5 ways I fine-tuned our Disney vacation for my son with attention issues

If you polled my family about what our favorite vacation destination is, we’d all say, “Disney World!” It’s a place where I’ve always felt my family can have fun, be silly, and make memories that last a lifetime.

A lot of people don’t know this, but in recent years, Disney World has made a real effort to accommodate the needs of children with learning and thinking differences. This was a big help for my 8-year-old son (and for me) on our most recent trip. My son has attention issues, which makes things like waiting in line and coping with new routines difficult for him.

Some parents might be hesitant to go to Disney because of their child’s particular issues. And sure, there are some potential pitfalls. But we made a few adjustments that helped make our latest trip go smoothly. Here are a few of my tips for families looking to visit with the Mouse.

1. Plan your day with Genie and Genie+ services.

Many kids, including my son, need some structure. Before we went out each day at Disney World, we planned out what we would do. At Disney, you can reserve times in advance for many popular attractions. This helps reduce wait times and make the day go smoothly.

2. Consider a disability assistance card.

Disney also offers what’s called Disability Access Service to guests (you’re not a “visitor” — you’re a “guest”!) who are unable to wait in a long line due to a disability. The card allows you to go to an attraction and get a set time to come back and experience the ride.

There are two ways to register for DAS: (1) pre-arrival via live video chat or (2) on-site at any theme park guest relations window. You don’t need a doctor’s note. But you’ll be asked to explain what your child’s issues are and how your child can benefit from having the card. In our case, my son gets very anxious in confined spaces and can act out in long lines. To be clear, this isn’t a “cut the line” pass. It’s extra support for families who need it.

3. Keep food challenges in mind.

Disney World is very friendly for people with food allergies, as well as picky eaters. My son is on a gluten-free diet due to celiac disease, and my daughter has nut allergies. At each full-service restaurant we visited, we were able to meet with a chef who went over our culinary options. And most of the quick-service restaurants can cater to special diets. (Disney World also allows you to bring in outside food.)

One evening, when we were exhausted, we went to the snack bar next to our hotel pool. There were no gluten-free items on the menu. But the chef scrounged around the freezer and found some gluten-free hamburger buns. He created a custom burger to the delight of my son, who can often feel left out because of his dietary needs.

4. Take breaks. 

As excited I was to be at Disney, I knew there was no need to take on a “Dumbo or Die” attitude. Everyone can use a break now and then. For most kids, it’s not realistic to be at the parks from rope-drop to the closing fireworks. So decide how much of your day you’re going to spend there and when you’ll take a break.

Maybe your family functions best sleeping in and staying till “the kiss goodnight.” Other families, like mine, prefer to be up early, leaving the parks after lunch for a swim or a nap at our hotel.

5. Leave room for unscripted magic.

It’s Disney World, so magic does in fact happen! One day, my son saw Cinderella in the parade and couldn’t stop waving at her. I certainly hadn’t planned to take him to meet her. But seeing his reaction, we caught up with her at a meeting area. My son and Cinderella had a wonderful conversation about their favorite foods and movies. And I got pictures and a video that give me a smile to this day.

These tips helped my family rock our Disney visit. I hope they do the same for you. (When you plan your visit, be sure to check the rules on Genie+ and the Disability Access Service; sometimes rules change.) If you need more help, check out advice on planning your next vacation.


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