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Tips for Enjoying Walt Disney World With Your Child With Autism My son's speech therapist encouraged me to take him to Disney World when he was three years old. "They have a special assistance card and they welcome children with autism," she said. "And it will help his language development." Well, that's all the convincing I needed! On our first day, I was watching teary-eyed as my son hugged Pooh and Tigger with the most engaged, connected smile I had seen in months. Now Walt Disney World is our favorite vacation destination. If you've dreamed about taking your child with autism to Disney World, but thought you or your child couldn't handle the challenges it can involve, I have one word of advice, "Go!" The look on your child's face will be worth the effort and money you put into this trip. When you take advantage of the special accommodations Disney offers to children with autism, you and your child will have a memorable time. Here are some tips for a magical vacation with Mickey Mouse. Planning Your Trip Two excellent resources are the annual guide book, Birnbaum's Walt Disney World, and the website, All Ears The web site includes tips for enjoying Disney with children with autism, special diets, ride reviews, and more. You can make your own Disney picture cards from the site's photos to help your child get ready. When to Go Avoiding peak season crowds and the summer months is advisable. Take a few days off from school (hey, this is therapy) to avoid the weekend and holiday crowds, especially if you can get a good airfare (e.g., $200 round-trip). Certain off-peak months, such as November, offer the best weather and lowest hotel rates. A great time can be had even for a brief vacation of three days. Airport Strategies No child with autism can be an angel while traveling on an airplane, but preparing your child in advance with a visual schedule and choosing a non-stop, morning flight will make the trip easier for him to handle. Pack your carry-on bag with water, chewy and crunchy snacks, and sensory toys. If possible, arrange in advance to have your child seated next to a window, with no occupied seats in front of him. At the security gates, go to the handicapped entrance, which will cut your wait in line. Since the alternate security check tends to be more thorough, you can ask the checker to touch your child as little as possible. At the gate, ask to seat your child before the other passengers board the plane. If desired, you can keep your child in a stroller or wheelchair right up until you board. As you board, warn the attendants that your child may vocalize or squirm. I find that an upbeat and loving attitude (rather than appearing anxious or embarrassed) earns more tolerance for my son's unusual behaviors--I've never been hassled about my son's behaviors on the plane.

If you're not renting a car, consider reserving a limo ($100 round-trip) to take your family to your hotel. Another alternative is to take to the Disney bus, which is typically provided in the resort admission. However, the limo stops at the grocery store, and you can save a small fortune by buying snacks and breakfast foods. Disney Resort Hotels I prefer to stay in the Walt Disney Resort Hotels, rather than off-site. But among these resorts, more expensive is not always better--we liked All Stars Movies ($80/night) much more than the Contemporary ($250/night) for its superior pools, better food court, and overall more fun atmosphere. My son also enjoyed the Boardwalk resort. I thought the Port Orleans/French Quarter resort was also terrific, although it's hard to beat the kid appeal of All Stars Movies. Because my son is especially sensitive to noise, I request a quiet room rather than a room by the pool (at All Stars, pool music can be heard in some of the rooms) and use a white noise machine. A free mini refrigerator is available for medication, if needed. Tip generously each day and housekeeping may leave "surprises" in your room. The Guest Assistance Card This free card helps a child with autism, who may become overwhelmed by long waits or crowds, enjoy Disney attractions. To request one, go with your child to Guest Services located inside the entrance of the park. Bring a doctor's note indicating that your child has autism. This card may allow you use the Fast Pass Return line or alternate entrance for attractions and use your child's stroller as a wheel chair, so you can wheel it right up to the rides. Typically, you'll wait only a few minutes to board rides using the card. It will also give you designated seating at shows. If you show your card to the costumed character's handlers, Mickey or Pluto will understand that your child may needs special handling from his Disney pals. The card fits nicely into a Samsonite boarding pass holder ($10, Target), which is handy because you'll be showing it a lot. Enjoying The Theme Parks Given all the walking you'll be doing, it's fortunate that Disney World is one place where no one will look at you funny for having an older child in a stroller. We often park our stroller, walk around for a while, and come back to it when my son gets tired. If your old Graco won't do, you can rent a special needs stroller to be delivered to your hotel (mobility equipment The park rental strollers are hard and low to the ground, like our Zoo rental strollers, but in a pinch, they're better than nothing. Children with autism may prefer the more sedate rides, or even the monorail. My son likes most Magic Kingdom attractions, but his favorite rides are the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, It's A Small World, and he really enjoys visiting Minnie's Country House in Toon Land. I like Epcot's World Showcase in the afternoons and for dinner before dark falls. At Epcot, my son is enchanted by the garden railway trains in Germany, and he also likes the slow-moving boat rides in Mexico and Norway. Don't miss "The Land" boat ride and Innoventions. If you tote a swim suit, your child can frolic in Epcot's fountain play area. Whenever possible, we leave the parks no later than dinner time. The nightly parades and fireworks, while thrilling, are painfully loud. When you're really tired, taking a taxi back to the hotel instead of the bus is worth the $10-$15 fare. If your child is still raring to go after dark, the hotel pools and playgrounds are an option. We like to wind-down by strolling around the All-Stars

grounds--my child's favorite destination is Herbie, the Love Bug. Keeping Safe Does your child tend to wander? This helps me: I keep photos of my child in my backpack, put an ID tag on him, and dress him in solid, brightly colored shirts so he's easy to spot (looks good in photographs, too!). If your child strays, immediately tell a Disney employee. They have special training and will find him quickly. With these tips in mind, your family is on its way to an unforgettable Walt Disney World vacation.

Mary Fletcher Jones is the co-owner of Fletcher Prince Communications a Washington, DC area creative agency offering public relations and marketing services. She is a member of Washington Women in Public Relations and the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. Read her blog at []

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Vacationing at Walt Disney World with Your Child with Autism  

Planning Your Trip Two excellent resources are the annual guide book, Birnbaum's Walt Disney World, and the website, All Ears The w...

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