I’m going to be honest and tell you that I planned my trip to Disney World for two years. Yes, two years. It was overkill and completely unnecessary, but I was very well prepared. You definitely need to be prepared for a trip to Disney World even with neuro typical children. You really need to do your research when you are taking autistic children. Read the Fodor’s Walt Disney World with Kids before you plan anything. I got the book at my local library and it’s great.
I took my autistic twin boys, my daughter, and my older son to Disney in September. It was still very warm, but I didn’t find it unbearable at any point during the day. If your kids are sensitive to heat, then you may want to go near the end of October-March for cooler temperatures. During our visit we went to Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and attended the Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. My autistic twins enjoyed every park immensely and we experienced very few meltdowns.
The first thing you need to decide on is when you are going to go to Disney World. I HIGHLY recommend you go during the low season. This is even more important if it’s your first visit. The low season typically runs from late August until May, excluding a few weeks before major holidays, New Year’s, and spring break. Going close to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter will mean huge crowds to deal with. My twins aren’t terribly averse to crowds, but I sure am. I would worry about them getting lost, or me losing track of them in the crowds. You need to be realistic about what you can handle when deciding when to go.
The parks will be open later during high season, but the queues will be much longer. We never waited in line for more than 20 minutes when we went in September. Our longest wait was for Kali River Rapids at Animal Kingdom. We waited for 45 minutes to ride it and we didn’t have a fastpass for it. There was a very long queue for Frozen at Epcot, but we were not interested in riding it anyway. You can get disability access cards for autistic children at Disney World. These cards work like fastpasses and you are given a time to return so you aren’t forced to wait in a long queue. You can apply for a disability card at guest services inside any of the Disney parks.
I chose not to take advantage of the disability cards. My boys did fine and no queues were unreasonable. If I had gone during peak season, I probably would’ve gotten the cards. I wanted my boys to get used to waiting in lines, but you may need the disability cards even in low season. Some autistic children just cannot wait more than 10 or 20 minutes. The hardest thing I found about waiting in lines, was keeping the boys still enough so they weren’t bumping into people the entire time. My boys fidget, and sometimes rock or spin. They have pretty poor spacial awareness, so they aren’t the best judge of how close they are to people. I often found myself saying “pardon him,” and “excuse me,” a lot. We also held their hands, and we tried to position ourselves so that some of us were directly in front of and behind them.
I worry too much about them annoying people, and it’s something I need to get over honestly. I didn’t encounter anyone who wasn’t understanding, but I did make reasonable efforts to keep them out of people’s way. At the end of the day, it is not the end world if they’re bumping into people. It happens, so just apologize and move on. Most of the queues at Disney are pretty nice anyway, with things to look at and such.
It may be helpful to carry lollies or some sort of snack for long queues. Be sure to download the My Disney Experience app on your phone. It is very helpful and it will show you accurate wait times on all the rides. If a ride had a long queue we’d skip it and keep checking the app. Once we saw the ride wait time get down to 20 minutes or less, we’d head back there right away.
The next thing to decide is whether to stay on site or off site. I stayed at the Art of Animation Resort in a Nemo Family Suite. To say that I loved this resort would be an understatement. The rooms were comfortable, clean, adorable, and functional. The bus service to the parks was impeccable. I loved all the amenities of the hotel. I honestly can’t imagine staying offsite and I consider the resorts to be apart of the Disney experience. If money is really tight, and you really need space to spread out, then you can find far better deals offsite. There are plenty of hotels to choose from, at all price levels around Disney. There is an abundance of vacation homes available to rent as well. I don’t really like cooking and cleaning while on vacation honestly, so the idea of renting a home never factored into my decision.
There are certain perks for staying onsite. You will get access to extra magic hours and be able to enter some Disney parks before it opens to the general public. This can be invaluable if you need to be away from crowds. The first few hours and the last few hours are the least busy times at the parks. Getting an extra hour in the mornings really allows you to beat the queues. We rode many attractions in the morning with little to no wait. There are extra magic hours in the evenings at some parks as well.
Staying onsite will also grant you access to Disney’s magical express airport pick up and drop off service. We used the magical express to get to our hotel and the buses were really nice and efficient. It was great to just get off the plane and not have to worry about securing a rental car or fooling around with directions. When you’re traveling with autistic kids the last thing you want is another thing to wait for. You are also able to secure fastpasses 60 days before arrival vs 30 days before arrival by staying onsite. Fastpasses for popular attractions sell out long in advance so you want to be sure to get one for popular rides.
If your autistic child does not like being confined to one room then I’d find something offsite. My twins don’t have a problem with hotel rooms, so this was never an issue for us. Staying offsite will give you far bigger rooms for less money. You can still be very close to the Disney parks because some offsite hotels are literally closer than Disney hotels. You will have to pay for parking at the Disney parks, but staying offsite does save money. You can save tons if you choose your hotel correctly. I’d watch out for resort fees, parking fees, wifi fees, and charges for using the pool amenities at the hotel. You may think you’re getting a great hotel for a far better price than Disney, but then get hit with fees at checkout. Be careful! Read the fine print and the reviews carefully so you know what you’re getting.
If your resort has a nice looking pool with water slides, make sure they don’t charge for entrance or charge rental fees for using the tubes and such. Many people have chosen a hotel based on the amenities only to find out they have to pay extra for them. Large home like suites at Disney are ungodly expensive even with discounts. You can rent a home for an entire week for the price of one night in a villa on Disney property. You can also look into renting points on Disney vacation villas. You do need to rent points well in advance and I’m not sure how to do it. Renting points from Disney vacation villa owners does save a lot of money I’ve heard.
I prefer staying onsite at a Disney hotel. You get more perks, the transportation all around the parks is great, free parking at all the Disney parks if you have a car, no annoying resort fees, and all the resorts look fantastic. The pricing of the value and moderate resorts aren’t too bad. The prices of the deluxe Disney hotels make my eyes pop out of my head. Never pay rack rate for a Disney hotel. Disney releases promotional offers on all Disney hotels all throughout the year. If you avoid going during high season and take advantage of the promo offers in the low seasons, then the hotel prices become much more affordable.
If you are traveling with a larger group or other adults its really convenient to stay onsite as well. If someone in the party wants to leave, and others want to stay its no problem. They can walk back to the transportation area and go back to the hotel. My teens went back to the hotel a few times while I stayed with the boys because they weren’t ready to go. This would have been a hassle and terribly inconvenient if I were staying offsite. Keep in mind how often you will need breaks and what parks you will be visiting when choosing a hotel. Again, I’d recommend making room in your budget to stay onsite. You can stay in a Hampton Inn or whatever anywhere. The Disney hotels are one of a kind.
Should you fly or drive? It depends on how far away you live, your budget, time constraints, and the comfort of your autistic children. I will make a post about flying with autistic children eventually but this is highly variable. If you live in California, the advice would be different than if you live in Tennessee. I flew because it would’ve taken me two days to drive there and spending that much time in the car was too much for me.
However you arrive there are things you need to know once you get to Disney. If you are staying onsite most of the Disney hotels are situated around lakes and pools. This is something to be mindful of if you have an autistic child that wanders. You may want bring an alarm of some sort to put on the door so you know if its being opened. My boys haven’t wandered out of the house in years, so I didn’t worry about this. The value and moderate resorts do not have interior corridors and all are set up motel style. The doors lead directly outside except for the family suites at Art of Animation, which have interior corridors. All the pools are staffed by lifeguards which I regarded as excellent when I was there. You still need to be diligent of course, and you may want to request a room away from pools if your child wanders.
The bus transportation to all the parks was very good when I was there. This can vary depending on when you go and where you stay. I did not have a rental car and used Disney transportation exclusively. I don’t remember ever waiting more than 15 minutes for a bus. Most of the time the wait was between 3 and 10 minutes. When the parks close, the buses can be packed like sardines with people. Keep that in mind if your child needs space. If the bus was really crowded we let people go ahead of us and just waited for the next one so we could get a seat.
Buses come pretty consecutively at park closing so you won’t wait long. Usually the boys just sat on our laps and they were fine. Be aware that certain seats are retractable to make room for wheelchairs and for people with scooters. I wouldn’t choose one of the seats with a handicap sign behind them because you will be forced to move if someone needs them. This can be a problem if this to you after all the other seats are taken and you’re forced to stand.
One thing my boys really hated on the bus were the crying overtired babies and toddlers that sometimes joined us. Thankfully we didn’t encounter too many of them. The boys did put their hands over their ears and mumble their displeasures whenever we had a ‘screamer’ on the bus. If this could be a big issue for your autistic kids then you may want to have a car available. You could also bring noise cancelling headphones as a precaution if your child likes those. There are lockers available to rent at all the parks so you aren’t stuck carrying stuff around all day. You could even consider using uber or lyft to get back to your hotel at park closing. I didn’t find the buses difficult at all, we enjoyed taking them.
My boys were phobic about the elevators at the resorts. I’m not sure why, and I didn’t notice anything unusual about them. They did not want to ride in them but got used to it after a while. You may want to ask for something on the ground floor if you think elevators would be a problem. We were on the third floor so we had no trouble taking the stairs a lot, and I just gave the boys more time to get used to the elevators. By the end of the trip they liked the elevators.
If your autistic child eats a special diet, don’t worry. Disney offers many options to accommodate different diets. I eat vegan most of the time, and you can find alternative non dairy ice creams, chocolates, dole whips, and other snacks. All restaurants make accommodations and take food allergies seriously. If you have dietary concerns look up the restaurants individually so you know which ones have options you’d like to eat. I only got stuck eating non vegan twice due to improper planning.
Taking autistic children to Walt Disney World doesn’t have to be too difficult. I did it without any major disasters, but you do need to plan and research before you go. Autistic children can go to Disney and have a fantastic time.