Last week we finally got around to attending the D23 Expo in Anaheim, California.
D23 (D is for Disney and the 23 the year 1923 when Walt Disney founded the Company) is the official fan-club expo started by the company in 2009 and held every alternate year since.
The concept behind it was to give loyal fans a more in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at all the company’s projects; from future movies to theme park expansions.
The convention is highly popular and attracts more than 20,000 visitors during its three-day duration in August. Despite turning out to be one of the hottest weekends of the summer, the large crowds, and long lines; our son with autism managed to have a reasonably good time.
So, if you are a parent to a child with autism and are considering attending the D23; here answers to questions you might have.
Should young kids attend?
The expo is structured and geared towards teens and adult guests more than younger fans.
Aside from waiting in long lines to enter the different rooms, young children or kids with autism may find it difficult to sit through the actual panels which can range anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours.
There are specially priced children’s tickets available for those ages 3 – 9. Under three’s receive complimentary admission to the D23 EXPO.
For parents who do decide to bring their young child, the Expo provides a designated Family Play area with seating, entertainment, and games on the second floor.
Where is the best place to stay?
If your budget is somewhat flexible, strive to stay as close as you can to the convention hall so your child with autism can take a break if they get overwhelmed or overstimulated; or if you need to run pick up any items you forgot in your hotel.
The two properties closest are the Hilton Anaheim and the Marriott Suites Anaheim. Make sure you book early to grab the best prices, as these hotels tend to fill up months in advance.
Are costumes recommended?
Some guests do come dressed up, but if your kid has sensory issues, I’d strongly advise against it.
Most of the costumes sold in stores aren’t comfortable enough to wear for prolonged periods of time; especially if one needs to sit on the floor.
Also, bear in mind that if you or your child dress up, you might spend your Expo time posing for others’ pictures instead of enjoying the exhibits.
What to pack?
Since you’ll be standing on your feet or sitting on floors most of the day, you should bring along the most comfortable pair of shoes and pants you can.
The Expo doesn’t make public announcements in the event of a child getting lost so carrying two phones to communicate with one another in case you get separated along with a cord to recharge the devices is a good idea.If your kid is nonverbal then temporary tattoos or clothes patches should be used to help him or her be identified fast.
An additional benefit of bringing the phones is that it can entertain your kid if he or she needs to wait in any lines.
What’s there to see?
Depending on your child’s interests there are quite a few choices to consider. The key is in the initial planning. You need to pre-plan your days at the Expo just like you’d plan your day in the theme park.
Use the D23 website and mobile app to find out which presentations and pavilions to attend and where each one held, so you don’t waste precious time running around looking for the particular room.
Since there are several presentations given at the same time, you will need to pick which one to attend and arrive at the assigned room, at least, a half an hour before the doors open (for the sought -after presentations you need to come even earlier.)
If your child needs a break, the convention lobby is a great place to people-watch and strike up a conversation. It can be especially fun to see the homemade costumes.
At this year’s expo, the presentations included introductions to Walt Disney’s, Pixar’s and Lucasfilms’ new movies, multiple celebrity appearances; as well as the reveal of the Star War planned expansion in the US theme parks!
The Expo featured Live performances at the Disney Channel and Disney Radio booths with presentations from the Disney archives and Disney Imagineering.
There was an entire section dedicated to toys and video games and all the Disney memorabilia imaginable to gawk at and buy for the avid shoppers.
Where to eat?
The Expo boasted diverse food venues both inside the convention building all cafeteria style, as well as outside food trucks.There were long lines at lunch time especially the indoors places, sparse seating and few options for guests with special diets.So, my recommendation is that attendees with special dietary should bring their food.
Is the Expo autism- friendly?
This is the million-dollar question.
The Expo states on their website that it can accommodate special needs attendees of all types including those using wheelchairs and service dogs and that requests can be helped by the guest service personnel in the lobby.
However, in reality, the accommodations varied and were not consistent.
On the first day of the Expo (Friday) our son was let into the building fast without needing to sit in the long lines outside which was a blessing since the temperature outside that day was quite high and he is temperature intolerant.
He was also helped to get a stage pass so he could attend the Inside Out panel he wanted to see.Later that afternoon he asked to attend Pixar’s presentation and was also let in with little wait after explaining his condition.
Things didn’t go as well the following day Saturday when there were many more visitors than the day before.
He wanted to attend the Lucasfilm and Marvel presentation for which people started queuing the night before.
When we arrived five hours before the doors opened there were already thousands in line. We went back and forth asking guest services and the staff at the hall’s entrance for accommodations, but no one could tell us where to go. An hour later as he tried again to enter the room he was told the event had been sold out.He got highly agitated and experienced a serious meltdown that continued for over an hour. The staff there was nothing short of amazing -they worked on calming him down and were well trained in de-escalation techniques.
As the time neared, a kind staffer was able to secure us two seats in the room which needless to say ‘made our day.
Disney needs to formulate more transparent policy when it comes to persons with autism explaining when and where to go to ask for accommodations.
Tips for minimizing wait times
If you’d like to shop in one of the three official venues without standing in the long lines, go to the pass store desk in hall A and ask for a Store Pass that gives you priority entry and a designated time slot to go and shop.
This applies to the Disney Dream Store, Disney Store, and Mickey’s of Glendale, too.
If you don’t wish to ask for special accommodations but still want to get priority entrance to panels, the Expo offers a system of stage passes that you can get at the designated desk in the hall.
Be aware that this is only applicable for panels that start at 11 a.m., and you can only get one stage pass at a time so if you wish to attend more than one panel you have to go back and get a separate pass before each panel starts.
StagePass tickets are not available for Hall D23 sessions, or for presentations scheduled before 11:00 a.m. in Stage 23 and Stage 28 so if you would like to attend any of these presentations you need to ask Guest Services for help.
Autism Travel Tips
- The best way to start preparing your kid is to show them video clips and pictures from past events that are available online.
- Make sure you print a copy of the building map and acquaint your child with the location of the different halls.
- We didn’t do that and spent valuable time the first day getting lost in all the different rooms.
- Teach them how to use the phone app to check for new updates.
- Discuss and formulate a plan B if you can’t get seats for a specific panel that they wish to attend.
- Explain the reality that they may not see all conferences because of time and logistics.
- Shopping is an integral component of the Expo so make sure you set a spending budget to avoid arguments and potential meltdowns.
As longtime Disney fans, attending the D23 was a special treat for us.
Though, things didn’t go as planned (do they ever?) my son looks back and remembers all the fun times he had.
In fact, he is looking forward to booking his tickets for the next Expo as soon as they are released, sometime in January of 2016.
Hopefully, the above tips will be helpful to you as you plan for the D23 of 2017, and you will be inspired to join us.