A Special Place for Special Guests: Traveling to WDW with an Autistic Child
by Guest Columnist Kathryn Watson
The Walt Disney World experience is unique and special for every guest, but for guests traveling with special needs, planning, preparation and luck are vital to a successful and wonderful holiday.
We are the Watson family from South Wales, United Kingdom: Kathryn, 34; Robert, 32; Becky, 5; Charlie, 4. Charlie was diagnosed as autistic spectrum disorder in December 2000. The nature of his problems — for anyone who doesn't know about autism — are communication, socialization and imagination. Fortunately for us, Charlie has wonderful imagination: He IS Pinocchio! He has no language, very poor communication skills and wears nappies (diapers to those of you in the US). He needs 24-hour care, sleeps only four hours a night, can display some emotional behavioral problems and (like the rest of us) is a Disneyholic!
We arranged our holiday through Virgin Holidays for a trip in late November, early December. This was a quiet time for us to travel, with fewer crowds, cooler weather and, of course, Christmas.
The staff at Virgin Holidays were very helpful, checking us in at the airport with ease and boarding us apart from the rest of the passengers. Charlie coped well with the nine-hour flight (although an upgrade would have been wonderful, it would have doubled the cost of our holiday). On arrival at the All-Star Movies Resort we asked if the check-in desk had received the request we had made for a room in either of the Toy Story buildings. They had not, but were able to arrange a room in the Buzz Lightyear building for us within 30 minutes.
During the wait we explored the lobby, pool area and restaurant. Usually it takes Charlie a few days to come to terms with his new surroundings, however, he settled here immediately.
Our room was great! As Europeans we are used to "economy" rooms when we take package holidays to the Mediterranean resorts each summer. The All-Star rooms are of a better standard than that of European rooms. Charlie adored the decoration of the room and bathroom, laughing and clearly delighted with his "home" for the next two weeks.
We had brought along a letter from our family doctor stating Charlie's disorder, which we presented to a Guest Relations Cast Member. In return we were given a "Special Guest Pass" that enabled Charlie plus four guests to access the next available ride vehicle wherever we were.
This is such a wonderful and important facility for children with special needs. I know there are critics of allowing people to "queue jump". I have thought about this long and hard, and I have a few opinions about it. Disney views children with disabilities as "Special Guests". If President Bush or Tom Cruise were to visit Disney World, would they be expected to wait in line? I sincerely doubt it. They would be ushered onto the ride swiftly and be viewed as "Special Guests," and I guess none of us would complain. Thankfully, Disney values our children as wonderful and special, as important as presidents and superstars. Life for children with a disability is tough. There are continual fights with the education and health system. There is an endless round of appointments with a number of professionals and endless waiting to be seen at each one. For Disney to acknowledge this and facilitate an easier way of life for only a short time is magical beyond belief.
I would like to beg your patience when you see guests using the Special Guest facility. Charlie's difficulties originate with brain damage that does not affect his motor skills. He can run (pretty fast for an unfit mother!) and walk, and physically he is capable of everything similar to a child of his age. To look at Charlie one would not immediately notice anything unusual about him. He is a big, tall lad, handsome, with huge blue eyes and amazing black eyelashes! He is physically strong and healthy. A closer look may reveal a "vacant" look and behavior that may appear "naughty". We often receive comments or looks because people cannot see an obvious disability.
During our stay at Walt Disney World, we were conscientious about using our Special Pass. When we arrived at Magic Kingdom at opening time, we ran straight through to Fantasyland for Charlie to ride Dumbo three times before a queue appeared. Whenever possible we also used FastPass, because we did not want to inconvenience other guests. During busy times we would head for the Liberty Belle River Boat, parades and the like. Our itineraries were highly planned to ensure smooth days.
One afternoon all the plans went out of the window when Charlie began to pull us back to Dumbo. He had for the first time ever begun to use words, and was shouting, "DU'BO!" The queue was two hours long and there is no FastPass on this ride, so we used the Special Guest pass. A family who were close to the front of the queue noticed us and began shouting and hurling abusive comments about us, calling for us to join the regular queue. They loudly complained to the Cast Members and to anyone near them in line about "queue jumpers". We ignored the comments and Charlie got his ride. It was unpleasant and nasty and that anger directed at a vulnerable child and his family was inappropriate. Fortunately, it was an isolated incident and we did not let it dominate an otherwise perfect holiday.
Based on my experiences, I'd like to share my top tips for holidaying with an autistic child:
1. Be prepared! Plan and plan and plan! Have a guide for each day. If your child is able, let them incorporate as many plans as possible into the plan.
2. Stay onsite if you can afford to. The All-Stars resorts are great — particularly if your child is a Disneyholic. The larger-than-life characters and decorations are heaven to an autistic child. Also, there are no worries about driving, parking, etc.
3. Take a letter from the child's family doctor outlining the medical condition your child suffers from and obtain the Special Needs Pass from a Disney resort Guest Services or park Guest Relations location.
4. Get into the park early. Access your child's favorite ride(s) first. Ride that ride as many times as possible before the crowds start to build.
5. If you are lucky enough to have grandparents/other adults with you, they can also get in the queue to ensure an extra ride for your child.
6. Use FastPass whenever possible.
7. If you want to see the parade from the disabled viewing area be sure to get there early, as it gets full.
8. Character dining is great. It allows your child to access the characters without the queuing and crush of the park.
9. Seating areas at some attractions may not be the best place for a disabled child with sensory overload. Explain this to the Cast Members when you are being shown to your seats and indicate the best place for your child to enjoy the show/attraction.
10. If there are ANY problems talk to the Cast Members. They are invaluable in their knowledge and are very helpful. They sometimes have solutions to problems that even parents don't have.
NO ONE provides a better standard of service of care to patrons with disabilities than Disney. They see the importance of our wonderful kids and treat them with respect, dignity and worth.
Well done, Disney — See you real soon!