Thursday, May 31, 2012

Special Needs and Disabilities at Walt Disney World


Traveling to Walt Disney World can be stressful for any family. Adding a child or family member with special needs can magnify the stress, but I've got some advice and tips to make it a better trip. I've traveled with special needs kids on many trips and have talked to other parents about their trips and advice they offer.

Guest Assistance Card


One of the most frequent questions we get is about the Guest Assistance Card, or the GAC. The GAC is issued at Guest Services in all four parks and is provided as a means to help guests that have issues (mobility, sensory, sun, etc) and need to bypass a major queue or use an alternative entrance. The GAC does not grant immediate access and it should never be used for that reason. The individual castmember can make the decision about when to get you on the ride (for the most part, you enter the Fastpass queue and are treated like a Fastpass return).

How Do I get a Guest Assistance Card?
Getting a GAC is a simple process:
  • Visit Guest Relations in one of the four theme parks with the child or person that needs the GAC.
  • Explain to the castmember that your child has special needs and you would like to know about the Guest Assistance Card.. You can provide a medical note or documentation if you feel it better addresses what your child's needs are and how they can best be met, but a cast member should not specifically ask for this information.
  • The cast member will ask for the child's name, dates of your vacation and the number in your party (up to six guests).



How Do I Use a Guest Assistance Card?
  • If you are not sure where the appropriate entrance is, ask the greeter or first host from the attraction that you see. usually, you will be directed to the Fastpass line or the Exit, depending on the attraction. There have been times that my family has been asked to use the regular queue since there was less than a five-minute wait.
  • You will need to show each cast member the GAC, until you reach a certain point (usually when the Fastpasses are collected). The cast member could ask if the child is with you.
You shouldn't feel guilty about using the Guest Assistance Card while at Walt Disney World. Real life is stressful enough for families with special needs and a Disney vacation should be an enjoyable experience. Disney provides the GAC as a service to help you enjoy your vacation with your family.
What if I Lose Our Guest Assistance Card?
Head to the Guest Services location in the park and ask about a replacement. I have been able to run to Guest Services to get a card while my wife sat with the kids. it was never a hassle, but the cast member might want to see the child.

Researching and Planning the Trip

Rides:
There are a lot of great resources online and in print that will help you plan your trip and decide how to approach your vacation. One of our favorite sites is Disney On Wheels. Melissa shares a lot of information about accessibility option for ride vehicles and hotel rooms.

Sometimes watching an attraction can make a child feel better about riding it.
One of our favorite guidebooks is The Complete Walt Disney World by Julie Neal and Mike Neal. The Neals break down each attraction and give you a good idea of what to expect.
Searching Youtube for ride videos is another great way to learn more about the rides and parks. You know your child better than anyone else and you know what rides could frighten or cause sensory problems.
Food:
Make sure to check out menus to decide on which restaurants will offer the best food choices. AllEars updates their menus frequently.

You can always check with your travel agent or call the restaurants ahead of time to ask about special foods or ingredients. Many people have told me that the chefs will come out and talk to you about ingredients and will go out of their way to prepare the food that you need.

If you have special foods that your child needs, instead of packing them, you can have them shipped to your hotel by Amazon or use a grocery delivery service. If you are unsure what foods you will find at Walt Disney World, then you are better off being prepared and bringing your own (like specific juice boxes, snacks or treats).
You are always welcome to take small coolers into the parks with you, just remember that you can't bring in glass bottles or alcohol.
Medicine:
You will want to keep all medications with you when you travel, but there will be instances when you might forget or lose something.

Your best bet, at the resort, is to call or check with the front desk. They will have lists of pharmacies that will deliver or mix custom medications. It is expensive and they might need to get a prescription, so make sure you have your medical provider's phone numbers.

In the parks, you should head towards the First Aid location or Guest Services. The first Aid locations are staffed with nurses and they can offer first line help.



There are plenty of chain pharmacies in the area, like CVS, Wal-Greens and Target. If you don't have a rental car, check with the front desk for options.

Don't forget that any prescription medications should be kept in a labeled container. Security hosts are very reasonable, but they will question pills and syringes/needles.

When we had to take a custom-mix medication for my son, our local pharmacy made a special envelope for us to keep it cool throughout the day.

Know Your Child

The most straightforward advice is to know your child.

You know their sleep habits, foods, cranky moments and situations that could cause a melt down. Plan your trip with those thoughts in mind and everything will be simpler. Even though you might want to see and do everything at Walt Disney World, it simply isn't possible on a normal six day vacation. I have been visiting Walt Disney World for over 20 years and there are still things I haven't seen.

Stick with sleep/nap schedules and build in as much down time as you can.

Break Times:
There are plenty of areas in the parks that will give you some semi-private space for a few minutes rest or to let the kids burn off steam. You just need to keep an eye out or ask a friendly cast member. One of my favorite areas in the Magic Kingdom is a small courtyard to the right of the queue of Pirates of the Caribbean. It offers a bit of shade, but there is a wide space to spread out or take care of a child for a few minutes.


Keep an eye out for other areas where you can sit in the shade, enjoy a snack and take a few moments to relax.

Food:
Remember to feed everyone on a regular basis. Pack snacks that are easy and simple to hand out or keep an eye out for favorite Disney snacks.

We had a few meltdowns with our oldest son that could have been remedied with a snack or two. Because we were too busy trying to enjoy the parks, we didn't see his mood slip until too late and then it was about 45 minutes before he was back to normal.

What Next?

Talk to your favorite travel agent or ask your friends online. There are plenty of WDW Facebook pages where you can talk to people that love Disney and can offer great advice.

  • Know your child,
  • Start planning and researching,
  • Ask for help.

Do you have any advice you share about traveling to Walt Disney World with special needs?

What are some of your favorite tips?

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

would ADHD qualify as a "special need"

when i went last year before the official diagnosis i felt my child needed that card and my husband was like thats not fair bc 'there is nothing wrong (ignorance is bliss)' but now we have a diagnosis (and I was right lol) so could we get one?

George Taylor said...

ADHD is a valid concern.

It all depends on the child and how well they do in queues and in crowds.

I would get a note/letter from your doctor explaining the child's issues and any special needs.

Disney will probably not ask to see one, but better safe than sorry.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the quick response. As the day goes on she goes from okay to having a rough go of it bc 1. ya get more tired/ cranky (even w rests breaks and meals) as the day goes on and 2. the lines get longer and the wait is longer causing it to be tougher bc its later in the day and that makes you cranky and then goes the vicious cycle!

Anonymous said...

Ya, I have ADHD...can I cut the line too? I'm sorry....reserve a spot in the fast pass line.

This irks me to no end about Disney's policy.....and I'm by far, not the only one.

If I have a problem with standing on a really long line. Guess what, I don't or get a fast pass. I'm not going to be selfish and make others wait longer.

More importantly, I have a moral issue with using my affliction to squeeze into and use the 'perks' with that are given to someone with LEGITIMATE mobility issues (which even that is a whole other topic).

Anonymous said...

Well I guess thats why those passes are ONLY given to those CANT stand in line compared to the selfish individuals who DONT want to wait in line.
My sister in law has a mobility restriction so while the rest of us are waiting in line she goes up and they tell her when she can come back and we all go on together, that way she can go take her medication or rest while those who CAN stand in line for longer than 15 minutes stand in line for an hour or however long it takes.
This system is put in place so families can go enjoy themselves without bullshit.
It wasn't set up for people like you sorry

Holly said...

My daughter has Severe ADHD. Stress and schedule changes causes her to have meltdowns of major proportions. I have often been in stores where she has had a meltdown and been accused of being a bad parent. Do YOU want to stand in line and have your trip ruined as well as mine? I would gladly give you my daughter's disorder if it meant that she could wait in a two hour line and enjoy herself.

Anonymous said...

I have 2 kids with ADHD and anxiety issues. We hire to helpers at their school to work with them at the school. Medication has limited effect. I can tell you, but for this program, we simply wouldn't take them to WDW as each line would be disruptive to all the other guests and raise our stress levels to make the whole trip simply not worth it. I think it is easy for those without children who suffer from these conditions to quickly judge others as to what is a legitimate condition/excuse.

Alfred G said...

I have the added issue of a 12 yo child and husband with the ADHD condition. We are planning our trip now and I'll be talking to the Disney officials to see how best to approach the issue. We have missed many social events due to the lack of both of them being unable to handle the crowds and potential wait times. I am hopeful this trip we can make it manageable for both.

Destiny said...

i think depending on the severity of the ADHD, that yes, it can fall nder that category. I am 17 and have ADHD, epilepsy and a lot of other medical problems. truth be known i probable fall under this as well. people are really disrespectful to families like mine and others who cant help the way that they are. im sorry you guys are having to deal with an inconsiderate moron who cant see that he/she is not the only one on the planet and that not wanting to stand in line is not the same as not being able to. people dont see the things that i am restricted from bc of my disabilities. it bothers me to see that i am not able to drive or play lazer tag with my friends or sports or other things bc of my disabilities and other people complain and use excuses all the time. its not the same thing, and never will be. theres so much things ive not been able to take part in during the course of my life, not because i chose to do so, but because ive not been able to. grow up and look around you and see what i can see as a 17 yr old. if you cant do that, you got problems too, dude.

Anonymous said...

my son has severe A.D.H.D he is a sweet child with complicated anxiety and violent outbursts, he's 10 and his meltdown are fewer and farther between than they once were he's on a non addictive form of meds he takes before school for regular school hours, we have the option of giving him a dose of another drug to get through his afternoons, but because they have such known awful side effects we choose not to give him his afternoon meds and we just grin and bare it... the doctor is comfortable with our decision... when we do Disney we stick it out in the lines until the hours his meds are usually trailing off then we turn to the guest assistance card at the first sign of his anxiety. A.D.H.D is a mental disability, trust me the only difference between a mental disability and someone who is physical impaired is you can't see there impairment, it's important to teach every child about standing in line and waiting there turn and the guest assistance card given for people with there types of A.D.H.D and others on the autism spectrum does not let you skip everyone it merely gets them through a little faster a little more out of the way than the mass crowd that would otherwise be annoyed by my child or whisper among them selves [usually not quiet enough] that i need to teach my child some manners or if "if that were my child..." or worse stand there childless advising me on what they think i should do with my kid at this moment, i love my son, i believe everyone deserves to go to Disney world at least once in there life, it belongs to everyone... or at least those that scrape by to afford it. i take advantage of the guest assistance card not only for my son not only for myself and to lessen the stress on my vacation [after all it's my vacation.] but so that you the guest standing in line inching forward doesn't have to encounter my son's year old drunk rock star behavior on your vacation. these people can't help the cards they were dealt they judge their needs individually that's why Disney isn't the same cookie cutter vacation for everyone, people are mostly good please don't assume my family or another family in my situation is trying to buck the system A.D.H.D and autism are not excuses these people, these children we love as parents their brains just function differently than ours

Mr Hobart said...

The poster above explains things perfectly. My son is autistic, but presents himself as 'normal' for a majority of the time; however his outbursts can be triggered over apparently random things. We have tried the 'stand in a queue until the meltdown' approach, and found that just being in the line causes his anxiety to rise and rise and the severity of the meltdown is much greater and more likely to come. By having the opportunity to avoid situations of close proximity to strangers, confined spaces and 'boredom' of the usually 30 min+ lines at Disney World, we can manage my son a little easier. It isn't very nice when you get the tuts and admonishing looks from people when you are seen to 'cut the line', but the alternative is a horrible experience and what would amount to a wasted vacation. I would love to have the opportunity to stand in 1hr+ lines at Disney, visit busy shopping malls or supermarkets or stop for dinner at an untried place if it meant my son could live without his difficulties, however my son has character and strength and quite frankly I wouldn't change him if I could because his special needs make him who he is - and if that means that someone who is either ignorant or intolerant of people with special needs gets 'inconvenienced' for a few extra minutes at what is supposed to be the 'Happiest Place on Earth' then I am perfectly ok with that.

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Desiree Bowen said...

My son was just diagnosed with ADHD about a month ago (he just turned 5) and we JUST got back from our Disney trip last night. I really wish I had seen this website before we left! We still overall had a good time, but we had many difficult meltdowns to deal with. One time was with one of the dressed up characters. My son is the sweetest boy, but he has the HARDEST time standing still and controlling his little body. He was so happy to see the character Raifiki, that he gave him a big hug followed by a light punch to the leg. The Disney worker that was accompanying Rafiki was really rude about it and my son ended up in tears. I'm sure to the person who has no experience with ADHD, they would have seen a kid who needed to be harshly reprimanded. Me, knowing my child, knew that he was so excited he was basically giving him a high-five, but in that split second, he could not realize the difference. I still of course told him we have to be gentle, etc., but I am also not going to reprimand him harshly for a behavior I knew did not come from a place of malice. I really wish we had had that card, I know it would have saved us from some of the major meltdowns we experienced and for those around us. This is a tough new road for my family and we are navigating it the best we can. The biggest obstacle is usually not letting the morons who know NOTHING about mental disabilities get to us! I wish I had seen that lady's name because I would have complained. She was already having an attitude before we even walked up, and Disney is usually SO amazing with their customer service!

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