Tuesday, March 5, 2013

TIPS: Disney, special needs and small children

There is an incredible amount of walking involved in a Walt Disney World vacation.  So much so that it's not uncommon for some adults to complain.  Personally, the walking for me isn't that big of a deal.  It's the pushing of a loaded double stroller that does me in.  Because of all the walking, you'll see kids of all ages riding in strollers.  At five years old, my kids are only a tiny 40 inches tall and not able to walk all day so strollers for us were must have items these past trips.

There's no special formula to determine if your kid will need a stroller.  The best way to approach this, in my opinion, is to keep an open mind and do what works best for your family.  We don't force our kids to ride in strollers; it's an option.  It works for us.  

Because Anna has spina bifida, she is unable to walk long distances and almost always prefers to ride in a stroller.  Strollers are allowed in the majority (but not all) of the character meet lines.  Strollers are almost never allowed in ride lines.  There are also some buildings (The Land in Epcot) that do not allow strollers inside.  Not being able to have a stroller available for Anna is a bit of a problem as she fatigues easily.

This is why we requested and received a Guest Assistance Card (also known as a GAC.)


A GAC can be obtained from Guest Relations inside any of the four parks.  It is valid in all four parks and (usually) for the entire length of your stay.  We simply spoke with a Disney employee and explained Anna's medical condition.  For us, we needed Anna's stroller to qualify as a wheelchair.  A GAC is best described as assistance for those with invisible conditions. 

Having the ability to use one of our strollers as a wheelchair was such a huge help.  Don't get me wrong - I would carry Anna until my arms fell off but this is a Disney vacation and I shouldn't have to.  It took a few times of using the GAC for Anna to understand what it meant.  We would be in line with her in the stroller and within a few minutes, she would slide out of the stroller and then two minutes later, ask me to hold her.  I explained that Disney knew she needed a place to sit and that she wasn't going to miss out on the ride because she was in the stroller.  After two or three lines, it sunk in and Anna was able to rest in the stroller without concern.

What a GAC is not.  This is not a skip the line pass.  It did not entitle us to anything other than to use Anna's stroller as a wheelchair in places where strollers are not allowed.  For some rides, we were redirected to a different area and yes, the wait was shorter than if we had been in the regular line.  For other rides, the wait was longer than the regular line.  If we wanted to cut down on waiting in line, we utilized Fast Passes just like everyone else.  

Overall, we had a very positive experience using a GAC.  It definitely made our vacation much more comfortable and is something that we will request in the future.


If you have small children, there are many planning areas you may want to consider.

Transportation - The thought of loading and unloading three small children, two strollers and all of our gear from a Disney bus seems daunting to me.  Never mind having to wait for the bus.  We choose to drive our own vehicle to the parks.  If you book your vacation through AAA, you'll receive a Diamond Parking Pass, which will allow you to park behind or adjacent to the handicap accessible parking lots.  These Diamond parking lots are within walking distance to the park entrances, which means that you do not have to load and unload from a tram.  

Resort Location - If you stay onsite, be sure to research the resort's location with respect to the parks and how the bus system works.  For example, you can walk to Epcot and Hollywood Studios from the Beach Club resort.  The Contemporary is only a five minute walk to the entrance of Magic Kingdom and has direct access to the monorail.  Pop Century has a dedicated bus line, which means those buses only stop at that resort.  (There are resorts that share buses.)
Sleep and Rest - There's nothing wrong with allowing your kids to stay up hours past their normal bedtime but don't be surprised if you have some unhappy campers the next day. Especially if you wake them up early.  We tried to stick to the girls' schedule as much as possible.  They did go to sleep past their normal bedtime almost every night so we allowed them to dictate our morning schedule.  We never made it to the parks right when they opened but we had (somewhat) well rested kids.

You don't have to spend all day, every day at a park.  It's okay to schedule time to hang out by the pool.  My kids thoroughly enjoyed and looked forward to swimming.  Don't be afraid to slow down - you are on vacation after all.

Sippies and Snacks - This didn't apply to us this past year but definitely during our first trip two years ago.  Life was a whole lot easier when we brought sippy cups to the parks with us.  It was very simple to divide up containers of milk or water into the sippy cups and not have to deal with trying to find extra cups with covers, which can still spill.  We also carried around small bags of snacks (goldfish and crackers) with us.


Just the Tip said...

we tagged a stroller as a wheelchair at the baltimore aquarium. I did a little research prior and found that strollers were not allowed period. The man at the stroller check area looked a little weird when I told him we were tagging as a wheelchair, but he didn't question us or anything.

I just keep wondering what we will do as P gets older, and our PT mentioned a medical stroller, so I guess I will have to keep that in the back of my head.

Debbie said...

There is a family in our school with triplets. Although they do not have any physical medical conditions, they are all on the autism spectrum. The girls are mainstreamed, but the boy is more severely mentally impaired. I am wondering if you encountered any services in your travels for those handicaps? This family is travelling to Disney in the fall.

Sarah said...

I try not to think about what will happen when Anna is older. One day (or week or month) at a time works better for me. She's okay at smaller places where she is able to rest. A zoo or aquarium - right now, she needs a stroller.

Debbie - I don't know anyone personally who has requested a GAC for autism BUT from everything I read, it is very common and accepted. They don't need to explain their condition but what they need. If there is too much noise, crowding, etc in a regular line, they need to state that. The kids need to be present when they request a GAC.

Lease said...

Great tips and explanation of the GAC and it's uses.
Debbie, a GAC is available for non-physical conditions. In the case of spectrum issues in some attractions they have areas the family can wait in that are quieter. They can also take advantage of the first aide area that is air conditioned and has a quiet space.
The DisABILITIES board on disboards.com is a wonderful reference.

Sarah said...

Lease - thanks for the add'l info.

Uriel said...

amazing post, i love disney !! i love your blog, please continue to write more about it!

Stacey L. said...

Debbie- Yes, you can request a GAC for Autism. I took a family friend with Autism to Disneyland and had no problems. They may tell you they don't give a GAC for the diagnosis, just the symptoms so tell the family to be specific and real about what the child may do in certain situations. Also the child needs to be present to get the card and at the attractions it will be used on.

They offer GACs for a variety of needs. My daughter for example wears glasses and due to her vision problem has a very hard time using stairs. We have one that allows us to us ramps or elevators if the ride has stairs. I used to carry her, but now that she's 50 pounds I just can't. It has made our day more enjoyable so we really appreciate using it.

And Sarah, thank you for pointing out it's not a "skip the line" pass. I see a lot of people trying to use it as such and complaining when they have to wait. It's so bad at Disneyland that the guest services cast members seem to be almost gotten stingy with them, but they do give them out as needed.