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Izzy's Guide to Disney World for Autistics

By Isaiah Tien Grewal 

Walt Disney World is where I myelinate eating new things, break motor loops, and weaken my brain’s thinking about unwanted obsessions. My family gets to go at least twice yearly, and I am so thankful for the trips. Having Disney World as therapy and vacation is the best.

Tons of great media about Disney World and autism already exist. Disney provides good summaries online about their services for Autistic guests, including this trip planning guide. Disney also provides these suggestions for accessing their Disability Access Service. Search online for blogs and articles from multiple sources—this article about autism at Disney World by AllEars is good.

This blog explains what my family considers in planning our trips, as well as my restaurant recommendations. I hope many families will feel inspired to experience some Disney magic. Your Disney day can be fast and furious fun, mostly meal highlights, a slow day around a pool, or some combination of those plans.

Options Within Disney Resorts

You can make Disney easy by planning a resort-only trip

Having time in a Disney park is why most people go to Disney World, but consider that Disney was created to entertain and delight with much more than just rides. The most important consideration is that your Autistic loved one stays regulated and, therefore, happy. “When autism ain't happy, no one’s happy, especially the autistic,” said me (haha). 

Every one of Walt Disney World’s 24 resorts can be vacation destinations in and of itself. From my fave Disney Value Resort, All-Star Music, to my fave Disney Vacation Club Resort, Bay Lake Tower at Contemporary, each has beautiful pools, multiple delicious dining options, and many fun resort activities. Every day can be different on a resort-only trip, no park tickets required.

I have great memories of just walking around enjoying the resort themes; taking the free bus to Disney Springs for lunch, sightseeing, and riding an Amphicar; and taking (free) bus, boat, and monorail rides to the Polynesian Village Resort to watch Magic Kingdom Fireworks and the Electrical Water Pageant.

These wonderful experiences cause little anxiety since they (mostly) don’t cost anything beyond the resort's nightly rate, removing the pressure your autistic feels to “get your money’s worth” rushing around a Disney park. Resort-only trips are a nice option for first-timers.

Planning Your Trip to Disney

Decide the best time to visit

Ponder the ideal combination of Florida weather, Disney seasonal pricing, and your family’s vacation time availability to figure out your best time to go. My mom uses this “Best & Worst Weeks to Visit Disney World” guide by Disney Tourist Blog and the Disney Vacation Club points charts to decide when we should go. 

We normally avoid the beastly hot months of June and July and the throngs of major holidays. My autistic sensory system doesn’t do well in heat or crowds. In winter months, my Dad and I are often the only ones in the pool which is hilarious fun. Depending on the time of year, things can feel different, so be sure to pick the best days of weather and crowd levels for your autistic. 

Pick Your Top Three Must-Dos

Make the most of your time by doing less, not more

Resist the urge to spend long days in the park if it might cause your autistic sensory overload. The best thing we do as a family is choose our “top three must-dos” for each park day. Plan lots of time to walk and enjoy any sights slowly; also plan time for stimming and transitions. The goal of vacation is to enjoy fun with each other, not cram as much as possible into the day. 

Allow quiet time in the hotel room for your autistic’s sensory system to recharge. The same goal of regulation also applies to park days. Having a blast on three rides makes for smiling memories more than passably amusing fun on ten rides. 

Enjoying Food at Disney World

Disney restaurants are where I can practice motor skills for dining out and eating new foods with little anxiety because Disney is very experienced in hosting disabled guests. For me, just the chance to eat in such a variety of restaurants without the usual stress of prep for my mom is the reason I love Disney.  Here are my fave restaurants: 

Counter service restaurants 

Sunshine Seasons

Located in the same building as one of my favourite rides, Soarin’, Sunshine Seasons in EPCOT serves a wide variety of foods you can get quickly. If your autistic is feeling overloaded by heat or hunger before 4 p.m., bring them here. My mom says the desserts here are great, so it's nice she can have a well-deserved snack while I munch on my same reliable dish of stir-fried shrimp noodles.

A seat on the far side next to the Living with the Land ride is our go-to spot for eating away from the crowds. And while you’re in the building, ride Soarin’ – you just let yourself get strapped into a captain’s seat and experience the thrilling feel of gliding.   

Docking Bay 7

Next to a fun ride called Millenium Falcon in Hollywood Studios’ Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, this cool place lets you eat under spaceships coming and going (they aren't really, but the sound effects are super realistic). Get my fave Fried Endorian Chicken Tip Yip dish and feel like a galactic fighter on lunch break. 

Intermission Food Court

Intermission Food Court is near my favorite pool

At All-Star Music Resort is that mouth-watering dish, Shrimp and Grits. I have eaten this dish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner some days – it’s that good.  All-Star Music also has the funniest pool, so try a splash around after your meal. Get a family suite at this resort and have a blast during your relaxation hours.     

Buffet feasting

Hollywood & Vine

Hollywood & Vine has the most chill character buffet for autistics

The most chill character buffet is at the front of Hollywood Studios and everyone is sure to find something they like. From cute character interactions to plenty of space to stim if needed, this restaurant is a good choice for autistics just beginning to learn the motor for public dining. 

Chef Mickey

Dining here inside the atrium of the Contemporary Resort under the comings and goings of the Monorail Station is super fun. Book the last Breakfast Buffet seating time and you might end the meal with the restaurant all to yourself and near-private character interactions with Mickey, Minnie, and their friends.

Crystal Palace

The world of Winnie the Pooh and friends comes alive at this all-day buffet inside the Magic Kingdom. In general, everything here is wonderful, but some may find the chaos of all the excited children too much. On the other hand, happy stimming noises can be less noticeable in the din here. Altogether though, I think this place is worth a try at least once to see if it’s a can-enjoy meal option for your family. 

Finally, if no one in your group is the planning type, contact an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner (paid by Disney to book vacations for you). Two Disney Planners I recommend specializing in booking vacations for special needs travelers are Take My Hand Travel and Autism on the Seas

About the author:

Isaiah Tien Grewal is a Trainee in the Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities Fellowship program at Stony Brook University. He holds an Undergraduate Certificate from Harvard Extension School and writes for spellerslearn.com. He also contributed Chapter 39 of the book, “Leaders Around Me: Autobiographies of Autistics Who Type, Point, and Spell to Communicate,” edited by Edlyn Pena, PhD, and appeared in the award-winning short film LISTEN produced by Communication First. When not working, he can be found at church, one of his grandparents’ houses, or Disney World.

 

Also by Isaiah Tien Grewal: 

Restaurants for All: An Autistic's Advice

Nonspeaking Autism - My Point of View

Watch the video about Isaiah's life-changing experience with PS128 here

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