Life doesn’t always go according to plan, and nobody understands that quite like the parent of a child living with an anxiety disorder. Planning a family vacation to Walt Disney World can seem like a full-time job for any family. But when faced with the quandaries that sometimes accompany traveling with high-anxiety kiddos, it might seem completely overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be, however – the concierge travel planners at Never Grow Up Vacations can help! We can take away some of the uncertainty and help guide you toward an effortless family vacation to remember.
With a little preparation, you’ll be strolling down Main Street U.S.A. and taking in the magical sights & sounds that make Walt Disney World such an amazing destination. The key thing for our family is to take six steps to get “PRIMED” for vacation.
I’ll go through each of these steps, and how my family manages them effectively before & during our trip. I’ll also add a few extra tips and tricks. These strategies can help you tackle the stress before the stress tackles you. And, they can be helpful for any family traveling to Walt Disney World or Disneyland with children, whether anxiety issues are present or not.
P – Pack for Panic R – Reduce the Running I – Identify the Triggers M – Make the Most of the Maps E – Educate Yourself on Crowd Calendars/Holidays D – De-escalation Do’s & Don’ts
Packing for Panic
This is a simple way to have your child’s common comforts at the ready should they become necessary in a pinch. Altoids & earbuds are a must for us. Some children may feel secure with a certain stuffed animal or blanket while others wear certain clothing/accessories.
Make sure any necessary medications are safely stowed in your park bag as well. Hand sanitizer, with an approved & soothing scent, is another item that is always in our “go” bag. This choice is usually very personal and totally dependent upon the child.
Reduce the Running
This has become a key strategy for us. We are clockwise travelers in each park and tend to book our Fastpasses accordingly. Not only does following the same pattern provide comfort but it can also give your child a sense of familiarity. Following the same path each time provides peace of mind that they know where certain bathrooms are, possibly favorite snacks or even an anticipated attraction.
It also helps to plan for relaxed travel time between FastPasses. When you rush, the entire family can feel that sense of urgency, right down to the youngest traveler. Spacing out your expectations for the day can keep things moving smoothly.
Identify the Triggers
Identifying triggers is of the utmost importance in Walt Disney World. If noise is bothersome for your child, be sure to travel with noise-cancelling headphones/earbuds. Having a back-up pair of earbuds never hurts either. High traffic areas, such as exiting after the nighttime spectacular in each park, can not only be stressful but often times they are incredibly scary for children with anxiety. Make sure that there are responsible and aware companions that can assist in maneuvering through large crowds with your child at all times.
If there is a fear of getting lost or separated, create a game plan prior to travel. Make sure each child knows where to go if separated, and who is a safe contact. Upon entering each park, travel to this designated meeting spot to familiarize yourself with the area. There are wonderful, DIY “lost child sticker” options on the internet that may also serve as a great learning project prior to travel.
TIP: If your child is having an extremely difficult day, maybe it’s time for some poolside R & R. Just a few hours enjoying some relaxing fun in the sun may be all they need to prep them for heading back into the parks.
Make the Most of the Maps
Prior to traveling, request park maps from your travel advisor. These maps will not only assist you in planning out your best route for the day, but they will also highlight locations such as restrooms, central hubs, Guest Services, etc. that can prove extremely useful to you throughout your travels.
Familiarize the child with the maps before the trip, and consider taking them with you. Placing a binder ring on a set of park maps and having the child carry them in the parks can also serve as a security tool. It gives the child a sense of control that they can identify where they are with something as simple as a piece of paper.
Educate Yourself on Crowd Control and Holiday Calendars
It’s no surprise that Walt Disney World sees high attendance levels year-round. But extremely high crowd levels can definitely be a “make or break” for some travelers. Plan around events like festivals, celebrations, sports competition weeks, holidays, etc.
TIP: A Park Hopper Ticket is essential to our family’s vacation package. It allows us to make a rather quick decision in the event of unmanageable crowds and hop to another park. In most cases, Animal Kingdom is a great choice for us. The crowds seem to disperse easily and there are so many exciting nooks & crannies to explore and get some “down time”. But try to avoid hopping from one park to another for dining reservations, as the stress of getting there in a timely fashion can be daunting.
De-escalation Do’s & Don’ts
De-escalation tactics can be a lifesaver when a child with anxiety gets overwhelmed. This is another strategy that varies from child to child, but a few simple tools can help stop a potential meltdown before it starts.
Breathing exercises are something that anyone in the group can assist with. It can often help to remove the child from the flow of traffic, find a seat and take a “breather”.
Snacks can be helpful, but some children experience stomach ache in conjunction with their panic attacks, so food doesn’t work for every child.
For us, headphones/earbuds are a must when encountering large crowds for nighttime spectaculars/shows/parades, any attractions that tend to corral guests into their queues, or certain areas of the park where there may be varying levels of stimuli (Main Street USA/Hollywood Boulevard/World Showcase/Discovery Island).
It is also helpful to know where shows, such as The Enchanted Tiki Room, are located in each park. They can be the perfect place to escape the hustle & bustle of the crowds and attraction queues.
TIP: The Disability Access Service (DAS) pass was created to assist guests with disabilities that may not have the ability to wait in a queue. Walt Disney World understands that each disability is unique and, for that reason, requires a brief registration process at Guest Relations upon your arrival at the parks. The DAS allows all guests in the party (up to 6) to return to the ride at a later time based on the current wait. It is also helpful to know that this service can be utilized in conjunction with standard FastPass selections.
You Don’t Have to Plan Alone!
Believe me, you’re not alone in your journey with anxiety. Over 7% of children between the ages of 3-17 have been diagnosed with varying levels, and that number more than triples with children from 13-18. It can be debilitating but it doesn’t need to stop you from traveling to the most Magical Place on Earth – Walt Disney World.
The skilled and compassionate agents of Never Grow Up Vacations can assist you with all of your travel needs, as well as help to prepare you for any of the unexpected situations that may pop up. What’s even more amazing is that our concierge travel services are always complimentary for our guests, so be sure to contact Never Grow Up Vacations today!!!
Want a bit of “extra” magic? Simply mention the password “BREATHE” when booking your Walt Disney World Vacation with Never Grow Up Vacations and we’ll be sure to send a special treat your way just to show you just how sweet our extraordinary travel services can be.
Karen Hershey is a travel consultant with Never Grow Up Vacations.