When one decides to go to Walt Disney World, it is not a decision made lightly, at least for most folks. One has to plan just about every detail of their trip, from how to get there to where to stay, on what parks to go to on which day to where to eat and when. And when one has a family where there are many different tastes and must do lists, planning can become more complicated. It’s no wonder why there are so many successful blogs and vlogs, careers even, dedicated to planning a Disney/Universal Orlando trip.
Things can become a little more complicated when at least one in your party has a condition, physical or cogntive, that might make a typical day at a theme park seem undesirable or impossible. Of course it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t go and try to enjoy the magic but it just makes planning a little more different.
I found myself in such a predicament last February when I began what would become a year long planning process. When we relocated to Washington DC, I knew that while we were here on the East Coast, I’d want to plan a Walt Disney World vacation, including Universal Studios, of course. It would be an easy drive down 95, I thought, and the children would be of a good age to truly appreciate the sheer magic and wonder of these two behomoths in the theme park world. And what else could be better than a Christmas trip? It would be the perfect present and we wouldn’t have to worry about buying any presents. I always loved the idea of gifts of experience. So after a chance work trip to Orlando in February 2020 and after an impromptu night at Epcot with some fellow conference attendees, I was more inspired than after upon my return home to get to planning. After all, Christmas was merely months away and would be here before I knew it.
As is typical for me, when I start planning something, I go all in. Not soon after I had joined a few Facebook groups and my YouTube history and web browsing history were filled with everything Disney and Universal. I had purchased special military promo tickets by the end of the month and had starting slowly purchasing necessary items for our drive down and stay there. I had booked and then rebooked our accomodations and had created a full itinerary for each day of our trip. And then COVID.
This intro is going a bit longer than I expected so I’ll cut right to it now. During the first month of COVID when Disney and Universal closed, I wasn’t sure if our trip was going to happen. By now, I had moved it up to August because the military tickets were to expire before Christmas. I had no idea what was going to be by August or how things would look if Disney were to reopen. During this unprescendented time, I decided to get more involved in my Facebook groups. And I cannot remember which one I asked this question in but the answer I received changed our entire trip. This is the part that ties into my title.
One of the concerns I had with going to two extrodinarily big and sensory inducing parks is how two of my kiddos with diagnoses would handle everything, from all the attractions to all the people to the extrodinarily long wait times for rides and shows. I was concerned that even though Disney and Universal tuypcially meant big fun, the sheer size of it might prove to be overwhelming. This is where I learned about Disney’s DAS (Disability Access Service) pass and Universal’s AAP (Attraction Asssitance Pass). These two services totally made our trip and expereince much more efficienct and enjoyable.
These services proved to be invaluable for families like mine. While to the outside eye it might appear like we are cutting the line, the service allows us to essentially wait for an attraction outside a traditional queue. On our first park day, we went to Guest Services and requested an assitance pass. At both parks, they simply asked us why waiting in line would prove to be difficult and once I explained it, we were given a paper pass at Universal, and the pass was adding to our My Disney Experience account on our phones at Disney. This how it works: we would go to an attraction and asked the attendant at the front for a return time. Once we had one (written on the card at Universal and scanned onto our Magic Bands to be placed in our account at Disney) we could go do anything else outside the queue, even enjoy another attraction, while we waited. This was also a great time to enjoy a snack or do a potty break. Having this avaialble to us made our vacation so much more enjoyable. We were able to avoid tantrums and meltdowns that typically accompany overstimulation and big crowds of people. And it made it possible to enjoy just about every attraction that was on our must-do list.
This is how it works at Universal. When we reached our first ride of the day at Islands of Adventure, Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure, a must do for me, we gave the attendant at the front our card and asked for a return time. Once we got one, we returned at that time and were let through to the ride through the express pass lane to get onto the ride. At Disney, it was a bit different, we would approach a ride like Slinky Dog Dash or Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and ask for a return time. The person who the DAS was for would scan their Magicband or ticket card and the entire party to whom the person is linked on the My Disney Experience app would populate on the cast member’s iPad or tablet. We were then given a return time and at that time, our family would return to the attraction scan in and be let in through the FastPass+ line.
I will follow up with a planning blog soon but what should you take away from this one? First, plan plan plan. It’s essential esepcially with a family. And with these parks operating at limited capacity right now, you have to make reservations at Disney for each park day and get to the parks early at Universal. Second, join all the groups and read/watching all the planning material you can. I would have never known about these passes had it not been for a Facebook group created for military members planning Disney vacations. I joined groups that were very specific to our family so anything military related. There I learned about little tips and tricks on how to navigate the parks to which types of military tickets would serve our family’s needs best. My new nightly routine included videos from such channels as DFB Guide and All Ears. I created a binder filled with daily itineraries and meal reservations for each day. I’m a planner by nature but these months prior to our trip planning every detail really brought me joy during a difficult time. And finally prepare your kids. Although the idea of surprise trips is super fun, I knew it wouldn’t work with my family. By having conversations about trip, watching videos of rides (without spoilers of course) and studying park maps just to name a few, our kids were very much prepared for this trip and knew what to expect. I also invited them to get involved in the planning. They chose their own outfits and were gifted gift cards to spend at the park. They also had a say in where and what we ate each day. This really helped to make such big trip not so overwhelming. We also chose to go at a time and age where they could fully appreciate it and remember their experiences.
So if you are just beginning to plan your vacation, or are thinking about a trip, or are in the thick of everything, and you have a child that you might be concerned about, how he or she might handle everything, or how you think he or she might behave on your trip, take solace in knowing that a Disney World and Universal Orlando trip is for everyone and there are things in place and things you can do to make the idea of taking your child to such an overstimulating place more palatable. All you have to do is begin.