Donna Lorman, President of the Autism Society of Greater Orlando frequently gets calls from around the world from those seeking advice for their vacations in Orlando. The following tips come from an interview with Donna where she shared the answers to the questions she’s most frequently asked. I’ve got to add that Donna makes an incredible first impression. She is so clearly passionate about the people she supports. She also has a great deal of appreciation for the lengths that Disney World goes to, in order to support those with autism.
Although we recognize that Disney guests with autism can be of any age, Donna lovingly refers to them as “children” or “kids”, so we’ll do the same in this article. Here’s her advice:
Hotels: Stay on Disney World property if it’s at all possible. In all of her experiences the Disney resort staff members were extremely kind and very knowledgeable about autism. If you tell them that autism is involved, they’ll really step up and go the extra mile for you. It makes everything so much easier.
Child care: Parents want a break on vacation, and some time to relax. They’re looking for a child care service they can trust. Donna recommends True Help Services in Kissimmee (www.truehelpservices.com). She finds that they are extremely supportive of children with autism.
GACS: When you’re going to a Disney park, a Guest Assistance Card is a necessity (Author’s note: Guest Assistance Cards are no longer available – but Disability Access Cards (DAS cards) are, so Donna’s advice is still valid). It will help minimize time spent in attraction lines, and it can often reduce the need for waiting in crowds. The problem she’s heard repeatedly is that although most of those with autism are visibly symptomatic, those who are higher functioning may not be believed by Disney staff when requesting a GAC. She recommends that if the autism is not easily apparent; bring a doctor’s statement or some type of documentation to confirm the autism.
Although Disney says that documentation is not required for a GAC, they are also trying to reduce abuse of the system by those who fake it because they think they’ll have shorter waits for attractions with a GAC. Donna receives around 5-10 complaints a year from people who were turned down for a GAC because the Disney Cast members didn’t believe the child had autism.
If the autism is readily apparent, particularly if there are obvious verbal or communication issues, she suggests that you may get your GAC more easily if you have your child speak to the Disney cast member. Have the child request the GAC. Most kids have enunciation issues or verbalizing issues and it will be obvious. If you get the child involved in the request process it can go much smoother.
Another benefit of the GAC is that it allows you to enter through the handicapped entrances for attractions that have them. Use this whenever possible. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, it can allow those with motor issues more time to get in and out of the ride cars.
Character Dining: Donna highly recommends the character meals, especially in the hotels. Autistic children usually adore the characters and the character meals. While you can see the characters in the parks, at the restaurants you get individualized attention. They come to your table, so you don’t have to wait in long lines at the park to have your child interact with a character. Though the character meals are expensive, this convenience alone makes it worth the money.
Even with a GAC, at character appearances in the parks you will wait at least 45 minutes and sometimes longer in line to reach the character. Although on occasion Donna has found that a GAC can get you right to head of line, often the cast members won’t do this for you and you’ll have to wait in line with everyone else. Some autistic kids just don’t do well waiting in lines. The character meal is a great solution.
Donnas’ favorite character restaurant is Chef Mickey’s. Although it’s pricey she feels it’s worth it because everyone is so supportive. It’s extremely kid-friendly, and it’s very loud because there are usually a lot of kids. With this in mind, if your child has a “meltdown” or exhibits vocal stimulation, they will fit in.
Tell your waiter about the child’s condition and they’ll notify the characters, who will behave accordingly. They will even give special attention to your child. Pick a restaurant based on what characters you prefer. Different restaurants have different characters. Most Disney restaurants are helpful at accommodating special dietary needs, but Donna finds that Chef Mickey’s is particularly great. They will even bring food in from other restaurants even though it’s a buffet. She finds that it’s much harder to get food accommodations in park restaurants than in the hotel restaurants, especially at a buffet.
Quick Meals: At Magic Kingdom one restaurant that can be especially suitable for a quick meal is Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe in Tomorrowland. They serve chicken and French fries, as well as hamburgers and salads. Donna finds that the majority of kids with autism seem to consistently want chicken and French fries. This restaurant has that, along with alternatives for the rest of the family. In Epcot, the Electric Umbrella Restaurant in Future World has chicken and French fries. In Hollywood Studios try the ABC Commissary.
Water parks: Make sure you’re there first thing in the morning. They often get so busy that you won’t get a shaded area for shelter unless you arrive early. Another reason to be there at opening time is that the parks sometimes reach maximum capacity very fast, and they can close to new visitors very early. Often autistic children will have a meltdown if turned away. Arriving early can prevent a disappointing and difficult situation.
Live Shows: Autistic kids seem to love most live Disney shows. They’re fascinated with the music, dancing singing and characters. The music shows are especially great for them. When you enter the park get a map and schedule to see when the shows are. Around the holidays they have multiple shows with characters, including Santa with music and singing. Kids love it!
Some shows are outside with no actual seating, but if a show is in a place where there is seating, use a GAC. This will enable you to request seating at the front of the theater. Show your GAC to a cast member and request to sit up front. These shows can be packed and by sitting in the front you’ll have extra space. Autistic kids get overwhelmed with body to body seating and crowds, and this will minimize this. For live shows they usually seat those with GACs and wheelchairs first, and then they bring in the crowds waiting in the regular queue. By using the handicapped entrance you’ll be cutting down your child’s exposure to crowds.
According to Donna, one live show that seems to have worked miracles for kids with autism is Turtle Talk with Crush In The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion. This attraction has guests interacting live with an animated turtle. There are numerous occasions when non-verbal children began to speak and interacted with Crush. Disney has now approved and funded a research project which will seek to determine why. Children with autism consistently love Disney, and the project will also look at what makes Disney World so captivating and engaging to them. Donna will be working with Disney on this project.
Her son who has autism loves the Beauty and the Beast and Muppets 3-D at Hollywood Studios. She notes that often kids with autism will put the glasses on and they’ll cover their ears. They will also put their thumbs in ears and their pinky’s in their mouths. They’re overwhelmed and they may rock gently, but they’ll calm down. If she says “hands down” to her son, he’ll put his hands down and watch the show. Although the sensory effects in some of the other shows will often bother kids with autism, these shows seem to get a consistently good response from them.
Her son was absolutely terrified in Stitch’s Great Escape in Magic Kingdom. He hated the shoulder restraint. He also has great difficulty with Honey I shrunk the Audience, a 3-D show in Epcot. The sensory effects are overwhelming for him.
Parades: Use the GAC for parades to sit in the handicapped area with the wheelchairs. Kids with autism usually can’t sit and wait for long periods, and people start lining up for the parades as much as two hours before they begin. Donna has found that if you wait about 30 minutes before the parade begins to take your place, there may be no place left to sit with a good view. Sometimes they’ll have space in a wheelchair area and they’ll let you in if you have a GAC.
Park preferences: There is a definite trend in park preferences among kids with autism, according to Donna. She’s not certain why, but Animal Kingdom is consistently their least favorite park. She speculates that one reason may be their hypersensitivity to smell, which may make them uncomfortable with the smell of the animals.
Here are the parks in order of the most favored to the least, according to Donnas’ observation:
- Magic Kingdom
- Hollywood Studios
- Animal kingdom
Downtown Disney: Donna feels this shopping, dining and entertainment area is often overlooked and not to be missed. There is a lot for the kids to do here. For example, they love the Once Upon a Toy store. If you’re one of first people there in the morning, your child can start up one of the toys on the ceiling. If they do start a toy, they will also receive a certificate and a small gift toy. Donnas’ son Drew started the electric train by flipping the switch, and he was given a little locomotive with a certificate. She says he was absolutely “lit up”, and was actually shaking because he was so excited.
If you wish to have your child start a toy, ask a cast member. This is especially necessary if you have an older child. Drew is 16 years old, so they have to seek out a cast member and make the request. Otherwise they are usually overlooked.
In Downtown Disney is a restaurant called Rainforest Café, which is a huge hit with autistic kids. Her child is so enthralled that his mouth never closes while he’s there!
The massive World of Disney store is great fun for everyone. There is a beauty shop calledBibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. Girls three and older are treated to a princess makeover. Though it’s not usually appropriate for kids with autism, it may be a great treat for siblings. Donna notes that the siblings needs often take a back seat to the autistic child’s needs. She feels it’s essential to allow them time to enjoy the things of Disney that they particularly want.
The Lego Imagination Center is a store where that will really entertain your children. In addition to viewing the amazing Lego creations already built, you can design your own. Donna recommends that you let them have some time to build and use their imagination — they love this.
Donna Lorman and The Autism Society of Greater Orlando can be found here:www.asgo.org
Please check back! We’ll be adding more articles on autism and other conditions at Disney World.
Here are some additional ideas – some from our Walt Disney World Made Easy for Everyone facebook group members.
- From Kimberly Harmon Frisch – For any kids w/ sensory issues (which affects many autism kiddos)- utilize the baby care center for quiet places for a break and use the restroom. Many of the bathrooms in the parks are very noisy. My son could not handle them until very recently w/ automatic flushes and hand dryers. When we use the bathrooms now, I place a sticky note over top of the sensor for the automatic flush so it doesn’t go off and freak him out while he is still using the bathroom. We also take noise canceling headphones with us- so many of the rides (even ones you wouldn’t expect) are loud, or have loud “scenes”.
- From Marie Montgomery – My friends son has autism. For him knowing in adavance was the key. We’ve been to WDW many times w/ him. The first time we were afraid of how he would handle it. We showed him YouTube clips of the rides, parades, and characters. I also made detailed agendas of what we would do. This helped. Each day there was one. I also put in the agenda after every item ” Remember due to crowds, weather, ride closures, or anything else we might change the agenda around. But we will talk with you about it. The first times he didn’t talk much. We didn’t expect much on the trip but he came alive there. He loves maps. He memorized them & the agenda and would tell us what was next. Then he wouldn’t talk again until he told us what was next. Now he sits and talks WDW with me for hours. I’ve watched him come alive each time @ WDW. It helped him communicate more. He interacts more.
- Marie Montgomery (second tip) – In Magic Kingdom there is a great quieter spot to be away from crowds. It’s in Liberty Square behind the Hall of Presidents to the right of the exit. We sat there & enjoyed our snacks and rested in a quieter place for 30 minutes. It helps.
- From Ed Buskirk III – The tip I have is Always let the cast members be aware of your situation. They care and are extremely accommodating. My wife suffers from Bipolar 1 (the rare one) that means that like autism, she can have very similar perception issues. When we were at MK one day, it became unusually crowded. She became very overstimulated and we became trapped in liberty square during a parade time. I walked into the Liberty Tree Tavern, and explained to the manager our situation. He let us sit in the waiting area, then gave us a quiet table to eat lunch at in the back. It was just what my wife needed to calm down. We could not spend a full day at MK that day, but we were able to turn a tough situation unto a nice day thanks to the Cast members!
- From Maureen Rowe Deal – We have a son with autism. We try to avoid potential behavior triggers of fatigue, hunger and over stimulation. We use noise-canceling headphones, carry snacks with us to the parks and take frequent breaks.
- From Theresa Beale – My tip is know your Autistic person’s trigger. What bothers one person may not phase another. For example my daughter never had a problem in the bathrooms but can’t stand being in a crowd to catch a parade. I found that by visiting during slower seasons and using Fastpass + I was able to keep my daughter calm and happy. Plus we always ride with shorter waits during parades.
Do you have more tips or thoughts on this topic?
Please feel free to post them in a comment below. We’d love your input.
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