Donna Lorman, President of the
Autism Society of Greater Orlando frequently gets calls from
around the world from those seeking advice for their vacations in
Orlando. The following tips come from an interview with Donna where she
shared the answers to the questions she’s most frequently asked. I’ve
got to add that Donna makes an incredible first impression. She is so
clearly passionate about the people she supports. She also has a great
deal of appreciation for the lengths that Disney World goes to, in order
to support those with autism.
Although we recognize that Disney guests with
autism can be of any age, Donna lovingly refers to them as “children” or
“kids”, so we’ll do the same in this article. Here’s her advice:
Stay on Disney World
property if it’s at all possible. In all of her experiences the Disney
resort staff members were extremely kind and very knowledgeable about
autism. If you tell them that autism is involved, they’ll really step
up and go the extra mile for you. It makes everything so much easier.
Parents want a break on vacation, and some time to relax.
They’re looking for a child care service they can trust. Donna
recommends True Help Services in Kissimmee (www.truehelpservices.com).
She finds that they are extremely supportive of children with autism.
When you’re going to a Disney park, a Guest Assistance Card is a
necessity. It will help minimize time spent in attraction lines, and it
can often reduce the need for waiting in crowds. The problem she’s heard
repeatedly is that although most of those with autism are visibly
symptomatic, those who are higher functioning may not be believed by
Disney staff when requesting a GAC. She recommends that if the autism
is not easily apparent; bring a doctor’s statement or some type of
documentation to confirm the autism.
Although Disney says that documentation is not required for a
GAC, they are also trying to reduce abuse of the system by those who
fake it because they think they’ll have shorter waits for attractions
with a GAC. Donna receives around 5-10 complaints a year from people
who were turned down for a GAC because the Disney Cast members didn’t
believe the child had autism.
If the autism is readily apparent, particularly if there are
obvious verbal or communication issues, she suggests that you may get
your GAC more easily if you have your child speak to the Disney cast
member. Have the child request the GAC. Most kids have enunciation
issues or verbalizing issues and it will be obvious. If you get the
child involved in the request process it can go much smoother.
Another benefit of the GAC is that it allows you to enter
through the handicapped entrances for attractions that have them. Use
this whenever possible. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, it
can allow those with motor issues more time to get in and out of the
Donna highly recommends the character meals, especially in the hotels.
Autistic children usually adore the characters and the character meals.
While you can see the characters in the parks, at the restaurants you
get individualized attention. They come to your table, so you don’t have
to wait in long lines at the park to have your child interact with a
character. Though the character meals are expensive, this convenience
alone makes it worth the money.
Even with a GAC, at character appearances in the parks you
will wait at least 45 minutes and sometimes longer in line to reach the
character. Although on occasion Donna has found that a GAC can get you
right to head of line, often the cast members won’t do this for you and
you’ll have to wait in line with everyone else. Some autistic kids just
don’t do well waiting in lines. The character meal is a great solution.
Donnas’ favorite character restaurant is Chef Mickey’s.
Although it’s pricey she feels it’s worth it because everyone is so
supportive. It’s extremely kid-friendly, and it’s very loud because
there are usually a lot of kids. With this in mind, if your child has a
“meltdown” or exhibits vocal stimulation, they will fit in.
Tell your waiter about the child’s condition and they’ll
notify the characters, who will behave accordingly. They will even give
special attention to your child. Pick a restaurant based on what
characters you prefer. Different restaurants have different
characters. Most Disney restaurants are helpful at accommodating
special dietary needs, but Donna finds that Chef Mickey’s is
particularly great. They will even bring food in from other restaurants
even though it’s a buffet. She finds that it’s much harder to get food
accommodations in park restaurants than in the hotel restaurants,
especially at a buffet.
At Magic Kingdom one restaurant that can be especially suitable for a
quick meal is
Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe
They serve chicken and French fries, as well as hamburgers
and salads. Donna finds that the majority of kids with autism seem to
consistently want chicken and French fries. This restaurant has that,
along with alternatives for the rest of the family. In Epcot, the
Electric Umbrella Restaurant in Future World has chicken and French
fries. In Hollywood Studios try the
Make sure you’re
there first thing in the morning. They often get so busy that you won’t
get a shaded area for shelter unless you arrive early. Another reason
to be there at opening time is that the parks sometimes reach maximum
capacity very fast, and they can close to new visitors very early.
Often autistic children will have a meltdown if turned away. Arriving
early can prevent a disappointing and difficult situation.
Autistic kids seem to
love most live Disney shows. They’re fascinated with the music, dancing
singing and characters. The music shows are especially great for them.
When you enter the park get a map and schedule to see when the shows
are. Around the holidays they have multiple shows with characters,
including Santa with music and singing. Kids love it!
Some shows are outside with no actual seating, but if a show
is in a place where there is seating, use a GAC. This will enable you
to request seating at the front of the theater. Show your GAC to a cast
member and request to sit up front. These shows can be packed and by
sitting in the front you’ll have extra space. Autistic kids get
overwhelmed with body to body seating and crowds, and this will minimize
this. For live shows they usually seat those with GACs and wheelchairs
first, and then they bring in the crowds waiting in the regular queue.
By using the handicapped entrance you’ll be cutting down your child’s
exposure to crowds.
According to Donna, one live show that seems to
have worked miracles for kids with autism is Turtle Talk with Crush In
The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion. numerous occasions when non-verbal children began to speak and
interacted with Crush. Disney has now approved and funded a research
project which will seek to determine why.
Children with autism consistently love Disney, and the
project will also look at what makes Disney World so captivating and
engaging to them. Donna will be working with Disney on this project.
Her son who has autism loves the Beauty and the Beast and
Muppets 3-D at Hollywood Studios. She notes that often kids with autism
will put the glasses on and they’ll cover their ears. They will also
put their thumbs in ears and their pinky’s in their mouths. They’re
overwhelmed and they may rock gently, but they’ll calm down. If she
says “hands down” to her son, he’ll put his hands down and watch the
show. Although the sensory effects in some of the other shows will
often bother kids with autism, these shows seem to get a consistently
good response from them.
Her son was absolutely terrified in Stitch’s Great Escape in
Magic Kingdom. He hated the shoulder restraint. He also has great
difficulty with Honey I shrunk the Audience, a 3-D show in Epcot. The
sensory effects are overwhelming for him.
Use the GAC for parades to sit in the handicapped area with the
wheelchairs. Kids with autism usually can’t sit and wait for long
periods, and people start lining up for the parades as much as two hours
before they begin. Donna has found that if you wait about 30 minutes
before the parade begins to take your place, there may be no place left
to sit with a good view. Sometimes they’ll have space in a wheelchair
area and they’ll let you in if you have a GAC.
There is a definite trend in park preferences among kids with autism,
according to Donna. She’s not certain why, but Animal Kingdom is
consistently their least favorite park. She speculates that one reason
may be their hypersensitivity to smell, which may make them
uncomfortable with the smell of the animals.
Here are the parks in order of the most favored to the least,
according to Donnas’ observation:
1. Magic Kingdom
2. Hollywood Studios
4. Animal kingdom
Donna feels this shopping, dining and entertainment area is often
overlooked and not to be missed. There is a lot for the kids to do here.
For example, they love the Once Upon a Toy store. If you’re one of
first people there in the morning, your child can start up one of the
toys on the ceiling. If they do start a toy, they will also receive a
certificate and a small gift toy. Donnas’ son Drew started the electric
train by flipping the switch, and he was given a little locomotive with
a certificate. She says he was absolutely “lit up”, and was actually
shaking because he was so excited.
If you wish to have your child start a toy, ask a cast
member. This is especially necessary if you have an older child. Drew is
16 years old, so they have to seek out a cast member and make the
request. Otherwise they are usually overlooked.
In Downtown Disney is a restaurant called Rainforest Café,
which is a huge hit with autistic kids. Her child is so enthralled that
his mouth never closes while he’s there!
The massive World of Disney store is great fun for everyone.
There is a beauty shop called Bibbidi Bobbidi
Girls three and older are treated to a princess makeover.
Though it’s not usually appropriate for kids
with autism, it may be a great treat for siblings. Donna notes
that the siblings needs often take a back seat to the autistic child’s
needs. She feels it’s essential to allow them time to enjoy the things
of Disney that they particularly want.
The Lego Imagination Center is a store where that will really
entertain your children. In addition to viewing the amazing Lego
creations already built, you can design your own. Donna recommends that
you let them have some time to build and use their imagination — they
Lorman and The Autism Society of Greater Orlando can be found here:
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