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BLOG: Planning to take a child with special needs on vacation?

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Mother kissing son in wheelchair

VACATION! For a child, this word brings excitement. But for a parent of a child with special needs, it brings panic, anxiety and stress. 

It is that fear of the unknown: How will my child react? Will people stare? Will my child be able to eat the foods available, handle wait lines at an amusement park? The list goes on and on.

I’ve been there. Believe me, I have encountered EVERY headache imaginable on this crazy roller coaster of autism — times two!

However, there are ways to prepare if you’re heading to a regional theme park:

  1. Check online for special passes or features available for children with disabilities. 
  2. Call for special rates or the best times to visit.
  3. Ask if you can bring your own food.
  4. Register with the park, just in case you have safety concerns.

Here in Florida, the major theme parks provide assistance passes for those with disabilities, though they vary.


Disney World – Disability Access Service
This reduces the wait time in lines for attractions. It takes some practice and patience to get the best use out of this pass, but once you get the hang of it, you'll speed through the lines. 

When you enter the park on your first day of vacation, stop by Guest Relations and let them know your child has a disability. Typically, they only allow six family members on the pass, which you can use for 60 days without stopping at Guest Relations each time. The pass is linked to the MagicBand and the My Disney Experience app, so you can monitor your schedule and modify as needed.

To use the pass, approach the employee at the ride's entrance, typically standing at the Fast Pass line. They will scan the MagicBand of the person who has the disability and give you a time to return. The return time is updated in your app, so you can continue enjoying other experiences and then return at your scheduled time with little or no wait.

LEGOLAND Florida – Hero PassYou can pick this up at Guest Services. Designated Hero/VIP lines mark the entrances to each attraction. On busier days, you will be given a return time similar to the Disney pass. The ride operators are compassionate, understanding and helpful to our various needs. 

SeaWorld Orlando – Ride Accessibility Program: Guest Relations will measure your child, if your child allows, to determine which rides are appropriate. And don’t worry, if your child will not allow this, they will estimate height. Your information will be saved in the system for future visits to simplify the process.

The pass lists attractions your child can enjoy, as well as how many family members are in your party. If you use the pass on the kiddie rides in Shamu’s Happy Harbor, there is usually no wait. You just approach the exit of the ride and show the form to the attendant. At the roller coasters and more popular attractions, you will be given a return time to avoid lines. Hint: This pass also works for shows.


A bigger issue for many families, including mine, is food sensitivities. Our children typically have very restrictive dietary concerns, and those items are not readily available in most parks. Be sure to call ahead to check the theme park’s policies. However, I've never had a problem with bringing in food/snacks.

For example, the bottom portion of my backpack is an insulated cooler that holds apple juice boxes, Gatorade and water bottles. (SeaWorld will ask you to remove straws from the juice boxes, as they are a danger to the animals)In the main compartments of the backpack, I carry everything from rice cakes and popcorn to tortilla chips, pretzel crisps, cereal, lollipops and more.  


Disney has designated baby care stations, which are great escapes for our kids when they start to feel overwhelmed. The lights are dimmed, a movie is quietly playing, and there are restrooms, tables, chairs and a calmer environment.

As for accommodations, I highly recommend staying off property when traveling to the Orlando. Numerous condos in the area are for rent with two and three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, living room, dining room and laundry. These cost a fraction of the price of a hotel and are more convenient to the special needs of our children. While it may seem lovely to stay at a resort, being pampered on vacation often is not the reality in the world of special needs. Pampered to me now means children who are not melting down over schedule changes and chaos. Staying in a similar location each trip allows the children to know what to expect, which helps to keep them calm. It is a peaceful way to start and end each day because the parks can be a bit overwhelming – whether your family has special needs or not!

My last piece of advice: Remember that your first trip may not be the dream vacation that you're envisioning. As with everything, your child needs time to adjust and prepare for these new experiences. When I started taking my twins to Disney at age 2, newly diagnosed and severe, it was NOT the happiest place on Earth for my family. Within minutes of arriving, my boys had meltdowns. Now I’m lucky to leave the park in less than 12 hours! They stay until close and ride every ride.

Vacationing with children with special needs takes practice and patience. Talk to your child; prepare them as best you can for each transition; give them choices so they feel in control and, most importantly, try to smile. They sense our anxiety, and they react. The more you prepare, the less anxious you will feel. The less anxious you are, the less anxious they will be. And at the end of the day, the smiles on their faces will melt away your worries.

Candi Spitz, development manager at 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast, is the mother of twin boys who have autism.




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