This is specific to the California Disneyland Resort and California Adventure- Disneyworld and Disneyland Paris, Tokyo all have different attractions and rides, but some of this information may still be helpful, though the resources I share at the end may not be relevant.
What to expect at Disneyland and why it’s hard for kids with SPD
Literal trigger warning: I’m about to list out ALL the triggers that are part of a Disneyland (or any theme park) visit.
My goal by the end of this episode is to give you the confidence to take your neurodivergent child to Disneyland, not to discourage you from going.
But I’m the kind of person who hates false advertisements and hates feeling like, “Ugh why didn’t anyone tell me this?”
So let me remind you of some of the most common triggers that make theme parks difficult for neurodivergent children (probably a lot for neurotypical children as well).
First of all, obviously there’s the sensory stimulation piece.
From the moment you step foot into Disneyland, you’re met with smells, sights, and a LOT of sounds. You really can’t avoid the sounds. Kids are crying, screaming, clapping, there’s music, fireworks, sound is just everywhere.
So if you have a sound-sensitive kid, plan on bringing your noise reducing headphones.
Then of course the vestibular aspect of the rides that are bumpy, fast, or go upside down. Then the tactile aspect from some rides that get you wet.
But wait… there’s more.
The WAITING. SO MUCH WAITING. Aside from waiting for lines, there’s waiting for the bathroom, waiting for the security line, waiting for food, waiting for character meets, and waiting for the parades and shows.
Wanting snacks, treats, balloons, and those damn bubble wands. They’re EVERYWHERE.
The tricky part about Disneyland is you can’t avoid the wants, unlike at a store where you can intentionally avoid the toy or candy aisles.
At Disneyland, kids are walking by eating the popcorn, the cotton candy, and the churros, all while holding the balloons and spraying that bubble wand.
Saying “No” over and over again gets really exhausting as a parent (and I imagine just as hard as a child to hear it).
Don’t forget about the extreme disappointment that comes when you don’t get assigned the right color carriage to sit on or you didn’t get to snag the horse with the pink bow on the carousel fast enough.
Then, there’s the UNEXPECTED.
Unless you have a crystal ball, you will never be able to prepare for the unexpected things that happen at Disneyland.
Rides break down. Weather changes. Things selling out.
The worst is when you snag the perfect fireworks viewing spot and they cancel the show at the last second.
With all that in mind… it’s no wonder you can’t go 5 minutes without hearing a kid’s (or their parents) breakdowns somewhere in the park.
Having a meltdown at Disneyland is like being initiated into the cool parents club. Except it’s not really that cool it’s just… a club.
Honestly, it’s one of the redeeming pieces of having a meltdown at Disneyland… no one thinks twice about them, you get an unspoken fist bump of solidarity from another parent walking by who’s been there.
We all have.
Don’t expect to re-live your Disneyland memories with your SPD child
If you’ve been to Disneyland before, you may have some vision in your mind of what it will be like to relive your Disneyland trips with your child.
You have a list of rides you want your child to go on, characters you want them to meet, and snacks you want them to devour just like you did when you came to Disneyland as a child.
Sure, add them to your list of things you want to do, but my tip is to manage your expectations of how they’ll react to it.
Their face may not light up at the sight of the castle as you expect. They may not welcome the Minnie Mouse character with open arms.
And they may not even make it past the first 30 seconds of “It’s a small world” without screaming to get off (and good luck to the rest of the passengers because it’s a LONG ride).
If you can wipe the slate clean and be willing to create NEW memories with your neurodivergent child’s interests (disinterests) and sensory profiles in mind, you’re one step closer to having the best trip ever.
Plan out your days
I remember on our first trip that Liliana was old enough to remember/talk, the constant phrase I heard was “What are we going to do now?”
The moment we stepped off of a ride, clapped our last clap after a parade, or took our last bite of a churro, she’d look at me and say “What’s next?”
Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t expect this. It’s very on-brand for her (and any kid with anxiety) to need to know the plan and what’s coming next.
The problem was, after all the years of going to Disneyland on my own, I never made a plan for the day. The plan was to walk around the different lands, hop on rides that had somewhat short wait times and pick up some popcorn or churros along the way.
WELP… turns out you can’t exactly “wing it” when you’re at Disneyland with a neurodivergent kid.
This quickly became a source of frustration for both of us.
So take my advice: come with a game plan.
First, decide what rides you want to do and prioritize them in order because you may not get to all of them. Don’t forget to take into consideration your child’s height and sensory needs (download my free Disneyland sensory ratings).
Have a trip to Disneyland coming up soon with your sensory sensitive child? Don’t go into it blind! Download this free Disneyland sensory ratings guide, which includes sensory intensity ratings on every attraction at Disneyland and Disneyland California Adventure.
Also, plan out your meals on the mobile app. Look at the menu ahead of time- there’s nothing worse than scrambling for a mobile order menu when everyone’s starving and you can only see the menu on your phone.
Plan bathroom breaks and rest breaks IN BETWEEN RIDES.
Back to back to back rides is not a good idea with neurodivergent kids.
Remember, you’re ultimate goal isn’t to get on as many rides as possible. When you’re with your family and some or one of them is neurodivergent… the ultimate goal is to make as many memories while regulated!
You could even create a checklist so your child has something to reference and look at.
Spoil the surprise
Hear me out… I know the temptation of wanting to keep the magic of Disneyland and each ride a surprise. I get it. You’re so excited for them to experience the ride for the first time in person.
BUT… surprising a neurodivergent individual is not a risk I would recommend you take.
Sure, there’s a chance it goes well and they love it… but the chance it goes bad and causes more dysregulation is a high chance and not worth the hundreds of dollars you spent on your trip to risk that.
I know so many families who didn’t prepare their children for certain rides, and after they took them on one that they SWEAR they’d love… their child refused to get on any other rides the rest of the day.
So here’s what I mean by spoil the surprise.
After you do your research on the rides and which ones you think your child can tolerate based on 1) their height and 2) sensory preferences, (hint- use my free Disneyland Sensory Ratings guide, the link is in the show notes) find youtube videos of each ride and watch it with them. From start to finish, including the queue.
Point out the lap bars, the lap belts or other safety precautions on each ride.
Point out the people standing in line and the cast members helping them on the ride.
If you’re on tiktok, there are a few creators, like @eat.sleep.positivity who live-stream at Disneyland every week so you can just see them walking through the parks and your child can see it in real time.
I also recommend creating a social story to help put all of your plans and what to expect in a story for your child to read.
If you want all of this in one place, including how to plan your days and all the sensory information, + tips on handling meltdowns and 6 social story templates for you to customize for your child- grab my SPD parent’s survival guide to Disneyland.
Using the DAS pass at Disneyland with your SPD child
The Disability Access Service pass is available for guests with disabilities, including physical, medical, or cognitive/mental health disabilities, which limit their ability to physically remain in line for a long time.
The DAS pass provides you with a return time so you don’t have to wait in the full standby line. Instead, you just wait by doing things around the park and go to that ride at the assigned time.
The return times are usually the same length of time as the standby line.
So for example, if the Dumbo standby line is 30 minutes long and it’s 10:45 AM, instead of waiting in the standby line for 30 minutes, you would sign up using your virtual DAS pass to get a return time which will be listed at around 11:15.
Until 11:15 you do whatever you want around the park, then return anytime after 11:15 (it doesn’t have to be right at
11:15) and scan in your DAS pass on your phone then go through an expedited line.
It’s important to note that on busy days, even with the DAS pass can still require up to a 10-15 minute wait, sometimes 20 (for big popular rides). But it’s significantly shorter than the standby line.
More details on how to use this pass most efficiently are in the SPD Parent’s survival guide.
Takeaways for Disneyland with SPD
- Their Disneyland experience will be different than yours was, and it may not live up to what you have envisioned in your head, and that’s OK.
- Disneyland is full of sensory triggers and so many other triggers that meltdowns may be part of your day, and that’s OK too. You won’t be the only one at Disneyland dealing with a meltdown.
- Spend time planning your day at Disneyland, including what rides you feel comfortable taking your child on and planning your meals and bathroom breaks throughout the day.
- Don’t forget to include sensory breaks and calming areas to visit during the day to help limit the amount of over stimulation.
- Prepare your child for what to expect by showing them videos, pictures and creating social stories before your trip.
- Utilize the DAS pass if it applies to your child/your family.
If all this information is helpful but you’re still feeling overwhelmed in not knowing how to start, don’t worry.
I’ve been visiting Disneyland for over a year now using my super spectacular OT Butterfly sensory lenses.
I’ve assigned sensory ratings to every single ride, based on its vestibular, tactile, auditory, smell and visual inputs. Videos are embedded for every single ride.
I’ve scoped out the best spots for sensory breaks and even the best places to calm down after a meltdown (because you KNOW they’ll happen).
Remember those social stories I mentioned you should make to help prep your child for the trip? I’ve created 6 different templates for you to customize based on common Disneyland scenarios.
You’ll also access more insights into how to use the mobile app, and various tips on how to best utilize the Disability Access Service pass. It’s all in there along with a step-by-step printout of how you can plan your day with what rides to get on, and what rides to avoid.
Episode transcript: https://www.theotbutterfly.com/44
The OT Butterfly Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/theotbutterfly
Free Disneyland Sensory Ratings: https://www.theotbutterfly.com/disneyratings
SPD Parent’s Survival Guide to Disneyland: https://www.theotbutterfly.com/disneyland
Work with Laura: https://www.theotbutterfly.com/parentconsult