Disney World with Sensitive Kids
Podcast Episode Recap with Put On Your Travel Ears
Are you planning a trip to Disney World with sensitive kids?
I had an amazing opportunity to be a guest on a podcast Put On Your Travel Ears, hosted by Gina and Sarah. They are two wonderful Disney mamas and co-owners of The Charming Travel Co travel agency.
We got the chance to discuss some tips when it comes to going to Disney World with highly sensitive kids. The episode starts with some general news and updates about Disney World, and we start talking about this topic around the 6:55 minute mark.
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Why I started the Moms Make It Magical blog
Both of my children have some characteristics of being sensitive. While I was planning our trips to Disney World, I wished that there was one website or blog to get all the information I needed.
I was totally that Type A mom who was watching all the Youtube videos of the rides and restaurants, reading Disney fan forums discussing ride experiences for non-thrill seekers, and watching room and resort tour videos. I wanted to be fully prepared to avoid the things that would trigger sensory overload meltdowns. And I wanted to choose activities that would be enjoyable for them.
And I realized that this information could be really helpful to other families out there who have similar challenges. A Disney World trip with highly sensitive kids might not look the same as everyone else’s, and that’s okay. Disney World is for everyone, and can accommodate all sorts of different needs.
What is a sensitive kid?
When I talk about a sensitive kid, or a highly sensitive child, I am not referring to someone who just cries a lot. It’s a personality trait, defined by the psychologist Dr. Elaine N. Aron, and she talks about this in great detail in the book The Highly Sensitive Child.
It is a trait that you find in about 15-20% of the general population, and it is NOT a diagnosis. Some of the outward behaviors of being highly sensitive—such as being cautious, not enjoying surprises, having heightened emotions, being afraid of loud noises—can overlap with some diagnoses. Common ones you’ll see some overlap with are sensory processing disorder, autism, ADHD, anxiety and OCD.
But it is totally possible to be highly sensitive without any kind of diagnosis as well.
Related: 7 Signs Your Child is Highly Sensitive
Best Tips for going to Disney World with Sensitive Kids?
The most important tip for going to Disney with highly sensitive kids is to prepare as much as you can beforehand. Do as much research you can about the rides, restaurants, and your hotel, BEFORE ever getting on that flight or in your car. Be aware of what kinds of things trigger overwhelm and overstimulation in your children. It can be completely different for each individual kid.
Not only should you prepare as much as you can ahead of time, involve your kids in the planning process. Get their input on what attractions or activities they’d like to participate in.
While there are many families who like to do that last minute “surprise” vacation for their kids as they drive up to Disney World, I strongly discourage doing that if you have extra sensitive children. The more familiar they become with all things Disney, the better it will be for your kids.
Related: How to Prepare Your Highly Sensitive Child for Your Disney World Vacation
Become Familiar with Characters
We like to get our kids familiar with the characters by reading lots of book. We especially love this Disney Junior Encyclopedia, which provides a profile and explanation for more than 150 Disney & Pixar characters. Disney movies can be really hard for highly sensitive kids for a variety of reasons—conflict, death or loss, constant visual stimulation, scary villains, or loud and sudden noises. There are also a lot of fun Disney-themed board games like Color Brain or Eye Found it, which can help build familiarity at home before ever setting foot in the parks.
Another tip for going to Disney with sensitive kids is to slow down! It’s so important to be okay with not rushing through the day. Highly sensitive kids do so much better when they can take it slow, because it takes a lot for them to process everything going on around them. It’s essential to schedule in days where you’re NOT going to the parks, especially if your trip is at least 4 or 5 days long. And even on the days that you go to the parks, build in time to take breaks.
Read Ride/Restaurant/Resort Reviews
I would also recommend checking out the inventory of ratings for Disney World rides, restaurants, and resorts that I am working on building out on this blog. Everything is broken down and scored according to the level of overwhelm and overstimulation it might be for a highly sensitive child.
Gina shared about an experience with a client where character dining ended up being something their kid absolutely hated. It can be so helpful to work with a travel agent in situations like these, because they were able to have all their dining reservations changed to account for their child’s preferences to not do character meals!
Set Clear Expectations with Your Kids
Sarah also discussed how important it is to set expectations with sensitive kids. This is so they know exactly what their day is going to look like. She had a client whose daughter had SPD (sensory processing disorder), and they learned that she did really well as long as she knew what to expect that day. Knowing when and where they’ll be having their meals, when they’ll take a break, and when they get pool time, set her daughter up for a smoother and more magical experience at Disney World.
Use the DAS Pass!
Another tip is to utilize the Disability Access Service Pass (DAS Pass) if your child has difficulty waiting in a traditional queue. Maybe it’s due to anxiety, autism, or ADHD. Whatever the reason, this is a great resource for families with neurodivergent kids. No, this doesn’t mean you get to skip the line! When you go to the attraction you’d like to ride, the Cast Members there will scan your magic band and give you a return time. This allows you and your family to wait somewhere else than the typical line.
Related: 18 Essential Items for Highly Sensitive Kids at Disney World
Disney World Fireworks with Sensitive Kids?
Fireworks can be so tough for highly sensitive kids! It is not only loud, but you can sometimes even feel the “boom!” of the explosions in your body. Plus you’re often in the midst of the large crowds, all eager to see the fireworks display. So much of this can be overwhelming for highly sensitive kids.
Step 1: Watch videos at home
I would suggest to watch videos of Disney’s fireworks shows ahead of time, way before your trip. I honestly don’t know how I would prepare for Disney World without the endless visual resources on Youtube! But anyway, this helps your child get used to the visuals, the light projections, and the music. Obviously it won’t be nearly as loud as it is in person, but it’s a great starting point.
Step 2: Watch fireworks from OUTSIDE the parks
If that goes well, I would choose to watch fireworks from a spot that isn’t in the parks. For the Magic Kingdom fireworks show, some great options are the Contemporary Resort, the Ticket and Transportation Center, or the beaches at Wilderness Lodge, Polynesian or the Grand Floridian. You’re able to get more exposure to the fireworks, but with enough distance to feel safe. For Epcot fireworks, you can see them from the Boardwalk Resort, Yacht & Beach Club, or even the new Riviera Resort.
Step 3: Watch fireworks from a spot with an easy out
If your child is willing to watch from INSIDE the parks, choose a part of the park where you can have an easy out. So if you’re in the middle of the show and your child is starting to lose it and melt down, you can easily get out of there. At Magic Kingdom, that might mean watching from the train station near the entrance of the park. Choosing a spot like this also helps avoid being stuck in the post-fireworks crowds of people trying to get out of the park at the same time.
Use a Stroller
I also highly recommend bringing a stroller, even if your child may be a little older. It builds out a little safe space for them, where they can go in and hide if things feel too overwhelming.
In our case, my daughter was almost 6 years old at the time. On our 3rd trip to Disney World, she finally gave us the go ahead to try watching fireworks from inside the parks! She sat in our stroller, with her noise canceling headphones on, clutching a little lovey for the majority of the show…until she crawled out to see the final 5-10 minutes when she felt ready. This felt like a huge win for us. Previously, we were THAT family that was always rushing out of the park to get AWAY before the fireworks started, while everyone else was rushing IN to to try to get a spot for the show.
They Might Hate Fireworks No Matter What
But it is also possible that your children, no matter how much prep you do, will just not like fireworks. Ever. And that’s okay. It can feel disappointing as the parent, especially if it’s something that you wanted to experience for yourself. But our kids have their own preferences and tolerance levels, and we also have to respect how they feel. If watching fireworks is really intolerable for them, is it really worth it to push it?
One thing I’ve realized about myself as I’ve planned Disney trips for my family, and any type of family outing is that I would subconsciously place pressure on my kids to have fun. It sounds kind of silly, but it’s totally true.
Adjusting My Own Expectations
Sometimes we, as parents, plan these vacations or outings and EXPECT our children to enjoy it and react in a certain way. If they don’t react in the way we imagined, it’s easy to feel frustrated or even resentful. It’s like, why would they rather spend time at the pool? Why don’t like any of the treats? Why don’t they appreciate this epic trip I planned? I’ve learned that I need to adjust my own expectations of how my children react to their experiences at Disney World or any family outing.
For my highly sensitive daughter in particular, she is often very expressionless in new and stimulating situations. She’ll have that deer-in-headlights kind of look, and it’s hard to know if she’s really enjoying whatever we’re doing.
Even from infancy, she was a serious baby who rarely laughed and was always intensely observing everything. It’s actually quite normal for highly sensitive kids to take time to process things.
So while it’s really hard to tell in the moment, she’ll usually talk my ear off later about what she felt, what she liked, and what she didn’t like. I often have to remind myself that just because I think they will like something, doesn’t mean THEY will actually like it.
Birthday Gift Phenomenon
Gina mentioned the birthday gift phenomenon. Sometimes you, as the parent, put so much time and thought into THE perfect gift for your child’s birthday. And then they end up having more fun with the box than the actual gift itself. But it’s another reminder to be able to see through my children’s eyes, even if it’s different from my perspective or expectations.
Don’t Feel Pressure to “Do It All”
Sarah discussed how they, as travel agents, always send thorough itineraries for each of their families. They include lists of things they think that family would enjoy. But Sarah emphasized that the major caveat here is that you should NOT have to feel like you have to do it all. There is so much you’ll miss if you feel like you’re trying to fit it all in and rushing from one activity to another. There are so many magical moments, that are often totally unplanned for and happen in the spur of the moment.
Did any of this resonate with you?
If you’ve realized you have highly sensitive kids AND you’re planning a trip to Disney World, come check out my Facebook group! It’s a great way to connect with other families with similar challenges, to share experiences, ask questions, and get advice. The information you find there could also be helpful for adults who have anxiety, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), or other challenges that require a little extra planning.
Connect with The Charming Travel Co.
Gina and Sarah are travel agents and co-owners at The Charming Travel Co. They want to change the world one family vacation at a time! Tune into their podcast PUT ON YOUR TRAVEL EARS, as they put out new weekly episodes about Disney, Universal, all-inclusives, and cruises. And follow them on Facebook here.