Surviving Disney With A Sensory Child: Our Hits and Misses

This past week our family achieved our greatest sensory milestone to date…our first trip to DISNEY WORLD. For years, this trip was never a consideration. Despite my daughter’s love for all things Disney, she wanted no part of it. The mere mention of a plane ride was enough to turn her off let alone the rides, loud noises and the congestion of large crowds. As a family, we made peace with the fact that Disney World was not in the cards for us so we never gave it a second thought. We had watched our daughter struggle through local street fairs and get anxious over riding a carousel. However, this past summer she began to talk about Disney a little differently. More of her friends were taking trips and reporting experiences of fun, fantasy and so much more. She IMG_4031would relay their stories to me with wide-eyed excitement and curiosity, not terror and dread. At the same time we were watching her become more successful at withstanding overstimulation and, for once we began to give legitimate consideration to taking the Disney plunge. By September I had gone back to work full time and all the stars seemed to align just right. For the first time in our sensory driven lives we all felt ready to tackle Disney World. And, boy, are we glad we did! We could not guarantee that this trip would be a total success but felt that the time was right to give it a try in the best way we could for our girl. So, I thought the best way to support any sensory family considering a Disney trip was to share the way we carefully and methodically planned ours.

-Forget the surprise trip: There is nothing I love seeing on social media more than videos of friends surprising their kids with a trip to Disney World. The look of pure excitement as these little ones find out that they are hours away from the vacation of their dreams brings happy tears to my eyes. However, we are not the typical family and if we were going to have any chance of success with this trip, surprising our daughter was not the right way to approach this. So, before booking this trip, I sat down with my daughter and we had a serious discussion about Disney. We listed the pros and cons of the trip. We went through video after video of every Disney experience I could possibly think of to show her what she could expect and we picked out exactly the things she wanted to do. The end result was a wish list of Disney experiences she was excited about..a list far longer than the things she wanted to avoid. So, we may have missed out on the experience of surprising our kids with this trip but what we got in its place was far more memorable..months of planning and prepping the perfect Disney experience for her and her sister. From the time we booked the trip until hours before we left, she and I indulged in this trip 1,000% It was a bonding experience like none other. Seeing her face light up with each plan we set and the nights we would stay up and snuggle over the Ipad as we laid out our plans are memories I will never forget. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have it any other way. This trip was a collaborative effort that brought us closer together.

-Stick to the plan: By the time we left for Disney we had a carefully planned itinerary of every ride, experience and attraction we were to take part in that were given our daughter’s stamp of approval. She and I both did our research and carefully designed a Disney vacation that she was comfortable with. For the most part, we did not veer from the plan, making our trip a great success. However, at one point during our visit to Hollywood Studios, we had some extra time in our schedule. So, rather than stand around, I suggested we ride “The Great Movie Ride” to kill some time before our next scheduled event. I had been on this ride many years ago and didn’t recall anything I felt my daughter could not handle. But, the minute I brought up this idea, my daughter immediately tensed up….fear of the unknown had quickly taken hold of her. I pressed on, insisting she could handle it but, after more than 15 minutes waiting on line, she broke. She began to panic and cry that she was scared and didn’t want to go. So, I rallied the troops and we ran out. The trip had been so successful up until this point that I had convinced myself she could handle more than she could. It was my mistake and I quickly learned that the only way to survive this trip was to stick with the plan my daughter knew and was prepared for.

-Provide concrete choices: By the middle of the week I could tell that the long days, late bed times and brutal heat were starting to take their toll on both girls. On Wednesday we began at Hollywood Studios before the park opened. We had gotten through three planned activities before noon and had a couple hours to spare before our next planned event. So, I asked my girl if she wanted to ride it out and stay and of course she said yes. Except, I know her and didn’t believe her. She looked wiped and so did her sister. And then I realized that things that are open ended never worked for her. When faced with an open ended question she is inclined to try to find the “right” answer rather than saying how she feels. She has this fear of not saying the right thing so instead says what she thinks someone wants to hear. Soon enough I came to my senses and asked the same thing of her but provided her with options. “Do you want to stay a couple hours to see the show or go back to the hotel and go in the pool?” She immediately chose the pool which is what I knew she would pick. I could tell she was tired. I could tell she had her fill and rather than be rigid and try to force what I had planned upon her, I took her lead and did what she wanted. So we left, had some fun in the pool and spent the evening at Downtown Disney shopping and relaxing with not a meltdown in sight.

-Come prepared: Knowing that this trip would be overstimulating, I had to come up with ways to make sure my daughter’s sensory needs could be met. In doing research I learned that Disney does not sell gum anywhere on their property. Since this is one of our “go-to” sensory tools, I stocked up on gum and brought more than enough of a supply to get us through the week. I also had her choose which fidgets, tools and comfort items she felt she needed and kept them in a baggie in her carry-on backpack for easy access. For the most part she got through the trip with nothing more than a few pieces of gum. However, some of the longer days we had, I would notice her start to get very fidgety. So, I was sure to keep an elastic hair tie on my wrist at all times. When I noticed her getting restless and overstimulated I gave her the hair tie to wrap around her fingers. This little tool instantly brought her the calming input she needed. I also changed up the schedule of our days a little to incorporate some pool time in the middle of the day. Swimming is such a calming activity and provides so much sensory input in a fun and natural way. It was the perfect mid-day sensory activity for all of us!

-Be honest, practice coping skills and talk out the tough stuff: One of the things I worried about most was the plane ride. I knew this was something my daughter would struggle with, especially during takeoff and landing. I wrestled with how to handle this for months and, at the 11th hour, decided that honesty was my best policy. I explained the trip as best I could, telling her that the take off would be very fast and bumpy. I told her that her ears may pop and cause her discomfort but that chewing gum, swallowing and drinking through a straw could help her. In the days, hours and minutes leading up to the flight I would constantly ask her how she was feeling about it. She would always say the same..that she was excited but nervous. When the time came, she reacted as I had expected. When we took off, she panicked and started to cry. My husband and I held each of her hands and talked it out with her, telling her that she was brave and doing great. As we talked we saw her taking slow, deep breaths..a coping skill she has been taught to get her through any anxiety producing experience. Soon enough, the plane leveled out and she was fine because the experience had happened as close to the way she was told it would and the fear of the unknown was no longer. For the flight home she was a champ…not a tear or even a whimper. When we got home I asked her if she would ever like to go on a plane again and she replied, “ was a little scary the first time but going home was not that bad.” She couldn’t have been more proud of herself and neither could I.

The Disney Guest Assistance Pass (and other services for guests with disabilities): One of the benefits that Disney supplies is a pass for people with disabilities. The benefits of this pass adjusts the wait times for rides and attractions for those with a disability who may have difficulty waiting. Years ago, this pass was easy to come by until people without disabilities found ways to obtain a pass, abusing this service that was meant to help those who truly needed it. This is because Disney can’t legally ask for proof of a disability and, as a result, they have since been more selective to whom they grant the pass. We did not feel the need to obtain this pass for our daughter. She is at a point in her life where her extra needs do not truly inhibit her daily life and we got along on our trip just fine without it. However, I felt it important to mention for any of you who feel your child could benefit from this service. To obtain the pass you can visit Guest Relations prior to entering the park. In addition to this pass, Disney has a host of other services to meet the needs of those with varying abilities. During our week in Disney we encountered so many guests of various abilities. I applaud Disney on their efforts to bring magic to the lives of people of all abilities. For more information on the Guest Assistance Pass visit:

For other services for people with disabilities:

-Sit back, relax, and enjoy the magic: The thing that made this trip the most enjoyable was watching both my girls fully immerse themselves in the magic and wonder that is Disney. Years ago, I would have set unrealistic expectations of making this trip “perfect” but, as I continue to raise this extraordinary child (and her equally but differently extraordinary sister) I realize that letting go of perfection is the key to my happiness as a parent. Sure…there were meltdowns, complaints and the occasional tears on our trip but, I have stopped myself from letting these normal occurrences of child rearing mar all the joy that having children has brought to my life. This trip was quite possibly the greatest experience of my parenting life..not only because it marks a significant victory in my sensational girl’s easily overstimulated life but it was an experience where I got to leave the stress of my adult life behind and witness my children indulge themselves in a magical fantasy world where, for a short time, their dreams really did come true.


“Laughter is timeless. Imagination has no age and dreams are forever.”

-Walt Disney


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