Planning a holiday with children is definitely more complicated. With a child who has Sensory Processing Disorder and a food phobia we certainly have lots to consider in our preparations for any trip and our Disney holiday in particular could have been a complete disaster if we hadn’t been ready for it. J is both a sensory avoider (visual, touch, sound, taste) and a sensory seeker (movement). With the packed crowds, noisy parks and different foods, I must admit I did worry before we left that our Disney tickets were not going to be used more than once and that instead we would just have a relaxing holiday by the hotel pool and exploring the local area (I insisted that we hire a car for this very reason). After all, J finds birthday parties and local family fun days overwhelming so how would he cope at Disney World? Well, first things first, I armed myself with information and my Disney preparations began in haste. I set up a Disney Pinterest board so that I could understand what challenges each of the parks may present J and I made a list of which rides and attractions would be suitable and which we should avoid.
Rides and Attractions
Before I left, I did a lot of research into preschooler and toddler friendly rides and attractions at Disney parks so that I could anticipate which might cause over stimulation for a child with Sensory Processing Disorder. I made a list of which were the best options for J and which we must absolutely avoid. This worked really well for our first day at Magic Kingdom, however, on day two at Epcot, we soon realised that even with the amount of research I had done, we didn’t have all the information. We went straight to the Frozen Ever After ride when we arrived at the park as J loves Olaf and the ride is recommended for all ages, any height and is described by Disney as a slow ride, small drops, dark. It is a boat ride and features the characters from the film singing and some mini log flume style drops including a backwards drop. Now, for movement sensory seeker J, this was a great ride and it fact it was my favourite ride too. He loved seeing Olaf, he loved listening to the singing and he laughed gleefully down each drop. Until the end. Then there were simulated fireworks. Hubby and my mum didn’t even notice them, but J did. He started shaking with fear, his lip trembled and his eyes were wide. Thankfully, the ride ended and we got off and we went straight into the shop which helped to distract J, so I though that maybe he would be okay. However, he wasn’t.
We tried a couple more rides – one of which (The Seas with Nemo and Friends) was very gentle and pleasant, but J was tense and scared the whole time waiting for the fireworks to begin. The second ride (Journey into Imagination with Figment) we weren’t sure about, so we checked with Disney staff at the ride entrance and they reassured us that there was nothing to be afraid of and no loud noises. We asked again at the front of the queue as J started to get worried when he saw it was another indoor ride, but the man reassured him and so on we got. All was going well and J loved the cure little dragon character called Figment and started to relax and even laugh, but then a loud noise and a rush of air at the end of the ride made me jump, let alone poor J. At this point, we decided that rides at Epcot were to be given a wide berth and I thought that our time at Disney parks would be limited and that plan B of visiting the local area and wider afield in Florida would be coming into play.
That evening, I somehow stumbled across a page on the Disney website called Services for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities. The page is designed to help guests with cognitive disabilities, including those on the autistic spectrum, with their visit to Disney World. Here is where I found two documents that are essential reading for all parents of children with sensory processing disorder or autism. The first document was the Guide for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities and this is full of very helpful FAQ’s; a list of quiet calm down areas for when over stimulation occurs; tips on how to prepare your child and a visual ‘what to expect’ print off.
The second document was the Attraction Details for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities and this was what ensured that our Disney holiday was successful and full of happy memories for the rest of our visit. This is a list of the rides and attractions at the 4 main parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios) and details their sensory experiences. From this guide, I learnt that the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ride at Magic Kingdom (a ride I had planned on taking J on) lasts for 3 minutes and has flashing lights, loud noises, periods of darkness and bumps. It also tells me under the heading ‘elements of surprise’ that the vehicles bounce in one scene of the ride and that there is simulated thunder and lightning. Thunder and Lightning is an absolute no go for J, so thankfully we now knew not to take him on it. I rode the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh with my mum and there is a lot of thunder and lightning and it is loud, so I was very relieved that we had read this guide.
The attraction guide isn’t perfect though. The Frozen Ever After detail doesn’t mention the fireworks at all. We also had to use our judgement to a certain extent as for the It’s a Small World Ride the guide states loud noises, but I presume this means the music itself as there were no other loud noises that I noticed. You know your child best, so you will be able to judge their level of sensitivity and which rides/attractions you need to avoid for them with the help of this guide. Sometimes it may even be best to try a ride yourself first. We were unsure about the Na’vi River Journey ride so we booked a fast pass for the adults with the aim of doing a fastpass. The staff member on the fastpass queue told us that we could do a parent swap and that J could go with us the second time if the first parent felt that it would be suitable for him. I haven’t seen this policy mentioned elsewhere so I’m not sure if we were just lucky but it would be worth checking if this is an option with the staff members. We decided that J wouldn’t like it because it is a dark inside ride like the ones that scared him at Epcot, so we decided to not utilise this option anyway.
There is a disability services Disney staff member at the parks (I believe they are present in the four main parks. We spoke to them at Animal Kingdom.) who is able to answer questions and they were very helpful with their advice. The staff on the rides, however, could have benefited from additional training on cognitive disabilities though as the two staff members at the front of the queue for Living with the Land assured J and I that it was a very gentle and inoffensive ride with no loud noises at all. We chose not to go on it after the Figment experience, but once I checked the attraction guide at home it states that Living with the Land has a simulated thunder storm so this would have been very distressing for J.
Public toilets at home are a challenge but I know we can often avoid them or use disabled toilets if necessary. I found via my research that there are automatic flushes on the toilets at Disney. The recommended suggestion is to take a post it note to the toilet and cover the sensor so that the flush doesn’t trigger until your child has left the cubicle. It isn’t the flush that bothers J though at home so I wasn’t too worried – big mistake! All American toilets have much louder flushes than ours here in the UK (random fact for you). He didn’t even like the hotel toilet flush as he found it too noisy and in the busy toilets, which make him anxious anyway, J was really scared.
Thankfully, I discovered in the Guide for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities that there are companion toilets in the parks which have more space and are situated separately from the main toilets. This meant that I could control the flush without having to worry about every other toilet flushing around us and J felt safer so although he was still reluctant he would use them.
We were very unsure how J would respond to the parades. The Magic Kingdom parade is the traditional float, characters, singing and dancing style parade and J absolutely loved watching it as long as he had his ear defenders on. The parade at Hollywood Studios is just the Storm Troopers marching up and down Hollywood Boulevard, but J found them very frightening and the music threatening. We popped his ear defenders on and distracted him in the shop. He was still on edge but he was able to manage it.
I love fireworks but J, being a noise avoider, is terrified of them. I did quite a lot of research into the night shows before we left and discovered that Animal Kingdom doesn’t have fireworks in their show. I asked the disability services about the show to double check and the staff member said that there are some louder noises in the show, but no fireworks. This may be an option if your child can tolerate certain noises, but not fireworks, so it is worth checking when you are there. We didn’t actually make it to the evening show as J wouldn’t nap during the day (he was too excited) and so he was curled up in bed when the shows took place.
There is also an Electrical Water Pageant on the lake by Magic Kingdom. You can view this from the Polynesian Village Resort,the Grand Floridian Resort, the Contemporary Resort or Disney’s Wilderness Lodge and Campground. Again, this is late so we didn’t watch it, but if you are staying in one of these resorts and your child doesn’t like the fireworks this could make a nice alternative evening entertainment. Just be aware that these hotels are near the Magic Kingdom resort and so you are likely to hear the evening fireworks if you are outside waiting at the time they are on.
Aside from the nighttime fireworks, there are some fireworks at Magic Kingdom throughout the day from the stage in front of the castle facing towards Main Street. These take place at the end of a show called, Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire, which lasts between about 15 and 20 minutes. We were caught out with these once and so we had to keep a close eye on the times and pop J’s ear defenders on at the right time if we were anywhere close by. J did actually watch the show with his ear defenders on and he loved watching his favourite characters singing and dancing, but we left before the end to take refuge in the shop before the fireworks started.
The water parks are not included in the Attraction Guide, so I asked the staff member at Disability Services in Animal Kingdom about their suitability for J’s sensory processing disorder and we decided that Typhoon Lagoon was not appropriate for J due to the loud noise which regularly signals the beginning and end of the waves so we didn’t visit this park. However, Blizzard Beach has waves without the loud noise so we headed there and found a fantastic water park for children. J loves water so this was a great place to go to help him to relax and regulate.
Food and Character Dining
J has a food phobia and finds it difficult to eat due to his sensory avoidances of touch, visual and taste. We had to have a doctor’s note to take his oat milk on the plane and we took as much of the food he will eat as we could carry from home. As it happened, I had expected there to be food he could eat from the supermarket in the USA but it wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. Most bread had milk or egg in (both of which J is intolerant to) and this is the main filler of his diet. He was able to eat one baguette but after a few days he wouldn’t eat it anymore. I had also thought that finding biscuits and crisps (his 2 favourite foods and usually the ones he is most open to variance with) would be manageable, but this was not the case. I presume that because he was out of his comfort zone he was not prepared to try anything he wasn’t familiar with. We just about got through our stay with him eating but it was a struggle and I would definitely take even more of his food from home next time we travel abroad – clothes can be washed after all!
I did a lot of research into character dining and in the end we decided not to have this Disney experience. J absolutely loved meeting the characters at Disney so I would have liked to eat with them, but the reports are that they can be very noisy experiences which in the end combined with the food phobia meaning that J wouldn’t eat anything made them really expensive for something that may be very stressful for him rather than enjoyable.
Where to Take a Break?
As I mentioned above there are suggestions in the Disney Guide for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities of places to go to take a break which is essential for many with sensory processing disorder. We didn’t actually refer to the guide as we found there were plenty of places at each park that worked well for J. For example, at Magic Kingdom we visited the Swiss Family Treehouse in Adventureland which J loved walking around and we rode on the World Railroad train. We read that Tom Sawyer’s Island would be a good place to have a run around and take a break, but we didn’t actually make it over there. At the Animal Kingdom (which was the most calming of the parks in my opinion) we rode the train to Rafiki’s Planet Watch and here J was able to have more space to run around and also time in the petting area brushing animals, which he found very relaxing. There was also the sandpit at The Boneyard play area where J was able to dig. We broke rides up with character meet and greets and sitting down to eat or letting J run around in a quieter space. There was so much to look at that J quite enjoyed the quiet moments too.
We had an amazing family holiday at Disney World and thanks to the research I had done beforehand and the Disney Cognitive Disability guides and staff members we were able to avoid meltdowns and over stimulation as much as we would at home. No, we didn’t go on as many rides as some families with a 3 year old might, but J loved meeting the characters, seeing all the animals and going on the rides that we knew would be suitable for him. His ear defenders were worn every day and these were a safety net for him that was invaluable and allowed him to benefit from wonderful Disney experiences. We made sure that J had a good mix of excitement and downtime and plenty of opportunities to run, jump and swim. We also made sure that J had regular food stops and that he had time to play at the hotel every morning and evening, which for J is essential at helping him to regulate and sleep or be ready for the adventures of the day. We experienced Disney magic at it’s best and came home with happy memories to keep for a lifetime.
If you would like to know more about our trip or any of the parks please pop over to read our blog posts about each park.
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