Planning a trip to Walt Disney World is especially challenging for families with special needs. The theme parks are happy places—but also loud, chaotic, and teetering on the verge of sensory overload. Don't let that stop you. Everyone is entitled to some pixie dust.
Amy Schinner has been a Disney fan all her life. Her trips to Disney World with her family are treasured memories. Now with two children of her own, one autistic and one not, she resolved to give them both the same experiences in the Disney theme parks that she herself had enjoyed. But with few resources available, she knew it would be a challenge.
So Amy did what any parent in her position would do: she made it work. She researched, she spoke to Disney cast members, and she connected with other parents of special needs children who also wanted to experience the Disney parks, but weren't sure where to begin.
The result is this book, Mouse Ears for Everyone, the definitive guide to planning a Walt Disney World vacation for individuals with special needs, no matter their ages.
From dealing with the airlines and solving issues with wheelchairs and strollers, to managing expectations for character meet and greets, Amy brings to bear not only the hands-on experience with her own special needs child, but her organizational acumen as a regional chairperson for Autism Speaks.
The book includes "sensory impact" evaluations for most rides, shows, and restaurants, and is sprinkled throughout with advice, tips, and lists to ensure a stress-free vacation.
Walt Disney envisioned a theme park for everyone. No matter what difficulties you face, you can enjoy the best Disney World trip of your life.
Before You Leave Home
Section 1: On Your Mark
Chapter 1: When to Go
Chapter 2: It Always Comes Down to the Budget
Chapter 3: How to Get There
Chapter 4: Selecting Your Home Away from Home
Chapter 5: Tickets and Reservations
Chapter 6: Timelines and Packing Lists
Chapter 7: Your Own Fairy Godmother (or Father)
Chapter 8: Disney’s Extra Special Service
Section 2: We're Here! Now What?
Chapter 9: WDW Transportation
Chapter 10: The Heart of It All
Chapter 11: The Magic Kingdom
Chapter 12: Epcot
Chapter 13: Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Chapter 14: Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Chapter 15: Time to Eat
Section 3: Everything Else in the World
Chapter 16: Water Parks
Chapter 17: Disney Springs
Chapter 18: More Magic
Appendix: Complete Packing List
Crowds, new schedules, heat, fireworks…these words are often associated with Walt Disney World (WDW) and other vacations and do not sound like a good fit to many families. How could this possibly be a good idea? Vacations are an important part of family bonding and growing up. The experiences I had on vacation helped me create memories with my family that have lasted a lifetime.
For example, even as adults we giggle over the time my sister, Emily, threw up on our grandma in the car. We had to stop at a waterfall to clean up Grandma and the car as best as we could. Naturally, by “we” I mean our parents, while Emily, our brother Nathan, and I played at the waterfall. This was not a picture-perfect vacation moment planned by my parents, but it became a part of the experience that has remained with us forever.
The great thing about reading a book is you can use as much or as little of it as you want. The same is true of the advice given. Every family needs to do things that work for them. I believe if you even picked this book up to look at it you must have an interest. That being said, I understand that Walt Disney World doesn’t work for everyone. This book will give you the best information I have for making a WDW vacation successful, or maybe enough to learn that it still isn’t a good fit. Your family might be better suited for a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains or any number of other cool places.
My first passion is helping families; my excitement for Disney and all it can offer is second. I hope you see the possibilities about travel and have a magical time with your family.
I live in Cincinnati with my husband, Steve, and our two amazing teens. Ben is 19 and has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Our daughter, Meg, is 17 and typically developing. Raising Ben presented an unexpected journey in life. As I was learning how to give Ben his best start, I found myself advocating for many people with different needs in life. I was answering emails and phone calls almost daily about school choices, summer routines, and very often, how we managed to vacation at Walt Disney World.
I’m currently the chair of the Autism Speaks Cincinnati market and a committee member for “diversity for all abilities in the work force” through the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. These commitments allow me to spread awareness and understanding of people with autism and other disabilities.
In my life before children, I grew up in a military family, spent most of my childhood in the Destin, Florida, area where my dad was stationed. I majored in social work at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills Kentucky (a Cincinnati suburb)—and yes, that is where I met Steve.
I have always loved Disney, and worked for them at the Disney Store in Cincinnati.
Now, because every child shapes your path, I’m also becoming a track and cross-country fan. Meg pole vaults and runs, so I’m often seen at the track, cheering with my eyes closed.
DAS stands for Disney's Disability Access Service, one of the many things they do to make the theme parks friendly and accessible to guests with special needs. But DAS can be confusing, and for some it can create the very kind of stress it's supposed to reduce. Make sure you know your DAS from your FastPass before leaving for Orlando.
If you have a family member with a non-visible or developmental disability such as autism, Down Syndrome, seizure disorder, medical concerns, and some other disorder that will prevent them from enjoying an attraction without a special accommodation, DAS can help you. If you have a mobility issue and not a developmental disability, then you do not need a DAS.
DAS is a big issue of concern for many families. Here are some of the more frequently asked questions:
Some tips for DAS users:
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Character meet and greets are one of the most memorable parts of a Walt Disney World vacation. For those with special needs, however, coming face to face with a Disney character can be troubling, even traumatic. As always, the key is to prepare in advance, and to know what to expect (and have a plan in place to deal with it).
One of the most significant aspects of raising a child with special needs are emotions. The expectations of meeting Mickey and Minnie are very relevant and can be hard to manage. While preparing for my children’s first visit to WDW, I was nervous about how to get that great photo of my kids with Mickey. I really was not sure my son, Ben, would go for it, and Meg was only a year old. Still, it was important to me. We did get a great photo, and more importantly, the kids had fun with the characters. Here are some thing we learned:
Relax. Somehow in the craziness of getting the trip lined up, I focused less on meeting Mickey, and I think that helped.
Get autographs. Collecting autographs gives children a mission. After Ben realized that characters would sign his book, he wanted to see how many autographs he could collect. If they are focusing on getting that book filled, they have less time to get anxious about who they are about to meet. You can purchase autograph books anywhere at WDW, or you can make one at home as a project to get everyone excited about the trip. Remember to pack a fat pen that will fit in Mickey’s hand.
Remember PhotoPass. If it takes both parents holding hands as you carefully approach Mickey, who will take the photo? PhotoPass is always ready to capture the shot (but never upset if you don’t need them). Also, cast members will use your camera to take photos. Never feel awkward about asking.
Come prepared. Mickey in person doesn’t look quite the same as he does on TV. There are live-action Disneyland sing-a-long DVDs, like one called Disneyland Fun, that will give your kids a better idea of what to expect. (Check YouTube as well.)
Be optimistic. Children often rise to meet our expectations. If you go to visit Mickey without hesitation, it may be easier than you thought. That was my experience with Ben.
Remember recovery time. Most kids with ASD take longer to recover from upsetting situations than a typical child. If your child does seem frightened, maybe this is not meant to be part of your experience. But remember, it’s like sitting on Santa’s lap; many kids don’t care to do it. It is not necessarily because of ASD, and it shouldn’t keep you from having a wonderful vacation.
Consider some character dinners. The easiest way to spend some time with the characters is at a meal. Each character comes to every table and signs autographs, poses for pictures, and they even take time to be silly with you. The pressure is off while you eat, and it can happen naturally. Also, if it isn’t going well, simply let the characters know to move along, and they will.
With a little bit of extra planning, any need you have can be accommodated at Walt Disney World. Do everything you can to plan and prepare, then trust in the system and have a wonderful time.
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