autism.
Mistake #1: Assuming that using the disability pass means your group won’t have to wait before enjoying an attraction. The Disability Access Service (DAS) pass at Walt Disney World, the Attraction Assistance Pass (AAP) at Universal Orlando Resort and the Ride Accessibility Pass (RAP) at SeaWorld/Busch Gardens are all designed for those guests who have difficulty waiting for long periods of time in a regular queue. These passes provide the user a return time so they can wait virtually i.e outside the regular queue of the attraction and return at a designated time. When you return at your designated time, you’ll most likely be directed to enter a shorter, alternative queue like the Fastpass+, Express Pass or Quick Queue entrances. These alternate queues will require some waiting, albeit usually a short amount of time. For more information on Orlando's theme parks disability passes including our tips, visit our website here.
Mistake #2: Assuming your family member’s behavior concerns will disappear while on vacation. Over-stimulation, hunger, thirst, heat and fatigue are major contributors to behavior meltdowns. Having your family member stay out until the park closes and then expecting them to attend an 8:00 am character breakfast the next morning might not be the best plan. We highly recommend keeping your regular bedtime, nap, and meal routine as best as you can while on vacation. If you must stay out late or get up early, make sure you’ve planned the remainder of the day to help your family member adjust to the change, like sleeping in the next day. Keep snacks on hand to avoid meltdowns related to hunger in between meals. Plan when and where your meals will take place ahead of time and don’t forget to factor in the length of the lines at restaurants and counter service locations. Understand that the mad rush back to resorts after the nighttime parade and fireworks can become a crowded, sensory nightmare. If your family member is sensitive to sounds, bring along noise canceling headphones. Our son uses and we recommend Peltor Sport Shotgunner headphones found on Amazon.com.
Mistake #3: Assuming that your family member with autism will be willing to meet their favorite animated movie characters and stand next to them to have their photo taken. Characters can be large and scary to many guests especially those who have never met a larger than life animated character like Goofy or Buzz Lightyear. Anticipate how they will react based on previous experiences (our son could never meet Santa when he was young). Don’t get upset with your family member if they are too shy or scared to meet the character. All the characters we encountered were very understanding of our son’s hesitation. During our first visit, my husband or I stood between the character and our son for the photos. As he matured, our son became less wary and now embraces most of the characters when he greets them. If you aren’t certain how your family member will react, try meeting a face character, like any of the princesses or Tinker Bell. They may be less intimidating than animated characters. We also recommend booking a character meal to help avoid waiting in long lines to meet the characters and to help your family member with autism familiarizes themselves with the process.
Mistake #4: Not preparing to walk 5-7 miles a day. We highly recommend that families begin a walking program at least a month prior to their visit to Orlando’s theme parks. We recommend applying Body Glide on areas that may have a tendency to form blisters or chafe, including feet, toes, and legs. Body Glide is commonly used for runners to avoid chafing and can be purchased from Amazon. If your family member with autism is younger, but doesn’t normally use a stroller, you may want to consider renting a stroller just to avoid issues with fatigue and over-stimulation. We also recommend requesting the stroller as wheelchair tag at guest relations when you request the disability pass. This tag allows your family member with autism to remain in the stroller throughout all queues, shows and restaurants. It has been very helpful for families who may have difficulty keeping their child nearby.
Mistake #5: Assuming that you can just wing-it and not plan ahead. If you are vacationing to Orlando’s theme parks with a family member with autism, you have to plan ahead. Do you need a 10 page spreadsheet outlining every minute?** Probably not. But you will need to make basic plans like reserving where will you be staying, reserving meals ahead of time if you want to eat at a particular restaurant at Disney, and purchasing park tickets ahead of time. If you are visiting Disney, you’ll need to make Fastpass+ reservations (60 days prior if staying on property, 30 days prior otherwise). We also recommend that you have an understanding of the theme parks themselves. Get a map of each theme park (available on each park’s websites) and familiarize yourself with the park’s layout. Know that Harry Potter is in two sections of Universal Orlando Resort (Hogsmeade is in Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley is in Universal Studios Florida) and that Diagon Alley is hidden behind a brick wall. Understand that in order to take the Disney bus from your resort to a Disney water park, you must transfer buses at either Downtown Disney or Animal Kingdom. Realize that you cannot meet Anna and Elsa at the Magic Kingdom because they are now located in Epcot. Find out if a particular roller coaster at SeaWorld is closed for refurbishment during the time you are visiting. All these factors are important in planning your vacation. How detailed your planning should be depends on your specific needs. Honestly, Disney requires extensive planning in order to avoid long lines while Universal and SeaWorld require less planning and allow for more spontaneity.
**Full Disclosure: our first time visiting Walt Disney World (back in 2003 before FP+ and the need to plan a Disney vacation wasn’t vital), I had several spreadsheets detailing every minute of our trip, including what ride we would be doing, where we would eat and every item to pack in our suitcases. After the second day, the detailed schedule essentially became useless because our son quickly learned how to use the park map and would point out what he wanted to do next. The schedule still served as a checklist to make sure we did all the things we planned ahead of time.
Mistake #6: Assuming that your vacation will be just like the television commercials for the theme parks. Having unrealistic expectations can ruin a vacation. Flights can be delayed and luggage lost. Sometimes, your family can get on one another’s nerves after spending day after day in each other’s company. Maybe rain is forecast for the entire week you are visiting. Your family member with autism might decide at the last minute that their vacation would be ruined if they didn’t get to meet Rafiki and you aren’t planning to visit Animal Kingdom. Recognizing that unexpected things happen is the first step to having realistic expectations. How you react to those unexpected situations can help diffuse tempers and go a long way toward making your vacation an enjoyable one.
If it rains during your visit, maybe you can see the Rainy Day Parade at the Magic Kingdom.
I hope these tips help you with your upcoming vacation to Orlando’s theme parks. With some planning and knowing what to expect, you can avoid these mistakes and will have an awesome vacation to Orlando's theme parks!
Maureen is married and has a son with autism. She and her family visit an Orlando Theme Park nearly every weekend. Maureen created AutismAtTheParks to help vacationers who have a family member with a developmental disability to better navigate and enjoy the theme parks. She is also a contributor to the Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Periscope.
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