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“What If It’s Not Actually the Happiest Place on Earth for Us?”

Did you know that Disney offers a Disability Access Service that allows children with ADHD to ‘virtually’ wait in line, saving them (and their families) the agony of trudging through those long, boring, tantrum-inducing queues? Neither did I, and it was a game changer.

Disney Disability Access Service for Children with ADHD
Child enjoying a tantrum free vacation thanks to the Disney disability pass

As our day with Mickey and Elsa drew closer, the family trip to Disneyland was losing its anticipatory joy and taking on an undeniable air of dread.

I have learned, since beginning our family’s journey with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), that unpredictable and erratic behavior almost always follows a departure from our normal routine and comfort zone. That said, the thought of standing in line for Dumbo for 75 minutes seemed impossible. The What-If scenarios flooded my mind.

I kept asking myself, “Am I setting her up for failure?” “Is the amount of planning and preparation for one day really worth it?” As any parent knows, once Disney is promised, Disney must be delivered, so we moved boldly forward with our plan.

Several weeks prior to our trip, we started preparing Gwen for the days outside of her typical schedule. We reiterated that her routine would change just for a few days.

We told her that she would be sleeping in a different bed, but assured her we would bring the noise machine, her ‘hugging blanked’ (gravity blanket), her favorite Belle jammies, and her ‘Gwenny’s Schedule’ chart for her bedtime routine so she could move her Velcro stars with each completed task.

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We watched YouTube videos of all of the roller coasters and rides. We looked at pictures of the park’s various areas so she could tell us where she wanted to visit. And every morning we answered the question, “How many more sleeps before we fly to California?”

Her excitement and my anxiety grew in lockstep.

I decided success hinged on my ability to have zero expectations. Disney is extremely stimulating. It was possible entirely that we would go on one ride, Gwen would reach her limit, and that would be it. I needed to be ‘OK’ with that possibility — and the idea that my friends’ Disney experiences may never be our Disney experience.

When you create aggressive expectations for a child with impulse-control issues, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. The last thing I wanted to be was disappointed, so I tried turning everything into a positive during our big day. After a ride, we told her how brave she was. When given options, she received our applause: “What great choices you made. When you use your words, we know what you want to do!” We praised her for waiting in long lines, “Thank you for being so patient while everyone has a turn!”

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I told myself that just coming to the park was a new experience for her and I reminded myself to be grateful for that time we were able to spend in this happy environment.

We purchased Fast Passes to reduce our time waiting in line, then we learned that Disneyland offers special services for kiddos with cognitive and behavioral issues. Upon our early-morning arrival, we walked right over to the Disability Access Service in Disneyland’s ‘City Hall.’ The team there could not have been any more helpful.

They simply asked us what type of issues we had experienced before. I shared with them that our daughter has ADHD, and she has a very difficult time waiting in lines and feeling crammed. In the past, she has thrown tantrums, suffered meltdowns, or just run out of line.

During this time, Gwen was running in circles in the office and up and down the stairs. The Disney team member could see pretty clearly I was not making this up.

The Disability Access Service at Disneyland was a lifesaver. They helped us use the four ‘iKiosks’ around the park. When we were ready to ride any ride, they simply scanned Gwen’s ticket and it virtually put us in line.

If there was a 45-minute wait for the teacups, for example, we would return to the teacups 45 minutes later, the team member would scan her ticket again and we would walk to the front of the line. And then on to the next ride and the next iKiosk. While we waited for our turn in our virtual line, we walked around, ate snacks, and looked for characters.

This changed the entire trajectory of our day. I am so grateful that Disneyland offers this service, and for the team members who answered Gwen’s questions about the rides and made her feel more comfortable.

After a very hard past year, we were able to have a much-needed day full of positivity, great decision making, and special family time.

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