Some children have defined special needs. Some kids are just… high maintenance. They have quirks. They are often difficult. Easily upset. But they deserve a vacation in the most Magical Place on Earth, too! I have one of those kids and when he was 12 I took him to Walt Disney World. The trip was indeed magical, but it wasn’t a fairy tale. You can benefit from the lessons I learned in how to navigate those sometimes choppy waters.
Taking A High Maintenance Kid To Walt Disney World
My oldest son, now 14, has ADHD. Emphasis on the H, loud and proud. He also has a few other behavioral issues, though none intense enough to warrant separate treatment, mercifully. They do, however, cause him to fall under the high maintenance category. Don’t get me wrong – he’s a great kid. Polite, thoughtful, athletic. He gets anxiety and is easily irritated, mostly by his brothers. Everything they do and might possibly think of one day doing, my eldest finds irritating. When he feels “wronged” or has been pushed to his limits, he is irrational and unmovable. Luckily, people with kids like this tend to know that kid’s “triggers” are and plan to avoid situations that could be bad news. When you are on vacation, though, so many factors are out of your control. Read on to help set the groundwork for a successful vacation.
Consider A Solo Trip
Since peace is tenuous when my children all spend a lot of time together in close quarters, I decided the best way to handle a stimulating trip to Walt Disney World was to take my high maintenance kid on his own. It worked like a charm. I could be fun mom and not the referee. He didn’t have to wait in lines for rides he didn’t want to ride, fueling a meltdown. I didn’t have to worry about making sure everyone got to do what they wanted. Over the last two years, my other two boys have gotten treated to their own trips so they got their fair share of Mom’s individual attention. I realize not everyone can afford this option, but if you can, it’s a great help.
Food, Glorious Food
My child that eats like a horse at home repeatedly insisted that he was not hungry throughout our trip. I was baffled until I realized that it was his anxiety kicking in. Walt Disney World can be overwhelming to the most easy-going child. Think how much more the size and busyness of the parks can affect a child who gets anxious in new situations. Look at menus online before you go. Find that kid’s favorite foods in each park. We spent way too much time looking for chicken fingers in Animal Kingdom but that was all he was going to eat. TravelingMOM Tip: Walt Disney World allows you to bring in outside food and drink as long as the containers are not glass. Pack a bag with his or her favorite, familiar snacks for when all else fails.
Treats every now and then are fine – it’s not a trip to WDW for me without a Mickey ice cream bar – but avoid “treating” your child right into an ironic meltdown because his tummy can’t handle all the junk you’re throwing at him to keep him happy. (The cupcakes are amazing, too.) (And the caramel in Epcot’s Germany. The snack struggle is real.)
The Early Bird Gets The Happy Kid
I’m not a morning person. I loathe getting out of bed. Unless I’m at Walt Disney World. Then, I seem to manage just fine. I know – vacations are for sleeping in, right? Not at the Disney Parks, baby. Trust me on this one. Getting there at “rope drop” (park opening) is totally WORTH IT. You can head to your must-do rides first thing before the rest of the vacationers wake up and amble over. Even if the crowd outside the gate looks large, they will fan out when the park opens and you should have a satisfying amount of elbow room. We got to Animal Kingdom at rope drop, walked right on Kilimanjaro Safari and could have done it again if we wanted to. If you want to get in a park BEFORE it opens, try to make dining ressies at one of the in-park restaurants for an early breakfast. I did this last February and it was the perfect way to get all those amazing Cinderella Castle shots at your leisure and without all the people in the background.
Fast Pass, You Will
If you just can’t get there early but you know that a 60 minute line for Space Mountain is NOT going to fly, you’ll have to be quick with the Fast Passes. What are they? They are reservations for rides and attractions. If staying at a Disney resort, you can make them 60 days in advance of your trip. Off property guests can make them 30 days in advance. Mark your calendar and have your tickets linked in My Disney Experience. Our Unplugged TravelingMom Gina has your ultimate guide to using the FastPass+sysytem. This can ensure that your kid gets to ride their most favorite rides with a minimal wait, if any. Do you want great seating for the parade but can’t stake out a spot and wait for an hour? You can use one of your FastPass selections for reserved parade seating. TravelingMom Tip: Keep checking on FastPass availability throughout the day. My middle son and I scored last minute FP’s for Space Mountain, his favorite. Sometimes, depending on crowd levels or cancellations, more FastPass spots will randomly open up.
Find An Oasis
My oldest son is happiest when he’s in nature. He was completely in his element when we discovered Tom Sawyer Island. Parents are happy because it’s shady, has bathrooms and low-tech fun for the kids. Kids love it because it’s one big free-play area. Trails, tunnels, playgrounds – perfect for kids who literally can’t even with standing in one more line. The cat daddy attraction here is Fort Langhorn. It’s an Old West-style structure that has all kinds of rooms to dart in and out of, many of them accompanied by toy rifles the kids can pretend to use to defend the fort. There are spiral staircases and secret passageways. I got to sit in the shade and relax while my son got called into an epic Hide-and-Seek game with a bunch of other kids. He loved it so much that we went back again later that same day to explore more of the trails.
Adjust Your Expectations
I think that sometimes when we do something really great for our kids, we expect them to shine beatifically and alter their personality completely in outright gratitude for our benevolence. I think this because I hear this a lot at the Disney Parks: “We spent all this money to bring you to Walt Disney World and THIS is how you act?!” Shoot, I’ve said that.
These kids can’t really turn their struggles on and off. And if you have a high maintenance kid, you know that it really is a struggle for them to get their quirks under control. You’re asking for a lot of self-control from a kid who doesn’t have a good grasp on that to begin with. But we go in with a fairy tale mindset and get upset when our child doesn’t toe the line. Even though they may not have a diagnosed disability, go in with what is known as a “disability mindset.” Keep their limitations in mind when you plan your day. I’m a park commando. My son? Not so much. I want to ride alllll the rides. He just wanted to pin trade. Deep breath. Okay. Let’s pin trade.
A Walt Disney World vacation can be magical for any child with the right amount of planning. When I kept my son’s needs in mind and tried to anticipate possible pitfalls, it helped to clear the way for some smooth sailing. Things weren’t always perfect and I wasn’t always convinced he was having fun, but at the end of each day my least-affectionate child would spontaneously hug me and say, “Thanks, Mom!” That’s the thing I remember most about that whole trip. That memory makes all the planning and extra patience worth it.