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Travelling to Florida for the first time can seem a daunting enough experience for any family, and even more so when one (or more) of your children has Autism. As with most things, planning and preparation are the key.
You need to prepare your child as much as possible and the preparation can often start by watching the planning DVDs from Disney. Some tour operators have copies of or these or they can sometimes be found on Disneys own site.
These DVDs give a great idea of what the 4 Disney Theme parks and 2 Water parks look like and of the type of rides that are there. They can help your child visualise what the parks and the characters will look like.
It is also a good idea to get one of the Disney guidebooks my own personal favourite is The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World by Bob Sehlinger. This book goes into great detail about crowd levels in the parks, detailed information on the rides and resorts and would help you plan what might, or might not be suitable for your child. It also includes information on all of the restaurants at Disney, which is a bonus if your child is a fussy eater.
Another useful tip to have a rough itinerary of what you might like do each day and if your child is able, let them incorporate as many plans as possible into that itinerary. As with most things though you will have to be flexible. We have often had to change our plans at the last minute when one or both children couldnt cope in a certain situation.
Most airlines are willing to accommodate passengers with special needs and you should talk to your airline as soon as possible. Even if you have booked through a tour operator they should be able to put you in touch with the airline directly. Virgin are one of the better airlines when it comes to dealing with special needs and they have their own dedicated Special needs department.
Or Telephone 0870 990 8350. It helps to tell them what your childs specific needs are and how you think they can help you. They should send you a form to fill in for your requests.
On the flight itself, a selection of toys and games that will distract your child are a good idea. Or if you child has an obsession (say dinosaurs, Thomas etc.,) you could introduce some new things related to the obsession. We take a Game Boy which is good on the flight but is also invaluable in the airport with all the hanging around. If your airline doesnt have seat back TVs it might be worthwhile investing in a portable DVD player with a selection of your childs favourite films or shows. Also if your child is a fussy eater pack plenty of snacks and drinks for the long flight but just remember to leave anything containing fruit / vegetables or meat on the plane as you are not allowed to bring these into the USA. We always pack a spare set of clothes and some wet wipes as well.
If it is your childs first flight and they are hypersensitive to noise flushing the airline toilet could be a problem as it is very noisy. It might be an idea to wait outside for your child and for you to for in and flush the toilet when they have gone back to their seat.
Depending on what time of year you go, the parks could be very busy. If your child doesnt handle crowds too well the best idea would be to get to the parks early (usually just before opening time) and leave when it gets really crowded or when your child starts to get stressed. Even if your child is well past the stroller stage, it might be an idea to hire one from the parks. The current charges are $10 for a single and $18 for a double (which you might need if your child is older.) You shouldnt underestimate the amount of walking that is needed and as well as that the stroller could be a safe place when your child can sit if they are feeling agitated.
If your child is getting really stressed and close to, or having a meltdown you can request assistance at the First Aid station in any park to see if they have a room that you can use as a quiet place to calm your child.
Disney has a Guest Assistance Card, which can help. Depending on your childs specific needs the card can offer you a place to wait for the ride away from crowds or out of the sun etc. It is not meant to bypass lines and does not shorten your waiting time. Often if you want to ride an attraction the CM will look at the wait time and give you a fastpass to come back within that time frame. So if the wait time is half an hour they will give you a card which lets you come back half an hour later and use the fastpass line. To see if you need this card you should go to guest assistance either inside or outside the park and explain your childs exact needs. You shouldnt be asked for a doctors letter but it is a good idea to have one with you. There is a similar card available from Universal, which works in the same way.
Pin trading with Disney Cast members offers a safe, opportunity for children to work on their social and communication skills. Pins cost from $6.99 upwards but you can often get bargain Disney pins on e-bay which can be used for trading. Be aware though that this could become another obsession, this was happening with our children so we limited it so specific pins. Our daughter collects Minnie and Cat pins while our son collects Stitch pins and ones that have moving parts.
If your child is hypersensitive to noise bring their earphones or some earplugs. I can sometimes get very noisy in the parks.
There is a wide range of food available in the parks and you should find something you child will eat but if not you will be able to take in snacks. Counter service restaurants can get very busy at lunchtime and dinnertime. To avoid the crowds try and plan an early lunch (before 11:30am) or have some snacks from the carts around the park and have later lunch (after 2:30pm). Disney do some great character dining in some of the parks and the resorts and this can be good way for your child to meet the characters in a controlled environment.
If your child wants to see the characters but doesnt want them to come near him you can let them know when you check in for the meal and they will make sure they just give you a wave on the way past. When making Priority Seating (ADR) arrangements for any restaurant you can request to sit next to an exit. If your child becomes agitated and you need to leave the restaurant quickly it can be a life saver.
Other Disney Stuff
The wave pool at Typhoon Lagoon seems to be a big hit with children on the autistic spectrum and providing your children can swim would be a great place for them.
If you can afford it staying onsite might be a good option. The best resorts would be in the Disney Vacation Club, the 1 bedroom units have a full kitchen and laundry facilities but unless you are DVC members they can work out quite expensive. If you do a Dibb search on renting DVC points you will get some useful information.
The All-Stars and POP Century resorts are great if your child is a big Disney fan as the larger-than-life characters are stimulating to a child on the autistic spectrum. The Disney bus service is good but you might prefer to use a car if you child doesnt cope well with waiting etc. These are very large resorts and the busses can get very crowded. There is talk of Disney offering family suites at the All Stars resorts, which would be a big bonus as it would give your child space to chill out.
If you are staying off site a villa is great as it provides plenty of space and your own pool. Another option might be a condo or a suite hotel which has cooking facilities (another must have if you child is a very fussy eater).
There is a vast choice of places to eat in Orlando and where you eat will depend on your childs ability so cope in a restaurant. If your child is a very fussy eater or doesnt have the ability to wait for the meal to be served some of the buffet restaurants might be the best choice. It is a good idea to check out other Dibber's Trip Reports on this site, as they will give you an insight to some of the restaurants. Also check out the Dining section of this site.
If you have a Blue disabled parking badge, you can get a temporary Florida parking badge by visiting the local tax office in arrival.
has it's own dedicated special needs forum
where you can get more information and post any questions about your trip.