I barely survived the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland when I was three, so I wondered if Bennett, my six-year-old autistic son, would embrace a pirate’s life or stage an epic tantrum in the middle of New Orleans Square from sensory overload when our family flew south to Anaheim, Calif., on vacation. But it turns out the famous resort, along with sister park, Disney California Adventure, is dedicated to inclusion and has a range of services to help guests with mobility, visual, hearing and cognitive disabilities enjoy the iconic family destination. 

“Guest relations will help you plan your stay,” says Christian Leon, Disneyland guest services entertainment manager. “They will look at your family’s needs and walk you through what a day might look like.” 

Here’s what worked for our family. 

Disability Access Service Card

This pass, obtained at Guest Relations’ main-entrance locations, allows visitors to go to Guest Relations kiosks throughout the parks to receive a return time to rides. It’s gold for a kid like Bennett, who doesn’t want to wait in long lines.We virtually walked right on to the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Gadget’s Go Coaster and other popular rides. Disneyland also publishes several guides for guests who are differently abled (available on the Disneyland website), including one for guests on the autism spectrum, which details what kids can expect on each ride (flashing lights, loud noises, etc.) and suggests “break areas” where those with sensory issues can go to decompress. 

Planes, trains and automobiles

New attractions at Disney California Adventure such as Radiator Springs Racers get all the hype, but it was these fantasy-fuelled rides that freaked Bennett out—seeing talking cars “come to life” on a ride can be unsettling for kids with cognitive challenges. So we were pleased Disneyland still has good old-fashioned rides like Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Casey Jr. Circus Train and Autopia—Bennett’s favourite.

Location, location, location

Staying “on campus” at the Disneyland Hotel, close to Downtown Disney District and the monorail—a direct conduit to Tomorrowland and Autopia—was key. We were just a train ride away from the hotel room, and the hotel’s three swimming pools, for some downtime. We also took advantage of Extra Magic Hour, a perk that lets hotel guests enter either Disneyland or Disney California Adventure (depending on the day of the week) an hour before the general public.

Gluten-free dining

Bennett follows a gluten-free diet, which poses challenges when travelling. We loved Goofy’s Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel, where a chef visited our table at my request and then brought Bennett an order of gluten-free pancakes. While all Disney restaurants can accommodate food allergies or intolerances, we did run into a dietary hurdle inside Disneyland at night—it’s so busy, we couldn’t find a sit-down restaurant with availability (we didn’t make a reservation since it can be hard to plan ahead with a special needs child).

Final tip: Disneyland is “The Happiest Place On Earth” but that means everyone in the world wants to be there, usually at the same time. If you’re travelling with a special-needs guest, plan your visit for early in the week (Monday to Wednesday) and outside of common holidays to avoid the heaviest crowds. 

Getting There: WestJet flies to Los Angeles 32 times a week from Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, and to Orange County once a day from Vancouver.