Are your kids easily overwhelmed? Do they get overstimulated quickly? Are they prone to meltdowns when their routines are out of whack? Do sudden noises and big crowds bother them? And… are you planning a trip to Disney World?!
The most magical place on earth can feel like one of the most overwhelming and overstimulating places to visit, even for those who don’t identify as highly sensitive. It might not seem like the best idea to bring your highly sensitive child to Disney World, but it can be 100% doable once you have a better understanding of why Disney can be hard for them.
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Here are the top 14 reasons why a Disney vacation can be hard for highly sensitive or sensory sensitive kids:
1. Demands of Travel
Getting all packed up in the car to road trip to Disney, or getting on a plane to fly to Disney can be a lot for highly sensitive or sensory sensitive kids. There are so many expectations placed on them: to sit still on the plane, to try to nap in the car, to stay quiet on the plane to not disturb others, and (lately) to keep a mask on when around others.
Highly sensitive kids also tend to pick up on their parents’ stress. And let’s be honest, planning and packing up for ANY vacation is a ton of work for moms. If they sense you are stressed out, they will often react emotionally—aka more prone to meltdowns.
2. Change in Routine
Highly sensitive kids often have a harder time adapting to changes in their routine. Staying at Disney World, while being away from home, and away from familiar and safe routines, can feel overwhelming. Familiarity is always less stimulating, because there is less sensory input that they need to process.
3. Different Foods than Usual
Anytime you’re on vacation, you’re likely eating foods that you don’t normally eat. Perhaps your highly sensitive kids are eating more sugary treats than they normally do. Who can deny churros, Dole whip, and other creative seasonal treats while at Disney World? We all tend to indulge a little more when on vacation. Sugary snacks can actually affect highly sensitive children’s behaviors and bodies more.
A full week (or more, depending on how long your trip is) of sugary, fatty, and fried foods could wreak havoc on your highly sensitive kids. But Disney does have healthy and less sugary options too—we really appreciate the Disney Check Meals they offer for their kids’ meals.
According to the Disney Parks Blog, Disney Check Meals “must meet Disney Nutrition Guidelines that limit calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar…” You will know if a menu item is a Disney Check meal if it has a little Mickey Mouse silhouette with a check mark in the center.
4. It is LOUD
Another reason why highly sensitive or sensory sensitive kids might have a hard time at Disney World is because it can be loud! Many rides, shows, and parades have a quite high noise level. There is also noise that comes from the crowds, as well as constant background music, which adds to the overall vibe and atmosphere at the parks. A lot of the noise at Disney World is not necessarily unpleasant. BUT it can still be overstimulating for highly sensitive and sensory sensitive children. This is why we always travel with noise canceling headphones or Baby Banz headphones for the little ones.
Related: 18 Must-Pack Items for Sensitive Kids Going to Disney World
Disney World has an average attendance of over 58 million visitors every year (pre-pandemic, of course). This means that at any given time, it is pretty darn crowded. While some love, and even thrive, off the energy of crowds, this is not the case for highly sensitive people. The chaos and excessive sensory stimuli from loads of people at the Disney property can leave highly sensitive kids feeling drained, exhausted and overwhelmed.
Related: How to Prepare Your Highly Sensitive or Sensory Sensitive Child for Disney World
Weather in Florida, and especially Orlando, can be all over the place. If you are planning to visit Disney World between March and November, you are pretty much guaranteed to have hot and humid weather. Being in the sun all day and getting sweaty is tolerable for some people. But for highly sensitive people, it can be very uncomfortable and downright miserable. The humidity is next level during certain times of the year. I’ve seen it described as though you opened your preheated oven door and stuck your face in front of it.
If you visit Orlando between December and February, the weather can be chilly (in the 40s) one day, and be warm (in the 80s) another day. You can even see big swings in temperature throughout the day with needing a coat in the mornings and evenings, and wearing t-shirts in the middle of the day. And let’s not even get started with the sudden heavy downpours that come in on any given day. (Tip: ALWAYS HAVE A CHANGE OF CLOTHES especially for kids who can’t stand being in wet clothes.)
That is a LOT that highly sensitive kids have to try to adjust to.
7. Constant Visual Stimulation
Disney is all about creating a fully immersive experience in the parks. This means there are lots of colorful details EVERYWHERE, which won’t go unnoticed by a highly sensitive kid. The continuous visual stimulation is a lot to process, and highly sensitive kids will definitely appreciate occasional breaks throughout the day.
8. “Scary” Visuals and/or Villains
As we all know, Disney movies and Disney storylines usually have a strong element of conflict or tension. It’s obviously nothing terribly violent (we don’t find anything R-rated for sure), but highly sensitive kids will easily pick up on who the “bad guys” are in the theming throughout the parks and resorts. They are often sensitive to conflict, and will need to prepare ahead of time to know what to expect, or take time afterwards to process what they observed.
9. Meeting Characters
Meeting Disney characters can feel overwhelming for highly sensitive kids. There are two types of characters at Disney: face characters, which are those who are dressed in costume where you can see their faces and they can talk with you, and non-face characters, where their faces are covered and they don’t talk with you.
Examples of face characters are Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother, and Peter Pan.
Examples of non-face characters include Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Buzz Lightyear, and Olaf.
Highly sensitive kids might feel scared of the characters. Or they might not know exactly how to interact with them. And this aspect of Disney World might be hard for highly sensitive or sensory sensitive kids.
10. Feeling Rushed
When families are planning their Disney vacations, they have their schedule full with dining reservations, Genie+ time windows, parades, and fireworks shows. I totally get it—it’s not cheap to go to Disney World, and you feel like you have to pack in as much as you can. But this does not bode well for a highly sensitive child. Rushing from here to there, getting shuttled around to this ride and that restaurant, is exhausting for highly sensitive kids.
11. Waiting in Lines
Waiting in line to ride something is not easy for ANYONE, but it is especially a challenge for highly sensitive children. Imagine being in close quarters with lots of other people, slowly inching forward every few minutes. There is additional visual and auditory stimulation coming in from the theming throughout the queue—whether it’s announcements about safety procedures, or interactive games. If this is really difficult and overwhelming for your highly sensitive or sensory child, I recommend getting the Disability Access Service (DAS) pass, which allows your party to NOT wait in a traditional queue. Instead, you’ll be given a return time window based on the current standby time for the attraction.
12. Lots of Walking
During our trips to Disney World, I easily log 15,000 to 25,000 steps a day. Clearly it is a TON of walking. Highly sensitive kids can tire more easily, especially if they are already using a lot of energy doing mental and emotional processing of their surroundings.
So, to expect them to keep up with that much physical movement in an already overstimulating environment can be very taxing on them. And increased exhaustion equals being more prone to meltdowns. We found it helpful to use a stroller even for my older one, because it gave her a reprieve from constant walking and it became a little safe haven from all the chaos around her.
A trip to Disney is full of transitions. Wake up. Get dressed. Wait in line for the bus/boat/monorail/skyliner. Get off the stroller. Get on the bus/boat/monorail/skyliner. Get off the bus/boat/monorail/skyliner. Wait in line for security. Walk. Wait in line to scan magic band. Rush to your first ride. Wait in line. Get on the ride. Get off the ride. Get back in the stroller. And on and on it goes.
These examples might seem like small transitions, but highly sensitive or sensory sensitive kids will feel the weight of constant transitions by the end of the day. This is why it’s important to build in time in your schedule to take a breather, find a quiet space to relax, and have a snack or a drink.
14. Pressure to Have Fun
I know this one sounds kind of silly. But isn’t it true that we, as parents, subconsciously place pressure on our children to have fun? We expect certain reactions out of them because we’ve put so much effort planning all these activities we think they SHOULD enjoy. And then we feel frustrated or even resentful if they don’t have fun or react the way they’re “supposed to”.
Highly sensitive kids can totally sense that pressure or expectation from their parents, making their experience less enjoyable. Let’s take the pressure off them to show excitement and joy, and instead, remind ourselves that regardless of their reactions, you are making cherished family memories together (both good and bad).
Maybe not all of these reasons apply to your children. Or perhaps there are other reasons why a Disney vacation might be difficult for your family. But being aware of some of these challenges helps you prepare and anticipate your child’s needs during your family trip to Walt Disney World.
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