See the PDF Version of this document here.
Disney also has a great booklet designed to help guests with cognitive disabilities, you can view it here: https://wdpromedia.disney.go.com/media/wdpro-assets/help/guest-services/cognitive-disabilities-services/wdw_cognitive_guide_rev.pdf
DAS – Disability Access Service
Disney’s own description of this service: “The DAS Card is designed to accommodate guests who aren’t able to wait in a conventional queue environment due to a disability (including non-apparent disabilities). A Disability Access Service Card will be issued at Guest Relations main entrance locations and will offer guests a return time for attractions based on the current wait time. As soon as the Guest finishes one attraction, they can receive a return time for another. This service can be used in addition to Disney’s FastPass+ Service.”
The DAS can be an important tool for those of us with loved ones with hidden disabilities including but not limited to autism.
The service allows guests to wait to go into an attraction somewhere other than the queue. A member of your party walks up to a CM at the entrance to the queue and presents the DAS. The CM will mark down a RT that is equal to the current stand-by time minus 10 minutes. You can then go wait in some other location that is more suitable or easier for the child to handle rather than being trapped in the queue. The child does not have to be with you when you go get the return time so if your child will not understand going to the attraction and not riding, have one person in your party go get the RT while another stays elsewhere with the child. Once you’ve reached your RT, go back to the attraction with your whole party and show it at the FP+ entrance. You can only have one active RT at any given time. When you use your current RT, the CM will cross it off so you can obtain the next one. If you change your mind about an attraction then you can cross off the RT yourself and obtain a new one at a different attraction.
If you have special seating requirements for shows such as sitting at the end of a row in order to facilitate getting out quickly in the event of a meltdown then speak to a CM as you approach the show.
Obtaining a DAS
In order to obtain a DAS, go to Guest Relations. This can be done inside or outside of the park gates. A DAS can only be obtained at one of the 4 main parks.
You must have the person for whom the DAS is needed with you at GR. If the person is uncomfortable being up at the window then somebody else can stand off to the side with him but the CM must be able to see the person. If your party is greater than 6 people then you have to have your entire party with you in order to have the full number of people written on the DAS. Some people are reporting that CMs have asked to see the entire party for groups greater than 4 people but this is not consistent.
Guest Relation CMs will typically refuse to look at a doctor’s note. They are not medical professionals and a diagnosis does not tell them what needs your child has. They also don’t know how to distinguish a real doctor’s letter head from one somebody created themselves. What you need to do is be prepared to explain what kind of issue(s) you foresee encountering in the parks. The CM will then figure out what accommodation(s) are appropriate for her. Remember that if the accommodation provided doesn’t seem to help, you can always go back to Guest Relations later and explain what is happening so that they can figure out what can best help her.
Your DAS will be marked with the number of people in your party as well as your departure day and the name and picture of the person for whom the DAS is issued. If the DAS is for a child who is extremely uncomfortable with the picture then they will allow you to have a parent’s picture taken instead.
General Recommendations for all Special Needs Visitors
Be realistic. The fact is there will be attractions that your child simply cannot handle even with a good touring plan and DAS. If your loved one cannot handle being touched or sudden unexpected noises then nothing can be done to alter Stitch’s Great Escape. If your child cannot handle heights then nothing can be done to lower an attraction. If your child cannot handle speed then nothing can be done to slow down an attraction or stop it from spinning. It is very important to understand your child’s issues when selecting attractions.
Don’t overdo it. Plan for 2-3 hours in the park per day. It’s MUCH better to accomplish less and have everybody happy and meltdown-free than to accomplish a bit more but have everybody miserable and having to deal with meltdowns. If your child is normally one who gets up early and stays up late then you can probably also plan for heading back to the park in the evening, but only if it’s the kind of hours normally kept at home. If you do plan for going back later in the day, make sure that what you schedule for that part of the day is stuff that nobody will mind missing because there’s a good chance that you won’t get back at least some of the time.
Accept that you can’t do everything. This is something that even those without special needs family members have to accept but because your days are likely going to be much shorter than those of other families, you’re going to be even more limited. You’ll still accomplish a lot with a good itinerary and touring plan. You just need to pick and choose what you’ll do even more than others partly based on less time and partly based on what your loved one can handle.
At the first sign of distress, leave. Don’t try to ride it out. Don’t wait to see if your loved one gets past it (unless it’s something she can always get past but even then, use caution).
YouTube is your friend. Have your loved one look at all sorts of attractions on YouTube from home. Let her help figure out which attractions she wants to do and which she needs to avoid.
Know your loved one’s triggers. Does she have more trouble coping when hungry? Do loud noises bother her? Does being bumped bother her? Understanding these kinds of things allows you to plan for avoiding those triggers.
Stick to your at home schedule. If you always wake up at 6:30 am then wake up at 6:30am at WDW. If you always eat lunch at 11:45 then eat lunch at 11:45 at WDW (head to lunch earlier than that so you’re actually eating at your regular time). If bedtime is always 8:30 at home then bedtime at WDW should be 8:30.
Keep temperature in mind. If you’re going to WDW during the really hot half of the year then it’s even more important to make sure that your loved one doesn’t get overheated and stays hydrated. It may sound obvious, but it is VERY easy to not take this seriously enough. Most people whether they’re special needs or not become much more agitated when overheated or not drinking enough. A special needs individual is already going to be struggling with all of the sensory overload so adding in additional stressors could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Specifics for Various Needs
Problems Tolerating Crowds, Waits, Unexpected Loud Noises, etc.
There seems to be a common misconception that a DAS for these types of issues is some kind of magic front of the line pass. This is flat out NOT TRUE. Do not expect it to work this way.
A good touring plan can do a lot more for a person who can’t tolerate crowds, waits, noises, etc. than a DAS. This doesn’t mean to not get a DAS. It just means that a DAS can only help with certain things and a good touring plan can do a heck of a lot more.
Basically, use the DAS for things that the touring plan can’t do. The touring plan though keeps us out of crowds and long waits which is huge. The crowds between attractions and in restaurants and stores are just as bad as crowds in queues but a DAS can’t do anything about those crowds so again, a strong touring plan is invaluable. Using the DAS in conjunction with a good touring plan will help you to plan for what to do when waiting for the RT and will also help you have shorter RTs (shorter stand-by times mean shorter RTs).
FastPass+ (FP+)can and should be used in conjunction to the DAS. You can always grab a return time (RT) using the DAS for an attraction nearby when heading to your scheduled FP+ attraction. By the time you’re done with your FP+ attraction, you may have already gotten to your RT. If you carry a smartphone or wifi enabled device like an iPod Touch or tablet with the My Disney Experience (MDE) app installed then you can easily change up your FP+ options even when you’re in the park if you need to since we all know that flexibility is important with special needs kids. Plan FP+ for the most difficult attractions that you may want to try out and then if you want to change things up it’s easier to switch to less popular attractions.
Something that helps a lot of younger children with sensory and/or social anxiety issues is using their stroller at all times by obtaining a tag known as a “Stroller as a Wheelchair” tag. This is a tag that you can hang on your stroller so that you can bring the stroller anywhere that a wheelchair can go. The stroller becomes a wheelchair from the perspective of Cast Members (CMs). There are many reasons that this can be helpful. The reason that this is so helpful is (1) it creates a barrier between the child and the rest of the world so that he’s not bumped and he’s got a predictable amount of personal space (2) the feel of the stroller on his back and legs provides a consistent form of sensory inputs (3) with a sunshade and/or deeper stroller he can lean back into the stroller and block out much of the world as a break from all the sensory inputs all around him; a lightweight blanket can help as well if it’s not too hot. Note that you can NOT use the stroller as a wheelchair tag for busses. It is also important to note that the DAS and FP+ cannot be used in conjunction with the stroller as a wheelchair for attractions which do not have accessible queues. There are only a handful of them in total but it is something to be aware of.
Children with auditory sensory issues sometimes benefit from noise reducing headphones. Do not wait until your trip to try them out for the first time as it may take time to get used to them and your child may even refuse to wear them for one reason or another.
There are no accommodations for queue lines of shows or character greets (if the character greet has FP+ then you might be able to get a RT). Well, for shows, if it’s not crowded then sometimes you may be able to wait to the side if the show has a mob waiting area, but you do have to get the point where you would be in that same show regardless (ex. go through the regular queue for Monster’s Inc. but once inside the inner room talk to the CM about waiting in the wheelchair area so that the special needs person doesn’t feel too crowded in as the mob’s told to push forward; note that this does mean pretty much the worst seats in the house but it means we can actually go into the show).
Endurance and Mobility Issues
Disney’s answer to endurance and mobility issues is to rent a wheelchair or ECV. There is no way to shorten distances between attractions or shorten queues. There is nowhere to sit while waiting in line.
CMs are consistently refusing to give a DAS to people whose needs can be met using a mobility device. Not wanting to use a mobility device is not an acceptable reason to need a DAS. If you do have needs that cannot be met using a mobility device then you will have to be able to explain what about your needs can not be met using a mobility device in order to get some other kind of accommodation. Guest Relations has become quite strict about this.
Renting a wheelchair or ECV from an offsite vendor is significantly cheaper than renting from Disney. In addition, if you rent from an offsite company then you’ll also have the mobility device around your resort as well as for the distances to and from the bus stops.
If you need a wheelchair for somebody who is smaller than a typical adult then make sure you get the correct size of chair. The standard size chair including the ones rented in the parks are 18”. Somebody who is under 5’ will be extremely uncomfortable in a chair this size all day because their legs will be too short and the arms will be too far apart. For somebody who is too big for a stroller but too small for a regular size wheelchair, get them a 16” chair. If the person needing the chair is young enough for a stroller then go to Guest Relations and request a tag known as a stroller as a wheelchair tag. This is a tag that you can hang on your stroller so that you can bring the stroller anywhere that a wheelchair can go. The stroller becomes a wheelchair from the perspective of CMs. Note that you can NOT use the stroller as a wheelchair tag for buses.
Using Disney Transportation with a Wheelchair or ECV
If you’re using a manual wheelchair, you have the option of either having your chair tied down on the bus or folding it and holding it like a stroller. Some bus drivers will push for one over the other depending on their preferences but most will just start to tie down your chair unless you say that you’d like to just hold it. There are pros and cons to tie down vs. holding. If you are juggling a bunch of stuff and kids then having to hold a chair can be difficult. When the chair is tied down, you will be the last person off the bus because the driver cannot come unhook it until everybody else is off the bus. If the chair needs to be tied down then you can only ride buses that still have available tie down spots which are limited. If the chair is tied down, you can choose to remain seated in the chair but you will be required to wear a seat belt. Note that his is only for manual wheelchairs. Nobody is allowed to stay on an ECV as that poses a tipping hazard.
Bus queues for wheelchairs and ECVs seem to be changing depending on the park, person monitoring the queues and the bus drivers. If there is a CM at the stop then ask what you should do. If there isn’t then look for the wheelchair symbol on the ground and/or signs with directions.
If you have a stroller as a wheelchair then you must go through the regular queue all the way to the front and fold your stroller like everybody else. The stroller cannot be used on the buses unless it is an extremely expensive special needs stroller with tie down spots. You cannot rent these kinds of strollers so only people who have custom strollers that act as wheelchairs in everyday life will have this option.
Heat and Sun Issues
Unfortunately, there really isn’t an accommodation for this. From what I’ve read, those who have gotten some kind of accommodation for staying out of the sun really didn’t find it made any difference for them, which stinks. Most people on special needs forums make the following recommendations for dealing with heat.
+ Cooling vests, frog togs, and other cooling “things” that can be worn along with a misting fan or even just a plain fan
+ Bring ziploc bags and refill with ice from CS locations. Wrapped in a towel this becomes like an ice pack that you don’t have to worry about refreezing throughout your trip. If you’re using one the cooling devices in the first bullet then this one is redundant. It’s just cheap and easy.
+ Stay indoors during the hottest part of the day
+ Alternate indoor and outdoor activities so that you get out of the heat a lot
+ Wide-brim hat, ECV canopy, or umbrella for shade, clothing containing UV protection for sun issues (could pose a heat problem so this needs to be balanced with heat issues)
+ Walk through shops as much as possible going from place to place
+ Table Service meal in the middle of the day to force yourselves into an air conditioned area for at least an hour maybe longer
+ Did I mention hydration?
CM = Cast Member = WDW employee
DAS = Disability Access Service = a card issued by Guest Relations to tell CMs at attractions that the guest is unable to wait in the regular queue to an invisible disability
ECV = Electric Convenience Vehicle = motorized scooter
GAC = Guest Assistance Card = the discontinued access card that used to be issued by Guest Relations to tell CMs at attractions that the guest needs some kind of accommodation due to an invisible disability
GR = Guest Relations = the location of the CMs who can help with special needs
RT = Return Time = the time indicated on the DAS for returning to an attraction
The Disney website covers these topics here: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/guest-services/guests-with-disabilities/
Disney with Food Allergies: AllergyFreeMouse.com
Passporter’s Open Mouse – a Disney travel book designed specifically for those with special needs.
Thanks to Trudy M for creating this excellent resource!