By Marshal D. Haneisen
“If you can dream it, you can do it,” Walt Disney famously said. Many children dream of a family vacation to Walt Disney World Resort. For some, the trip is a once-in-a-lifetime event. The pressure is on to make it wonderful, and when a family has a child with special needs, the concerns can be more complex. Yet, the resort has an array of services and accommodations for guests with disabilities.
If there is one theme that occurs over and over in parenting, it is the power of planning. And planning is an important part of a successful trip to Disney World — for any family. Set aside a fair amount of time to explore the vacation planning website, disneyworld.disney.go.com. On the dropdown menu under Help, you will find the Guests with Disabilities page. This comprehensive webpage provides an overview of the resort’s extensive offerings, including:
Disability Access Service: This program is designed to accommodate people with disabilities who are unable to tolerate longer waits in line for rides and attractions. Note: This program does not allow the person or their group to cut in the line ahead of everyone else. Instead, it provides the guest with a return time at which he or she will be able to board or enter the attraction. This allows the person to use the restroom, eat, or see other sights while waiting for the return time. This service cannot be arranged in advance of the trip; it must be coordinated in-person at Guest Services.
Mobility Services: This sorts park attractions according to a guest’s ability to remain in a wheelchair, need to transfer from the wheelchair to a vehicle or seat, or a need to be ambulatory.
Accommodations for Guests with Autism or Cognitive Disabilities: These include Advanced Ticket Purchase, Stroller and Wheelchair Rental, Stroller as Wheelchair Accommodation, Air-conditioned Quiet Rooms, Rider Switch, Break Areas, and Companion Restrooms, as well as helpful guides and maps to each attraction.
The parks also offer an impressive collection of resources available to accommodate guests with hearing or visual disabilities. Other subcategories on the Services or Guests with Disabilities website page include:
* Restroom & Companion
* Wheelchair rentals
* Electric Conveyance Vehicle Rentals
* Services for Guests with Disabilities at Disney
* Resort Hotels
* Service Animals
* Light Sensitivity
* Magnetic Fields
* Guides for Guests with Disabilities.
Make a list of questions and concerns as you explore the website, then call the Disability Services Department at 407-560-2547.
According to a Guest Relations Cast Member, upon arrival to the park, families with children with disabilities should visit Guest Relations: “We try to understand the needs of each guest. Every need is different. Guest Relations is a one-stop shop to assist visitors.”
Overcoming discomfort around using accommodations
Rebecca and Steve Marcoux visited Walt Disney World with their sons, Joshua, and Ryan, who has Down syndrome. Rebecca said she understands that parents might feel uneasy or unsure about whether to utilize services for guests with disabilities.
“I had heard that kids with special needs were given a pass to bypass the lines, but felt that since Ryan was so little we didn’t qualify for that perk,” she said. “Then people [some with children with special needs and some without] encouraged me to ask for the pass because it would enhance the whole family’s experience, which we all deserved. At that point in his life, the most special treatment Ryan’s diagnosis brought him were hospital stays, surgeries, and therapy appointments. Maybe this one time it was OK to take advantage of a good, positive experience.”
The staff at Guest Relations greeted the Marcoux family warmly, she said, and provided them with the Disability Access Pass.
When people travel to Florida from other parts of the country, they may be surprised at just how warm it can be in the Sunshine State. Staying hydrated and seeking cool locations throughout the day can make for a more pleasant visit. Quick Service locations throughout the park will provide free water at any time. Quiet rooms in Guest Relations, First Aid Stations, and Baby Care Areas are all air-conditioned spaces where families can take a break for the heat.
Restrooms and toileting
First Aid Stations were important to the Buscanera family of Templeton on their visit to Walt Disney World Resort, said mom Heidi. She visited the park when her children were 16, 15, 12, and 11. Then 11-year-old Desiree, who is wheelchair-dependent, has spastic cerebral palsy as a result of being born at 23 weeks.
The first aid areas are equipped with large bathrooms and beds/tables for changing, which the Buscaneras found helpful. “The public restrooms can be very busy, and even though stalls are labeled accessible, not all are big enough,” Heidi noted. “In the first aid areas my husband and I could both go in and change /toilet her,” she said.
Special dietary needs may be a concern for some families. According to Guest Relations, guests can bring food and non-alcoholic drinks into the park, though glass containers and jars are prohibited. Coolers under 24 inches are allowed and storage lockers are available. Guests are instructed to inform a Security Cast Member of any food upon entering the park. When ordering food from any of the restaurant options in the park or at the resort hotels, guests should inform staff of dietary needs or allergies.
Think about details
No one knows your family better than you. Examine your family’s unique needs and try to consider the details. For example, Buscanera suggests parents plan ahead for the parades: “We didn’t map out the wheelchair section and, unfortunately, with the large crowd she was unable to see the parade. She pretty much saw people’s butts.”
Overall, the Buscanera family had a wonderful experience on their visit. However, a few issues arose.
“We used her Kid Kart, it is safety- and transport-approved and has tie-down attachments like a traditional wheelchair,” Buscanera noted. “However, because it looks a little different, oftentimes after waiting in line we would be ready to board and we would then have to wait while they called someone from management to OK it.”
Also, the family was a party of eight, including two grandparents. Some of the accessible areas and shows allow for the wheelchair and one attendant, she said.
“Most of all, expect delays and don’t expect to see the whole park in a day. Everything takes a little bit longer, and expect things to not go as planned,” she advised. “Remain patient and go with the flow. If your child is having fun, that’s all that matters. They won’t remember what they didn’t see. We spent two hours digging in the sand looking for fossils. It killed me, as I knew we were missing a show, but the kids had a blast.”