Contributed by Jim Monroe
Cruising with a special needs child can be done; it can even be one of the best vacations you have ever taken. Whether you book with AotS or Disney you can rest assured that the staff will do everything in their power to make your trip legendary. Our cruise had 11 families with individuals from age 2 to 18 and there was also an adult with autism on-board.
My son, Evan is 7 and has non-verbal autism. He “talks” via software on one of his Apple devices. We booked the October AotS cruise on the Fantasy, as our first attempt at cruising with Evan. Like many others, we were very apprehensive but the trip was fantastic.
Autism on the Seas is a special needs travel agency and the cruise is booked directly through them. AotS benefits include the therapists (a 3-1 ratio, each have a degree or working toward degree in special needs) which help the kids to have the best time possible. From the beginning of the cruise with the priority waiting and embarkation area to the private group muster drill, to helping with any needs during the meals as well. Disembarkation is also done as a group and we were the second group to leave the ship. The group sits together for the meals, but if you want you can be seated at your own table. On the first day there is an introductory meeting with the staff so they can talk with you about your child to determine an individual approach. Prior to sailing, a questionnaire was completed as well.
During the cruise there are multiple daily respite times (usually 1-2 hours at a time) where the kids can go with the therapists to the kids clubs or a private lounge to play. This can be a welcome relief for the parents as well. Pool time, beach time, and even special times set aside for the various ships features like the Aquaduck are also included with AotS. Special viewing areas during the castaway party, the Pirates Party and even in the evening show each night were provided. A private character meet and greet was also a highlight of the cruise.
Even though I would recommend AotS, it should not be the determining factor. Disney is fantastic with responding to the needs of the cruisers. The cast members in the kids club were fantastic and also interacted with the kids during respite time and adapted to the special needs. The dining room server (Denis) went above and beyond to insure a pleasant meal for us. Whether it was a special diet, a special food, or having it ready early; we never even had to ask for anything. Denis would even ask us what Evan would want the next day, usually nothing that was “on the menu”. Evan’s drink, fruit and yogurt was on the table when we were seated. If Evan wasn’t eating what we thought he might, Dennis would bring something else. He had asked about any special dietary requirements previously which we don’t have; Evan is just very picky. Denis even sent food to Castaway Cay for Evan to eat for lunch. All the cast members were exceptional, whether affiliated with Autism on the Seas or with Disney and I would recommend cruising with Disney 100%. AotS is just a bonus.
NOTE: Below is a link to a PDF developed by Disney Cruise Line “Information for Guests with an Autism Spectrum Disorder”. It’s a great piece and literally takes you through many stages of the cruise that could represent challenges and how DCL will work with you to get through them as easily as possible. https://wdpromedia.disney.go.com/media/wdpro-assets/dcl/finder/guest-services/guests-with-disabilities/DCL%20%20Information%20for%20ASD.pdf