Walt Disney World’s unique approach to accommodations for disabilities means that any guest can enjoy the parks and resorts without worrying about seating, sensory challenges and other common challenges. Disney World offers the Disability Access Service for rides and seating, but families traveling with a disabled child or adult may need more assistance for parades and shows.
We’ve had a frogtastic time touring the parks in a whole new way, thanks to our toadally awesome niece. This sweet and creative froglet is on the autism spectrum, so the sensory challenges of parades and shows can be overwhelming for her. We’ve discovered ways to make the most of the DAS and accommodations offered and to let her enjoy these fun events in her own special way. Today, we’re sharing some of our favorite tips for enjoying Disney World shows and parades with autism, developmental disabilities and other conditions.
Here’s what we’ve learned while touring the parks with a child on the spectrum:
The DAS Pass is About More than Access
Disney World’s approach to disabilities is about more than just making it easy to wait in line. For guests with cognitive disabilities or those prone to wandering and elopement, the DAS makes it easy for families to keep kids and adults safe while touring the parks.
From the exciting and beautifully performed Festival of the Lion King at Disney’s Animal Kingdom to seasonal parades like Boo to You and Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime at Magic Kingdom, these performances are designed to capture attention and to be full sensory experiences. This means that a quiet room can suddenly erupt into a frenetically paced ensemble dance routine complete with intricate costumes, sudden noises and flashing lights.
While most visitors find the shows to be magical experiences, children or adults with sensory conditions like autism could be overwhelmed and upset by these elements.
Stroller as a Wheelchair Enhances Safety
While the DAS does help you get into these events with a minimal amount of waiting, the ability to request specialty seating is an absolute life saver when conditions get to be too overwhelming for your loved one to handle. Since the DAS allows you to use a stroller as a wheelchair, you can provide even an older child or small adult with a safe, sensory free zone, just in case they decide the show is not such a good idea once the performance starts. Most special needs strollers have covers that can be pulled down over the seating area, effectively creating a private, less intense space. This can help someone who has become overwhelmed escape some sensory input and remain calm.
Enjoying Disney Shows: Ask for Specific Seats
When you visit an enclosed arena or show like the Festival of the Lion King or Fantasmic, let the cast member at the gate know you have the DAS and that you may need assistance. Most cast members at the shows do not want guests to leave during the performance — the arenas are generally dark and performers are moving around in unexpected ways. Because of this, you should identify your needs to a cast member upon arrival and let them know your child or teen may become overwhelmed and need to leave during the performance. Cast members can usually seat you near the closest safe exit and may even stay with your group during the show. If you do need to leave once the show begins you can safely do so, even if it is dark and there do not appear to be exits.
Disney World Shows with Potential Sensory Concerns
Some performances and parades are easy to leave — if they are outdoors or in areas that do not have secured seating, then you can simply leave if a member of your party is overwhelmed. Other shows are more challenging to leave unless you let the cast members running the attraction know about your needs in advance. In some cases, the typical “disabilities” seating is very close to the stage, making it difficult to leave the theater — upon request, you may be seated at the back, near an exit instead.
Disney World shows that could trigger the need for a hasty exit (and that will accommodate seating requests) include:
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
- Festival of the Lion King (dark, activity, costumed performers, crowded theater)
- Finding Nemo the Musical (dark, loud music, close, crowded seating)
- It’s Tough to be a Bug (highly sensory experience, 4d theater)
- Rivers of Light (flashing lights, crowds, loud music)
- The American Adventure in Epcot (dark, loud music, crowded theater)
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
- Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage (loud music, crowded, hot setting)
- Fantasmic! (Huge crowds, loud elements, fire and flashing lights)
- For the First Time in Forever Frozen Sing a Long (loud noises, special effects, crowd participation)
- Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular (loud, sudden effects, overly hot seating area)
- Muppet Vision 3d (high energy, flashing lights, 4d elements)
- Voyage of the Little Mermaid (dark, scary character, loud special effects and music, flashing lights)
Disney’s Magic Kingdom
- Mickey’s Philharmagic (dark, high energy visuals, noise, 4D elements)
- Monster’s Inc Laugh Floor (dark, high level of audience noise and participation)
- Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room (dark, loud effects, close, crowded seating)
Disney World Parades and Disabilities
Most Disney World parades offer some form of disabilities seating or space; this will be detailed on the park map. While you can certainly take advantage of these areas (they are available on a first-come, first-served basis), you should be aware that they are prime seats, close to the action. If you are traveling with someone with a cognitive disability or sensory needs, a seat right at the curb may not be the best choice. An overwhelmed child or one who is unaware of danger could bolt right into the parade itself and risks being injured by a performer, character or vehicle.
Once in place, you won’t be able to easily leave these seats. If you are concerned a parade could be too overwhelming, view it from a distance first. In some cases, you’ll be able to tell right away if taking a closer look is a good idea or not, based on your child’s reaction.
Parades lead to densely packed crowds, so even kids that have no problem with the sensory input might be knocked down by impatient guests and strangers. Consider seating any smaller kids or those with balance issues with the adults in your party or in a stroller for the duration of the event to ensure their comfort and safety.
Disney World Parade and Show Tips for Guests with Disabilities
- Preview the show at home: It may reveal some spoilers about the experience, but viewing a show on video will let you know exactly what to expect — and if your froglet objects to the video, they won’t care for the more intense, in-person experience either.
- Bring soothing accessories: A pair of noise blocking headphones can significantly reduce the noise levels and sensory input of these often-loud performances. Even if you don’t normally need them, invest about $15 in a pair of headphones to make shows more comfortable for your child or teen with ASD or sensory concerns.
- Keep in mind the disability section may not be best option. The disability section is usually placed in close proximity to the stage or performers and is designed to offer good views, but not a great escape route. If your concerns are more sensory, ask for seating near an exit, just in case.
- Be on guard at departure: Several hundred people will rush to the exit at once when the show ends, making this an easy time to get separated. Use a stroller as a wheelchair option on the DAS or closely monitor your loved one’s location to avoid getting separated when the show is done.
- Bring non-electronic distractions: If your child relies on an iPad or Kindle for entertainment or soothing distractions during high energy events, you may be forced to shut it down during the show. Bring along another preferred toy or comfort item for shows, just in case electronics are not allowed.
- Use child switch or view the show in groups if you don’t think your child will tolerate the noise and activity — and take advantage of the short lines and limited waiting at other attractions in the area while the show is going on.
We’ve learned that viewing the show in advance can go a long way toward determining if it is a good fit for our little ASD tadpole. Every child on the spectrum or with a developmental delay is different, so the best way to approach shows is with caution. Asking for a seat near the exit can reduce the sensory impact of a show and give you an “out” if you need one. You’ll both feel better knowing you have a backup plan for shows and parades and be able to get more enjoyment from the experience when you have a plan.