Disney With A Child With Special Needs: An Intimate Interview

It’s my distinct pleasure to feature a very special interview today. I was introduced to the subjects of this interview by friends and was blown away by their story – their adopted daughter, Kayla, was diagnosed with autism years ago. Her parents, who generously agreed to share their experiences with me, have noticed some rather magical changes in their lives since introducing Kayla to Disney theme parks.

Visiting Disneyland or Walt Disney World with a child with special needs can present unique challenges. If you or your family have hesitated to take the leap to the House of Mouse for that reason, read on and be inspired by the transformation that has occurred for this inspiring family.

Disney with a Special Needs Child

A little girl meets Mickey for the first time. Photo by 8bitChamp

Tell me about how your daughter came into your life.

We adopted the little one when she was 18 months old. She’s been our pride and joy ever since, ruling our household as most princesses do.

What compelled you to take her to Disneyland? Were you apprehensive at first?

We’ve always loved Disneyland and wanted to celebrate the same milestone our friends were experiencing with their children: bringing their kids to Disneyland for the first time. We had taken her to smaller, local, toddler-oriented parks and she did fine but became overwhelmed very quickly. Our goal for Disneyland was a picture of the three of us, at the top of Main Street, in front of the castle with no tears or tantrums. We weren’t entirely sure that was possible. The little one, especially at that time, became overstimulated very easily. It could be something seemingly small back then (a loud trumpet, crying child, sudden noise, bright lights or colors, anything really) that would end our day out and require us to return to the quiet of our house.

Yes, we were VERY apprehensive. We talked to many friends who knew the little one and Disneyland. We scoured the internet and read numerous blogs and FAQs. We were still nervous but we really wanted that picture. We decided to take a deep breath and try it. We thought we may only be there for an hour, but we were hoping for half a day.

What about Disney do you think influences Kayla?

Hmmmm, what doesn’t influence her?! We think Disney’s attractions to her have changed over the years but the one constant has been acceptance and love. At first, we think it was the bright colors, happy music, hugs from furry characters and people dressed in sparkling costumes. Now, we’re convinced it’s the unconditional love and acceptance she receives from most Disney cast members (characters, ride operators, housekeeping, balloon sellers, shop keepers, everyone who shows up to work and wants to make magic). The moment we arrive, she is more confident and outgoing. We’re convinced that’s because she knows the majority of the people she’s about to encounter will treat her with respect and kindness.

At home, the little one will do just about anything to earn her next visit to Disneyland. She does her chores, practices better manners, completes homework, and tries really challenging tasks just to ensure she can get back to her Disney friends. She’s also influenced by how the characters behave (“Do you really think Mary Poppins would behave that way?” Or when she messes up and trips or falls, “Oops! Look I’m just like Bert!”)

What, if any, accommodations does Disney make for your family during your visit?

We have found that the Disney folks will do just about anything reasonable to make our visit comfortable and successful. We get a Guest Assistance Card to use during times when she needs space away from other guests. We try to only use it when she really needs it, and it’s not to get her on the ride faster. It just gets her a quieter, less crowded space to wait.

Ninja Note: The Guest Assistance Card (GAC) is available to eligible guests at City Hall in the Magic Kingdoms, and at Guest Relations locations in all other parks. It provides alternative queue privileges for the guest who requires special assistance and up to 5 companions. Often this will provide access to a separate queue specifically for GAC holders, or it may allow instant access to the Fastpass return line. Each attraction handles GAC holders differently. Note that it is NOT a front-of-the-line pass, but it can dramatically shorten or eliminate wait times in some cases.

The other, less formal, accommodations are harder to describe. Numerous times, cast members have noticed her struggling and offered assistance. Once, she was getting trampled by late-comers to the parade and a Cast Member approached and offered to guide us to a quieter area where she could watch the parade without being touched and pushed. That’s just one example but it illustrates how caring the Disney Cast Members are.

Tell me about visiting the parks with Sadie, Kayla’s assistance dog.

The pup isn’t as big of a fan of Disneyland as the little one. She gets pushed, stepped on, accosted, rides Pirates of the Caribbean, and is the unwilling victim of being pet by people who disregard the “Please Do Not Pet” badge. Once again, however, the Disney Cast Members have been most gracious and helpful with the pup. Several times, Cast Members have stepped in to help when interested strangers overwhelm us with their interest. These Cast Members have politely reminded others that the pup is working and we need some space. Disney is most accommodating providing the pup with places throughout the parks for her to “do her business.” Once, a janitor even stopped me from poop scooping and told me he’d take care of it. I declined but he insisted that he would do a more thorough job. Amazing.

What’s your favorite moment from your Disney visits?

Seriously? We’d be up for several days if we attempted to describe every one of our favorite moments. Honestly, a day at the park doesn’t end without a memorable, magical moment. How can we choose?!

The theme of many of our favorite moments is watching our little one participate in activities. She typically pulls away from or doesn’t even notice things happening around her. At Disneyland, she thrives on dancing with characters, training with Jedi, jumping along with the parade, twirling with princesses, listening to the bands and other musical entertainments…really, anything Disneyland presents to her, she wants to hop on stage and be part of the action.

What kind of changes have you seen in Kayla since coming to Disneyland?

Wow, the changes we credit to Disney’s influence! The first change was talking. Before Disneyland, she NEVER talked unless we really forced her. On that first day, she was trying so hard to communicate to us where she wanted to go, what she wanted to see. When she met Cinderella and Prince Charming, she babbled as best she could; she finally understood that talking would connect her to the people (characters) and things (rides) she had just discovered. Now, we credit her love of dancing, performing, telling jokes, stealing the spotlight, confidence being in public places. She is accepted at a place as fantastic as Disneyland, and that speaks volumes to her.

What kind of experiences does Kayla enjoy best at the parks?

Characters and entertainment are her favorites. She loves the thrill of Space Mountain, too, but it’s interacting with characters that she loves the most. She’s happiest when her day is full of band music, dancing, parades, and defending her parents from the dark side (also known as Darth Vader).

Are there particular rides or shows that she doesn’t like or that you purposefully avoid?

She hates Splash Mountain, the end. She’s terrified of things she can’t anticipate and there are a couple of drops that you really can’t see coming. She’s not a huge fan of the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean. She’s a bright, happy, outdoors, sunshine loving girl. She’s not ready for the creepy, albeit fun-loving, experiences. Needless to say, the trick-or-treat after hours Halloween special event was not a good one for us.

I understand that nighttime shows like fireworks, Fantasmic! and World of Color are not on your radar.

You are correct – we hightail it out of the parks soon after dusk so we are safely inside our hotel room and away from the brunt of the firework noises.  Fantasmic! is a bit too intense for Kayla as is World of Color.  Thanks to her Disney friends, Kayla has developed a great imagination.  Both Fantasmic! and World of Color seem to send her imagination into scarier places than she is currently ready to experience.

She loved Disney’s Electrical Parade and we were quite strategic in our choice of viewing spots.  We would sit as close to the start of the parade route as possible and near the gates.  As soon as the flag passed us, we ran (literally ran, not walked quickly or jogged but RAN) to our hotel [to escape the fireworks, which usually began just after the Electrical Parade ended].  We didn’t always make it and we now have some great stories of hiding out in various places (Compass Book Store in Downtown Disney for example, as far back as we could get, sitting on the floor…with Kayla screaming).

Who is Kayla’s favorite character? How about you?

Mary Poppins, Bert, Mad Hatter, Alice, Queen of Hearts, the Tweedles, White Rabbit, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Snow White, Cruella, Evil Queen, Pluto, Minnie, Goofy, Mickey, Donald, Daisy, Captain Hook, Mr. Smee, Baloo, Perla [from Cinderella]…any character who has ever taken the time to play with her is beloved.

How do other guests interact with Kayla, if at all?

Some respond favorably, others don’t. Often, though, people approach us to tell us how beautiful it was for them to witness a moment between the little one and a character. These people sense that she doesn’t exit her inner world very often and this interaction is special and magical.

What advice would you give to someone visiting a Disney park with their special needs child for the first time?

Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help. The people at Disney genuinely want to help if they can. If you’re polite and respectful to them, they will respond in kind. Public outings with children with special needs can be ruined by so many seemingly minor things; if there’s something you can do to prevent it, ask if it’s possible. Also, let your child participate and shine. It really doesn’t matter what the other guests think — what matters is your child’s experience and joy. There are so many other special needs families in the park every day, we’re all celebrating with each other when we see a child open up and have fun.

I hope you enjoyed this interview with Kayla’s parents. Have you visited Disney theme parks with a companion with special needs before? Let me know your experiences in the comments so others can learn what has worked for your family. It’s a remarkable testament to the magic of Disney and its incredible Cast Members that families of all kinds can come and relax in the Happiest Places On Earth.


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