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Autism, Talking Turtles, And The Magic Of Disney

I spent the last few days in Orlando, Florida with my husband’s extended family. His nieces and nephews were looking forward to the vacation for months in advance, because they were really excited about going to Disney World. However, two of their parents have disabilities – my sister-in-law has stage IV breast cancer with metastases to her hip (making it impossible for her to walk), and my other sister-in-law is married to a man who is hearing impaired. Therefore, navigating theme parks can be a real challenge for the family.

As a rehabilitation medicine specialist, I’m always interested in learning about special accommodations for the disabled. So I contacted Bob Minnick, the Technical Director of Global Accessibility and Facility Safety at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, to find out what Disney had to offer guests with disabilities.

Bob kindly agreed to meet me at his office on the Disney World grounds, and we had an animated 2 hour conversation about all the exciting programs that his team of engineers have designed. I was impressed with the depth and breadth of services they offer and thought I should let my readers know about them – because even if you or a loved one has a disability, you can still experience “the magic of Disney.”

But before I explain the specifics of the special programs at Disney, I wanted to pause to tell you a true story based on some information that Bob shared with me.


A young, non-verbal teen with autism (we’ll call him Johnny) was raised in rural America by two loving parents with scarce resources. They spent all their extra income on services for their son, hoping to give him the best chance at social integration possible. Johnny liked to watch cartoons, and was partial to Disney movies. He spent lots of time viewing them, replaying them many times over. His mom would often try to engage him in conversation about the cartoon characters, but sadly, he remained silent.

Years passed and the parents saved up their money to take Johnny on a trip to Disney World since they knew how much it would mean to him. He had been watching Finding Nemo a lot, and they wondered if somewhere inside his mind he could relate to the little fish with the weak fin. So when they were poring over the Disney theme park brochures and found a show at Epcot Center called “Turtle Talk” with Crush (the turtle character from Finding Nemo) they were determined to make sure that Johnny attended.

When they arrived at the auditorium one of the greeters realized that Johnny had special needs and asked if he’d like to sit in the front row. His mom’s heart skipped a beat – this was going to be a great day for Johnny.

As the lights dimmed and the crowd of kids hushed, a large, animated, moving model of Crush floated effortlessly towards the children in the front row. The blue lights and waving seaweed made the stage come alive with ocean wonder. Johnny fixed his eyes on Crush, transported to another sensory world.

As the sea turtle approached Johnny – almost nose to nose – it spoke to him. “Hello dude, how are you today?” Said the turtle.

And with a slow, deliberate voice, Johnny replied clearly, “Hello Crush. Nice to meet you.”

Johnny’s mom burst into tears and glanced at her husband as the two embraced their son – he had spoken his very first words right there in the auditorium in front of hundreds of people. And although no one else understood the significance of his response - to Johnny’s parents, it was the happiest day of their lives.

You might even say it was magical.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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2 Responses to “Autism, Talking Turtles, And The Magic Of Disney”

  1. PearlsAndDreams says:


    When my son was young, he carried the label of autism. That was changed to sensory integration dysfunction & auditory & visual processing disorder as well as Tourette’s with OCD. (which, for all intents and purposes … if you were to add in social skill issues, would look for all the world like autism. Thanks to intense therapies, we were able to get proper treatments and get to real issues. We did *not* “cure” his autism)

    He would not watch ‘regular’ TV. When he first started to allow the ‘insult’ of the visual stimulation of the television, it was only through black and white TV … and only Disney movies.

    I finally figured out it was the purity of their artwork. No fancy schmancy stuff to interfere with his processing ..and it didn’t move so quickly that he had to figure it all out before the scene had even finished.

    He was well past 5 before he could manage to watch typical kids watched (and that was Blues Clues).

    Disney and their artists, as well as their personal represtentatives at the parks to people with disabilities never ceases to amaze me in how they are able to reach to the very heart of people.

    (sorry for the soap box about ‘curing’ .. I always make sure I specify that, or inevitably, people want to know how we ‘cured’ it .when in fact, it was just a changing of diagnosis as proper treatments came about and we were able to get to the real diagnosis and issues)  

  2. RH Advocate Robin says:

     Dr. Val,  What a lyrical story. It is music to my ears.

    Our personal journey to Disney was not as anecdotal to autism, but speaks to the typical (non-disabled) world of young children. We took our quadruplets to Disney when they were 9. I requested a special needs pass from Disney headquarters, so that Paul, our son with autism would not have to wait in the long lines. Although the pass was sufficient for some exhibits or rides, it was not always effective at others…..consquently we had to wait, and wait…What struck me as ironic was that Paul’s behavior on that trip was perfect. His typical siblings were impossible! Go figure.



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