Traveling as an individual with autism or as a parent of child, teen or adult who is on the autism spectrum can be a difficult, frustrating and overwhelming process for everyone. Having a knowledgeable advocate by your side every step of the way who not only knows the ins and outs of Universal Orlando Resort as well as the accommodations they offer - but also understands the unique struggles, has been a huge relief to so many of the families that I tailor trips for.
A little about me, I am an incredibly passionate Certified Autism Travel Professional (CAPT) who specializes in autism travel. Although I adore helping families of all kinds, I am most enthusiastic regarding assisting families like mine as I am a mother of two awesome teenagers who happen to both be on the autism spectrum. Both of my children are amazing and are as different and unique as fingerprints. Making memories and traveling has been and continues to be a priority to expose my children to not only the things that they love but things that help them learn and grow! Traveling has always been a passion of mine, but it hasn't always been easy. I have learned a lot in the last 16 years about myself as well as my children. Which has helped me become the advocate I am today for individuals on the autism spectrum and their loved ones.
If you would like an advocate on your side to assist you with the planning of your Universal Orlando Resort vacation, you have come to the right place. The best part is, if you book a vacation package with me - you will not pay a penny more than if you booked directly through Universal Parks & Resorts, however, the value of the services that I provide my clients is truly priceless!
When to Travel
I have found that traveling when schools are in session typically helps with overall crowds at the parks but if you do not have that flexibility, I completely understand that as well. I have planned very successful trips during Spring Break, Thanksgiving Week and Christmas/New Years Weeks (some of Universal's busiest times of the year) that required a lot more planning and patience but were successful and just as magical! I will tailor your trip based on your unique needs.
Because I have experienced Universal Parks & Resorts every month of the year over the last few years, there are specific months/weeks that I have found are best when deciding when to travel. Some of my absolute favorite times to go to Universal based on crowd levels, weather, décor and special events are as follows:
Mid January - Mid February
September - Mid October
November - Mid December
While Universal Orlando Resort is a truly magical place to visit, it can be challenging for a neurotypical person when it is too hot or too crowded, so imagine this feeling multiplied 10x for a person on the spectrum. As a general (not steadfast) rule, I recommend avoiding Universal during the peak summer months, during Spring Break weeks and over the Christmas and New Years holidays. With all that in mind, ANY TIME really is the perfect time to visit as long as it works for YOUR family. We will create a MAGICAL trip that works best for YOU and YOUR loved ones unique needs!
Any vacation is an investment and the costs associated can add up. I recommend having a clear budget in place when you begin to move forward with your planning process. This will help us determine how many days to visit the Parks, which resort hotel accommodations best fit your needs, and which Extras to add to your vacation.
Staying onsite offers unique benefits that truly make visiting the Parks easier for those on the spectrum. For instance, the water taxis (offered at Premier and Preferred resorts) that transport you to/from Universal CityWalk are our favorite ways to travel to the parks. They are typically less crowded and offer a unique way to get to the parks without the stress of parking in the garage and getting through general security, which is a very stressful process for us. This saves so much time and stress! However, if a Premier or Preferred level resort is not in your budget, they also have Prime and Prime Value resorts which fit in most budgets! There are honestly a plethora of options for customizing your vacation to your family’s needs and budget. However, there are still some cases where staying offsite is the best match for my clients with unique needs.
Working through the process together will help us determine which options are the best for you and your family. Items to consider in your overall budget: airfare or gas, parking (daily resort parking or Universal CityWalk parking if staying offsite), Stroller, wheelchair or ECV/scooter rental(s), meals and snacks, and souvenirs.
Length of Trip and Theme Park Days
If it is feasible in your budget, I recommend the following minimum Universal Orlando Resort schedule for a 6 Day/5 Night Universal Orlando Vacation:
Day 1: Arrival
Day 2: Theme Park 1 Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure
Day 3: Theme Park 2 Volcano Bay
Day 4: REST DAY (Casual Resort Pool Day/Universal CityWalk)
Day 5: Theme Park 3 Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure
Day 6: Departure
There are three total Universal Orlando Resort parks that are unique and offer something a little different when it comes to attractions, characters, entertainment and shows.
Universal Orlando Resort Theme Parks
1. Universal Studios Florida
Jump right into the action of your favorite movies at Universal Studios at Universal Orlando Resort! This amazing park features The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley, Transformers: The Ride-3D, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, The Simpsons, SpongeBob and Friends, Revenge of the Mummy, and so much more! Park to park tickets allow you to ride the Hogwarts Express, which I strongly recommend whether you are an avid Harry Potter fan or not!
2. Islands of Adventure
At Universal's Islands of Adventure, shows and interactive stories bring your favorite stories, myths cartoons, comic book heroes and children's tales to life! Islands of Adventure is the stuff legends are made of featuring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogmeade, Jurassic Park, Jurassic World Velocicoaster, Marvel, Seuss Landing, and so much more!
3. Volcano Bay
Set in a lush tropical setting, this park boasts 18 incredible attractions, including some that take you right through the iconic volcano. Unique daytime and nighttime experiences make it an entire day’s worth of fun. Guests can rent two-story cabanas and enjoy concierge services and other resort-like amenities for a relaxing day of fun! The park’s been designed so there’s no standing in long lines or carrying inner tubes from ride to ride. Guests will be granted the powers of the TapuTapu™ wearable. With just a touch of a wrist you can hold your place in the ride lines and reveal wondrous surprises throughout the park. Its ideal location at Universal Orlando™ makes it easily accessible to guests of the resort’s on-site hotels.
When visiting Universal Orlando Resort, there will be a lot of walking. We typically walk between 5 - 10 miles per day when visiting. Comfortable shoes are a must! Even with comfortable shoes, this can be challenging for individuals that are not used to this much physical exertion during the day. We always like to build in a rest day to have a resort pool day. Ashton LOVES the water so this works out best for us. Other families may use that time to do a little casual shopping and dining in Universal CityWalk.
Advanced Ticket Purchase/Ticket Syncing
Advanced ticket purchase is essential to limit standing in line at the ticket windows at the theme parks the day of your visit. As your travel agent, I will work with you to ensure we purchase the right ticket package to meet your needs and budget. I will also give you step by step instructions on the best ways to check in and procure your tickets on the day you arrive so that you are able to get settled in and not have to wait in unnecessary lines the day of your visit to the parks! As a mother to two children on the autism spectrum, I fully understand how each interaction and step in the day's plans has the ability to impact the bigger picture of the entire day for each unique individual with autism. It is my job to help you streamline as much of that as possible to ensure smooth transitions and enjoyment of your magical day!
Stroller and Wheelchair Rental
If necessary, your party can rent a stroller, wheelchair or ECV/motorized scooter for a day or more at Universal Orlando Resort. Designated shops are located near the main entrances of the parks. Several private rental companies are also available in the local area and can provide a stroller, wheelchair and/or ECV/motorized scooter for the length of your stay (instead of having to rent one each day from the parks). They can drop off and pick up your device at your chosen Universal Orlando Resort hotel. Another perk, is that you will be able to have the device with you at all times and not just in the parks! I will be able to provide you with recommendations are price comparisons based on your unique needs.
Stroller As Wheelchair
Guests with disabilities—including those with autism—who need to remain in a stroller while in an attraction queue (for sensory and/or mobility or other concerns) should visit the Guest Relations Lobby at the theme park on your first day in order to obtain the appropriate identifying tag. I recommend having one party member stand in line (if possible) so that the remaining party members can shop or do something fun at the start of the day instead of having the first activity after entering the parks - standing in a line. Once you have your stroller tag, you can use it each day you are in a park for the length of your stay. Note: There is a Guest Relations area before you enter the parks but this location is usually much more crowded than the one inside the park. While here you should also obtain your Attraction Assistance Pass (if needed).
At attractions that have stroller parking, simply show the tag to the Cast Members at the ride queue entrance, and they will open up the line and let you continue with your stroller or will direct you to an alternate entrance. If the loading and unloading areas are in different places for an attraction, the ride attendants will take your stroller to the unloading area for you.
Child Swap/Rider Swap
Parties with more than 2 Guests may be able to take advantage of the attraction Rider Swap program, which enables you to experience an attraction while another member of your party waits with the Guest who does not ride. You then “swap” to enable the other party member to enjoy the attraction without having to wait in line again. Here is an example of how it works: Mom, Dad, Older Brother, and Younger Brother want to go on a ride, but Younger Brother is not tall enough or doesn't want to ride. They all enter the queue together and walk to the loading area. Then, Mom and Older Brother jump on first, while Dad and Younger Brother wait off to the side. When the ride is over, Mom and Older Brother wait with Younger Brother while Dad gets his turn. Once complete, everyone exits the attraction together.
To use the system, inform the attendant stationed in front of the ride’s entrance that you would like to use Child Swap. It is important to ask before you enter the queue, because each attraction handles Child Swap a little differently; some feature separate rooms, others have designated areas, and one or two may have a separate line depending on just how busy the parks are when you visit.
Attractions Offering Rider Switch:
Universal Studios Florida Fast & Furious - Supercharged
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
Men In Black Alien Attack
Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
Revenge of the Mummy
the Simpsons ride
Transformers: The Ride-3D
Universal's Islands of Adventure The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
Doctor Doom's Fearfall
Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls
Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
The Incredible Hulk Coaster
Jurassic Park River Adventure
Jurassic World VelociCoaster
Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges
Skull Island: Reign of Kong
The theme parks offer a wide variety of amazing shows and rides for you and your party to experience. If waiting in a traditional queue is not realistic for you loved one, the Attraction Assistance Pass (AAP) is what you will want to acquire. The Attraction Assistance Pass (AAP) is intended for Guests who have difficulty tolerating extended waits in a conventional queue environment due to disability. This service doesn’t provide immediate access to experiences, but rather allows Guests to request a return time for a specific experience that is comparable to the current standby wait. This allows the Guest using AAP to experience other attractions in the park, take a break, or grab a snack instead of physically waiting in the standby line.
To obtain an Attraction Assistance Pass (AAP), you must visit Guest Relations, which is located on the right hand side immediately after you enter the parks. You will need to explain what makes it difficult for your family member to wait in a traditional queue. You do not need to mention a specific disability, but some people find it helpful. Just explain (in as much detail as possible) what happens if you are to wait in a traditional line and how it affects your loved one with autism. Some guests choose to bring a note from a medical provider, but it is not necessary and most likely will not be read by the team member.
The AAP is a thick paper pass that will need to be presented at each ride throughout your day at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. It's a little large to fit in the traditional lanyard pouches, so I suggest ordering a larger zipper pouch from Amazon prior to your trip so that you can keep track of the pass and it won't get wet and fall apart. As a general rule, I recommend lanyards and lanyard pouches for each party member. This makes keeping track of tickets, as well as Express Passes (if applicable) so much easier.
How To Use The Attraction Assistance Pass (AAP)
At each ride or attraction you would like to experience, display your AAP to the team member located at the entrance to the ride (you will typically look for the cast member with the clip board in hand). If the posted wait time is less than 30 minutes, you will be directed to the Express Pass line or an alternate entrance. If the posed wait time is 30 mins or more, the ride attendant will write a return time on the pass indicating the time you can return to the ride. When your return time arrives, you will return to the attendant and they will direct you to the Express Pass line or an alternative entrance.
It's important to note that you can only have one return time active at a time, so once you obtain a return time - you will not be able to obtain another return time until you have ridden the first ride and it gets crossed off. We will usually grab a snack, see a show, or find an attraction with less than a 30 minute wait. This is a lot more difficult on busy park days.
Each attraction at Universal Orlando Resort is a bit different from the next and may feature a variety of special effects including scents, flashing lights, loud noises and periods of darkness that vary in length. For more information on experiences all across Universal Orlando Resort, please download the Attraction Details for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities below.
Combining the AAP with Universal Express Passes
We have found that on very busy park days where most rides have a wait of over 30 minutes, combining the benefits of Universal's Unlimited Express Passes with the AAP is the most beneficial for our family as the traditional AAP just doesn't work on the busiest park days. If your budget allows you to do both, it is definitely the BEST option in accessing the rides as you will really only need to obtain a return time for Jurassic World's VelociCoaster and Hagrid's Motorbike Adventure. While you are waiting for those rides, you can immediately access any other attraction in the park. This is by far the LEAST headache we have found to accessing Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. If you stay in a Premier Resort, the Universal Unlimited Express Pass is included! This is by far the best value that we have found, I will help you price out all the options to find out what works best for your family!
The Official Universal Orlando Resort App
The Universal Orlando App is essential for your vacation! This will be the best way to plan your day and effectively manage your AAP as you can check current ride times throughout your day from anywhere in the park. This will help you choose shows and rides to access while waiting for a return time. This will also show you where updated character meet and greet locations are throughout your day. To learn more about what you can do with the app, check out my 'Universal Orlando App...' post.
There are many break areas within Universal Orlando Resort for guests that may become over-stimulated or need some down time in a quiet and less crowded space, many areas are available throughout the parks where a Guest can “take a break.”
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS FLORIDA
Front of the Park – Family Health Services
New York Public Library
Health Services located between Louie’s Italian Restaurant and Fast & Furious - Supercharged
Central Park along the park lagoon
Alternative Areas with Limited Visitation or Good Viewing Distractions
Music Plaza area (select times)
Diagon Alley™ — exit pathway next to Sugarplum’s Sweetshop (benches in the alcove near the exit)
Coca-Cola Refreshment Station in World Expo — to the right of MIB Gear store
Curious George Goes to Town play area — water features
UNIVERSAL’S ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE
Front of the Park — Family Health Services
Health Services located in The Lost Continent
Port of Entry Plaza — lower landing
Toon Lagoon — lagoon near Me Ship, The Olive®
Alternative Areas with Limited Visitation or Good Viewing Distractions:
Seuss Landing™ — Sneech Beach
Seuss Landing™ — area between One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish™ and The Cat in the Hat™
Marvel Super Hero Island® — along the waterfront
The Lost Continent — lower landing behind Mythos Restaurant
UNIVERSAL’S VOLCANO BAY
Taniwha Pathway — Accessible by entering near the River Village smoking area or the Maku Puihi entrance.
Volcano Cavern Pathway — Accessible to the right of Kala Tai Nui entrance or the pathway leading up from Krakatau Aqua Coaster.
Lower level along the waterfront
In addition to multiple men’s and women’s restroom facilities throughout the parks, companion restrooms are also available in select locations. Each is larger than a traditional restroom which can be helpful if a Guest needs assistance or requires that someone accompany him or her.
Please note: many of the restrooms use automatic toilet flushing equipment which may be loud.
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS FLORIDA
Front of the park next to Health Services by the Studio Audience Center
In New York to the left of Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
Health Services located between Louie’s Italian Restaurant and Fast & Furious – Supercharged
In San Francisco across from Richter’s Burger Co.
In The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ – Diagon Alley™ across from The Fountain of Fair Fortune
Between Springfield’s Fast Food Boulevard™ and Animal Actors On Location! stadium
In Hollywood next to Mel’s Drive-In
UNIVERSAL’S ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE
Front of the park next to Health Services by Guest Services
At Health Services located in The Lost Continent
UNIVERSAL’S VOLCANO BAY
Next to the Honu ika Moana entrance
Next to the Ohyah & Ohno Drop Slides entrance
Across from the Taniwha Tubes – Tonga & Raki exit
Dietary Needs and Accommodations
Universal Orlando Resort can accommodate most food allergies, intolerances and specific dietary needs. Advance requests can be made when booking a dining reservation, or by speaking with the chef or manager on duty at most table-service restaurants across the Resort.
All Guests with food allergies or intolerances are also allowed to bring food items into the parks. Before entering, inform the Cast Member at bag check that a Guest in your party has a food allergy or intolerance. Please note: Cast Members are strictly prohibited from storing, preparing, cooking or reheating any food brought into the parks.
When planning your Universal Orlando Resort vacation, it can be helpful to research the restaurants at each park as well as what is offered on each menu to determine whether it will fit your loved one’s dietary needs or food aversions. If you provide me with a list of preferred foods, I can assist you by providing a list of the appropriate quick service and table service restaurants at each park (as well as each resort hotel) that serve your preferred food items.
Shows, Parades and Fireworks
Check your Universal Orlando Resort App for updated times and locations. Fireworks, Parades and shows can be loud, so ensuring you have those noise cancelling headphones , ear plugs or ear buds we have found to be extremely helpful.
How to Prepare For Your Trip
Knowing what to expect is crucial in making your experience a successful adventure—not just for the guest on the autism spectrum, but for the entire family.
Use a Visual Schedule and/or Itinerary By providing a possible timeline, you can help your loved one understand what to expect—such as crowds, sights, sounds and smells—and so that they can learn the routine.
First create a list of the highest priority rides, attractions and character interactions as a family getting input from each person on their most important to do items. I will then help you build an itinerary based on that information.
There are many ways to create a visual schedule. We suggest starting with the activities that you know will occur, such as how you will travel to the Theme Parks, the time you plan on entering the Theme Parks, and/or the times of parades or shows you plan to view. Next, fill in the remaining times with possible rides or attractions. Use a question mark or change card to build flexibility into the schedule. Review the visual schedule routinely with your family member before your visit so they have an idea of what to expect. If your family member with autism works with a therapist, consider asking them for their advice. As your Travel Agent, I will help you develop a plan for your day based on your unique needs in order to create the visual schedule and social story if appropriate. We can be as detailed in your plans as your family member needs.
Watch Videos Rather than waiting until you arrive at the parks, help prepare for the experiences you will encounter by watching videos together about the attractions at Universal Orlando Resort. Becoming familiar with each ride queue as well as each ride will help prepare everyone for the trip. This will also allow you to come up with a must experience list as well as a must avoid list (if applicable).
Study Location Maps Comprehensive maps and guides are available for all 3 parks. Review the maps together with your family and try to lay out a plan for your day at the park. Download and print the park maps here:
Choose a Meeting Location Pick a place on the map at each park to meet in case your party becomes separated. Be sure the guest with autism is aware of the location and physically show it to them as soon as you arrive in the park.
Should they get lost, stress the importance of finding a Team Member who will assist in attempting to reunite you. In addition, there are also designated locations in each park where lost persons can be escorted.
It is recommended that you take a photo of your loved one with autism - on your mobile device or digital camera, every day of your vacation especially if he or she has a tendency to wander off (like my son). You may also consider making a nametag or use a temporary safety tattoo that includes his or her name, as well as your name and mobile phone number.
Practice Waiting in Line Waiting in line is a regular part of the Universal Orlando Resort experience. To prepare, practice waiting in line at home or in lines at places he or she might already frequent. If you can, practice waiting in lines at the grocery store, ice cream shop, etc. Talk with your family member about waiting in line, and consider using a social story if suitable and developmentally appropriate.
Check the Forecast
The weather in Central Florida often has inclement weather, including sudden thunderstorms and rain showers, particularly in the afternoon during the summer months. If your family member with autism is sensitive to lightning and thunder, consider visiting the Theme Parks during the morning or evening, and check the forecast ahead of time. Please note that certain rides and attractions may be unavailable, including due to inclement weather. Preparing the family member about the possibility of weather impacting the schedule and what will happen can be very important if changes to routine is a trigger.
A vacation is often filled with laughter, smiles, and excitement, but also can include an abundance of sensory stimulation that can be overwhelming for those on the autism spectrum. If your loved one has difficulty with crowds, loud noises, and smells, it is best to start preparing months before your vacation. Taking short trips to places with variable crowd levels, such as the mall, Chuck E Cheese, etc. can be an excellent way for you to get a deeper understanding of how they will respond. It also allows you to anticipate adjustments as you get closer to your Universal Orlando Resort vacation.
Prepare For Flying
Especially if this will be your loved one's first time flying, having additional resources will help ease anxiety and the fear of the unknown. Having a advocate travel agent on your side when navigating these new experiences is invaluable. There are several supports that I provide to my clients that help ease the stressors of air travel. One of the supports is a social story that can help your loved one become familiar with the process so they understand each step! Feel free to download it below:
What to Pack
Being prepared for a day at Universal Orlando Resort goes beyond the parks. Plan ahead by bringing along an assortment of items. The items below are in addition to the normal list that I provide my clients with a few items that make any trip to Universal Orlando Resort an easier and more enjoyable experience.
A Safety Bracelet or Nametag If your loved one with autism has difficulties with communication or is non-verbal, it is vital to have a contact card, nametag or band prepared before your trip. It can be helpful to put this card inside of a Universal lanyard with their favorite character on it to help encourage them to wear it. If your child has sensory sensitivities with things on their neck, you can also have a medical alert bracelet made for them to wear.
Place a bracelet, nametag or some variety of visual identification onto your loved one with autism, if appropriate. We have used temporary safety tattoos as well. Include his or her name, a reference to autism especially if non-verbal or in cases of limited expressive communication, all important medical information such as allergies and anything else that should be known in case of an emergency. Please include your name and contact number as well.
Ear Plugs or Noise Cancelling Headphones The theme parks can be very noisy, including fireworks, announcements on loud speakers, loud echoes in interior ride queues and other Guests’ voices. For guests with auditory sensitivities, it can be completely overwhelming. Ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones may contribute toward a less intense experience for the individual with sensory sensitivities.
A Favorite Device or Activity To keep occupied while waiting in a line, it is suggested you bring along a computer tablet, mobile phone or mobile device, video games, or anything else constructive you feel might distract their attention while waiting.
Also, if your child has a favorite comfort item like a blanket or stuffed animal, make sure to bring it!
Reinforcers for Good Behavior A trip to the theme parks at Universal Orlando Resort can be very long. Help promote a full day of fun by keeping highly preferred and motivational items handy to reinforce good behavior.
Sensory Items Keeping calm might be an issue due to the sights, sounds, scents and commotion at any one of the parks. Have a sensory toy on hand—like a stress balls, squishy balls, weighted lap pad or other calming item—to help prevent or assist in calming sensory overload.
Are you ready to start planning?