Traveling with children can be really stressful. Traveling with a child with special needs can seem impossible. The good news is, it’s not!
When our son was born in 2016, we had no idea how his diagnosis of Down syndrome would affect our daily lives, much less our ability to plan family vacations. We were afraid family travel might be one of many things we may have to sacrifice to tend to his needs. We even left him behind with my parents when we took our twins to Disney World for the first time for their fifth birthday (he was only eight months old at that time).
However, he has since gone to Disney World many times, Universal Studio twice, done two Disney cruises and stayed at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico. Now he is looking forward to international travel on Carnival and Norwegian cruises!
If you have a child with special needs and are wondering how you can still plan family vacations, many destinations offer accommodations to make them fully accessible for children with disabilities. Here are some great examples:
Walt Disney World and Disneyland
Both Disney World and Disneyland offer the Disability Access Service (DAS) to children and adults with special needs, especially cognitive disabilities, which makes getting around the parks so much easier! To qualify to receive this service, just stop by guest services when you first get to one of the parks, or, even better, you can easily pre-qualify by video chat up to 30 days before your visit. Simply talk to a Cast Member about the behaviors or challenges your child has with waiting in long lines and how this service could help alleviate those. I love the pre-qualifying option because you can also go ahead and reserve two return times for park attractions per day! One misconception about the DAS is that it allows front-of-line access, but this is not true. When you schedule your DAS, it allows you to enter the Lightning Lane/Genie+ line with a return time of 10 minutes before the posted standby wait time at time of booking. You can now do this right on your My Disney Experience app! You still have to wait, you just don’t have to wait in the standard queue. You can only have one DAS return time at a time, in addition to the ones you pre-book if you pre-register. In addition to the DAS, one service we’ve found very helpful is the Stroller as Wheelchair tag. This allows us to keep our son in his stroller through the line without having to park it outside. This is important for us because he is an eloper which means he will run away when he gets overstimulated or bored. While we do not have to deal with a special diet for him, I have sent many clients to Disney with various food allergies or feeding needs and they’ve always been well taken care of!
Universal Orlando Resort
Universal has a similar return time system as Disney, but for it you must visit guest services upon arrival at the parks. You will receive a card on which the Team Member at the attraction will write down the time when you can return. Again, you don’t get front of line but you can go get a snack or do an attraction with a shorter wait while you wait for your return time. Universal also offers the Stroller as Wheelchair service, which is also a card. Having these cards plus your park tickets plus your express passes can seem like a lot to keep up with! This is why for anyone, regardless of needing these services or not, I always recommend lanyards with name tag holders for easy access to your tickets and cards!
Accomodations will vary by cruise line. In general though, most cruise lines will allow a child with special needs to age down a level in their kids’ clubs. They do not provide one on one assistance to children with special needs and cannot assist with toileting for safety reasons. If your child, like mine, is not potty-trained but over 5 they will page or call you to come change the child. For myself as well as clients, I reach out to the special services for the cruise line in advance, but there is usually a form we also fill out indicating needs, especially if there are medical needs such as oxygen or sharps containers. Many cruise lines have really stepped up in training staff and going the extra mile for little sailors with disabilities. We see this with Autism on the Seas’ close partnership with Royal Caribbean as well as KultureCity certifying Carnival as “sensory inclusive.” I highly recommend visiting Guest Services and Kids Club upon boarding at the beginning of the cruise to go over any specific questions and introduce your child to the crew!
Hands down, the most accessible and inclusive resort company is Beaches. Kids Camps at Beaches are Advanced Certified Autism Centers and the staff regularly undergoes training in sensory awareness, social skills, emotional awareness, motor skills, etc…In their partnership with Sesame Street, children also have the opportunity to participate in activities with Julia, who just so happens to have Autism. With Beaches, I make sure to submit a pre-travel special services guest questionnaire so that the team at Beaches can better meet the needs of my families traveling there. For myself as well as my guests who go to other all-inclusive resorts, I make sure to reach out to the resort manager as well as the entertainment manager as this is who usually is in charge of kids club activities. I do this to verify what accommodations might be available as other countries do not have the same requirements the US does with the American with Disabilities Act. We traveled to Dreams Playa Mujeres recently. While they did not have specific accommodations for my son, they were very easy to work with in developing a plan for him to be able to attend kids club for short periods (mama needed some spa time!).
For any destination, if you fly with a child with special needs, reach out to TSA CARES at least 72 hours before traveling. If available, an agent will meet you as early as arrival at the airport to help you navigate the airport and get through security. My son was on thickened liquids the first time he flew and we needed to bring that through security. They have alternate, food-safe ways of testing things like this if you have to bring liquids for your child. I do recommend calling rather than emailing as on our last trip I’d only emailed. They didn’t call to set up our meeting time until we were already at the gate, which was after our son had tried to run back through security, through people’s legs. Lesson learned!
I hope if you’re reading this, especially if you have a child with special needs who you’ve hesitated traveling with, that you feel encouraged to try. I see growth in my son with every trip we take. Is the trip always sunshine and roses? Of course not. But the joy on his face at seeing Mickey Mouse, hearing him try Spanish words in Mexico, and seeing the world through his eyes makes it worth it.
Magical Vacation Planners will utilize their personal experiences to advise you on the best way to navigate your vacation, no matter the circumstances or your needs. This is a great added value to ensure the best possible experience for you and your loved ones. So contact your MVP today, we will be happy to help you plan your next vacation!