A Disney World vacation offers so much to see and do that any family needs to prepare well in advance. Of course, moms and dads will be packing essentials to keep their froglets of all ages happy. When you have a family member with a cognitive or developmental disability like autism, the preparation will likely be a little more intense. Since airlines have limits on how much you can bring — and you don’t want to get caught in the parks without an essential item — we’ve assembled a list of items to pack for your Disney World vacation if you have a child with autism or special needs.
We’ve done a lot of traveling with our niece — an amazing tadpole with Autism Spectrum Disorder — and we’re sharing the things we’ve learned are most essential for her when we visit the parks. Not every child with ASD has the same needs, so we’ve talked with some frogtastic autism and cognitive disability friends from around the world to round out our list. Here’s what you need to know and pack before you go to Disney World with a child or adult with autism.
Special Needs at Disney World: Things to Know Before You Go
Before you leave home, you should take the time to learn about Disney World’s approach to disabilities that are invisible. This popular destination makes plenty of accommodations for kids and adults on the spectrum. Start by reading up on the Disney World Disabilities Access Service (DAS) program. Our guide to the Disney World Disabilities Access Pass (DAP) will fill you in on everything you need to know about sensory-friendly waiting areas, avoiding lines and stroller access. Once you know how Disney World helps guests with disabilities, you can begin preparing for your trip.
Special Needs Items to Pack for Your Trip to Disney World
Many of the items you’ll need for your Disney World vacation are easy to find — they’ll come from your own home. Having familiar, trusted items along for the trip ensures your child or teen can stick to their routine in some ways and can provide comfort when needed. We'll hop into the full details below, but here is the short list of what you should pack for your trip to Disney World if you have a child or adult with autism or special needs:
- Preferred foods and snacks
- Preferred cups and utensils
- Fidgets and sensory toys
- Headphones and sunglasses
- A stroller
- Identification for kids and parents
- Comfortable clothing and shoes
- Important or preferred toys or other items
- A dedicated bag for comfort items
Preferred Foods and Snacks
Disney World has plenty of stores, snack bars and prepared foods, but they may not stock your child’s preferred brands. For many kids, the Disney-themed snacks are a lot of fun. Chip and Dale-shaped pretzels, Mickey-shaped crackers and other fun treats can make the trip special.
For a child with autism and strong food preferences, the replacement of a favored brand with a Disney version could be far from a treat. A child that insists on a specific brand and shape of pretzel at home might be tempted to try something new on vacation — or might refuse to touch those cute character pretzels entirely. Bring snacks from home, or better yet — order from Amazon and send them ahead. Your resort will accept them and hold them for you until you arrive.
Disney World theme park gift shops are larger in size, but don’t offer many more options when it comes to snack foods, so if your ASD tadpole has strong opinions, stock up at home.
Preferred Cups and Utensils
If your child needs a specific type of cup or utensil, bring it from home. While you can head to a Target or Walmart in Orlando for a replacement, there is no guarantee that you’ll find the “right” version. For kids with strong feelings about cups, straws and beverage types, packing a few cups from home can save you a considerable amount of time and stress when you arrive. Note that Disney’s Animal Kingdom is straw and lid free, so kids that have trouble with open cups should have a familiar cup or bottle with them for the visit.
Fidgets and Sensory Toys (Even if You Don’t Normally Need Them)
Even if your child does not routinely need them, fidget items, spinners, cubes and even chewelry can serve their needs while you are on vacation. Disney World is a highly sensory environment, and these little distractions can be a lifesaver while you are waiting in a line, waiting for food to arrive or riding the monorail or other transportation.
Headphones and Sunglasses to Block Sensory Overload
Every part of the Disney World theme parks features both music and sound effects — before you even enter a ride. Add in the sound of crowds and the movement of people toward one location or another, and a child with autism can become overwhelmed.
Avoid this by packing some noise-blocking headphones (even if your child does not usually need them) and a pair of sunglasses. Sunglasses, even inexpensive ones, can cut down on the visual input from the bright Florida sun and from the special effects lighting present in many rides.
Every show at Disney World offers special needs seating, but most shows do so with physical disabilities in mind. This means that the “special needs” section is often right in front of the performance — nice if you just need the view, but completely overwhelming if you have sensory sensitivities.
Headphones and sunglasses can help your child enjoy a show or parade by dampening some of the sensory input, but they can still be overwhelmed. Check out our toadally helpful guide to Disney World Shows and Parades with special needs to get the inside scoop on where to sit, what to expect and how to leave a show early if you have to.
A Stroller – Even for Big Kids
We love using the “stroller as wheelchair option” when we visit the parks with a tadpole with autism. Since she is prone to wandering, allowing her to stay in her secure seat right up to the point of loading helps keep her safe. Without this useful option, we would have to park the stroller away from the ride and walk, increasing the risk of separation. The wheelchair as a stroller option is part of the Disney World Disabilities Access Services (DAS) program and can be secured at any Guest Services location in the parks.
Even an inexpensive umbrella stroller can be used as a wheelchair in the park, but for bigger froglets and even small adults, a special needs stroller will be more comfortable and offer a secure spot. Virtually all of the stroller and baby supply rental brands surrounding Disney World offer jumbo and special needs strollers that work well for this purpose.
Stroll Pic, Grand Floridian: This dad and daughter navigated the sprawling Grand Floridian grounds with ease, thanks to a rented special needs stroller.
Identification for Both Kids and Adults
As an autism parent, you already know that ASD froglets are at a much higher risk of wandering or eloping. This risk is elevated at a busy destination like Disney World; the layout of rides and attractions and multiple entrances to each structure can increase risk. Outfitting your child with your ID or contact information ensures you can be reunited in a hurry if you are separated.
We love temporary tattoos that can be placed on an upper arm and hidden by a shirt. Even kids that won’t wear a lanyard or bracelet can keep your contact information handy, just in case. Non-verbal kids can wear a neck lanyard, a shoe tag or even a clothing tag with information that cast members can use to reunite you quickly if you are separated.
Avoiding separation in the first place is best. You can check out our post on preventing wandering and elopement in Disney World for hopful tips. And if you do get separated, Disney’s unique and very thorough approach to lost children will help you get reunited quickly. Read all about how to prevent a special needs child or adult from getting lost.
Comfortable Clothing and Shoes
Every visitor needs comfortable shoes to walk in and clothing that helps block the sun, but these are particularly important for a child with special needs. Your child or adult with autism may have strong preferences for a specific pair of shoes — one that won’t stand up well to lots of walking.
Check feet frequently for blisters or discomfort; your child may not even notice the beginning of these issues until they become a problem. Pack plenty of sunscreen (in a format your child is most willing to use) and apply regularly, just in case.
Important or Preferred Toys or Other Items
It can be a toy train, preferred stuffed animal or even a “just right” pen … whatever your child’s preferred comfort item is, it should come along for the ride. Leave precious and one-of-a-kind pieces in your room and make sure your froglet knows you’ll be returning for them, but items that you have plenty of should be added to your park bag.
A Dedicated Bag for Comfort Items
All those snacks, utensils, fidget toys and other items need a dedicated place to stay until you need them. Choose a backpack or bag that can be attached to your stroller, and plan on carrying it yourself. Some kids with autism or cognitive disabilities may want to pack and carry a few items on their own, but having a main “go to” bag with you at all times ensures you always have the most important pieces.
What to Leave at Home When Packing for a Disney Vacation
While most of the planning and preparation for a Disney World vacation means packing items to bring along, there are a few things to leave at home. You don’t have to bring proof of a disability to access the Disney World Disabilities Access Service (DAS), so don’t worry about packing paperwork or getting a doctor’s note. Disney does not need this and won’t even look at it — they will want to hear about your needs, not your actual disability.
Disney World does restrict some personal items, so even if your child adores them, shoes with wheels or other wheeled things need to stay home. You’ll also need to leave behind toys that look like weapons or guns, even if they are comfort items. Wagons and pulled devices won’t work for the theme parks, you’ll need to bring or rent a stroller or wheelchair if needed.
All Disney World resort pools and water parks are stocked with swim vests that in sizes ranging from infant to XXXL. You will not be able to use your own water safety devices or pool noodles in these areas. If you do need a wheelchair transfer into the pool, the main pool at each resort is equipped with a lift for this purpose.
Review Special Need Items Before You Leave Home
The items your child needs to have handy when you visit a local destination like the mall or park will be important when you visit Disney World as well. Start with this list of essentials and work your way through the list above to be sure you have everything you need when you hit the parks.
Have a child with autism and not sure what to pack for your Disney World trip? Have advice for other special needs families on the go at Disney? We’d love to hear what you have to share in the comments below!