Upon receiving the diagnosis for my son we thought our world completely shut down. He was, at the time unable to go anywhere in public without a full blown tantrum. It took only one visit to a restaurant to determine it being our last because all he wanted to do was sit under the table and poke around.
Our doors were closed, our world in a box.
Andrew loved his Disney movie videos, he was captivated watching Buzz Lightyear and Woody in Toy Story. He was amused by the Little Mermaid who had no feet and got a chuckle out of Ursula. Winnie the Pooh as a stuffed toy on Andrew’s bed was a source of comfort during those times spent in his room whenever we tried fruitlessly to have company over.
Andrew, happy to be with Winnie the Pooh at the Crystal Palace, Magic Kingdom.
All that kept me going were my thoughts and feelings about Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts, my happy places. Ordering the planning guides, waiting for their arrival and thinking that our most recent visit at the time back in 2000 would be our last time. For me, it was heart wrenching to think that all of that had to stop.
Until Andrew saw a Walt Disney World Resort commercial on the T.V. He went right up to the screen and was touching Mickey’s face, he began to jump up and down and run around the room, not from self-stimulatory behaviour, but from glee and excitement. It was then that I decided to take the plunge, so I called Disney’s Central Reservations and went ahead and booked our trip. We were to stay at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort and I couldn’t believe it or contain my excitement.
Andrew in the Toy Story playroom aboard the Disney Dream. The story came alive for him.
From that day forward our world changed forever and our son began to blossom. He was immersed in his stories as they came alive while walking around the theme parks, he was awestruck and couldn’t believe Winnie the Pooh was real and cuddly and all. Tigger bounced around the Crystal Palace making Andrew squeal with delight while he tried to pull off Eeyore’s tale to everyone’s surprise.
Andrew was in our world!
Andrew above, with Buzz Lightyear at Disney California Adventure Park.
There was no stopping us now, this was the tool we would use to bring Andrew into our world and bring us into his world. We had to vacation at a place where families could have fun together, that place was at the Disney Parks.
The Disney Parks, our tool and our means to achieve our goal. Best of all Disney helps special needs people, Disney provides inclusive experiences for special needs people because no one gets left behind there.
To help you understand and possibly relate and hopefully decide to begin your vacations there with your special needs family member, I’ll elaborate and help make the connections for you.
What to Expect at Walt Disney World Resort
Before I say anything else, I highly recommend that you register with ‘My Disney Experience’ and participate in My Magic + a Disney booking and planning site which will greatly assist with all aspects of your vacation.
As well, download the free My Disney Experience App for your mobile device which will be at your fingertips when at Walt Disney World Resort. The mobile App is of great assistance when at the parks because it stores all your travel information including dining reservations, FastPass+ reservations which can be changed on the spot, you’ll have charging privileges if you’re staying on property, as well, all theme park information will be available to you.
Selecting a Walt Disney World Resort Hotel
Walt Disney World has a vast array of resorts available to guests, each with a different theme and budgetary consideration. Ranging from value, moderate and deluxe resorts to condo style villas, campgrounds for tents and motor homes to cabins, there is something for everyone. You’re looking at twenty-six Disney owned resorts and nine not owned by Disney, offering 26,000 rooms as well as 3,000 two-bedroom Disney Vacation Club villas.
Staying at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel affords guests the convenience of complimentary Disney’s Magical Express from Orlando International Airport to their hotel and back, with the added benefit of luggage transport from the airplane to resort (no baggage claim for guests). Guests are sent luggage tags with hotel information to attach to suitcases prior to leaving home.
Guests experience the Disney magic 24 hours a day, they have special early entrance times and extended park hour times called ‘Extra Magic Hours’. Guests have the ability to charge using their MagicBand and all purchases can be sent directly to their Disney resort.
Staying on property affords guests the opportunity to head back and relax in the afternoon charging up for the evening ahead.
Guests can arrange fun wake up calls to their resort room from Disney characters.
Special needs guests may even consider to stay at a Disney resort hotel nearest their favourite theme park adding the convenience of being extra close to their hotel in times of needed respite and relaxation.
All transportation allowing accommodations for wheelchairs and ECV’s, from Disney resort hotels to theme parks, water parks and Downtown Disney is provided. If guests decide to rent a car while staying on property, parking is complimentary at all theme parks, otherwise as of December 2014 parking fees were $18 per day for non-resort hotel guests.
Resort hotels are sprinkled through the forty square miles tucked near the theme parks. All have incredible, and unique themes and are under the magic of Disney.
Considerations for selecting an appropriate resort hotel for special needs guests should begin with budget and then factor in which theme park would be visited the most and stay at a Disney resort hotel nearby. When selecting hotels through My Disney Experience, every hotel lists which theme park area it is located in and the type of transportation to the theme parks available.
Register at My Disney Experience MyMagic+ Website
-every guest is assigned a MagicBand which they can personalize on My Disney Experience at home when planning (U.S. citizens have their MagicBands sent to them at home prior to leaving; all other countries pick up their MagicBands when checking into their Disney resort)
-book your resort and arrange for complimentary Disney’s Magical Express to and from Orlando International Airport (luggage tags will be sent to you to place on your suitcase prior leaving home; Disney’s Magical Express will transport your luggage to your Disney resort for you)
-purchase your theme park tickets
-book dining reservations
-see available dining according to your location or a location of your choice (if using the mobile app.
-select FastPass+ attractions
-find Character meet and greet times and locations
-check attraction wait times
-navigation assistance for every theme park, water park and Downtown Disney
-share plans with friends and family travelling with you
The Convenience of Disney’s MagicBand System
All guests whether or not they are staying at the Walt Disney World Resort can utilize Disney’s MagicBand system, but non-Disney resort guests have fewer amenities. MagicBands for non-Disney resort guests only allow accommodations for theme park tickets and dining reservations.
Walt Disney World Resort MagicBand guests’ amenities include:
-theme park ticket storage information and entry access
-entry access into a Disney resort room
-allow charging privileges at all Disney resorts, theme parks, water parks and dining
-stores FastPass+ reservations previously made for theme park attractions
-stores all Disney PhotoPass pictures to your account
MagicBands can be customized online at home through My Disney Experience for each person in the travel party. Everyone can select the name displayed and colour. Fun MagicBand adornments are available at all theme parks and Downtown Disney.
Non-Walt Disney World Resort Hotel Guests also have access to MagicBands and can purchase them through the online Disney Store or right at the theme parks in the gift shops and then they can link their specific dining and theme park ticket information on them.
Deciding When to Visit the Walt Disney World Resort
Visiting Walt Disney World is exciting at any time of the year. Keeping crowd considerations in mind, quite typically the busiest are when children are on break from school, making May through September, Christmas break in December and Spring Break peak times.
The weather is humid and hottest from May through mid-September, comfortably warm from October through January (although there have been visits in December and January requiring light parkas) and on the cool side January through beginning of March.
Special events and experiences occur consistently throughout the year such as:
-Christmas events-Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (Magic Kingdom), Osborne Spectacle of Dancing Lights (Disney’s Hollywood Studios), Candlelight Processional (Epcot)
-Halloween- Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party (Magic Kingdom)
-Fall Season-Epcot’s International Food and Wine Festival
-Spring Season-Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival
–runDisney marathon events throughout the year
Disney Dining Reservations
All theme parks and resorts offer themed sit down dining which is coined ‘table service’ as well as the walk up and order your meal, coined ‘quick service’ eateries. Disney caters to every palate and dietary need and requests may be made ahead of time by contacting Disney Dining or by stating your requests when seated at your table.
Walt Disney Resort guests have the option of selecting the Disney Dining Plan in conjunction with their hotel stay and ticket purchases, non-Disney resort guests do not, but are able to dine anywhere on Disney property. The popularity of the Disney Dining Plan makes it virtually impossible to find an open reservation during peak vacation periods, therefore it is highly recommended for ALL guests to make their dining reservations through My Disney Experience to avoid any disappointment.
Reserving through My Disney Experience or by calling Disney Dining is the method of reservation. I recommend booking through My Disney Experience because there guests can look at the menu and prices for each restaurant.
Booking begins 180 days prior to arrival and Disney resort guests have ten extra days beyond that for making Disney Dining reservations. A credit card is required to secure the reservation and in the event of cancellation without proper notification a fee of ten dollars per guest on the reservation will be charged. If cancelling, it is best to cancel at least two to three days in advance to avoid credit card charges.
Disney’s new FastPass+ program is a great convenience, allowing guests little wait time for their favourite attractions by pre-selecting a time frame to ride, ahead of time. Guests can select up to three FastPass+, each with a one hour window and once those are used up a fourth may be selected.
Non-Disney resort guests may book 30 days in advance of their visit while Disney resort guests can reserve 60 days in advance.
Tip: check the typical ride wait times for the attractions, the ones with the longest typical wait times are the most popular and those are the ones the FastPass+ should be secured for.
Disney’s Disability Access System
Commonly referred to as the DAS, Disney’s Disability Access Card program makes allowances for guests who have a visible and/or non-visible disability. It gives those guests the opportunity to be offered a return time for attractions based on the current wait time. This system can be used in conjunction with Disney’s FastPass System and in my opinion worked very well for our visit during the busiest time of the year, Christmas break. In fact, we were at Magic Kingdom on Christmas Eve and experienced over seven attractions, with some replicated.
The DAS is available at all Guest Services in all the theme parks and at Downtown Disney. The guest in need of the DAS needs to be present initially when requesting the DAS, because a photo will be taken and placed on the card that is to be carried around and which will be time stamped by Cast Members at the attraction queues.
Some Basics About Walt Disney World Resort Theme Parks
Magic Kingdom, the first theme park at Walt Disney World boasting the iconic, 189 foot, fibre-glass structure known as Cinderella Castle reached by passing through the turn of the century, nostalgic Main Street U.S.A. and encompassed by six exciting, differently themed lands named Adventureland, New Fantasyland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland and Frontierland. Disney characters to be found throughout during well-organized and timed character greets. Guests will see daily themed parades and nightly fireworks shows and will greatly enjoy the unique attractions designed to please everyone.
Special needs guests at Magic Kingdom have access to the First Aid Station next to the Baby Care Center, both beside the Crystal Palace, just behind Casey’s Corner. When my son was a toddler, the Baby Care Center was a welcome respite for him to relax and/or have a quick meal in a peaceful, comforting environment. As an older teen, we often take my son to relax and unwind in the First Aid Station, which has some comfortable seating in an air-conditioned room. Cast Members at the First Aid Station are accommodating, helpful and perceptive of one’s needs.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Disney’s Hollywood Studios transports guests back into the Golden Age of Hollywood with Grauman’s Chinese Theatre as the new focal point. It offers The Great Movie Ride which is a magnificent attraction transporting guests in a massive tram immersing them right into some of the most popular movie moments in history.
Action and adventure await all guests as they progress through eight themed sections: Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, Echo Lake, Streets of America, Commissary Lane, Pixar Place, Animation Courtyard and Mickey Avenue.
Special needs guests at Disney’s Hollywood Studios can take comfort at either Guest Services, the First Aid Station and Baby Care Centre located just inside the theme park, on the left as soon as they enter through the turnstiles.
Epcot, Walt Disney World’s second largest theme park, offers guests two separate experiences: Future World featuring technologies latest in the most captivating and thrilling ride experiences and interactions, and World Showcase which immerses guests in the most authentically replicated pavilions from around the world totalling eleven. Countries in pavilions in the Showcase Plaze are: the United States of America, Canada, Mexico, Norway, China, Italy, Germany, Japan, Morocco, France and the United Kingdom.
Special needs guests have easy access to the First Aid Station and Baby Care Center at Epcot, mid-way through the theme park in the Odyssey Center directly between Test Track and Showcase Plaza.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park is one of the world’s largest animal theme parks, while at Walt Disney World Resort it is the largest theme park of the four, boasting over 500 acres. More than 1,700 animals through over 250 species reside at Disney’s Animal Kingdom all nestled in six perfectly re-created habitats: Oasis, Africa, Discovery Island, Rafiki’s Planet Watch, Asia and DinoLand, U.S.A.
It is wise to visit this theme park early in the day as it usually has an early closing time (late afternoon), to accommodate the needs of the animals.
Special needs guests at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park have access to the Baby Care Center and First Aid Station located to the left of the Tree of Life in the building just before you cross the bridge into Africa.
Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park and Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park have a Guest Services area with Cast Members who can assist with information on services for Guests with Disabilities. They do not have a designated Baby Care Center yet do offer baby change areas in the restrooms.
Blizzard Beach First Aid Station and Companion Restroom is located between the Beach Haus shop and Lottawatta Lodge. As well, most restrooms throughout the park accommodate guests requiring wheelchairs.
Typhoon Lagoon First Aid and Companion Restroom are together and are located at Guest Services near the park entrance. As well, most restrooms throughout the park accommodate guests requiring wheelchairs.
Guests with Disabilities
Disney strives to accommodate all guests and here is an example of just some of the amenities offered to guests with mobility, visual and hearing disabilities.
-accommodations for service animals (allowed in all theme parks but not on the attraction, another guest must wait with the animal while the first guest rides)
-rental of electric conveyance vehicles (ECV’s)
-assistive listening systems
-sign language interpretation
-TTY (text typewriter telephones)
-digital audio tours
-Disney transportation accommodates guests in wheelchairs and ECV’s
-Disney resort hotels have accessible guest rooms and offer guest rooms for guests accompanied by service animals and even rooms for the hearing impaired guest
Step By Step What to Do
-register at My Disney Experience
-look for ‘Special Offers’ Disney offers seasonal package discounts, resort room discounts, Military discounts and Florida Resident discounts
-once your Disney resort is booked, make sure you select complimentary motor coach transportation to and from Orlando International Airport called Disney’s Magical Express (later on they’ll want to know your airline number and arrival time, but you can always plug that in once your plans are concrete)
-if you select a package which includes resort hotel, theme park ticket and dining then you will be able to see when your dining booking window opens up. If it’s already open then go ahead and make your dining reservations based on where you’ll be, it’s more convenient that way.
-selecting FastPass+ attractions begins 60 days from arrival for Disney Resort guests and 30 days from arrival for non-resort guests
-customize your travel party’s MagicBands, if you are a U.S. citizen then your MagicBands will be sent to your home; all other non U.S. guests will receive their MagicBands upon check-in at their Disney resort hotel
-select any special tours, events or experiences through My Disney Experience
-pre-order Disney’s PhotoPass service which can be linked to your account and information stored on your MagicBand
-tag luggage before you go to the airport
-upon arrival at Orlando International Airport follow your information guidebook (sent with luggage tags ahead of time) to the Disney Magical Express Check-In Area to board your resort hotel motor coach, your luggage will follow a few hours later (best to carry a day bag with essentials, this way you’re free to do what you like-head to the theme parks or swim)