Disneyland Experience: What to Know about Special Services for Sensory Children and Special Needs at Theme Parks
This article provides helpful information about services provided at Disneyland and other theme parks for children with sensory issues and special needs. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
A trip to Disneyland, the beach, Universal Studios, Sea World and other fun theme parks is what every child looks forward to each year when school has ended and summer arrives. It’s usually the highlight of the year and fun for the whole family. However, children with sensory issues and other special needs may find the experience much different from mainstream children. Many times they can be overwhelmed by loud noises, bright lights, big crowds and long waits in lines. What should be fun for the whole family could end in meltdowns, tantrums, anxiety and crying even before you make it into the park on any rides.
Luckily, many theme parks across the world are becoming more aware of these issues and are catering to families and children with special needs. Your child doesn’t have to be in a wheelchair for you to take advantage of their programs and services that can help your child have a wonderful experience at their park.
Several parks, including Disneyland and Universal Studios, have special programs for parents and children who need quiet rooms, fastpasses, re-rides, strollers and even a “buddy” in some cases to help them on and off rides.
What to Bring
Before you begin your journey, there are a few items to remember before you prepare to enter a theme park. First, remember that your experience will be unique to your child so you may not be spending all day riding the rides. Most sensory children need breaks in between rides. After one ride, they may want to find a more quiet and secluded activity in the park before they venture out to try another ride. This could be difficult for your other children so one parent may have to stay with your sensory child while the other tackles the rides with their siblings.
Come prepared with items such as sunglasses, noise-cancelling headphones, calming apps and other games they may enjoy as a distraction.
Sunglass are not just for blocking the sun during a warm sunny day. Sunglasses can also be used at night if you plan to take your children to any parades, light shows or nighttime productions. Because sensory children are often bothered by bright light or flashing lights, sunglasses may help them experience the nightlife at these theme parks without you having to skip the events altogether.
Be prepared for your child to use these all day, even on rides and in lines while you wait. Many rides within theme parks can be very noisy, which may cause them to not want to go on that specific ride. You may have to gauge whether or not your child will go on the ride and in some cases, you might not know if your child will want to ride until you are ready to board. Your child could even be bothered by people chattering around them while you wait in line. They are so sensitive to noise it can be hard for them to filter what’s going on around them. If you have noise-cancelling headphones that connect with your iPhone, you can play calming music for them while you wait in line.
Games and Apps
If you have apps on your phone, there are several that cater to children with special needs or can calm your child when they have sensory overload. This may also provide a distraction while they are waiting in line so they don’t feel so overwhelmed. Games like Spot It are great for road trips and are easy to carry around when you are waiting in line at different theme parks.
Theme Park Accommodations
Now that you are all set with items that may help your child within the park, it’s good to have an understanding of what services each park provides to help your child when they arrive. Most theme parks have a guest services department you will want to go to first. Each park offers different programs and services, so it’s important to become familiar with their policies and procedures for children with sensory issues and special needs before you enter the park.
Due to privacy laws, theme parks can’t ask what your child’s specific disorder or disability is, but you will want to share as much information as possible so they know how to cater to your specific needs. Depending on the severity of your child, they may have additional services they can provide to you and your family. In addition, they may need to take a picture of your child to carry with them throughout the park. If your child feels uncomfortable with this, you may need to be in the picture with them. Be prepared for the park to take their picture if needed.
For this specific article, we have compiled information for your Disneyland experience since it is the theme park most frequently visited. However, you will have to contact other theme parks and facilities to gain a better understanding of what services they offer for your child.
Disney Disability Card
Disney’s Disability Access Card (DAC) replaced the Guest Assistance Card in 2013. You can pick up your DAC card at guest services when you arrive at the park. You will want to arrive early as guest services can get very busy throughout the day. The pass is good for 60 days and a picture of your child is required when you check-in so workers can identify our child when you get in line with your family. Your child must be present for you and your family to access the ride.
At guest services, they will help you schedule rides and provide you with wait times for each ride before you head to your destination. If wait times are more than 10 minutes, they will give you a return time when the ride is less busy. Your DAC card is flexible and allows you to return at any time. However, you must schedule each ride separately through guest services. This can be challenging since you have to go back and forth after each ride to schedule another one with guest services, however, it is a way for Disney to prevent abuse of the DAC cards. This may not be difficult for some families, since children with sensory needs often need breaks in between rides and don’t like riding them back-to-back. It’s also a great opportunity to take your child on the trolley, the train or visit more calming attractions before going on another ride. The good news is that Disney has positioned guest service kiosks throughout the park so you don’t have to travel all the way back to the main entrance to schedule additional rides. This system will help you avoid lines and crowded areas that may trouble your child. Some cast members will allow your child to repeat the ride when they want to go again. If you don’t want to ride the rides with your child, Disneyland may provide a cast member to ride with them.
Attraction Readmission Pass
The Attraction Readmission passes provide similar services as regular Fastpasses do for other families, but they are only given out on a case-by-case basis. Ask guest services if you qualify to obtain one of these so you can enter the rides in the Fastpass line without having to reschedule and book rides each time with guest services. If you already have a regular Fastpass for your family, it still works when you have a DAC card.
If your child struggles to wait in really long lines, you can ask guest services if they have a cast member that would be willing to wait in line for you and hold your spot. This works really well for children who are overly anxious and can’t handle large crowds. While the cast member waits in line, you can visit other attractions until it is time for you to meet the characters at the park. Depending on the park, some have Fastpasses for character meet-in-greets, while others don’t. You should call ahead to find out what the theme park provides.
Guest services at Disneyland and at most other theme parks provide quiet rooms or break rooms for families to sneak away when their child is overly stimulated or experiences sensory overload. This can provide them a safe haven when they feel anxious or need to get away from crowds and loud noises.
Wheel Chairs / Strollers
Disneyland and other theme parks provide strollers and wheelchairs for children who have trouble walking or can’t stand for long periods of time in long lines. Even if your child is capable of walking, they may get tired and need extra support from a stroller or wheelchair. For other children who tend to be sensory seekers, walking may be good for them as it provides heavy work for their proprioception and calms the body. For additional heavy work opportunities, your child can push their siblings in strollers or wagons as they walk through the park.
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