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Special Needs Travel: Preventing Wandering and Elopement on your Disney Vacation

by Mommy Frog on October 10, 2019 1 Orlando

Disability Tips for the Park - Disability Access for Disney World Attractions

Mommy Frog's Note: With the help of our niece, who has Autism spectrum disorder, the frog family is learning about traveling with froglets of all ages with special needs. We’ve learned that many of our ASD friends (both tadpoles and full-grown adults) have trouble staying with their group when they visit a new place. “Wandering” or “elopement” is a common concern for ASD families and for those traveling with other disabilities. The details below will help your entire family enjoys your vacation and stays together, too.

Special Needs Travel: Preventing Wandering and Elopement on your Disney Vacation

Preventing Wandering or Elopement on Your Disney Vacation - Cinderella Castle with Crowds

Your Disney World adventure awaits, but a visit to the Happiest Place on Earth could be derailed if your special needs child or adult wanders away and is lost in one of the parks. About 50 percent of kids and adults with autism wander or elope from caregivers, according to the National Autism Society. These kids can be wandering from uncomfortable sensory experiences — or toward more interesting spaces.

If your little tadpole does elope at Disney, there are some steps you can take immediately to be reunited. Preventing wandering and elopement on your Disney vacation in the first place will give you peace of mind about your trip and allow you fully enjoy your visit.

Follow the suggestions below to keep your loved ones safe on your vacation. Whether you are traveling with a teen with autism, a senior with memory issues or a child with cognitive disabilities, these will help you stay safe and together.

If you have a child or adult family member on the spectrum, you probably also have some protections in place designed to prevent wandering — and ways to be located in an emergency. You’ll need to keep these practices in play when you visit the Disney theme parks and add a few extra precautions, as well.

Disney with Autism: Preventing Wandering and Elopement on your Disney Vacation

Sign Up for a Disabilities Pass

If you are heading to Disney World, then you should sign up for the Disability Access Service (DAS) Card. You can get the details about this incredibly useful travel helper here. The DAS will limit your time in line, extend the places you can bring your stroller and even offer separate waiting opportunities for those who need them. Since your child’s photo is taken as part of the process, it will be in the Disney system already, making it easier for staffers to help locate your missing froglet.

Preventing Wandering and Elopement at Disney World - Stroller Tag at Disney WorldRent a Special Needs Stroller

Your child may seem too big for a stroller and may not need one regularly, but a jumbo special needs stroller can be rented from a local agency and offers a secure, comfortable space for even big kids. A special needs stroller can hold a child or small adult and can stay with you at all times, even in ride queues, once you have secured your DAS card.

Your stroller can become not only a way to secure your child and prevent wandering, but a safe sensory zone, as well. Shoulder straps help secure your child in comfort and most models have a full cover that can extend over the passenger, creating a way to block out uncomfortable sensory details like lights, activity, sounds and strangers.

Notify Your Resort

This is optional but can enhance your peace of mind and ensure hotel staff knows your group has an increased risk of wandering. You don’t have to point out the family member with the disability unless you want to, but adding a note to your reservation can help you get reunited if you are separated at your resort.

Use Technology

Tags and other technical devices that can alert you if your child wanders outside of a specific perimeter can let you know that elopement is in progress. You can act swiftly and prevent your child from getting very far from the family. Many of these items are designed specifically for ASD kids and offer an affordable way to keep your group together, wherever you go.

Practice Before You Leave Home

Social stories designed to target specific situations can help a child with a disability learn to stay with you, even in crowded conditions. Practice before you leave home and your child will be more likely to stick with your group. You know better than anyone the best way to deliver information to your tadpole — a book, video, social story or practice run can help them understand they need to stay with you during your visit.

Identify Problem Areas That Might Lead to Elopement on Your Disney Vacation

Some areas in the Disney theme parks are more likely to lead to elopement than others. Be wary in any of the following common conditions:

Dumbo - Preventing Wandering and Elopement on Your Disney Vacation

  • Leaving rides: When you climb out of Dumbo, step off of your Kilimanjaro Safari truck or leave your Doombuggy behind, other families are doing so, as well. This activity makes it very easy to lose track of a child and gives them the opportunity to wander off to something more interesting.
  • Gift shops: The shops that are at the end of every major ride and those in the Disney World Resort hotels can be an overwhelming distraction for kids with autism. These shops are set up to be visually appealing — not to allow you to keep an eye on your wandering froggies — so it can be easy to become separated here.
  • Parades: Kids and adults trying to find the best viewing locations combined with lots of noise and activity can lead to wandering, simply to escape the sensory overload.
  • Large shows: The show is designed to attract and keep your attention, allowing your child the perfect opportunity to wander. Even if you stay together for the performance, you should still be aware of the extra risk a large show poses. When a show such as the Festival of the Lion King ends or a performance such as Fantasmic is over, a massive wave of guests will leave at the same time, heading in the same direction. It is far too easy to lose any child in a large crowd, but one that already wants to wander could be even more challenging.

Epcot Water Fountain - Preventing Elopement on Your Disney Vacation

  • Water attractions: While every teen or child with autism is different, many are drawn to water. If you are in the vicinity of a pool (or something that looks like a pool), be extra vigilant. Your little one may not be able to resist checking it out. Fountains, lagoons and ponds may not seem like pools to most kids, but a special needs child may not be able to discern the difference or be aware of the danger a body of water poses.
  • Departing the park: It is tough for anyone to leave the fun of the parks, but if you are traveling with an older family member with memory issues or someone with autism, the urge to return to a favorite ride could be tough to resist. Keep watch as you depart to prevent wandering and keep your group together.
  • Line checkpoints: Some rides have built-in line checkpoints, where guests are asked how many people are in their party or asked to wait to board. Someone who does not understand they need to stop here could slip right by. The cast member manning the area could just assume the child belongs with a previous group, or that a special needs adult is riding solo, even if they do not respond.
  • Elevators: A child that darts out of an elevator before the doors close could end up trapped on a different floor of a hotel; from there, they could go anywhere. Pay special attention in hotel elevators, which can be crowded and open frequently on multiple floors.

Any location with large groups of people, tempting distractions or uncomfortable sensory input can heighten the risk that your child will elope. Knowing your little tadpole’s specific areas of concern and being aware of the conditions above can help you prevent wandering and ensure you have peace of mind for your vacation.

Have a tip for preventing wandering or elopement on your Disney vacation? Share it in comments below!

Related: Overview of Disney's Disability Access Service

Hoppy planning!

Keep hopping, Mommy Frog!
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Oct 11, 2019 at 8:59 p.m. Lisa G Says...

You have no idea how much I appreciate this post! My youngest struggled last time we were at Disney and I was unaware of a DAS card! We are scheduled to go back in November and this would be such a huge help.

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