Visiting Disney World with a Child with Special Needs Part 1

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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39 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:


    How much of the “changes” and suspicion you faced might be related to the rumors of people “renting out” folks with disabilities to line jump?Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Kazzy says:

      I think entirely. The guy who checked us in to the hotel explicitly said as much. Even if it wasn’t a widespread problem (which is what I suspected), I imagine that people would get resentful of line jumpers if the rumors were rampant.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        It takes a special kind of person to see a group of people, one of whom has disabilities, and think, “Buncha jerks.” Even if a non-zero amount are jerks.

        I’m with you on thinking the news media totally blew that outa proportion. “The number we called was disconnected. WHAT ARE THEY HIDING!?!?”

        Most importantly, enjoy the trip!Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Kazzy, you have a higher opinion of people than I do if you think “it takes a special kind of person to see a group of people, one of whom has disabiltiies, and think, ‘Bunch jerks'”. People really don’t like seeing other people getting special attention that they don’t even if that special attention is needed or deserved. We see this all the time in the debates about affimative action and other remedies for past discrimination and persecution. Never underestimate the power of jealousy and resentment.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        You’re right, @leeesq . I should probably specify that I mean “special” in terms of “remarkable” in terms of “remarkably awful” and not “special” in terms of “rare”.Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to Kazzy says:

      That, I presume is why the woman on the phone told you there were “no accomodations” for people in wheelchairs: She meant there was no cutting in line, as all of the lines are wheelchair accessible.

      It really sounds like disney needs to train its phone staff to be as polite and respectful as the park staff.Report

  2. Rod says:

    I’m so happy for the wonderful time you seem to be having with your family. I’m sure you’ll take away awesome memories.

    And a little jealous, to be honest. Living in Kansas, a Disney vaca is a major excursion that Just Doesn’t Happen.Report

  3. trizzlor says:

    It’s interesting that the face-to-face experience was so much better than over the phone. I also wondered if this was due to the rumors about disability scams which seem to be pretty rampant based on N=2 comments so far. This is only tangential, but one of my favorite essayists since David Foster Wallace has an interesting first-person account in the NYTimes of Disneying with kids that explores a bit of the Magic Kingdom history and the types of people who go there childless.Report

    • Glyph in reply to trizzlor says:

      I had read that essay before, but it was so good I just read it again.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to trizzlor says:

      Great essay!Report

    • Mo in reply to trizzlor says:

      I grew up in Anaheim and had many an annual pass to Disneyland, so I can assure that people abusing the system is true. Back in the day, people wouldn’t even rent a disabled person, they would just borrow/rent a wheelchair and use that with a perfectly healthy person. I’m guessing the “rent a disabled person” escalation was because Disney started to crack down a bit.

      I went with my wife and we are (currently) sans kids. We were not annoyed at the kids, but the park was fun and a nice bit of nostalgia. But there are definitely pot smokers at the park. At Disneyland the place where they hung out (at least back in the mid-90s) was back by the stables, in a low traffic area between Fantasyland and FrontierlandReport

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Mo says:

        Pot smokers I understand (and didn’t see many of, actually). These were mostly senior citizens. Some younger couples who didn’t give off a pot vibe, some parents with kids who did give off a pot vibe.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Mo says:

        My husband told me after I wrote this that some of the senior citizens seemed to be (for lack of a better term) Disney fanboys, or rather, fancouples.Report

      • Maribou in reply to Mo says:

        Jay and I went without a kid some years ago, for no particular reason except he was really gung ho and we needed an excuse to visit his uncles (long story). I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, particularly the monsoon rain and the fireworks. But also the small, tacky, designed-for-kids rides – apparently my inner 7 year old was still watching World of Disney every week, and sighing wistfully, and just hadn’t bothered letting me know about it in a while. Small World was my favorite, even though I got stuck.

        It was … weirdly romantic for us? In that it was something that it turned out we both wanted to do for years, as kids, and we were sharing our first experience of it with each other. And also it was… when we went (maybe because the rain was so absurd) – everyone was *having fun*. Parents being nice to their kids, showpeople breaking kfabe just as much as they could get away with and not an ounce more, and everyone being civil to each other all the time. My analytical mind finds that creepy in theory, but in practice I was only discomfited by how lovely I found it.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Mo says:


        A couple friend of mine had a similar trip there a few years back and walked away with a similar experience. To me, childless couples there doesn’t seem odd at all. Childless couples angry about the presence of children? Fuck those people.Report

  4. Mo says:

    I’m assuming, given Disney’s concern for the bottom line and the massiveness of this operation, that their accommodations of disabilities is profitable. I wonder why other businesses don’t follow suit.

    This is probably an economies of scale thing. Disney has such a massive operation and so much traffic that they can pull it off. Also, unlike most other parks, they have side businesses that can sufficiently profit off the built up good will that even if it’s a loss on the park side, they can make it up with sales on the toy, movie and other sales. Most other theme parks don’t have such a tight corporate linkage between all of their brands. For example, Six Flags just has the rights to use Warner Bros characters, but they’re still separate corporate entities, so increased Bugs Bunny gear sales outside the park doesn’t goose the bottom line.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Mo says:

      Yeah, I was thinking that. Possibly true.But the accommodations are not a huge outlay for them. Re-fitting a few of their rides, etc. Much of it is, say, coaching people how to talk to disabled kids, providing rest areas, etc. I made a point of going to Disney because of the way they deal with disabilities. I know other parents of kids with my son’s syndrome have. My guess is that it’s directly profitable.Report

      • Mo in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Training and maintaining a high quality staff is probably the most expensive part. HR is hard, especially for the relatively high turnover world of theme parks. One of the benefits of the Disney mystique is that it extends to the employees* too. People who have a fondness for the Mouse are willing to work there harder for less money than they could get elsewhere. It also means that they care about the image and the brand as something more than just a paycheck. And those things matter a lot, which is why there’s a marked difference between bored sounding teens going through the motions at Knott’s vs. the cheery, enthusiastic ones at Disney.

        * I have heard it likened to a cult by people in my close acquaintance that have worked at the Anaheim park complex or in Burbank.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        I definitely agree that it’s the staff that makes the difference. I’m no business expert, so I defer to you on the costs of that staff.

        I had a slightly different take on the employees, though. I used to work at a union (a story and a half in itself) that had organized some of the workers – the stage show performers. IIRC (and this was over 12 years ago), the characters and some other employees were organized by the Teamsters. In our case, the union dues were quite steep. At least some of them must have been fairly motivated to organize (although in some cases, people might have been motivated to join our union because many jobs in the industry are closed shop and they may have been focused on their futures).

        I wasn’t in on any of the Disney contracts (the union opened an Orlando office to deal with them), but the fact that they did organize may be suggestive that there was some tension between management and labor.

        That’s not incompatible with drinking the kool-aid about brand identity. But some people were not happy accepting less money for it.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Mo says:

      Disney also has a corporate image to maintain. The Disney corporation has been known for providing kid and family friendly entertainment in various forms since its inception as an animation studio. Not providing accomadation towards people with disabilties, especially kids, would come off across very mean-spirited and anti-Disney.Report

      • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        And disney will pay oodles to actually maintain that image.
        They’ll even pay for visual processing research…
        (so that the next time someone flashes the camera on the roller coaster,
        the nudity is replaced with Mickey Mouse faces).Report

  5. Mike Schilling says:

    special props to Eeyore, whom I suspect James tried to French kiss

    Did he respond to that with the proper gloomy resignation?Report

  6. Burt Likko says:

    As so often, the story brings moisture to my eye.

    And just as we got to the point of me wondering, hey there’s three kids here, not just one, you hit that point. Of course, I’m sure they’re all out of their skulls with Massive Fun Overload — entirely the point of a Disney vacation.

    FTR as the new spokesman for childless couples going out to get some entertainment, if you think Disney World is a place to be able to avoid proximity to small, loud, I attentive children, you’ve apparently already been out behind the Adventureland stables to spark up with the sullen teenagers. Complaining that there are too many kids at Disney World is like complaining that there’s too much sand at the beach. There are plenty of places in Florida for grown-up fun. Disney World is not one of these: it’s for kids.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I’m not sure my two-year-old has gotten much of anything out of this trip except an overdose of simple carbohydrates and stimulation. He was terrified by the scary parts of a couple of rides (ghosts, skeletons, etc.), and now doesn’t want to go on any ride. Today, we will start at the animal kingdom with a petting zoo so he can ease back into things (I’m assuming the other two will get a kick out of it as well).

      It’s not pure unmitigated joy for my six-year-old. He’s alternately thrilled and then quite cranky. I’m not entirely sure about the crankiness, but I think I remember feeling similarly when I was here as a kid. Maybe it’s sort of like my irritation about the hot water. He’s expecting fishing magic, and it’s lot of adults looking at maps, walking around, etc.

      For the last two days, I’ve taken the younger two back to the hotel for a nap at around 1 or 2, while my husband has stayed with my oldest to enjoy big boy rides (and toddler and disability access-free Disney). I’m doing that today and tomorrow and was going to write about it.

      I was wondering if they notice fewer stares. I was wondering how they take in the fact that people greet and speak to their brother at all.

      I may include this in the next article: my oldest son sometimes writes stories, usually about stuff he’s scared of. In the stories, he triumphs, of course. Yesterday, he went on the Haunted Mansion ride, and was terrified. Last night’s story began in an interesting way: “Monsters can’t walk and they don’t have wheelchairs, so they can’t get to me. They are only found in haunted mansions, and haunted mansions aren’t real.” I thought it was interesting that a wheelchair, which to most people symbolizes lack of ability (one is “wheelchair-bound“), was rather an empowering object. Also interesting, of course, that he attributed disability to the monsters.Report

  7. Darwy says:

    We went on vacation to Disneyworld in ’05. Myself, the Hubster, my daughter, sister and niece.

    We were actually offered a DAC for my sister, as she was still a little weak from her last round of chemotherapy. She declined it, but it was nice that they had offered it to her.

    That 10 days down in Florida is one of my happiest (and most bittersweet) memory.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Darwy says:

      Darwy, that’s lovely. I’m so sorry about your sister, and glad you got to have that experience.Report

      • Darwy in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Thanks Rose.

        The folks at Disney went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that we had a wonderful time, and I’m glad they did the same for your family.

        As cynical as I usually am, Disney did deliver the magic for us. Their ‘cast members’ were always smiling and gracious – which I found amazing, considering the sheer number of people (normally hot, sweaty and cranky) they have to deal with daily.Report

  8. Kazzy says:


    I’m curious to hear if you ultimately find the trip worth it — both in terms of financial costs and other (e.g., Does the alternating rounds of crankiness fully offset the periods of unmitigated joy?). Your calculus will be necessarily different than most due to the unique needs of your family, but I’d still be curious to hear your assessment.

    I went to DW once when I was about 8. My grandma took me and my younger sister. I remember being… unimpressed. I’ve never been huge into rides but I still remember thinking everything was very babyish. This would have been back around 1991/2 or so, so I’m not sure what would have changed. But when I hear now what it costs for even a basic trip, I’m taken aback.

    When I look back on my childhood, I remember other trips being more resonant. I’m not sure how much of that was a function of who was there (crazy grandma versus attentive mom), how much was age, and how much was personality. I have never thought, “That DW trip was so transformative that I *must* take my child there.” But I do sometimes think, “I loved visiting that sleepy New England shore town and can’t wait to take Zazzy there.”

    You’ve obviously got a lot ahead of you and I hope that the trip proves to be worth it beyond your wildest dreams!Report

    • switters in reply to Kazzy says:


      I know you didn’t ask me, but ill give my thoughts anyway. I went with my wife, two kids (15mths and 6 years) as well as our extended family about a year ago. Against my wishes. I didn’t think it was worth the $.

      The look on the young one’s face as we rode its a small world over and over again came damn close to changing my mind. 15 month old kids are in awe a lot, this was different, in a good way, somehow. That image is etched in my mind, and the kid smiles, and smiles big, a lot, so that’s saying something.

      When my six year old was asked what the favorite part of his trip was, he answered “playing that video game with Papa before dinner”, referencing the two of us getting away to the hotel bar before dinner one night to play golden tee, which he loves. That confirmed my suspicions that we could have saved a bunch of dough and taken him to the arcade on consecutive days.

      To each their own, but I can think of plenty of ways I’d rather spend my vacation $$. Although I must admit, Rose’s story, like my son’s smile, is altering my stance a bit.Report

  9. Dan Miller says:

    Great story (and I agree, anyone who gets mad because kids are in DISNEY WORLD is completely bonkers). I saw Mike Daisey do an extremely interesting monologue performance about (in part) visiting Disney World as an adult with his extended family. NPR has a recording, and I’d urge you to check it out if you’re interested.Report

  10. NewDealer says:

    I have nothing to add to your excellent story except that I have also a noticed that there are a lot of child-free hardcores who complain about kids acting like kids in child-friendly areas and activities.

    “How dare someone bring their kid to a showing of Labryinth!!?” and stuff like that.Report

  11. veronica dire says:

    There is a pretty deep point in this section:

    There is, however, with one major caveat. Having a child with a disability is not the whorling vortex of darkness and despair that I believed it to be when we first got his diagnosis. It’s really more of an everyday sort of pain in the ass. I often think to myself how much easier everything would be if only most families had a kid with similar disabilities.

    I understand this quite a lot. For me, it brings to mind the various critiques of *-normative (that is, “heteronormative,”“cisnormative,” etc.).

    One way of looking at disability is simply this: the world is not arranged for disabled people, in countless little ways, and most people are totally oblivious to this unless it is pointed out. And repeatedly pointed out. And pointed out more.

    Sometimes laws help. But those laws come when voters begin to see how hard this stuff is to see, and then understand that we as a society need structures consciously chosen to guide us. This applies to many things.Report

  12. Russ Young says:

    Wonderful article, Rose! In 1989, my wife and I visited Disney World for the first time with our two sons, then 8 and 5 years of age. We made the trip with a certain amount of fear and trembling because our 5 year old had a poorly controlled seizure disorder. However, we had heard that Disney was welcoming to disabled kids and their families, so we decided to take a chance. We weren’t disappointed. We had a great time and went on to make subsequent visits over the years.Report