Walt Disney World for Guests with Sensory Issues, Autism, or Neurodiversity
While Walt Disney World is a beloved vacation destination for many, exploring the World as a neurodiverse individual can be hard. Fortunately, with some planning and research, it’s possible for someone on the spectrum to enjoy a Disney vacation.
We’re sharing tips and suggestions to help families and individuals with neurodiversity make magic at Walt Disney World.
Particular Challenges for the Neurodiverse at Walt Disney World
One of the most common manifestations of neurodiversity is a difference in processing stimuli, and the abundance of stimulation at the Disney Parks can pose a major challenge. Because those on the spectrum experience the world differently, things like crowd noises, enclosed spaces, and too much unknown at Disney World might quickly become overwhelming. In other words, for the neurodiverse, their brains might not know what to focus on and end up spiraling into a panic from over stimulation.
Managing all of this stimulation and responses to the stimuli requires differing amounts of energy. For some, it takes energy to maintain eye contact during a conversation or to react calmly to sudden loud noises. Another person might feel claustrophobic in crowds or be unable to handle certain textures without shuddering.
When anyone — but particularly the neurodiverse in an overstimulating environment — runs out of mental energy, it means they’ve reached their breaking point. A big chunk of their mental energy is devoted to processing that so they can function, leaving very little left to regulate emotions or responses to exorbitant stimuli.
That said, the number one focus when visiting the parks as neurodiverse individual is to manage your mental energy. Taking steps to reduce the cognitive burden associated with a theme park will make the experience all the more pleasant.
The question is, how? Walt Disney World is specifically designed to energize the senses, with various stimuli coming at guests from all angles at all times. This is where some careful planning and strategies come into play.
Plan Before You Go
Before you even depart on your Disney vacation, there are two big cognitive steps you can try to take. The first one is to make sure the experience is one you look forward to rather than dread. The second is to make sure you’re aware of and have accommodated for any potential triggers. I know, it seems weird thinking that someone would dread going to a Disney Park, but for those who anticipate World-related challenges, it can be true. For many people, especially young children, the Disney Parks are a big, loud, confusing question mark.
For example, as a child, one AllEars writer would refuse to experience countless classic attractions, even crowd favorites like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, because he didn’t know what to expect. Since neurodiversity is often comorbid with anxiety, that meant our writer’s brain assumed the worst, and he had to take the chicken exit until he was in his 20s.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to do research before you go. AllEars has loads of reader reviews, a searchable database of reader tips and countless articles on what to expect on your park day. If you think it will help, try watching ride and show POV videos on YouTube (including on AllEars TV) to familiarize yourself and/or your neurodiverse party member before you head to the World. One thing that’s nice about theme park rides is that they’re more about the experience than anything else, so you can still have a magical experience even if you’ve watched ride-throughs.
Some people are also comforted by knowing how a ride works, even if it means looking behind the magic for a bit. If you’ve already got an interest in technology and engineering, this actually might make the parks more fun for you!
Common Triggers at Walt Disney World
Because autism is a spectrum, no two people on it have identical symptoms or manifestations. To best accommodate your neurodiverse party member’s needs, the key is to listen.
If you’re neurodiverse, you likely already know your triggers. Articulate to your party when you need a break. You can even set up a code phrase or other signal if you’re non-verbal or simply embarrassed to bring it up out loud.
If your neurodiverse party member is a child, things become a bit more difficult. Children have a hard time articulating themselves as it is, and if a child is on the spectrum there’s that extra barrier to overcome. Teach your entire party to recognize the following symptoms (and any not on the list that might be common to your neurodiverse party member).
- Elevated heart rate.
- Rapid breathing.
- Butterflies or tightness in the stomach.
- Distressed voice or refusal to speak.
- Unusually high rates of stimming behavior (hand flapping, spinning, rocking back and forth).
- Withdrawn posture or behavior.
- Sudden shortness of temper.
This is by no means a complete list, but if you notice these or similar symptoms in yourself or your loved ones, you may want to consider seeking refuge in a quiet area. (More on those quiet areas below!)
As a general rule, it’s more helpful to find a quiet spot (believe it or not, there are some at Walt Disney World!), take a deep breath, and cool down for as long as you need. Consider seeking out alternative, non-triggering activities to do in the meantime, like trying snacks or looking at exhibits, and return to the more intense things when you’re ready.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common triggers.
Noise is one of the most common triggers for an anxiety attack and overstimulation, and Disney can get really loud, especially during shows. Luckily, this is an easy trigger to manage.
If you know someone uncomfortable with loud noises in your group, pack a pair of headphones or earbuds. Noise-cancelling headphones that fit over the ear are best. Look for some that feature adaptive sound filtering, so the wearer can hear important information like safety instructions while still keeping background noise at a comfortable level. If pricey headphones or earbuds aren’t in your budget, you can use ordinary ear plugs or ear protection, but be aware that doing so will essentially deafen the wearer. Have non-verbal communication plans ready (including a signal for removing the headphones), and keep an eye on any children.
If crowd noises are fine but fireworks noises are too much, keep in mind you don’t need to actually be in the parks to see the fireworks. Many lounges around the resort, like California Grill at the Contemporary and Dahlia Lounge at Coronado Springs, offer views of the fireworks with reduced noise levels and crowds, though you’ll miss out on projections, music, and other special effects.
This one is harder to manage. While there are more or less active times of year, the Disney parks will always be crowded. Crowds are unavoidable, but you can minimize exposure.
The simplest option is to bring a distraction — something to focus on during those long lines. Cellphones, tablets, gaming consoles, books, sensory toys, and headphones with music are all great options, but if you’re helping a younger child you’ll need to ensure they keep up with your party. If you’re travelling alone, or if your tolerance to long lines and crowds is much lower, consider asking for a Disability Access Service card or DAS. These are available for free at Guest Relations and allow you to set a return time for any attraction.
Unlike past versions of this service, DAS doesn’t allow you to completely skip the line; you’ll need to wait a “normal” amount of time, but you have the option to wait anywhere in the park. Just head to the entrance of the attraction if you’re at Disney World, or a Guest Experience Kiosk if you’re at Disneyland, and you’ll be set up with a return time. You don’t need any proof of disability to obtain at DAS, but you will need to get your photo taken during the registration process.
Learn more about DAS here.
If you’re travelling in a group with small children or a neurodiverse adult, you can also consider using Rider Switch. This doesn’t require registration and can be done on a case by case (or ride by ride) basis. One group waits in line normally while non-riders chill out elsewhere. When the first group finishes the experience, the second group can board the attraction without getting in line (usually by using the shorter FastPass line). Rider Switch allows up to three people to ride, so this also allows some members of your party to get a second ride!
Click here for full details on how to use Rider Switch.
There are also some methods to minimize crowd exposure entirely. If you’re staying at a Disney Resort hotel, check to see if Extra Magic Hours are being offered during your vacation. Both Walt Disney World and Disneyland offer this service, allowing you to arrive at the parks early (or stay late) to ride select attractions with a minimal wait.
If you’re willing to spend some extra money, also consider hard ticketed events like Disney After Hours. These will cost you over $100 per person, so they’re not cheap, but the extra admission fee means that there are much smaller crowds.
Crowds and sounds are two of the most common triggers, but everyone is different. Here are some other tips for managing other triggers.
- Don’t worry too much about stimming behavior, like flapping and humming. It’s totally natural and healthy. However, if the preferred form of stimming behavior is inappropriate for a crowded area (like spinning in place), try using a sensory toy to ease the behavior until you can get to a safe space.
- If your child is a creature of habit, try to make his or her vacation as much like home as possible. Maintain a regular schedule, bring their favorite foods, and even consider bringing their bedding from home. Grounding yourself in the familiar makes managing the unfamiliar much easier.
- Guests concerned with cleanliness might find the massive parks uncomfortable. Bringing some hand sanitizing wipes that are easy on skin can help a lot. Your hands will be clean, and you can wipe down surfaces you touch if you’re concerned.
What To Do If It’s Just Too Much
Sometimes, no matter how much planning you do, stuff just happens. If you feel like you absolutely need some downtime, don’t hesitate to ask a Cast Member for assistance. They’ll be able to guide you to a quiet area for some downtime. Disney lists some example locations in their Cognitive Disability Resource Guide, but here’s a quick overview of some of the most common.
No matter what park you’re visiting, you’re guaranteed to find a quiet area at your park’s First Aid center, so be sure to familiarize yourself with its location. There are also Baby Care Centers at each park, and these are always adjacent to the First Aid stations in the theme parks.
Outside of peak hours, you can typically find some quiet space at the various table service and quick service restaurants. Simply speak to a Cast Member, and they’ll direct you inside. This option obviously doesn’t work during meal times, so keep that in mind if you need an extended break.
Other typically quiet spaces include non-seasonal exhibits, like the Swiss Family Treehouse at Magic Kingdom or Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail at Animal Kingdom.
You may also find the following information helpful:
- Companion Assisted Restrooms
- Stroller FAQs
- Wheelchair and ECV FAQs
- Specialty Dietary Needs
- Walt Disney World for Guests with Special Needs
If you’re looking for some more advice on how to plan your Disney Vacation, Disney offers a guide specifically for guests with cognitive disabilities that provides more detailed information on the DAS, quiet areas, and other services Disney provides. However, keep in mind that the guide is a bit outdated and doesn’t reflect the current state of the parks.