Maneuvering the Disney Parks with Autism


Maneuvering life with autism is difficult for both the child and the family. Maneuvering autism at Disney parks is no different. However, with a little planning, Disney can become a safe place for everyone to enjoy together. Our hope is to provide encouragement through weekly posts about how our disabled children have grown up in the one of the happiest places on Earth. It has not been easy. Let me offer a story about one of the most difficult days I experienced with our son several years ago.

Our Experience

I arrived at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, around 4:30pm, having picked up our autistic son from school about 30 mins earlier. Often, we used a trip to a Disney theme park as a reward for having a good day at school. Our youngest son here was about 8 years old at the time. Generally, a trip to the Animal Kingdom was pretty easy, as long as we followed the same general schedule. First, Festival of the Lion King followed by Finding Nemo the Musical, then a hamburger in DinoLand. 

Andy has a penguin that he loves to show off to Dory at “Finding Nemo the Musical”.

Unfortunately, on this particular day, I had failed to realize that the park hours had changed and that the last performance for both shows was at 5:00p.m. with the park closing at 6:00 pm. Upon seeing the closing hours sign at the parking booth, I immediately became concerned. I explained to him that we would only be able to see one show that afternoon. Our son’s verbal skills stop short of being able to reason. He can be very clear about what he wants but does not understand why some things cannot be arranged.  Before making a turn toward either show, while standing in front of the Tree of Life, I began once again to explain that he had a choice, one or the other, not both, today. To which he clearly stated, “Lion King AND Nemo”.  Using hand gestures to represent each activity, I attempted to get him to choose one or the other. In frustration, he finally chose the Festival of the Lion King and we turned right toward the Harambe Theater. 

While in the audience, my concerns were only heightened as he continued to ask for “Nemo” off and on throughout the show. As we exited after Lion King had ended, his persistent requests to see “Nemo” grew louder. When we turned left toward the exit the tantrum began. At age 8, I could still carry Andy but not if he was flailing about or swinging at me. Generally, if I just walked fast enough he would follow me. Of course, this begins to look like a mother running away from her screaming child, so one wants to avoid this measure whenever possible. Unfortunately, on that day, this seemed to be the only course. We made it to the turnstiles, when I had to stop. Obviously, if I exited the turnstile and he did not, I had a bigger problem. When I stopped, he reached me in complete frustration and anger. He flopped on the ground and continued to scream, as gawking guests stepped around us, and I calmly explain once again that we would come back another day to see Nemo. As I attempted to pull him up into my arms, I look back into the park to see another guest about four yards away from me. He was bent on one knee, camera aimed in my direction. As I continued to struggle, the paparazzi kept his camera pointed toward us, then in what seemed like several hours, he slowly stood up and returned to his family standing somewhere left of us. I was infuriated! My son is a sucker for his mother’s tears. Upon seeing my emotion, he stood up, still crying, and held my hand, as we exited the park. 

As the years have passed, Andy has grown both in size and as a communicator. That’s not to say that we don’t experience meltdowns in public places. We do and it is even more difficult since he is now six foot, four inches tall! Andy has literally grown up at Walt Disney World. 

Your Experience

As our family embarks on a journey of blogging park information, I hope this site can be a small window to the world of parents of autistic children. Pointers on how to steer the parks with special needs children will occur weekly and can be found in the “Autism Helps” section of our front page. Also, feel free to comment on what has worked for you or send us questions about how to best maneuver your stay.

Oh, and finally, for the paparazzi out there who took my picture years ago, please send me a copy! It would fit perfectly in today’s blog post. 

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