Travelling with a special needs family member involves many considerations to ensure a safe and positive experience. The amount of forethought and extra planning to meet unique needs can be daunting, therefore, it is helpful to know that travelling with a reputable company will ensure a most positive and memorable experience. That company for us is the Walt Disney Company and in particular Disney Cruise Line.
Having completed eight Disney cruises on all four ships in the fleet, through Eastern, Western and Bahamian itineraries, we felt equipped to embark on our first Mediterranean adventure aboard the first ship in the fleet, the Disney Magic.
The peace of mind, the exemplary service and standards, the entertainment and organization is like no other. Guests needs are always and consistently anticipated and no passenger is overlooked. Disney Cruise Line takes great strides to provide an inclusive experience for all guests, regardless of ability.
When booking, the importance lies in finding a travel agent who has actually sailed the fleet. First hand experience is paramount as without it, some details might be overlooked and it might be those details that might make the biggest difference.
What works for us is booking directly with the Disney Cruise Line because once you make your situation known to them, it’s noted in your file and will not be overlooked. Furthermore, guests are asked to fill out a Special Services Information Form retrieved online through their website, highlighting specific concerns so that they will be accommodated.
Stateroom Selection and Accessible Staterooms
Selecting a stateroom is vital for parents of special needs children to ensure peace of mind and safety. For parents of children who pose a flight risk, an ocean view or inside stateroom would be the best choice. Many inside staterooms aboard the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy offer the ‘Magical Porthole Windows’ which offer real-time feed from the exterior of the ship. This large LCD screen in the shape and look of a porthole window gives the illusion of an ocean view. The interior staterooms aboard the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder have large porthole-like mirrors offering a feeling of depth perception.
The Magical Porthole Window below on the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy.
Parents who do not have flight risk concerns, may find some rejuvenation and relaxation in a stateroom with a verandah. The verandah may serve as a restful spot for parents while their child rests in the stateroom. The verandahs are safely enclosed, with high, solid glass railings. Some near aft are solid steel, called the Navigator’s Verandahs.
Most Disney Cruise Line staterooms offer the split bath configuration. One room has a tub/shower and a sink, the second room has a toilet and sink. This set up allows two people the ease of getting ready.
Staterooms are also a great place to enjoy a slower paced and quieter meal when times in the dining room might be too stimulating. It’s best to let the Head Server know of this preference and meals will be delivered to the stateroom. As well, many of the quick service poolside eateries are open which offer food that can be taken to the stateroom to be eaten. Room Service is available and the menu list quite good. Guests in Concierge have an expanded Room Service menu available to them.
Accessible staterooms and suites are offered in great number throughout various locations on all four ships. All accessible staterooms and suites must be requested at booking to ensure access.
Such staterooms are equipped with ramped bathroom thresholds, open bed frames, 32″ minimum doorways, additional phones in the bathroom and on the nightstand, bathrooms have handrails at the toilet and shower, fold-down shower seats, hand held shower heads and emergency call buttons.
These staterooms support the use of Special Equipment which are available upon request which include bed boards, bedrails, portable toilets, refrigerator for medications, transfer bench, shower stool and Stateroom Communication Kits. Stateroom Communication Kits contain phone alerts, door knocks, phone amplifiers, bed shaker notification, strobe light smoke detector and a Text Typewriter TTY.
Wheelchair accessible staterooms are available and if mobility equipment does not fit in staterooms there are designated areas with electrical outlets. Parking for such equipment is located on deck six mid-ship on the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder and on the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy the location is deck two mid-ship, outside Enchanted Garden dining room.
Disney Cruise Line offers a number of provisions to provide an inclusive and enjoyable experience for all guests.
Guests must request open captioning on the television set by contacting Disney Cruise Line Special Services prior to sailing or Guest Services once onboard the ship. Common areas on the ships offer common video monitors with captions provided the sources of television signals are operating properly.
Stateroom Communication Kits, discussed above, are also available upon request at the time of booking or through Guest Services once onboard. Guest Assistance Packets are also available upon request through Guest Services which contain show scripts.
The Walt Disney Theatre on all four ships has two sign language interpreters supporting all shows. They are positioned at the stage front right from the audience perspective.
Children With Special Needs
The Youth Clubs are exciting and offer activities and programs to potty trained children aged 3-17, who are able to interact easily with peers and counsellors. Although no guarantees are made for children who require 1:1 assistance, Disney Cruise Line does try to accommodate special needs children in modified programs based on staff availability. This once again is not guaranteed. It is advisable to contact the Special Services Coordinator at (407) 566-3500 and download the Special Services Information Form, readily available on the Disney Cruise Line website. My personal experience with modified programs and/or Youth Club Counsellor interaction has always been positive. Many counsellors have special training and are able to interact smoothly with special needs children.
The Special Services Information Form deals specifically with dietary request information and policy, sharps boxes for medications, wheelchair accessible stateroom requests, communication kits for passengers with hearing impairments, service animal needing to travel with guests and arranging for wheelchair access and lifts. This form is easily accessible through the Disney Cruise Line website and instructions on how to deal with the form is also available there.
The Youth Clubs have frequent open house sessions which are good opportunities for parents to accompany their children, giving them the opportunity to acclimate to the environment, staff and other children. Youth Club Counsellors have always made an effort to interact with my son and engage him where possible and have allowed him to participate in modified activities. This is something I requested from the staff at the beginning of the cruise.
My son, who enjoys his independence benefited greatly from the individual Pod Stations which look like large portholes with cushioned seating and have listening stations and video monitors. These pods are located at Vibe aboard the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy.
Special Seating and Access in Public Areas
All ships are wheelchair accessible, providing elevators, ramps, special entrances and designated areas for ease and comfort. The Walt Disney Theatre has designated wheelchair seating for guests and their travel party. All dining rooms, lounges, common areas and restrooms have ramped entrances leading to designated areas for people in wheelchairs. Cast Members are readily available to assist and are very friendly and accommodating. Arriving a little bit early is also a good idea, allowing guests the ease of getting ready before the crowds arrive.
Disney’s Castaway Cay
Most itineraries include a stop at Disney’s Castaway Cay, their private island in the Bahamas dedicated to guests only. The island has a Family Beach and an adult only beach called Serenity Bay. Guests have access to complimentary beach loungers, chairs under a large umbrella, many port adventures (fee applies), a complimentary beach BBQ. Teens have their own area, away from the beach filled with activities, called Hide-Out and children have their own activity filled area called, Scuttle’s Cove. Both the teen and children’s areas are supervised at all times and are complimentary. Modified programming may be offered to special needs children depending on staffing. No guarantees are made.
A great convenience for guests is that the Disney Cruise Line ships dock at the island, requiring no tendering.
An open-air Tram, which accommodates strollers and wheelchairs picks guests up near the ship and transports them to the beaches. Pathways, for those wishing to walk are all paved and flanked by lush, tropical plants. All walkways, excluding the beach, are paved.
Special needs guests have access to all public areas, including the beach. People needing wheelchairs have the use of special beach wheelchairs which are complimentary. The island offers also offers accessible restrooms.
We love renting private Cabanas on the Family Beach; they are also available on Serenity Bay (adult only beach). The Cabanas are open-air structures with a living room equipped with a mini-fridge stocked with water bottles, soda in cans and fresh fruit. Dry snacks such as peanut free granola bars and potato chips are also offered. Wet cloths for wiping sandy faces and hands are also on hand. A Cast Member is available with the ring of a buzzer to replenish snacks, water bottles and soda. As well, they can give you ride to the restroom and BBQ. Accessible Cabanas are available on both the Family Beach and Serenity Bay (adult only beach), near the entrance of both areas, close to amenities.
The Cabanas also have covered porches with two padded loungers and padded bench, a basket with sunscreen and magazines. Beyond the porch is an open-air shower and hammock. Bicycles and snorkel equipment are included but must be requested.
In front of the Cabana there is a private strip of beach with the use of all floatation toys, two loungers, two chairs and umbrella.
For us, renting a Cabana allowed our son to have respite from the heat and the sun giving us an opportunity to fully enjoy our day at Disney’s Castaway Cay. Well worth the money.