Adventures in Autism- Going to Disneyland

While visiting a theme park with kids can be fun, it also usually takes planning.  Add a child who thrives on routines and gets over stimulated with crowds, it can bring on anxiety for even the most chill of parents.  Luckily our family has had wonderful experiences at Disneyland.  Today I want to share some of my top tips for making your visit a fun and memorable one.
When my son was really little I was really hesitant to make the drive to visit Mickey. All the long lines and the unknown seemed like a big obstacle for a little guy with autism. But then we went and to my surprise, he not only tolerated it, he loved it. We have spent several years celebrating our J’s birthday at the happiest place on Earth.

Although each child is different, these are things to keep in mind when attending Disneyland and/or California Adventure:

Top 10 Tips for Visiting Disneyland

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. Before heading to the park, talk to your child about your plans. My son loves pictures so we often make photo books to prepare him for a change in routine. Making a book for a trip to Disneyland would help prepare your child.
  • Try to avoid going around high traffic times- during Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas the park is packed. Going midweek, especially if it is your child’s first time could make a big difference. We actually prefer California Adventure because it is always less crowded than Disneyland and my son loves Pixar (win-win!).
  • If your child is on a special diet, Disneyland does have options! So instead of hauling all of your own food, do a little homework and your child can eat right along with the rest of you. TACA has a great list of GFCF restaurants and if you scroll down to Disneyland, it is all spelled out. Awesome!
  • Bring a recent picture of your child, just in case. Disneyland is BIG. Things happen. This is especially important if your child is a wanderer.
  • Bring your child’s favorite ________ (fill in the blank). For J, he loves music. So we bring his iTouch and headphones. When he starts getting overstimulated or overwhelmed, we first give him the option of that.
  • When you arrive at either Disneyland or California Adventure, go to Guest Services near the front of the park off of Main Street and request a “guest assistance card.” We have brought our son’s diagnosis paperwork but have never needed it. The pass is good for up to six people and the child with the disability is required to be with you to use it. This is key to having a good experience with our son- he doesn’t do well with long lines and this pass makes it so that we go to the wheelchair access for each ride. Some rides aren’t as well marked as others, but if you ask a cast member, they will gladly show you where to go.
    I’ve also heard of people using a lanyard with a protector on it just to make it easier to show at each ride. We will be doing that on our next trip.
  • If your child doesn’t do well in tight spaces, I would suggest you steer clear of these rides:
    – Finding Nemo
    – the Haunted Mansion
  • Most children with autism wouldn’t do well with these attractions:
    – World of Color – standing only, long show
    -Fantasmic – another long show
  • If you do encounter a meltdown (there will be plenty of “typical” kids right along with yours ;), don’t worry. There might be people that stare, there may not. You can ask a cast member for the closest quiet spot and take a time out.
    I also made autism cards that I bring along for travel- pass one out if you need to!

    Feel free to download them for personal use. For your son or daughter.
  • Most importantly have fun!

Even with planning ahead, things rarely go as planned- sometimes better and sometimes worse. What we love most about Disneyland and California Adventure is that we make memories every time we go.

If you don’t have a child with autism, there’s a good chance you’ll run into a child with autism. I had a great experience while riding the tram on the way to Disneyland, I would encourage you to be like the mom we sat by:
While on our way into Disneyland a few years ago, there was a little girl on the tram that was looking at J. She whispered to her mom “Mom he’s sucking his thumb. Isn’t he too old to be doing that?” Very honest question. The mom handled it perfectly. Instead of shushing her daughter, the mom said, “It’s ok for him to suck his thumb. Different kids do different things.” I LOVE that she addressed it without skipping a beat. She didn’t make us feel like J had some contagious disease that needed to be whispered about. Please, do that with your kids. And if your kid asks a question without you knowing how to answer, address it with the person. Even if it’s a stranger. If the mom didn’t know what to say, I would’ve gladly answered for her. Open the line of communication with your kids that it’s ok to be different.

With a little preparation, Disneyland really can be the happiest place on Earth!

Mique
Hi- I'm Mique (as in Mickey). I started 30days as an idea file a few years ago. After three years and hundreds of ideas, I now realize that I'll never check them all off my list. When I'm not creating, I love spending time with family and friends and long drives, especially if they end at the beach.
Mique
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Comments

  1. says

    I love that you had a successful trip and your post gives great tips. Sometimes I think our whole family just needs to wear shirts so people don’t stare when we are in public and my son has a breakdown. :( Hopefully, we will be able to take him to the zoo this summer and see how he handles it.

    • Mique says

      Karen- I know just what you mean. I actually made a shirt for my son and posted about it here. I think one of the toughest things about being an autism mom is letting go about what other people think. I constantly have to remind myself that if anyone REALLY knew, they would be kind and loving instead of staring and judging. I hope you end up at the zoo this summer. My J has surprised me MANY times at places I thought he’d have a really hard time. (and then there are times that we’ve ran out of somewhere due to an insane meltdown….)

      • says

        I really appreciate your outlook. I too have a son with autism and I like to see the good in people. I just assume that if they really knew they would be understanding. We are planning a trip to disneyland and I am trying my best to get info about taking my son who has autism. Hopefully we have as good of an experience as you do.
        I just started blogging about my experiences with my son in hopes to raise awareness of the life of a child with autism.

  2. says

    GREAT post, Mique!! I’m so glad that you shared about the Guest Assistance Card…I have one in my wallet, because we have annual passes to Disney World. That little piece of paper has made a huge difference for our family! Thanks for the printables too, I have been wanting a little card to pass out for a long time. :0)

    • Mique says

      Thanks Robin! That paper seriously makes all of the world. I’m glad that Disney is so accommodating. I hope that they have been just as nice on that side of the country as here in CA. ;)

  3. Rhonda says

    Hi Mique, I found your site through pinterest. I do not have a child with autism, but my 23 yr old daughter had a diabetes related seizure in 2010 that left her with brain damage. Your handout is a wonderful idea, with your permission I would like to change it some to fit our needs. I get so angry with people at times. I’ve thought about have a shirt made for Tristan that says I have brain damage what’s your excuse. Thank you for sharing, and God Bless you and your family.

  4. says

    I am so happy to see that you had a great time. We took Kyle to Disney World for the first time when he was in kindergarten. We too were a bit unsure what to expect because at that time he was easily overstimulated and still had meltdowns over disrupted routines. We thought about a pass, but at the time he only had a sensory diagnosis and we were not sure if we would qualify. Turns out he didn’t need the pass, he thrived there. He loved all the lights, and rides. He had little problems with the lines because we brought things to do, and got fast passes whenever possible. We took breaks when needed.We are not really sure why he was able to handle everything when at home he was so easily upset. It really is a magical place.. :) We have not been able to go back in 5 years, but I would love to see how he would be now that he is older.

    • Mique says

      Hi Pam- Disney is indeed a magical place. I love going and having a “typical” family day. I hope you guys get to go back soon!

  5. Sarah Dodson says

    I love what you shared, none of my children have any differences, however I am always trying to teach them everyone is different and different is beautiful! thank you for sharing!

  6. Leigh says

    Thanks for more great advice girl. I’m still not brave enough to go to Disney. But we’re also far away from it so it’s more expensive. I think we’ll go soon and we need all the advice we can get!
    I’m in the same boat and thanks for sharing! xoxo

  7. says

    Great advice! I love the idea of the autism card – something similar would be great for other disabilities as well. I love Disney and can’t wait to go back with our two boys again {one of whom has autism as well} Glad you had a great time!
    Jenn :)

    • Mique says

      Thanks Jenn! (I didn’t know one of your son’s has autism) I agree- something for disabilities in general would be good. More than anything I’d love for people everywhere to just not judge. We could all use a little more love and compassion instead of judgement. I hope you get to go back sometime soon!

  8. Sharon C says

    The guest assistance card has made a world of difference for us. My son can not handle lines so it makes the trip more bearable for the whole family. Thanks for posting!

  9. says

    Hi Miq! I love that you are a such a resource for other moms in your same situation, and that you are using your situation for good.

    ps. It was fun to see you this weekend! Now we need a Snap vacay just to hang out. :)

  10. says

    What a great post! This is good info for any family. I love the idea of the cards to pass out–so much easier than trying to explain, especially if you are in the midst of a meltdown. I don’t have experience with autism, but my daughter has a heart condition and a metabolic disorder. It is hard for her to handle all the walking, and standing in a long line in the sun isn’t very easy, either. Make A Wish sent us to Disney World before her most recent heart surgery, and we got the magic pass that let us skip every. single. line. We’re moving to California soon, and I thought we’d skip Disney because it would just be too tiring for her. I never realized I could get a pass without the help of Make A Wish! Knowing this will definitely make Disney a possibility for us.

  11. says

    Those cards are awesome! I’ve had a few autistic kids in my classroom…those cards would have been nice to have to give to the other teachers at the beginning of the year. Great post!

  12. Tamera says

    Thank you so much for this post. So glad I read it, even though I have no experience with autism. I always wonder what is the appropriate way to answer my children when they ask about the behavior of others. I have shushed before, thinking I was doing ok by not having my children point out differences. I will do better next time! Thank you for this insight into your world.

    • Mique says

      Hi Tamera- glad you liked the post. I have been in situations where I didn’t know how to handle it or what to say as well (often). I don’t think any parents would be offended about the shushing- I just greatly appreciated the way this mom chose to handle it. Glad that I could share my perspective! Thank you so much for the comment.

  13. Maryden25 says

    Having a Disneyland adventure is a great way to give your children a real fun! I really look up to you, because you can manage your time in taking care of your children, especially your special child and your work. You are such a brave and well-motivated woman.

  14. says

    THANK YOU :) We have been hesitant for a long time. We have 5 kids so that was a huge reason too! Even my typical kiddos could use those tips. We inquired about the pass as well and I’m so pleased they offer it. I wasn’t sure if I should bring my son’s papers either since he “looks” typical :)

    I just printed that whole post out for us. Thank you sooo much for writing about your experience.

    • Mique says

      Marisa- awesome!! I hope that you get the chance to go soon. My son “looks typical” as well. Sometimes that can make things harder because people have expectations of him and wonder why he does the things he does. But at 12 yrs old, pretty quickly people notice behaviors.
      Disneyland has been so wonderful to us- the pass makes a world of difference.

  15. Heidi19 says

    Hi Mique! I really admire you for being such a good mom. Thanks for sharing your Disneyland experienced with us and i’m looking forward on your next post.

  16. Andrea says

    Just an FYI- at DL on the Finding Nemo ride you can ask a cast member for the Marine Observation Deck. It is basically a room in which you can view the ride, but it is not in the tight quarters of the submarine. No one is ever in there, it is cool inside (for those hot days), and they will allow a stroller in there (I have a GAC, but mine is that I can use my stroller like wheelchair because my daughter has gross motor disabilities). DL really makes it easy for everyone to have a great time ; ) Hope this helps!

    • says

      Awesome tip Andrea- thank you!! I’ll have to try that next time we’re at Disneyland. Hoping we get to go for my oldest’s birthday in a couple of weeks. Thanks for the comment!

  17. Danielle says

    Hey Mique! I stumbled upon your blog on pinterest and really liked it. I discovered you are a mom of a child with autism. How small this world is! My brother has autism and I am in school for Occupational Therapy. It’s very empowering to see that you posted about it to share with the world. Keep it up momma!

  18. says

    Thank you for writing this beautiful post! I wish I had read it before our disaster trip to Disneyland. We were not as prepared as we could have been and spent the trip trying to calm a toddler struggling to process way too much input. Next time will be different…i hope.

    and fist pump to the momma on the tram!
    xoxo,
    ashley

    • says

      Thanks for commenting Ashley! Disneyland is our favorite place but we’ve had our fair share of disasters over the years. It’d be a blast to go together sometime! And I still think about that mom on the tram- isn’t it great how one person doing the right thing can affect you forever? I try to keep the way she simply approached the situation in mind when I’m in similar situations.
      xoxoxo, Miq

  19. says

    Hi Mique!
    I was just at SNAP with you and wanted to let you know QBM was amazing. I was talking with Tauni the other night about our boys with autism and she told me you had a child on the spectrum too. I hope the next time we meet we can chat a bit more. This post is Fabulous!

  20. Robyn says

    Hi! I just stumbled across your blog via Real Simple. I too have a child (okay so she’s chronologically 19) with Autism Spectrum. We’ve used the Disneyland “Guest Assistance Pass” but also wanted to let you (and your readers) know that other places offer similar assistance. For example, SeaWorld – my daughter LOVES the place and would go every week if she could! We went in the spring and purchased their “Pay once, go for a year” pass, then went to Guest Services and they changed her pass so that it reads ” HER NAME plus a guest” which means she can take an additional person in with her. This helps by allowing her to go with her respite worker or her older sister or another family member without anyone having to pay the additional entrance fee. The San Diego Zoo also does this when you purchase an annual membership for a Special Needs person. Legoland and Seaworld also have the Guest Assistance Passes which allow your group access through the exit gate so that your child doesn’t need to stand in the long lines!
    I have come to the conclusion that it never hurts to ask! Especially if it helps my daughter experience a “normal” day!

    P.S. – I often tell people that I have 3 Special Needs children – #1 is super intelligent, #2 has Autism & #3 is a BOY!!! :) We are ALL special in our own ways!

  21. Megan says

    Being a parent of an autistic child is itself a “Disney Land” ride, feeling excited, nervous, happy, and scared all at one time. I am constantly looking for anything that makes our lives smoother with our sweet boy. I’m sad to admit that my son hasn’t seen Disneyland yet do mainly to not knowing how he will handle his sensory processing that day. You have given us hope and inspiration to prepare him for a big trip and have a plan “B” if we hit some bumps in the road. For me the hardest part is what other people say and the looks we get, this will help me not feel the need to explain his behavior. Thank you!! Megan.

  22. Noah L. says

    Oh my gosh, I’m so glad I found this! My two year old is autistic and has severe sensory difficulties and he too, has trouble with change in routine as well as certain situations. He’s overly sensitive to certain sounds and light.

    In the future, we do plan on making a trip to California, and I do want to take him to Disneyland and California
    Adventure. His father is afraid of how he’d behave in a situation such as a theme park. He was afraid that he’d be upset by the characters that walk around and noises of a crowd. But now that I read this, I think it’d be okay and we’d be all right.

    Thank you so much. I’m even going to pass this on to my husband!

  23. Jenna says

    I have spina bifida and scoliosis and am severely curved and have a large scar down my back that is visible mostly I know that a lot of times parents don’t know how to address this question and it’s so hard on children

  24. says

    When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I
    get three e-mails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people from that service?

    Cheers!

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