For us to take a family vacation to any big park like Disney or Universal was never on our radar as even a possibility. So when my 11-year-old autistic son expressed an interest in going to Universal Studios, we took it very seriously. He knew from conversations with others that it would be hot, crowded, loud, and filled with roller coasters and lines. All of which could set him into a meltdown faster than you can say Hogwarts! Nonetheless, we discussed it as a family and began to plan.
Our travel agent told us about the Attraction Assistance Pass which would allow all of us to utilize the express pass line at set times. This is huge because Dex and waiting don’t mix.
We planned to stay on the property at Lowes Sapphire Falls so that it would be easy to hop on a water taxi and come back and forth if we needed to take a break from the park. We also decided to do the 2 parks 3-day pass with 2 free days so that we can visit in short increments without feeling rushed or compelled to “get our money’s worth”.
Additionally, I went to Pinterest to find other bloggers who gave tips on navigating the park(s), the best places to eat, and ways to save money. What I could not find initially was first-hand information on navigating the park with an autistic child. *Since my first publishing I have discovered Autism at the Parks – it’s worth checking out!
So here I want to share some of my experiences with you and lessons learned. I must acknowledge that I know Autism presents differently in every person. My Dex is a bright, Minecraft and Lego-loving, sociable, empathetic kiddo. His “big feelings” presents from happy and calm to presenting to being chased by a Jurassic park dinosaur in an instant. It’s not always easy to catch but there usually are warning signs. His meltdowns can include mind-numbing screams, elopement, crying, gritting teeth, throwing objects, hiding, or just blatant defiance. These daily swings have led to his older brother, our pets, and sadly other school mates, to walk on egg shells. Additionally, my husband and I have developed a bit of hyper-vigilance. I thank god he is such loving kiddo so that most others can see the amazing in him and move past his scary meltdowns.
Tip #1 Obtain Known Traveler Number
If possible register in advance for a Known Traveler Number. This will allow you and your kiddos to coast through security with a TSA Precheck status to avoid long lines and the removal of shoes, belts, and coats (usually). It’s worth it and lasts for several years.
Tip #2 Flight
LET THEM SLEEP IN – take a late morning or early afternoon flight. Ask the airline gate attendant for pre-boarding to avoid the line and crowds getting on the plane. If flying Southwest this will also ensure you can sit together on the plane. Bring ear plugs, water, a light blanket, a book, IPad, or other activity to keep you child busy.
Tip #3 Arrive at 4:00 pm
Plan to arrive at the hotel around 4:00 pm. Most resorts don’t allow you to check in before 4:00. We were unaware of this fact and had to sit around waiting for our room to be ready. This was stressful and was a Tick in the ole’ meltdown countdown.
Tip #5 Just Relax on Arrival Day
Use arrival day as a day to unpack, get to know the resort, and maybe use the pool. Use Instacart to order some groceries and snacks to keep on hand. Use this time to PLAN your first day at the park. I cannot stress enough how important this part is. Dex was so excited the day we arrived and wanted to see Harry Potter so badly that we decided to go to the park and just wing it a bit. This was a terrible idea. We were NOT prepared to deal with anything the 2 hours there threw at us. It was a disaster.
Tip #6 Pick Up Tickets at Your Resort
If staying at a Universal Resort chances are you can collect or buy tickets there. This will alleviate another line to stand in at Will-Call. While you are at it, get a couple of lanyards to hold them in. I recommend bringing 2 in case you split up! Depending where you stay you may have early entry for certain attractions like Harry Potters Wizarding World.
Tip #7 Get an Attraction Assistance Pass
After you have collected your park tickets stroll over to guest services and ask for an Attraction Assistance Pass. Unlike Disney this pass can only be obtained on site. This pass allows you to make a “reservation” in person with a return time. When it is time to return you hop into the express lane. There is no fee for this accommodation. Obtaining this pass was a fairly easy process. I explained that Dex had Autism and we heard from our travel agent that we can have a line accommodation. They asked what would happen if he had to stand in line and I simply said “meltdown”. This is the truth, and this pass has been a lifesaver. I recommend carrying a pen on you because the “reservations” need to be made at the attraction entrance by an employee. When you return they need to sign off on your pass as well.
Tip #8 Use your Concierge
Ask your concierge for the water taxi and shuttle bus contact information. On our first day after walking for miles in the heat without a plan, we decided to head back to the water taxi. It wasn’t until we got to the dock that we learned that the taxis were temporarily shut down due to lightning risk. We then had to walk another 15 minutes up a hill and many stairs to grab a shuttle. This area was confusing as well. The shuttle to our hotel was MIA so another hotel took pity and absorbed several of us into their route. In inclement weather call the concierge to see if the water taxi is running before trekking over to the dock. This most definitely was a few more ticks on the meltdown countdown. Make a plan on what you will do in case this happens so the unexpected change isn’t so destructive. Also, I was told by the water taxi folks that in inclement weather you can ask any security guards in the park if a “10-13 White” has been issued.
Tip #9 Confirm Early Entry Location
Before you head out of your hotel inquire about which park (Universal or Islands of Adventure) will be hosting the early park ENTRY if you are trying to take advantage of this resort perk. Believe it or not, it’s a bit of a walk from the entry to Universal Orlando to the entry gates to Island of Adventure and the whole point is to be there early, not waste time walking in the wrong direction. Tick…
Tip #10 Split Up
If visiting with multiple kids, it may be advantageous to split up at times. Our oldest son gets very frustrated when his brother melts down in public because it impacts his day too. A respite from meltdowns is good for the soul. My husband and I agreed to split up and each takes a kiddo on multiple occasions. In this way when Dex wanted to head back to the hotel and his older brother didn’t, or vice versa it wasn’t an issue, they each got what they wanted. On many occasions, we’ve left events, parties, or visits early for Dex, and we’ve seen the impact it does have on Liam emotionally. I recall a hiking trip we took and at every new climb, Dex screamed and cried. His brother just hiked ahead and didn’t talk most of the day. It wasn’t fun for him. Liam is at the stage where he’s mad and resentful for these “disruptions”; he doesn’t fully grasp Dex’s Autism yet. He will eventually 💙.
Tip #11 Make a Plan
Planning which rides and/or attractions on particular days and times, even the route you will take to get there (with some built-in flexibility) will set expectations for the day. By the third day I started using Google maps to plan my routes within the park. Step by step directions; yes please!
*Download this Guide for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities to assist in your planning by Universal Orlando Resort.
Walking aimlessly without a plan on that first day to the park was a disaster! We essentially ended up doing nothing but walking and getting frustrated. Dex does best when he knows what to expect. For example: In the AM one day we took advantage of early entry to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, we knew that Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey 4D ride was popular so we planned to beeline over to it and ride it first, second we planned Butterbeer, and then another ride while in Hogsmeade. All of that was a success! We then were planning on taking the train over to Diagon Alley to ride Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts. But My oldest son spotted the menu at the Three Broomsticks and since this wasn’t in our original plan Dex had a meltdown in line, screaming at the table, and an argument between Dex and his brother, resulting in him and I abandoning the remainder of the morning schedule. We should have seen that coming, we knew better. In retrospect, Dex and I should have split from my husband and Liam to continue with the plan. Lesson learned. By the way, the breakfast itself was super yummy. We had the traditional English breakfast and the pancake breakfast. Portions were big and were shareable.
TIP #12 Download the Universal Orlando Resort App
For us, we found the Universal Orlando Resort App to be helpful for current attraction wait times, closures, and descriptions; dining options, menus, and contact information for reservations. It has features for scanning in tickets and passes but we found this to be clunky and glitchy. Additionally, the App needs to be updated because Universal no longer has dining plan options and this is still included in the app. I would have LOVED for it to have a more robust step-by-step direction feature like google maps built-in, for my family, this would have been extremely helpful.
Tip #13 Consider a Personal Tracker
Elopement, wandering off, abduction, or separation by large crowds is always a concern in my mind. We were trying to get my son’s Verizon GizmoWatch reconnected but the model we had was too old for the updated software and we could not get a new one in time. Booooo! I love this basic smartwatch because it has a GPS app built in that you can track on an app; automatic call answering if they don’t pick up; texting and phone calling to a limited number of pre-approved persons. In case of separation, it could lead you right to them. The plus for me is the relatively low cost. Additionally, here is another review by Safewise on the Verizon GizmoWatch❤️ We also looked at the AngelSense Tracker. This can be put into one of their watch bands, armbands, or clipped into clothing. It is very cool and worth checking out! In the end, we didn’t need a tracker because Dex was always wanting to stay close and hold our hands. This was a nice treat for the hubs and me, so we soaked it up! 💙❤️
Tip #14 Don’t Forget to Appreciate the Little Things
Sometimes it’s the unplanned family moments that bring the most joy. Pool time was where we had some of the best smiles and family time.
At this time we are not being paid for our opinions or recommendations.