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If you are planning to take your highly sensitive or sensory sensitive child to Disney World for your family vacation, there are many ways you can prepare them.
You might be wondering why you need to prepare them anyway.
Highly sensitive or sensory sensitive kids don’t do well with surprises and are easily overstimulated. Vacations in general can be tough because it’s such a big change from their regular routines and familiar surroundings.
Disney World vacations can be even more challenging due to the overwhelming amount of sensory and emotional experiences.
This is why it’s all the more important to prepare and plan ahead of time, before you ever get on that airplane or in your car. You can truly minimize (though not completely eliminate) the sensory overload meltdowns, and maximize the magic and fun for your highly sensitive kids.
So now that we understand WHY we need to prepare them, let’s think about HOW we can prepare them. Read on to find 11 strategies to prepare your highly sensitive child for their Disney World vacation.
Become Familiar with Disney Characters
Become Familiar with Rides
Become Familiar with the Hotel
Prepare for Loud Noises
Prepare for Crowds
Bring Other Items to Reduce Stimulation
Discuss General Expectations of Them
Find Things They Love
Make a Countdown
Adjust Your Expectations
One way to start preparing your highly sensitive child to go to Disney World is to get them familiar with all the Disney characters.
There’s probably a good chance they haven’t watched many Disney movies. At least this is the case for my children.
The conflict, death of family members, loss, fighting, and villains are hard for many young kids to tolerate, even though Disney movies are still considered to be relatively family-friendly. The visual and auditory stimulation from watching a movie can also be really scary for some highly sensitive kids.
Read Disney Books
What has worked better for us is reading books. Lots and lots of books. One of our favorites is the Disney Junior Encyclopedia of Animated Characters. It features most of the characters you see at Disney World, with a little summary about their background and the movie they are from. My kids have spent hours and hours flipping through these pages.
We also LOVE the “Step into Reading” books. They feature five reading levels:
1- Ready to Read (Preschool to K)
2- Reading with Help (Preschool to 1st Grade)
3- Reading on Your Own (1-3)
4- Reading Paragraphs (2-3)
5- Reading Chapters (2-4)
They have tons of books where lots of your kids’ favorite Disney characters appear. If your kids are on the younger end, levels 1 and 2 introduce the characters in a really simple and not-scary way.
Princess Hearts is a fun example of a level 1 book, about all the classic Disney princesses. Some of the books even have characters from newer movies like Coco. A Puppy for Miguel is an example of a level 2 book.
Watch Sensory-Friendly TV Shows
The best way for our family to introduce the kids to the Fab 5—Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy, and Donald—was through the show Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.
Even though most other Disney movies and shows scared them, this one was usually a safe choice for us. Disney Junior shows, like Doc McStuffins, Vampirina, and Sofia the First were mostly tolerable for them too.
But be mindful that introducing them to the characters at home does not guarantee they will enjoy meeting the characters in person.
Another way to start preparing your highly sensitive child for their Disney World trip is to become familiar with all the different rides at the parks. Disney World consists of four theme parks—Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom—which all offer a plethora of rides and attractions.
While some people love the element of surprise when they first experience a ride, this is usually not true for highly sensitive kids. It is so helpful for them to get a sense of what they might expect when going on specific rides.
Watch Ride Videos on Youtube
What we’ve found really beneficial is watching tons of POV ride videos on YouTube. While they don’t fully capture all the aspects of the ride, such as motion, wetness, or scents, it still gives you a good idea of what the ride experience is like.
As you watch these ride videos, get input from your kids. Discuss with them what parts might feel fun or scary, and let them ask questions. And then decide together if this is a ride you’d definitely want to try, you’re unsure about, or if it’s one that’s best to completely avoid.
My FREE Disney Ride Planner tool is perfect to keep track of which ones you’d like to try and which to avoid. I have all the rides listed at each park, and you can place a checkmark for each ride in different columns listed as “Try It!”, “Hmm…” and “No way!” Don’t forget to subscribe to this blog and download your own copy to use at home.
Read through some of my ride ratings and reviews, if you’d like more information to better plan for your park day with your family.
Leaving home to stay at an unfamiliar hotel is hard for some highly sensitive kids. It can be difficult to feel comfortable, settle down, and sleep well in new surroundings. Getting adequate rest is such an essential part of minimizing meltdowns and supporting better emotion regulation. And you can only really sleep well if you can begin to adjust to your new accommodations.
Watch Hotel Tour Videos
Just like we watched ride videos on Youtube, we found it so worthwhile to watch hotel walk-through videos. It gave us a sense of the room layout and decor. In addition, we tried to find videos that showed the lobby, the pools, and the restaurants on property, because we knew we would be spending time in these places.
I have also created some resort ratings and reviews. It is from the perspective of what could be bothersome (or not) for highly sensitive kids. Take a read through it, discuss with your kids, so they can become more familiar with what to expect when staying at a particular hotel.
Although it’s clearly not the same as physically being there, becoming familiar with where you’re staying is a great step at preparing highly sensitive kids for their trip to Disney World.
Disney World is often crowded. There’s no doubt about that. It’s even more so during certain times of the year. For example, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is known to be one of the busiest time of the year with parks reaching capacity very quickly.
Highly sensitive children are easily overwhelmed by crowds. The noise, the smells, the constantly changing visuals, and the feeling of strangers close by feels chaotic and overstimulating to them. I’d make it a priority to try to visit during “slower” times of the year. However, avoiding crowds completely is pretty much impossible. So make sure they are aware of how crowded it could get while visiting Disney World.
Bring a Comfort Item
One way you can prepare them for crowds is to let them bring an item that brings them a sense of comfort. Maybe it’s a soft lovey or their favorite toy for younger kids. My son has this Angel Dear monkey lovey since he was an infant, and it’s literally the perfect size to throw in your bag. Or for older kids—a favorite book or hat. Something that is familiar and comforting to them.
If it ever starts to feel like “too much” for them, pull out that comfort item. Let them read their favorite book while waiting in line. Let them cuddle their lovey while they have a snack.
Use a Stroller
We also found it extremely useful to have our stroller, even for K, our older one who is now almost 7 years old. Even if your child doesn’t normally use a stroller at home, being at Disney is a totally different situation. The stroller we’ve used on all our Disney trips is our Uppababy G-Link. It’s an umbrella-style double stroller, with large sun canopies, seats that recline flat, and tall seats (great for older kids!). The weight limit is 55lbs per seat.
The stroller often became a “safe space” for them to get a bit of a reprieve from the crowds. They’d often crawl in there, pull down the big sunshade, ask to have the seat reclined, and hold their comfort item.
Schedule in Rest Time
If your child is too old for a stroller, make it a point to schedule in time to rest or find quiet spaces in the parks. Let them know they can openly communicate their needs with you about needing a break.
If they have a hard time being self-aware about feeling overstimulated from the crowds, keep an eye out for signs of an impending meltdown. Look for whining and clinginess, complaining about feeling tired or hungry, avoiding eye contact, and not responding to you.
In addition to preparing your highly sensitive kids for crowds, you need to prepare them for loud noises too! Visiting the Disney World theme parks is not even remotely a quiet experience. There is music piped in along Main Street U.S.A., you can hear guests chatting with their friends and families, and there are sounds that come from the rides, shows, fireworks, and parades. The auditory stimulation is endless.
Tell your children to expect loud noises throughout their visit. Pack a pair of noise-canceling headphones or ear plugs to reduce their auditory sensory input. We have two pairs of these headphones, one per child, and they are pretty comfy. When they were younger, we used Baby Band earmuffs. My daughter wore her noise-canceling headphones for a good portion of our first trip to Disney World. But with repeated visits, she has increased her tolerance for some of the loud noises experienced there.
Pay Attention to the Bathrooms!
Be especially mindful of the bathrooms! All of the bathrooms at Disney World have automatic flushing toilets. This is scary for newly potty trained kids, as well as highly sensitive kids in general.
Bring Post-It notes in your bag to cover the sensor to prevent flushing while your kiddo is sitting on the toilet. Or alternatively, let them wear their noise-canceling headphones or ear plugs while using the bathroom.
It might feel a little ridiculous or silly, but between the loud flushing noises and loud automatic hand dryers, you’re almost asking for a meltdown when using the bathroom without being properly prepared!
You can also prepare your highly sensitive child for their Disney World trip by bringing other items that will help them reduce their chances of overstimulation. High sensitivity is described by the acronym D.O.E.S—which stands for Depth of processing, Overstimulation, Empathy/Emotional reactivity, and Sensing subtleties.
Because highly sensitive kids are more easily overstimulated than your average child, it is so important to try to minimize their stimulation.
For example, if your highly sensitive child is extra sensitive to bright lights, a pair of sunglasses need to be on your “must pack” list.
If your highly sensitive child is fearful of the dark, pack a small key chain light or a pen light. Let them hold onto it while waiting in dark queues or riding a dark ride. It’s bright enough to give them a little reassurance, yet not too bright to be bothersome to other guests.
Once you figure out your daily plans, discuss general expectations of them while at Disney World. You can do this by creating a visual schedule of the day. Start with transportation to the parks, whether you plan to drive and park, or use the various modes of Disney transportation available (bus, boat, Skyliner, or monorail). Then, include things like:
- putting on (and keeping on) masks throughout the day,
- going through security and bag check,
- scanning tickets,
- waiting in lines,
- seeing parades,
- getting snacks and meals,
- taking breaks.
If a ride feels like too much for them in the moment, give them an opportunity to change their mind. Use the rider switch service so that those in your party who want to ride can continue to do so, while the child who doesn’t want to can sit it out.
If waiting in line is especially challenging due to cognitive disabilities, look into getting Disney’s DAS (Disability Access Service) pass. You can get this at Guest Relations near all the main entrances.
It is so easy to get wrapped up in all things to watch out for or avoid with highly sensitive kids. Sometimes it does feel like we are walking on eggshells around them, if I’m being completely honest.
Instead of only focusing on avoiding meltdown triggers, prepare for your highly sensitive child’s trip to Disney World by talking about all the things they love.
If your kiddo is a total Star Wars fan, get them super excited about going to Hollywood Studios. Maybe they’ll better tolerate the loud sounds if it means they get to see some of their favorite characters.
Or perhaps your child is a total fashionista and loves aesthetically beautiful costumes. Talk about all the intricate details in the princess gowns you’ll get to see. Or the adorable costumes you see on all the dancing dolls on “it’s a small world”.
Even if certain rides, parades, shows, and experiences feel like it’s too much, finding the parts they do love might help them get more excited and feel better prepared for their Disney World trip. Of course, there is no guarantee that they won’t be overstimulated, but focusing on positives is always a useful practice.
9. Get Walking!
Everyone who has been to Disney World knows that a LOT of walking is involved. It varies a little depending on which park you are going to, whether you’re spending all day there, and your overall park touring strategy. But it’s likely going to be more than the amount of walking you do on an average day at home. We averaged about 15,000 to 25,000 steps per day during our stay at Disney World.
Because there is so much walking involved with a Disney trip, you can better prepare your highly sensitive child by getting some extra walking practice in. Go for a daily walk together, and try to go a little further each time. The younger kids will obviously need a stroller at some point during the trip, but it doesn’t hurt to start walking regularly with your kids at home.
While some families choose to surprise their children with a Disney World vacation, I strongly advise against this for highly sensitive kids. Highly sensitive and sensory sensitive kids have a hard time with unexpected situations. The more familiar they are with something, the better they will handle it. And we are all about minimizing those quintessential Disney meltdowns that many of us are way too familiar with.
One way you can prepare and help your highly sensitive child anticipate your trip to Disney World is by making a countdown calendar! There are so many fun iterations of this; you can easily find hundreds of ideas on Pinterest.
We put up a large poster board with balloons taped on it. Each balloon had a number written on it with Sharpie marker, and each day we popped one balloon to “count down” our days till Disney.
Another way is to make a paper chain, and then remove one chain “link” each day. Something visual and interactive is best for younger children, who might not have a good grasp on the concept of time just yet.
Lastly, one of the best ways to prepare your highly sensitive or sensory sensitive child for Disney World is… *drumroll* adjust your own expectations of your child. This is probably the toughest one for us to swallow. But I really believe this will make for a happier and less stressful trip for the whole family.
Don’t expect your child to react a certain way when they see Cinderella Castle or ride Soarin’ for the first time. Don’t expect them to interact with characters with hugs, high-fives, and happy smiles.
Yes, I know you are shelling out a lot of money to visit the “most magical place on earth”. So it is easy to start thinking, “Why aren’t they more excited?”, “Why would they rather spend time at the pool all day?”, “I thought they would love meeting Mickey!”, or “Why don’t they appreciate this epic trip I planned?”.
Then… you, as the parent, might begin to feel upset or even resentful towards your children. Highly sensitive kids are known to be aware of subtleties, so they’ll pick up on all your non-verbal cues showing your frustration and resentment. And this will then impact their behavior and their ability to regulate their own emotions.
Let’s not get stuck in this negative thought cycle, which will inevitably become a stressful situation for the whole family. Start adjusting your expectations of how you envision your trip to be, and be aware that you might need to be a little more flexible than you originally planned.
If you need extra support and community from other parents of highly sensitive kids going to Disney World, I encourage you to join my new Facebook group—“Planning Disney for Highly Sensitive Kids (and Adults too!)! You can ask all your questions and get feedback from a wonderful group of Disney-loving parents who are also looking to minimize meltdowns and maximize the magic during their Disney World vacation.
Also, I wanted to remind you to download your FREE copy of my must-have Disney ride planner tool!
With my Disney Ride Planner tool, it will be such a breeze to keep track of which rides you want to avoid and which you want to try with your highly sensitive kids. It will make planning your park days SO much easier!
It is an editable and fillable PDF file, but there is an option to print a blank copy so you can fill it out by hand.