Get there early in the morning and take breaks- The morning, aside from the initial opening, is usually a less crowded time and will allow to move from attraction to attraction with less shuffling through crowds. Once you reach your family’s limit for the day, go back to the hotel for a few hours and come back later in the night.
Disney’s Guide to Cognitive Abilities – Disney’s own 14 page guide to the parks for someone with cognitive abilities.
Bring a sensory toy- Something small that your child likes that will help them calm down. This may seem obvious, but if forgotten can make the day a lot harder.
Bring Headphones- Even if your child does not usually need headphones all the time, bring some to Disney. There is a lot of noise all day, and it can be very overwhelming even to kids who are not sound sensitive. This is especially relevant during night time shows. My brother is not usually sound sensitive, but headphones are a MUST during fireworks for us.
Prepare for waiting in lines- Even if you manage to skip the line at every ride, there will still be 5-10 minutes while they wait for the next available ride car to get you on the ride. It can be helpful to choose the longest grocery line at the store, or just don’t skip commercials on the TV, in order to prepare your child for the idea of waiting. My family found this to be super helpful to help my brother in preparing to wait in lines.
Come up with a plan for the day- Using a map of the park, come up with a plan for the day, and if you can, share it with your child. My brother doesn’t like the planning aspect of the trip, but he likes to know what is going on so he does not get anxiety. While you don’t have to stick to the plan exactly, having a basic plan can help eliminate confusion.
Be slow meeting characters- Meeting characters can be a daunting task, but there are a lot of ways to make it easier. First, each character has a photographer and a “handler”, essentially an employee (or Cast Member as they are known in Disneyland). They are more than happy to listen to any worries you may have, including whether the character should touch the child or not. Alerting the Cast Member of any issues before meeting the character may prevent a meltdown later.
Then, take the process slowly, and watch their reaction to each character closely. After my first trip with my brother, we have learned he does not like character’s in full costumes, such as Winnie the Pooh or Mickey Mouse, and even to this day will run away from them but is fine with characters where he can see their real face, such as Cinderella or Captain America. Now, we skip those characters, as it is not worth the meltdown to try and get a photo.