Updated May 2016
This post is intended to provide information that can help children of all abilities visit the parks in comfort. My tips may or may not all apply to you and your specific needs, but hopefully they are broad enough to help many with challenges during a visit to the parks.
I invite you to leave your own tips in the comments section so that we can learn from each other. I will be editing this post as I learn more about how to help with kids of all abilities, so stay tuned for updates and more information to come.
- Disneyland has a wealth of information and help available. Don’t miss their page to see what the parks can do for you during your visit.
- I can’t stress enough how helpful this book is – Planning a Trip to the Disneyland Resort – A Resource for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It’s available both online and in the parks (at City Hall in Disneyland and Guest Services in California Adventure) and it details SO MUCH that will help with your visit. Browse through and find how each attraction is broken down by what to expect regarding sites, sounds, smells, flashing lights, etc. Here is an example of what you’ll find in the book:
- I have many, many posts with tips on how to navigate the park, where to eat, what to ride, etc, etc. But, the two I find to be most helpful in this situation are: The Disneyland Rules & Magical Ways to Start Your Disneyland Days. Take a look at those for sure.
- Consider a countdown calendar – This will prepare your family for when you’re visiting and give everyone a timeline that can be relied on to understand when you’ll be in the parks. There are so many options for this. Choose the best that works for your family.
- Talk about traveling – Whether you’re driving or flying, explain how you will get to Disneyland and what that might be like. Discuss the details of being on an airplane and that there are no options to leave while you’re in the air. Discuss how long a car drive could take. Provide information that will help put your family at ease – including bathroom options, what you will be able to eat en route, what you will be able to do to pass the time (games, read, sleep, etc).
- Talk about the reward of traveling, too – Discuss what comes from that sort of travel – Disneyland! Mention the castle and look at photos online of all that you will see once you travel your long distance to the destination.
- Watch videos of Disneyland – I recommend having everyone familiar with what to expect from the rides and you can find that here: Disneyland and California Adventure. I have videos for each ride in these posts, plus ride duration, height requirements and if a FASTPASS is available.
- Watch videos on parades or shows – Both of these options are typically loud and a bit overwhelming. Prepare your group by talking about what they see in the videos. Some examples: “Do you hear how loud those drums are? But, now it’s quiet. It will be loud again soon.” “Look how tall Mickey is standing up on that float. He’s taller than us!” Review my post on parades for tips on how to find a good seating area and more.
- Watch videos of fireworks – The loud noises and bright colors can frighten anyone. Discuss the colors and the music that accompanies the show. Ask your family questions and let them discuss their concerns. Talk about how a loud “boom!” is followed with lights that are pretty and bright. Assure your child that the fireworks are far away and that he or she is in no harm.
- Look at the maps – Review how big the park is and talk about how much walking there is ahead. Mention that you’ll be taking lots of breaks and that a nap is a good idea to be ready for a fun evening experience, too. The broad scope of both parks seen on a map could allow your family some perspective on exactly what is ahead size-wise.
- Talk about disappointment – We rarely get to do all that we want at the parks. This is hard to understand for a child. Discuss how some rides might have really long lines and that there might be better options. Discuss how some rides might break down. But, try to spin a difficult situation into a positive one. I write a lot about that in my Dealing with Disappointment post.
- Bring a good stroller – I can’t stress enough how much a good stroller is essential for this trip. Do not bring an umbrella stroller if you can buy a better one or afford to rent one. The Disneyland Resort has good options and City Stroller Rentals does, too. Lots of information on both can be found in my stroller post, along with info on how to manage your stroller and bags.
- Bring a blanket – This will not only work for parades, but it will also create a little pod for your child should the over-stimulus of Disneyland become too much. Tuck your child into the stroller and bring the cover down and then cover it with a blanket. The overload of smells and sounds and even touching – while walking through crowded areas – can be too much for people. Shield your child with this escape from the chaos. And, let your child settle in until he or she is ready to emerge into the park again. This can become a “safe place” for escapes as needed.
- Bring at least one familiar snack – Make it his or her favorite and forget about calories or sugar if that works with your child’s diet. Think about comfort. A panic situation can often be diffused with a familiar item – and this can even mean food. Talk to your child prior to going to think of snack options and then bring several in for times of need.
- When lines become too long, find other options – Review my post on where to go when the crowds are heavy and have some ideas on hand prior to getting into a situation where you need to find solace to calm your little one.
- Consider a Character Meal – This can be a great way to see the characters up close and introduce your child to them in a safe environment, but with this, too, I encourage you to visit YouTube.com to watch some videos on characters so that your child can understand the size of them. Browse the photos on my Facebook page to show how big they are compared to me or my kids and relate us to family members of your own.
- Be prepared for food allergy needs – Detail your food allergies/needs on paper and make several copies of those details to hand out at restaurants so that you don’t have to feel the stress of remembering all of your requirements. If you have specific needs, having everything already written out will put you at ease while dining. This will also decrease the chance for errors since the wait staff can hand your concerns directly to the chef or food coordinator putting your meal together. Disney is excellent at accommodating dining needs, so don’t be scared to ask for special treatment.
- Have autograph books on hand – An autograph book can provide a safe buffer between a small child and a larger than life character. Handing that book over with a pen occupies the character while the child takes it all in. This process can buy your child up to a minute of time to simply breathe and look around and see what’s happening. I highly recommend having books ready (with pens!). Shop for autograph books and other park essentials from Amazon before you visit so that you’re ready upon arrival.
- Communicate your needs with cast members – Characters are often “hands on” with kisses or hugs or arms around children or adults for photos. Let the cast member accompanying the character know that you prefer “hands off” interaction. The character will likely hear, too, as they’re very in-tune with what’s going on. Don’t be scared to let the cast members know what will help your child have a positive experience. Disney WANTS you to love your visit. Let them help make it happen.
- Absolutely bring a lovie – Whether it’s convenient or not, bring along whatever makes your child feel safe. My nearly 9 year old daughter STILL insists I have her “cold lamby” in my purse when we visit. I don’t mind it all. In a panic situation, sometimes I am unable to calm my children down. But, their lovies nearly always work. And, with all the sensory overload that awaits you at Disneyland, you want to be prepared.
- Be armed and ready – Having earplugs (for noise cancellation), sunglasses (for bright lights on rides or the sun), books and ipads or other activities (for distraction) and anything else that might help is worth carrying in. Be familiar with my Logistics of Disneyland post so that you can utilize lockers as needed to store items you might not need the entire visit.
- Breathe – Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, but it can also be the most stressful. Have realistic expectations, know your limits, try to have fun and stop every now and then to breathe. Take it all in. Magic can happen when you least expect it.
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