Sunday, June 12, 2011

Disney World With a Special Needs Family

We are home! We had a very successful vacation with only a few meltdowns, and we never wished to come home early. I think that is a "first" in the last few trips. I want to record for you all and myself how we did Disney with our high-end needs family. I wasn't sure it could be done with so much success. Here is a review of the special needs that was in our crew of 7 (two parents, grandma, and 4 kiddos ~ 21, 10, 9 and 7). Our crew faced Disney World with diabetes, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, low energy issues, PTSD, Sensory Processing Disorder, leaky gut syndrome, an extremely special diet for two of us, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, poor tolerance for heat (me), Severe Learning Disabilities, and many impulse control issues. There are more diagnoses, but these are the issues that affected our every move.


  • Plan, plan, plan ... Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. We really found the book, The Hassle Free Walt Disney World Vacation, to be very helpful. We did not follow it to the letter but used it more than I thought we would. We followed the How to do a Day for Seniors plan from the book the most since it fit our family's needs for breaks the best. You can see the trusty book in my dh's hand in the picture below.
  • Have an idea of what is important to everyone before entering each park. For us, the kids wanted to go on rides, but it did not matter which ones. This allowed us to go on less popular rides with short or no lines. The few things that were really important to the adults such as the safari trip in the Animal Kingdom were easily obtained with a Fast Pass. A Fast Pass is open to everyone and allows you to hold your place in line for a later time. 

  • Find a sunscreen before leaving for your trip that your kids are not allergic to and you can get them to stand still for application. Buy lots and apply it often. We went through three small containers.
  • Rent a double stroller even if your kids are my ages. Our nine year old used it as a retreat from the over abundance of sensory stimuli. It also gave the other kiddos an opportunity to take a little rest now and again. If I could do it over again, I would rent a double each day instead of a single stroller, like we used in the first park.

  • Place ID's on your children. Fortunately, we did not lose anyone, but it made me feel better to know that they had their vital info in case of emergency. We made laminated cards with name, our cell phone number, out-of-town relative, and hotel. You can see one around Goldilocks' neck in the picture above.
  • Take frequent rest breaks inside the park or out. We stayed in the park all day two of the days (Animal Kingdom and Epcot), but for the Magic Kingdom, we left for the afternoon and returned after an early dinner.
  • Take Care of Yourself!! Check out the yummy Raspberry Smoothie I had poolside one day.
  • Drink tons of water and juice. Many folks told us to take water bottles into the parks and fill them at water fountains. I guess we are water snobs because we could not stand the taste of Orlando water. It was the nastiest water I have ever tasted in my life! It was very much worth it to us to pay out the $2.50 for water bottles inside the park. We also carried in about 15 organic juice boxes each day. Also, we carried in about a pound of blueberries, grapes or watermelon each day.
  • Bring your own food. We were forced to bring our own because of Tom Sawyer's and my mother's diet, but I have no idea how the average family affords the food in there. We carried in a small soft cooler filled with lunch meat, fruit, chips, nuts, organic fruit gummies and medications which needed to be kept cool. We spent about $55 in the three days on extra fruit, water bottles, and our Fish and Chips picnic (off the diet for Tom Sawyer and he LOVED it).
  • Decide how you are going to deal with the gift shops before you are in them. Our kids are used to only Mommy being allowed to go into gift shops, or occasionally they can go in -- after I preview the shop and make sure they can afford something worthwhile. At Disney many of the rides and shows empty out into shops. (Most rides are not amusement type rides, but rather a circular route with a theme.) We gave the kids a $15 allowance each day. We also made a game out of trying on funny hats in each shop and taking a photo, which took away the desire to OWN the hat. Even Grandma got in on the fun.


  • If you can afford to be in Orlando for extra days, spread out your Disney days. We did one day in a park, one day of rest. Here was our break down.... Friday ~ arrive and set up; Saturday ~ Animal Kingdom; Sunday ~ a day at the beach on the Gulf Coast; Monday ~ The Magic Kingdom; Tuesday ~ hanging out at the pool and afternoon at a free (with our ASTZ museum membership) science museum; Wednesday ~ Epcot; Thursday ~ more pool time and pack up to leave. My Father-in-Law really out did himself in selecting a timeshare for us this time. It had two pools, a water slide, water park, free fishing lessons, and all kinds of games and fun events.  We so appreciate the gift of a free place to stay! It really made the trip possible.

    • If you are going to do something wild and crazy like let your dear child go off his very strict diet, do it right before leaving the park so you can do meltdowns/reactions in a less stressful environment. Near the end of our vacation and the end of the day at Epcot, we let Tom Sawyer have Fish and Chips and try all of the free unusual and foreign sodas at the soda shop. You can see his ears already turning red. He had a rough night filled with night terrors, but keeps adding these cheats to his Disney favorites list.

    •  Consider your options for travel. We decided to drive to a major city four hours away and catch an overnight train and then rent a minivan in Orlando. We traveled coach and the kids slept really well in their seats. It was a much better experience than traveling by car the whole way (really out of the question with my crew) and will open up our world to farther distances. We were allowed to carry food on the train, and by purchasing our train tickets in advance, it was very affordable.
    Alright, now for my Don't list ...  It is really short!


    • Expect to do everything or even half of the things. No one gets it all done ... not the normal families either. Having fun doing a few things is way more fun than doing tons of things in a fast, stressful way. 
    • Spend a ton of time in the lines for characters. Think outside the box and take pictures in front of cut-outs of characters. We did meet a few characters when they arrived on the scene right in front of us.

    • Lastly, I am not going to say "skip the fireworks". However, if you live in a large city and have seen a really impressive fireworks display before, the Magic Kingdom's is comparable to a large city's display. Kids love or hate fireworks, no matter how big or small the display. We did the Magic Kingdom's fireworks and the kids liked it. Being out in Florida after dark meant a lot of bug bites, unfortunately. When the fireworks ended, almost everyone in the park tried to leave all at once. The kids were ready for bed NOW, but it took us more than two hours to get out of the park and back to the timeshare. We did not have everyone into bed until 1 am. If I had it to do over again and we were doing the fireworks, I would pack a blanket and travel pillows and find a calm spot to let the kids go to sleep while the crowds thinned out. I would also pack some energy food for the grown-ups to push through those final hours.
    Well, that is my thoughts for today! I am glad we went and we did have lots of fun.  It is nice to have it off our bucket list. The next time we leave on a trip, I hope it is to a calmer location. Also, thank you so much to Sarah, Kristi, Abe, Josh, and Audrey for taking care of our fish, rat, gerbil, bird and two dogs.  We are so glad we were able to keep them in the home and have all of you great helpers come in to care for them over the week.



    1. This is invaluable, Dawn. Thank you so much! My in-laws just gave us a week of timeshare in Orlando. As much as I wanted to go, it seemed overwhelming. We went when the older boys were young, and it was an experience I'd rather not repeat. ;) But, we went with extended family and attempted to follow their schedule, and we were still learning about our kids' special needs and requirements at that point. I'm going to share your post with Nick, and see what we can work out.

      I love your pictures, and Tom Sawyer's postures look so much like J's that I couldn't help but smile. We will definitely rent the double stroller! :)

      Thank you again!

    2. Thank you so much for such awesome information!! We haven't done Disney in the states, only in Tokyo. I went several times with the kids while hubby was gone. I'm told its much smaller than the states; I've never been in the states.

      I love the pictures too!! Looks like everyone had a great time. It is very pricey buying food for a day at Disney. I don't know how people do it. Thankfully, I've always had a baby or toddler so I took a cooler with us.

      Just to share this funny, everytime we went to Disney, groups of Japanese would gather to have their pictures taken with my kids. At the time, most of them were really blond, and that fascinated them. BLue eyes were also a charmer. I was used to it, and on our last trip my hubby went with us and couldn't figure out what they were doing. too funny!

    3. Wow, that was a fantastic breakdown. I will file this away in memory for future reference. We are planning to go to Disney in the next few years.
      Def. going to check out that book!

      It looks like you all had a fabulous time. So glad you were blessed to go on such a fun trip with your crew.

    4. I need to bookmark this page for future reference! We don't have plans to go to to Disneyland or Disneyworld anytime soon but it's nice to see how another family did it.

    5. Loved reading about your trip! Thanks for all of the tips. I'm trying to plan a 2 week trip for our family and want it to be fun and as low-stress as possible. Moving around locations - at least 7 - will add to the stress I'm sure.

      Any suggestions you might have on planning for me would be great! :-) We will be driving to NE and making stops along the way.

      I'm so glad that it was a great trip for your family!!! (((Dawn)))


    6. What a great list for those who need it. We took the kids last year to Disney and did what you did. ONe day at a park and one day something more restful. We stayed for 8 days and had a great time. We hope to go back one day and do the things we missed:) Thanks for linking up to the Field trip HOP.

    7. This is fantastic advice for ANY family! With the heat, crowds, and waiting, Disney parks can be terribly stressful. Sounds like you found some great ways to make it fun for everyone!