Thursday, December 18, 2014

Tips for Planning a Disney World trip with Special Needs

Cinderella's Castle in Magic Kingdom
I've previously been to Disney World in Orlando, Florida and Disneyland in Tokyo, Japan before
having children, so I know the ropes a little bit when it comes to getting around Disney. I've also been once before with Andy when he was two years old, and we did not have a medical stroller or wheelchair for him yet. I would recommend talking with someone that has been to Disney World, as this can be extremely helpful before actually traveling there. Let them know what you'd like to accomplish.

On the plane, I was allowed to bring a diaper bag on for Andy. I put plenty of snacks inside, because one of Andy's main crying triggers is hunger.  Dried apricots and beef jerky sticks worked better than crackers which digest much faster. I also use them in between meals to keep Andy from crying at a restaurant when the food is taking a long time to come out. I was able to fit Andy on the changing table on the plane, but at times I also stood him up in bathroom stalls and did his diaper changes while standing.

I also bought noise-canceling headphones ahead of time, to use with an iPod shuffle on the plane and in the parks, to keep Andy calm. He loves listening to music, especially when it is through headphones. I also purchased a phone charging battery to keep in my purse for when my phone or the iPod battery got low. Andy's iPod shuffle actually never needed to be recharged during the day. I would charge it at night, and he would listen to it almost all day and night without needing a recharge. I clipped it right to the back of his shirt, so he wouldn't mess with it or the cords. The headphones helped him to remain calm on the plane, and on the busses. They helped him to not have to hear other crying children, which gets him upset. He did really well on the plane thanks to these headphones!

My main goal for the Disney part of this trip was to take the kids to eat inside Cinderella's Castle at Magic Kingdom, and at the "Be Our Guest" restaurant. "Cinderella's Royal Table" requires a 6 month scheduled ahead reservation. I had to call at 7:00am exactly 180 days ahead and still was only able to catch a 2:30 pm reservation and it was the last one! The character dinners and lunches are nice because it allows your kids to meet and have photo opportunities with several characters without having to stand in line. After we ordered our food, five Disney princesses came into the room and started going from table to table. (Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine, Snow White, Ariel and Cinderella) They would stop by to say hello, sign the kids autograph books, then stand with them for pictures. We also got a nice 8x10 and four 4x6 photos to take home. I also made other reservations at non-character restaurants to guarantee we'd have somewhere to eat.

Cinderella's Royal Table Restaurant
I searched the internet for blogs about cognitive disabilities at Disney, because the actual Disney World sites don't give you a whole lot of details on what to do or expect. If you are driving to Disney, you won't have to worry about how your wheelchair will be handled by an airline, or riding on a bus from the airport to the hotel.

If you are flying, you will have to tell the staff at the gate that you need to use the wheelchair right down to the plane opening. They can then use an aisle chair if you cannot transfer your child to get to their seat. Andy is still light enough that I can carry him to his seat. Once I had Andy wheeled down to the plane opening, I had to have a family member hold Andy while I folded up his wheelchair. He has the Kimba Ottobock chair and it is quite heavy. The airline staff must have thrown the chair in the cargo hold, because they returned it to me in Orlando with a busted armrest. The armrest was completely severed from the chair.

I was lucky that they handed me the broken piece, because it was needed to put the tray on to his chair. We asked the front desk for some duct tape at the resort, and thankfully , they had some. I was able to duct tape the armrest back on for the four days we were there. It was helpful to have his tray on because it helps keep him secure in his seat, and also allows me to feed him better.

Once I found that the airline had damaged Andy's chair, I was supposed to report it right then at Baggage services, but I did not know what to do at the time. I later waited in a long line at the Detroit airport Baggage services office to make a claim about the damage. The airline is now following up with me about reimbursing us for the costs of repairing the chair. They are getting in touch with a medical equipment company to come assess the chair at our house.  When getting back on the plane I begged the guy that would be putting the chair in the cargo hold to please be careful with it, because it had already been broken on the flight down.

Andy on the Magical Express bus 
Once we got to the airport, we headed to the Disney Magical Express line. I was told to request a special services bus for my son's chair. My son's medical stroller has bus tie downs on it, so that it can be strapped down in a bus, and he can ride in the chair safely. This has to be done ahead of time, and you will have to get these tie down parts from your medical equipment company.

Wheelchairs are always loaded first, before the rest of the general public. This way they can load multiple chairs if needed by folding up passenger seats to reveal more tie down spots. Sometimes, the bus drivers were loading up my son's wheelchair, plus another guest in an electric scooter or push wheelchair. After they are secure, and the rest of our party was on the bus, the rest of the line was allowed to board the bus. The monorail was also wheelchair accessible.

When getting to the parks, the first thing I had to do was go to guest services and request a "Cognitive Disabilities" Card. They will take a picture of your child and ask what concerns you have with your child waiting in line. I told them of Andy's autism diagnosis and brain disorder, also that he cannot walk or talk or understand a whole lot.

Several of the rides were wheelchair accessible, such as "It's a Small World ride" at Magic Kingdom and "Finding Nemo ride" at Epcot. The staff would ask me if I'd like the wheelchair loaded on the ride, or if I wanted to transfer Andy onto the ride.

I would go to a ride and hand the card to the staff member. They would then right down the return time and we could come back at that time to go into the fast pass line. We would still have to wait 10-15 minutes from that point, because there were other fast pass people in line too. Some of the staff members let us board the ride after waiting a few minutes on the side if the line wasn't long. We also had other scheduled fast passes that we used for pre-planned rides. Our whole party of 9 people was allowed to board the rides with Andy. We could also get times for character greetings, and get into the handicapped seating area for outdoor shows if we arrived 30 minutes early for the show.

Be Our Guest Restaurant

Andy had such a great time. He was happy to be always on the go. He loved all the bus rides, and being pushed all around the parks. He really loved seeing all the lights at night. He would just stare at everything and clap his hands. I am really glad that we got to experience seeing Disney at Christmas time this time, because they really decorate and light everything up.

We stumbled upon a dance party at Magic Kingdom and Andy loved it. He loved the music and watching the characters there. We had a great time dancing around. 

We kept a very busy schedule, and were always heading towards the next thing. I planned a whole itinerary weeks before the trip. It was important for me to have the kids see some of the characters they didn't get to see last time. I scheduled fast passes for some characters, and others we used Andy's disability card. It was important to know ahead of time which characters were at which parks, and the time frames that they would be there. That way we could be sure to catch them during our visit. For example, Pocahontas is only at Animal Kingdom, and only during limited times. Also, I wanted to find Merida and Rapunzel this time, both are at Magic Kingdom. We also missed Tinkerbell last time, because she is hidden inside the Town Square Theater in Magic Kingdom.  I used the Disney Experience app to keep track of where to head next.

I would highly suggest having some type of plan for what you want to do when you are there. Fast passes are scheduled on line 60 days before you arrive. It is better to do this, than to just show up there with nothing planned. Restaurant reservations can be held with a credit card. I was able to add two people to my Cinderella's royal table reservation at the park, but they wouldn't do this over the phone. It was better to explain in person that we needed to add two on, although I heard they really won't add more than two people.

Luckily, Andy fell asleep just as we were getting off the plane and continued to sleep in his chair for an hour while I was speaking to Luggage services. He was very warn out after several days with no naps. We still had an hour-long car ride home from the airport, and he never cried once on the whole trip. There were no melt downs, or bad behavior at all! We were very lucky!


  1. Looks like you guys had a great time! I've been to Disneyland so many times but never Disney World. It's definitely on my bucket list! Your daughter is so beautiful too.

  2. Thanks for the tips about traveling to Disney Land with a wheelchair. I have a cousin that also has a developmental disorder, but he loves anything Disney. They try to go every few years. I'll pass this information along to see if any of their tips can help him and his family as they travel.