Disneyland, or any large theme park, can be very daunting for any family with small children. We picked up a few tips along the way. Those families that have special needs to consider, it can even be more of a challenge. We were very nervous about taking our six year old, who is severely autistic, on this trip. However, with some careful planning and "go with the flow" attitude, we found it to be a very rewarding and wonderful vacation for our family. Here are a few tricks and tips we tried for our special needs family, hopefully they are helpful to you as well.
1. Bring Extra Help
We have three boys, so automatically my husband and I are outnumbered. We asked my parents to accompany us on this trip and it was the best thing we could have ever done. Not only were they able to help with all of our children, but we made some wonderful memories with Grandma and Grandpa along the way. It's funny to say that this was the most relaxing and enjoyable vacation I have ever been on with my kids considering the crowds, long lines, etc. but it really was thanks to our extra help. We were able to split up at times when rides or attractions weren't the best for our son and if he was having a hard time, there were extra hands ready to assist in any way.
2. Make Note of Favorite Rides
Every child with special needs is different. Our son couldn't get enough of anything that was spinning or really fast. Roller coasters, teacups, and giant swings were his favorite. We made sure to find a couple of rides nearby that he really liked, and luckily, usually didn't have very long lines. If he was struggling, we would take him for a ride on the swings again....AND if needed, hop back in line right after getting off for another turn! Nothing was more enjoyable than seeing his beaming smile as he was swinging up in the air with his dad. Another great reason to bring extra help: you can switch off going on the same ride so the adult doesn't get bored (or too dizzy!).
Word to the wise: Disneyland is loud. The crowds, the rides, the music, the parades, EVERYTHING is really loud! Most of the time, my son kept his fingers in his ears and was fine (he does that at home a lot even when there is no noise). Every once and a while, the noise became too much. We brought a pair of noise cancelling headphones for him to wear. We also brought a small iPod with some of his favorite calming music (Mozart) to help, not knowing if the noise cancelling function would really work. I don't know what the experience was like for him, he cannot speak to tell me what he thought of them, but it did help him calm down and work through whatever sensory overload he was having at the time. We only used them a couple of times on our trip, but it was peace of mind knowing we had them in our backpack.
4. Strollers and Special Passes
This probably goes without saying, but bring a stroller if your child will ride in one. My son is a bolter and will run away the second your back is turned. Thankfully, he loves riding in his custom stroller, kind of a cross between and umbrella stroller and a wheelchair. It was the best piece of equipment we could have brought with us. It was also nice to have a place to hang backpacks and purses so you didn't have to carry them around yourself.
Upon arriving at Disneyland, the first thing we did was walk over to City Hall, located in Main Street USA. If you have a special needs child, you may ask for a Guest Assistant Pass. You must have your child present and explain your needs to the employee. I went as far as bringing a signed doctor's note explaining my son's condition, but they never asked for it. We received a pass that allowed his stroller to be considered a wheelchair everywhere in the park, so we could let him sit in it while waiting in line. It also allowed us to use an alternate entrance onto a few rides that couldn't accommodate his stroller otherwise. Waiting in a separate area to get on some of the rides was such a blessing for someone who has a hard time with crowds and noise. We will be forever grateful to Disneyland for providing such a wonderful service for special needs children. It really did make all the difference for our family.
Note: We also did a day at Legoland in San Diego. They also have special needs passes available at the customer service area.
5. Breaks and Snacks
This is also fairly obvious, but take breaks and bring snacks! My son, in typical autistic fashion, is an extremely picky eater. There are only a few things he eats on a regular basis, so bringing in food for him was a must. We also bought lots of treats along the way too. Frequent, short breaks worked best for our family. It allowed everyone to rest for a moment before moving onto the next thing and it allowed parents to figure out which way was the best route to our next destination.
Large, crowded places can be so hard with special needs kids, but this kind of reaction made it worth every moment of planning and consideration.
You can check out my Disneyland/Legoland Pinterest board for other links to helpful hints and tips, including other posts about vacationing with special needs kids.