It’s been hard being back to reality, so I’ll stay in Disney World a little longer through my memories. My main hope in sharing about our trip is that our experience will be helpful to special needs families planning their first Disney trip, and also because I will surely forget the lessons we learned for our next trip unless I write it down. I’m going to include a lot of details, so feel free to skip to the parts that apply to you.
It’s important to expect things to go wrong (they certainly did for us!) and to keep your expectations of magic to a minimum. Tired kids are like drunk adults: slap happy, goofy, unable to walk, and annoying as hell. There was magic though, just maybe not as much as how some people experience Disney. Maybe if we had girls or were more into Disney. Plus, I really hate crowds.
Planning the trip
Utilize a Disney Vacation planner. It was no cost to us and helped a lot! She booked the trip for us, helped us know when the deadlines for reservations were, gave us recommendations for dining and fastpasses (she made sure to get us the hard to get fastpasses to the best rides), all of which needed to be reserved well before the trip. We were all blank slates, as this was our first trip and we had no idea what we were doing. Thank goodness for Jenny because our life had been so crazy I had barely even thought about our trip until the week before.
Download the My Disney Experience app in advance and review your schedule to ensure it makes sense. In the app, you can view wait times at the park, view/change your meal and FastPass reservations, check out menus, order food to pick up (do this instead of waiting in a long line), etc. We ended up changing up some of our reservations once we figured out how long it took to get from our resort to the parks or other resorts (for character meals). We also had to change a few fastpass reservations because the kids were scared of certain kinds of rides. The app made this easy.
Decide if you want to use the PhotoPass option. This was $70 a day or $199 for the whole trip. In hindsight, I would spend the money and take full advantage of the many, many photographers all over the parks and resorts. You get unlimited downloads and will guarantee high quality pictures of your whole family. This includes the pictures taken at some of the rides (Splash Mountain is usually a hilarious picture!).
Reconsider the dining plan. We would’ve saved a lot of money by buying our meals separately. It’s all really overpriced, of course, but we would’ve saved hundreds by going a la carte. And we wouldn’t have overeaten as much. It’s too much food and we wasted a bunch of credits. We did the Disney dining plan with 1 quick service, 1 table service, and 2 snacks per person per night stay. You can save a ton of money by getting cups of water at any restaurant for free and pouring into a reusable water bottle instead of paying $3.5 per Dasani water. Or by bringing a cooler and taking your own water into the park. Throw some Uncrustables in there and you’ll save even more $. If we’d rented a stroller (which we should’ve done even though our boys are 5 and 7), we could’ve easily attached a cooler to the handle. There’s stroller parking everywhere for rides and it would’ve helped our boys tremendously. We walked 7-9 miles each park day.
Schedule rest/resort days in between park days. This is probably more important for special needs families, but would honestly be helpful to anyone. We did 3 park days in a row and our kids were EXHAUSTED (and so were my husband and I). There’s a decent amount of rushing on park days to make reservation times and we needed more sleep after park days to recover from long days walking. I also wish we’d had more time to enjoy the awesome pool and hot tub at our resort. I think the boys loved the water slide at Fort Wilderness as much or more than anything else we did.
Plan dinner reservations on your non-park days. You’ll want the flexibility of staying longer at the park, coming back for the nighttime shows (the one at Magic Kingdom is incredible), or resting by the pool and grabbing an easy dinner there, not rushing to make a dinner reservation (unless that reservation is at the park you’re already at). It takes about an hour to get from one resort to another sometimes, so it’s nice to have more time and not be rushed. We really liked Cinderella’s dinner at 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian Resort. The food was awesome (omg the butternut squash ravioli) and the characters were great! We met Cinderella, the Stepmom, and the 2 Step Sisters. Plus, the Grand Floridian is a gorgeous resort to check out. Very fancy. We also ate at Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary Resort. Food was ok. Met Minnie, Mickey, Pluto, Goofy, and Donald.
Download Lyft if you fly. Rent a golf cart if you’re staying at the cabins at Fort Wilderness. The cabins are far away from everything so it’s a necessity to get to the pool, boats or bus pickups. There are bus stops near the cabins, but it’s more wasted time. Plus, golf carts are fun for the kids! Lyft is nice to have as an option when you’re running late for a reservation. Also worth it to go the grocery store if you’ve decided to opt out of the dining plan.
Do not overbook yourself or try to do too much! Leave plenty of space for rest and downtime. Don’t pressure yourself to do or see everything.
A few items not to forget when packing:
- Stroller, if you have one (label it with your family’s name).
- 2 pairs of walking shoes so you can alternate.
- Cooler with strap for hanging on the stroller.
- Hats (a pool hat for younger kids is a great idea for park days. Lightweight and has a chin strap) and sunscreen.
- Refillable water bottles.
Arrival – Fort Wilderness
Once we arrived we were able to figure things out pretty quickly by asking people/staff and google searches. We stayed at Fort Wilderness in the cabins. The cabin is a long rectangle with one bedroom. It’s pretty small with a queen sized bed and twin bunks. There’s a full sized kitchen, table and living room with a pull out queen sofa. Josh and I actually took the mattress from the bedroom and put it on top of the pull out sofa bed because we thought it was more comfortable. I liked the mattress and pillows, and I’m pretty picky. There’s a large tv in the living room and a small one in the bedroom. You also get a little porch with a picnic table outside. We liked the cabins and Fort Wilderness overall. The food was so-so but there are a few good options at the pool and the Tavern has some decent appetizers. We were not impressed with PJ’s takeout. Also, the alcohol is pretty bad. Almost everything is pre-made stuff, but the Long Island Iced Tea is good. The wine selections are very limited. The pool is great! The kids loved the water slide, small spray park, and hot tub!
First Park Day – Disability Access Service
On our first day at Magic Kingdom, we went to “City Hall” (on the left past the entrance) to get Disability Access Services (DAS) put on Caleb’s band. We had his autism diagnosis papers with us, but they didn’t look at them. We all needed to be there so our bands could be scanned. We just went to the staff at the FastPass line of each ride to ask for a return time. They would scan Caleb’s band and give us a time to come back that was equal to the wait time. Only Caleb’s band needed to be scanned to get the return time. We could go get food, rest, or ride another ride (but you can only do one return time at a time). After that time, we could come back and go to the FastPass line. One of the coolest parts of the trip was having a perk due to Caleb’s diagnosis. We thanked Caleb every time we breezed past a long line for having a special brain and making our trip so much better because of it. It was truly a gift to see him proud of his special brain!
We lost Caleb for a few minutes after the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Josh went to the bathroom and Mason ran after him. I assumed Caleb went to bathroom as well. When Josh came out of the bathroom I asked where Caleb was and he said he thought he was with me. We didn’t panic until we saw he wasn’t in the gift shop with us, then I had a few minutes of terror. Caleb had left and found a Disney worker who had been calling me since she scanned his band and had my info. So, you’ll want to make sure that your child wears their bands or has your info on their person if they don’t know it. And that they know to go to a Disney staff person. They’re everywhere and everyone was nice. Also a good idea to confirm your spouse has the kids if you don’t (yikes). It is crowded and loud and chaotic. Definitely a good idea to teach your kids what to do if they get lost and review it with them daily.
He also ran away, but I was able to catch him in front of lots of people because the roads had been cleared for the parade so we were the only ones on it. So, it was embarrassing but at least I didn’t lose him in the crowd. I had a firm grip on his arm to prevent him running again while he was yelling he wanted to be in a different family so I’m sure only a few people considered calling the police or child services. Fortunately, that was our only big meltdown and it didn’t last too long because he was able to be distracted fairly quickly. I’m learning how to not care about being judged, but I still do a little.
I implemented a plan where they each earned $1 per hour they behaved and $3 per meal they ate and behaved to spend on souvenirs. This helped a little, but didn’t cure their crankiness and drunken exhaustion at times. Also helped us get them to wait to buy something they really wanted as opposed to buying the first things they fell in love with. There are stores everywhere and they all have different stuff, so beware!
Rides at Magic Kingdom
Our boys had never been on any roller coasters before, so we figured out what they could handle and what they were not ready for as we went. We were at Magic Kingdom for 2 days.
- Seven Dwarfs Mine Train: get a fastpass for this one if you can. Super fun, it’s fast but not as jerky as Thunder Mountain. This one was my favorite at MK.
- Tomorrowland People Mover: no wait time and it was a leisurely tour ride above Tomorrowland, so it was a cool look at that part of the park. This was one of Mason’s favorites.
- Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger: sweet little kid ride where you earn points for shooting laser guns at the aliens.
- Peter Pan’s Flight: slow kiddy ride to Neverland.
- Barnstormer: horrible ride! Seats were hard and bumpy, it was a 30 second roller coaster ride.
- Haunted Mansion: slow ride, but the darkness and creepiness (ghosts, death) freaked out Caleb.
- Jungle Cruise: a little boat ride and comedy show. The animals are all super fake, but it’s cute and funny.
- Splash Mountain: 50 foot drop and you get soaked. Caleb and Josh’s favorite at MK. Mason was terrified and cried the entire ride and some after.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: the movie was made from this ride. It’s a slow, dimly lit boat ride. See if you can find the Jack Sparrows!
- Thunder Mountain Railroad: a faster roller coaster ride, pretty jerky. Caleb didn’t like it.
- Swiss Family Treehouse: not a ride, but it’s really cool if you like trees and the thought of living in one (we do). You climb up the tree and see their rooms and imagine how they lived. I will have to finish that book, or at least watch the movie.
- Pete’s Silly Sideshow: also not a ride, but we got to wait in the shade and AC to meet Donald and Goofy.
- Parade: Mason loved it, Caleb was tired and ready to leave.
- Lightshow at night: Incredible! It’s more fun to be surprised, so I won’t give details. A must see show!
Restaurants at Magic Kingdom
- Sleepy Hollow: you have to go here and get the waffles! A must eat at MK. The Mickey waffles are like funnel cake, but they have that too. The spicy chicken waffle was also amazing.
- Aloha Isle: get the Dole Whip! Also a must eat at MK.
- Be Our Guest Restaurant: these meals count as a quick service meal if you have the dining plan, the food is good, make reservations. Fill up your water bottles while you’re there.
Animal Kingdom was our 3rd park day in a row, so we were all already exhausted (and losing an hour for Spring Forward also didn’t help!) but I liked it WAY more than MK. Everywhere you look there are exotic birds, cool trees, rivers, bridges, and beautiful, unique scenery. There’s a lot more shade and it was less crowded than MK. We missed our first fastpass reservation, so we started our day at Donald’s Safari at Tusker House in the Africa section of AK. My favorite meal by far!! So many delicious options at the buffet! Yummy traditional ethnic food options, too. Loved the service, loved the characters! We met: Donald, Daisy, Goofy, and Mickey.
Rides/Activities at Animal Kingdom
- Avatar Flight of Passage: LOVED. We had fastpasses for this one and we decided to use our DAS passes to ride it twice. It’s a simulated ride on a banshee. There’s about 10 minutes of fluff getting you ready for the ride in “lab rooms” prepping you to be matched with an Avatar. But you’re out of the sun and in the AC! You sit on this motorcycle type seat and put on 3D glasses. It’s a 4D experience with misty sprays and scent. It lasts 5 minutes.
- It’s tough to be a bug: 4D movie. It’s cute and the kids liked it. There was no wait time.
- Kilamanjaro Safari: 15 minute Safari ride with real animals. Really cool and learned interesting stuff about the animals.
- Naavi River journey: slow boat ride with lots of glow in the dark, pretty scenery like from the movie Avatar. The robot was so real looking!
- Boneyard Playground: this playground is in the Dinosaur section and it’s awesome! The kids had a blast while we waited for our return time to ride Avatar again.
- Drum show in the Avatar section: really cool interactive show. Great music! Worth trying to see. It runs all day.
Before this trip, I told myself and the kids that Disney would be a one and done kind of thing because “we’re not big Disney people.” I was wrong. We’ll save our money and go back in a few years to check out Hollywood Studios and Epcot for the first time, and do Animal Kingdom again for sure.