You've shelled out a fortune for a magical family trip to a theme park but — and I'm sorry to break this to you — theme parks can be overwhelming and exhausting experiences, especially for young children or those with sensory-related disabilities.
There are usually crowds of people trying to navigate through the same small walkways. Much of the day is spent waiting in line. The rides are often loud or have unexpected effects, such as flashing lights. Some rides splash water on people as they pass by. There are food carts emitting smells from every corner.
Add in the heat of summer and many adults and typically developing children quickly hit sensory overload.
The experience is intensified in children who have special needs. My daughter has generalized anxiety disorder, as well as sensory processing issues. We took her to Disney World for the first time when she was 9. We had spent weeks prior to the trip talking about Disney World. We watched videos, looked at photos online and read books. We told her what to expect; for example, it would be a lot of walking and we would have to wait in line to go on the rides.
It was still too much for her. We quickly realized within an hour of walking through the gates that we would need to develop some strategies in order for us to have a successful vacation. She was completely overwhelmed.
Here are some things that worked for us over the course of that trip and subsequent trips to other theme parks.
Tell your child what to expect.
Talk about things that might bring your child stress, such as the crowds, screaming on the rides, long lines or weather conditions. Plan an exit strategy in case the child becomes overwhelmed (such as going to a calm area of the park or heading back to the hotel for a break).
Remind your child of the things you spoke of, including the exit plan, as you enter the park.
No matter how much research, planning and discussion you do to prepare your child, it may all go out the window when they are in the moment. My daughter simply couldn't comprehend how large, crowded, loud and busy the Magic Kingdom was until it was actually in front of her.
Get a hotel onsite, if possible, or at least nearby.
If you don't have your own vehicle, choose a hotel that has a free shuttle service running throughout the day. Even if everyone is holding up fine, plan to go back to the hotel in the afternoon. Enjoy a quiet lunch. Cool off in the pool. Maybe even take a nap. Then, go back to the park for a few more hours in the evening once the crowds have thinned and your family is refreshed.
If leaving during the day isn't an option, look for quiet places within the park to get away for a little break. Let your child kick off her shoes and run around a little patch of grass off the beaten track. Sit on the pavement in a quiet space between buildings to enjoy a cold drink.
Stay hydrated. Stay fed.
Don't let too much time pass without giving your child a snack and drink. It's easy to get dehydrated walking around with the sun reflecting off the concrete. Most children have little control over their emotions when their blood sugar drops or they are dehydrated. Bring lightweight snacks, such as fruit leather, nuts and beef jerky. Bring an empty bottle that you can fill with cool, fresh water at water fountains.
Follow your child's lead.
When they find a ride they like, they will most likely want to ride it several times. The unknown of trying out the next ride can be very frightening. If they start to get agitated in line for a ride, it is probably a good indication that the ride will be too intense for them at this time.
Encourage your child to ask the park staff questions.
The attendant at the front of each ride can tell your child what to expect. Then you can help your child decide if they want to give it a try.
Let go of your expectations.
Don't try to stick to a rigorous schedule. The day might not go anything like you planned, but you can still consider it a success if more fun was had than meltdowns.
With these quick adjustments, our first day at Disney World turned out to be a success.
We arrived at the park at opening. As the crowds increased, so did our daughter's anxiety. By lunchtime, she was out of steam.
We caught a bus back to our onsite hotel and grabbed lunch in the food court there. We spent the afternoon playing in the pool. We took a water taxi to Downtown Disney for dinner and then went back to the Magic Kingdom after dark.
The temperature was more tolerable and the crowds had thinned. We learned the best time to enjoy the rides is when everyone else is watching the parade.
Yes, she was up way past her bedtime, but she left the park with a big smile and a feeling of success. What better souvenir could there be?
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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018, and updated in July 2022.