Saturday, July 7, 2012

Disney Parks: An Aspie Friendly Basic Overview

Have you ever been to Disney? Does the thought of going to Disney with autism make you tense? Disney done right should bring a smile to everyone’s faces. This series of blogs is an effort to provide you with some basic information to help you understand how to make the most of a Disney Parks vacation.

I’ve got to say that Disney is absolutely amazing and incredibly accommodating when it comes to special needs! And I’m not just talking about those who have easily identifiable needs. For those with Asperger’s type autism, who are often thought of as having an “invisible disability”, Disney proved quite understanding on our trips, while the parks, themselves, where a magical place for a daughter, where some of her Special Interests come to life! 

Let’s get started!

For a little background, the three of us went to Disneyland several years ago, a few years after our daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s (an Autism Spectrum Disorder). Just recently, we visited Walt Disney World (Kristina is now in high school). Not only are both parks different and continue to evolve, but Kristina has changed over the years, as well. In fact, she’s blogging about Disney on her personal blog, www. Head over there for this teen’s point of view! She is providing much more detail on the WDW Park, and has great insight for those who are a bit sensory, as she is.

Disneyland vs. Walt Disney World, a quick comparison

Disneyland is located in California, and has two main parks: Disneyland and California Adventure. Walt Disney World (WDW) is located in Florida and has four main parks: the Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, and Epcot. Unlike Disneyland, WDW has other park options, such as Blizzard Beach, which can be added ($) to your park experience. Both have a “Downtown Disney” section (think mega shopping district).

Disneyland is quite walkable, and it is possible to walk from your hotel to each park. Walt Disney World, on the other hand, covers quite a bit of land, making it near impossible to walk to any park from the other, or hotels/resorts, as everything is rather spread out. In order to see each park, you must rely on driving or taking available transportation (such as park buses, the Monorail, etc.)

Many of the same rides are available at both parks, such as Dumbo and It’s a Small World.

Each park has its own unique feel. After visiting both, we definitely have our favorite. :)

Very Basic Tips, Tricks, and General Information

  • Bring a lightweight backpack or bag into the park and carry a few necessary items with you. Consider bringing:
    • Medicines, band-aids, and any other First-Aid items your family tends to need.
    • Water bottles. There are water fountain all around, making it easy to refill a water bottle throughout the day.
    • Wet wipes, or a zip bag with a damp washcloth.
    • Rain ponchos (for Florida).
    • Plastic zip bags for any electronics, such as cameras, to keep them nice and dry. (Florida is prone to daily rain showers, not to mention some rides might make you wet!)
    • Sunscreen.
    • Anything else you think you may need, but keep it light as it will definitely feel heavier throughout the day!
  • All bags are checked before going through the gate.
  • At WDW, guests must place their finger on a scanner in order to check their fingerprint against their park pass. (Not sure about DL.) Depending on your Aspie, they may need to be prepared for this tidbit ahead of time.
  • Bring a hat for everyone if you are visiting during warmer months.
  • Meals here, like any other park food, are expensive, so plan accordingly. However, unlike most park food, the overall selection is much healthier, and we’ve been quite pleased at both parks. Sit down restaurants now require advance reservations most times of the year, as availability is proving more and more limited.
  • Wear comfortable walking shoes. (Like I needed to say this, but we did see several women of all ages sporting high heels. Nothing like sacrificing comfort to sport that new pedicure, especially when Florida’s humidity wreaks havoc with hair and makeup!)
  • Ask each family member what they would like to see or do before you head out for the day. This will help ensure expectations are met and meltdowns are kept at a minimum.
  • Do not underestimate your child’s interpretation of sensory input, and respect it, even if this means you miss out on your favorite attraction. Remember, some folks are sensory-seeking (these are the guys that can’t get enough of the thrill rides!), while others, such as my daughter, prefer the opposite. That’s ok.
  • Rides, even “kiddie” rides are family friendly, which means mom or dad can ride, too! Love it!
  • Some shows are what K refers to as “4D”. These include air blowing, water “spitting”, bubbles floating down, even smells wafting. It pays to read up ahead of time so your child is not caught off guard.
  • 3D shows and rides require wearing plastic 3D glasses. (I wore them over my regular glasses just fine. Though they do feel a bit awkward, the experience makes up for it.)
  • Understand some times of year are busier than others, and those may vary from park to park. Oddly enough, we went to both parks during the same week (albeit years apart), and it felt less crowded in Disneyland than WDW. However, my understanding is that Disneyland came become quite packed on any given weekend, as many locals love to frequent it.
  • If you believe your child’s flavor of autism requires some additional assistance, consider looking into the Guest Assistance Card. Some spectrum kids truly benefit from it, while others will never need it.
  • People come from all over the world to visit Disney. If someone does not reply to you when you speak to them, it could be because they do not understand English. But smiles are universal. :)
Those are just a few points, from one family's point of view. More to follow as our family shares our experiences with you!

Of course, Disney World’s main site is wonderful, and we relied on it heavily, but If you’d like more in-depth, unaffiliated information, there are scads of blogs and websites waiting to be clicked on and read! We found several, such as and quite helpful, as well as individual blogs posts scattered about. Some, such as, provide general menu ideas for restaurants, including walkup windows, which is very helpful with even one picky eater in the house!  There are also apps to download that include wait times for shows and rides as well as park maps.

Have you been? I’d love it if you would share your tips below!

Walt Disney World and Accommodating Autism Spectrum Disorder - the Guest Services Card

Taking someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder on vacation provides its own challenges, which are unique to each family. In fact, for many families, concerns over new places, new experiences and unpredictable food choices can stop a vacation before it even starts. Let’s face it, who wants to go on vacation prepared to explain your child’s flavor of autism throughout the trip? Or worry that disaffected workers will not be able nor want to answer questions about park attractions and food options? Enter Disney. The Disney staff is well trained to accommodate families with special needs, both “visible” and “invisible” (think Asperger’s, juvenile diabetes, etc.) One way they do this is through the Guest Assistance Card (GAC).

The Guest Assistance Card, though well known to those who frequent Disney, isn’t well known to most, and is a little tricky to find on the website, if not impossible (I'm not sure it's even there). What is it? It is a card that can be used to identify someone with an “invisible disability,” allowing them certain specified accommodations. (We've only used it once, so take our advice as one family's experience and feel free to share your own! Always check directly with Disney for current policies and guidelines.)

How can it be used? Let’s start by stating what it is not. It is not, contrary to my daughter’s hopes, a get-to-the-front-of-the-line, with no waiting, ever, pass. One thing it can do is allow the guest (and a limited number of those in the party) to use an alternate entrance or waiting area (often the handicapped entrance), which will, indeed, result in a much shorter wait. Sometimes, no wait at all. (And, yes, in some cases they will be ushered to the front of the standard line, as it all depends on the ride and who is working at that moment.) For shows, it can mean an alternate seating area. This is very helpful for those who have significant difficulty standing in line or other sensory concerns. However, if FASTPASS is available, per Disney, do choose to use it first.

What are other ways it can be used? For us, we used it as a conversation starter. As we were unfamiliar with many of the Walt Disney World attractions, this allowed us to easily approach staff to ask about whatever our concerns were. (Sure, questions can be asked without a card, but for parents of older kids, it makes the situation much less awkward.) For rides, we’d pull it out (as a subtle way to show she has an invisible need without verbalizing her autism to fellow tourists surrounding us) and ask about certain sensory components of the ride so she could make a choice as to whether or not it was worth a try. Another time, we used it to ask about ride duration (from waiting in line to the end of the ride), where the exit was, and if there was somewhere safe she could wait while my husband and I rode.

(NOTE: We let our daughter wait for us as she is old enough and responsible enough. Not all kids will reach this level of independence. Only choose this option once or twice, as it is a family vacation, where everyone should enjoy themselves. And, for goodness’ sake, never ever leave young kids alone! Also, Disney staff is *not* responsible for watching your children – unless you are paying for their childcare services. But you already knew that, didn't you. :) )

One thing we did find is that the card cannot be used for character meet and greets. However, we did use her card as a speaking tool to chat with the character escort when one line closed before she could get in it. We asked for tips on how to meet certain special characters, and that particular Disney staff member was quite helpful – and understanding. Again, subtly pulling the card out (most guest have absolutely no idea what the cards are for) enabled us to start a conversation without drawing added attention to our daughter’s situation. It also demonstrated to the staff there is a true as opposed to perceived need, which is wonderful when your child is a teen or older, as it is uncommon for kids that age to have difficulty reining in their disappointment, etc.

Unfortunately, many unscrupulous adults do apply for these cards as a means to receive special treatment, etc., when no true disability exists. (Ironic, huh? We go through life with folks like that giving us raised eyebrows and rude comments, but when they have the opportunity to take advantage of something that gives us a needed breather – they do. Anyone shocked…?) In fact, the only negative interaction we had with any of the Disney staff at Walt Disney World was when we were applying for a GAC for our daughter. I was a little uneasy approaching the counter, thanks to so many who have abused this system. After reading up on it, I did bring paperwork from Kristina’s doctor to back up her diagnosis. Unfortunately, as we approached Guest Services, the woman working there already had a scowl on her face (very atypical for anyone working at Disney!). As I mentioned why we were there, handing her the paperwork, she shoved (yes shoved), the papers back at me, firmly stating she cannot look at personal forms. (This, of course, has me scratching my head as to how they weed out the imposters.) After giving her the required information, we received the card and went on our way – with the lady never even hinting at a smile. To be honest, in some respects I can’t blame her as I can’t even imagine what fabricated stories she has to deal with on a regular basis. Still, I am hoping this is not the norm, as it threw my Disney experience for the first part of the day.

Let’s break it down:
·         Guest Assistance Cards are available at Guest Services locations.
·         Be prepared to show documentation of the disability, even if it is never needed - and explain why your child needs this.
·         The individual applying for the card must be present.
·         The Guest Assistance Card is not meant to be, per Disney, a line jump pass, though it definitely will give you access to an alternate entrance with little to no wait. (Per Disney, use FASTPASS when available.)
·         There is no extra charge for the card.
·         Do not abuse it. Respect it, or we’ll all lose it.
·         The pass is only good for the duration of your stay and is nontransferable.

The Guest Assistance Card is helpful for many families – and each family will have different reasons and uses for it. Disney wants to make sure the entire family has a safe, happy time, and this includes accommodating those with other concerns that do not qualify for a GAC, such as food allergies. (Have an allergy? Mention it when ordering, and don’t be surprised if the chef comes out to speak with you!) For us, it provided peace of mind and played a small part in a successful family vacation.

As with anything else, don’t be afraid to ask for help and to make your unique situation known to Disney staff. Disney truly wants each and every person who enters the Parks to have a magical, memorable experience!

Have you used the GAC? Feel free to add your personal tips below!