Latest update: March 27th, 2014
Traveling to Disney World with your kids? If you are a typical Jewish family, there are concerns about the availability of kosher food, events that take place on Shabbos that you may have to schedule around, and the availability of a minyan.
Traveling with a special needs child creates an added level of complexity. However, with careful advance planning and organization, many of these concerns can be addressed resulting in a trip in which everything can go smoothly and be enjoyed by all.
Here are some of the key issues to consider-
The length of time you’ll be traveling:
Do some research into the Disney World parks. Determine which attractions you want to see and approximately how long it will take, given your child’s abilities. If your child has behavior issues, how will he or she handle the large crowds? What type of activities will they enjoy the most? Shows, rides, shopping, parades and nighttime activities like fireworks are some of the choices. Consider getting a disability pass from the park to shorten the waiting time in lines.
Make up a daily schedule:
Make a schedule for each day that you will be visiting the park with estimates for the amount of time that you will be spending for each activity, including preparation time in the hotel and travel time.If your child has medical needs, estimate how long it will take to get him ready for each day’s outing, and include that time in your daily schedule.
Plan for the number of stops for their care you will need throughout the day, and consult the maps of the park to plan the best places to make those stops. Again, which activities would they enjoy the most and which are they able to do? How long do you need to allocate for each Park? There are four Disney parks, Downtown Disney (shopping), and various water parks.
Does your child need some down-time in between days at the Parks? Consider some of the many other, less demanding tourist attractions in the Orlando area which would be enjoyable for the whole family but much less stressful and intense than the environment in the Disney parks. Do some research into the available arrangements in the area for Shabbos, and schedule it as one of your planned “down-time” days. There is a lot to see and do in the Orlando area. You might want to stay for at least a week, and use your first visit as a scouting trip for a second vacation at a later time to see some of the things you will not have enough time for in the first visit.
If you will be staying at a Disney property, they have buses from the airport to their hotels and from the hotels to the parks. However, not all of the buses accommodate wheelchairs and often it’s a long wait. Consider renting a car/van even if you’re staying at a Disney property.
For off-property lodging, if you need a place to stay that’s handicapped accessible, you should look into it ahead of time. Many of the hotels in the Orlando area are two floor walk ups, without elevators.
Do your research. There are a number of travel sites on line with detailed listings of the hotels and motels in the area, along with reviews by travelers who have used them. Another good research tool is the Florida AAA Travel Guide, which is available free upon request to AAA members. It will give you an idea of where the better hotels and motels are, and what facilities they offer. If your child loves the water, it’s important to note that there are no indoor pools in Orlando, even at luxury hotels.
The location of your hotel makes a difference as well. It can take almost 40 minutes from some hotels to actually reach the Parks, especially during peak travel times during the day. Many special needs children cannot handle a long car trip on top of a full day at an amusement park. Try to determine the actual traveling time from the hotel to the park before making your reservation.
Look for a place with a kitchen, efficiency, or at least a fridge. Remember that you will need a place for medication storage, as well as a preparation area and place to store kosher food. Think about what you will need to bring with you from home, such as a couple of sharp knives, a frying pan, a hot water device, and harder to find items like kosher cheese and meat, and what you can expect to buy at a typical Orlando-area supermarket, like disposable utensils and basic packaged foods bearing a national hashgocho.
Glatt Kosher airline style frozen meals can be ordered at some of the Disney facilities, and the web site of the Chabad of South Orlando lists various establishments in the area offering kosher food, as well as supermarkets with kosher food sections. The majority of Publix supermarkets have a variety of kosher food. Since this information may change without notice, it is strongly recommended to check with a phone call to confirm accuracy and availability.
Indoor recreational areas at your hotel are a plus. Florida has a subtropical climate. Expect at least some rain during your stay (brief but intense thunderstorms are common, especially in summer months), and plan accordingly. During the winter months, the parks can get chilly, especially during the evening hours, so check the weather forecast and bring appropriate clothing.
You may also want to look into a suite hotel, or renting a vacant home in one of the many housing projects in the area. Although it doesn’t offer the same services as in a standard hotel or motel, a multi-bedroom house with a full kitchen and other amenities, such as a washer and dryer, could be a far more comfortable and convenient base for your family than any hotel room.
When making reservations, even if you’re doing it online, it’s always good to call the facility on the phone and ask specific questions, such as whether they will hold packages for you in case you need to ship medical supplies ahead of time or have medical equipment delivered to the facility before you get there. You may also be able to negotiate a better room rate, or an upgrade while you have them on the phone.
Renting a vehicle. Having your own transportation has many advantages, including freeing you from reliance on public transportation, and allowing you to make changes to your schedule on the fly, including impromptu trips to local grocery stores in search of kosher food, which is not generally available in the Disney parks.
You can rent a wheelchair accessible vehicle from several agencies which can be found with an online search, but they are not located at the main Orlando airport. If you make a reservation, the agency will meet you at the airport with a courtesy vehicle and then drive you to their location to process the paperwork. If you do rent a vehicle, make sure to have your handicapped placard with you, or disabled ID. You can park in the handicapped designated areas in Disney parks, but you need to have proof of disability.
At the parks:
You are allowed to bring your own food into Disney World, so it’s best to have a cooler and ice packs with you, especially for medications or formula.
When packing for the day, make sure to bring any supplies and extra clothing you might need.
Near the entrance of every park there are lockers available for rent. All of the parks are very large, and if you don’t want to shlep everything with you, these lockers are a great solution. Be aware when packing for the day that park security personnel will search all of your bags upon entering.
Obtaining a disability pass will help you to avoid the long lines for entry to the rides and shows. When entering the park’s, there is either a city hall or guest relations area. Sometimes you can just explain the issue to them, but when dealing with an invisible disability, you may be required to present medical proof, so come prepared. A disability pass will also let you enter the area designated for people with disabilities at the parades and often will let your child take a picture with Disney characters without having to wait in line.
The parades and shows tend to be very loud, so prepare your child. Earplugs are always a good idea. If your child has other sensory issues, a hat and/or sunglasses will help them block out the crowds and other forms of overstimulation.
It is also a good idea to bring with you in the park one of your child’s favorite dolls or toys to serve as a distraction or if the child just needs a break.
At every park there is a first aid station. Familiarize yourself with the location. They are great places for special needs children. If your child is incontinent, they provide beds to change them on. It is a quiet, cool place to get a break from all of the outside activity. As it tends to get very warm, they will also provide you with icepacks upon request. These stations are near to the entrance of every park except for Epcot, where it’s in the middle.
Fortunately, the parks have plenty of restrooms and other places to get essentials like drinking water to avoid dehydration in the hot Florida sun. If your child needs to be changed and you can’t make it back to the First Aid station, almost all of the restrooms throughout the parks have changing stations that can accommodate a large child, not just the typical drop down baby changing table.
Finally, plan your day! Find out the times for the parades, fireworks, and shows that you want to see and plan around them. Make sure to build in extra time for walking from place to place, eating, and some free time for just wandering around to see all the sights. Most importantly, have fun creating amazing family memories!
If you have specific questions about traveling in Disneyworld, feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.Elisheva Stein
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