Monday, July 5, 2010

Disney with Disabilities? Can it be Done?

Vacationing with two children is never easy but throw in two servings of anxiety and extra helpings of hyperactivity and suddenly you wonder if you should just stay home and not bother trying to do "normal" things that are out of your reach.

That is how I felt occasionally when I went to DisneyWorld in Florida last week. I have been back for three days and I am still so tired. I feel so terrible that I feel like I am coming down with something but in truth, I know that it is nothing more than exhaustion and possibly medication withdrawal (will explain later).

There are so many things to discuss but maybe I can just focus on one aspect at a time, that is vacationing with a special needs child X 2 = FUN only if you have patience and realistic expectations.

My first plan for the vacation was all about being realistic. After having taken the kids to Sesame Place a month ago, I came to the conclusion that my kids should not be in a theme park for more than 3-4 hours. I knew I would be getting the disability passes for the kids so that line waiting would be cut down and we could get more rides in anyway. I also decided to stay longer than I normally would (whatever that means) and stay for 8 nights so we could take our time enjoying the parks.

I promised myself that I would plan each day, give the kids a lot of YouTube exposure about Disney before we left and when we got there, I would give my kids a checklist of the day's itinerary to reduce anxiety. Most importantly, I promised I would take us home early and relax in the pool by afternoon. Unfortunately, we rarely followed such plans.

What is ideal is all nice and good but then reality comes knocking and all that is ideal is left blatantly hanging on a hook on the wall so that you can't forget how stupid you are. The truth is, I was overwhelmed with planning the trip and the end of the school year brought about a lot of unexpected work that cut into my master vacation planning time. I didn't realize that DisneyWorld was that huge and while I did succeed in exposing them to Disney characters and many of the theme park attractions, I was not successful in figuring everything out before I got there.

I also didn't anticipate how much we needed to split up the kids. They are only three years apart and yet, their tastes, I found were already vastly different. Spencer likes easy spinning rides like Dumbo, the carousel, the tea cup ride. Logan wanted race cars, stunt shows and things to shoot like Buzz Lightyear's Ranger Spin.

Additionally, my husband didn't want to leave the park so early. This is what I mean by being realistic. Even though he agreed with me before we left that leaving the park early and relaxing by the pool in the afternoon should be the plan, he changed his mind like a teenage girl once we got there. I can understand that. The theme parks are feasts for the eyes and all you can do is think about what each attraction has to offer the children (and yourself). That is, unless you are me, with a three year old constantly whining and clinging onto you and challenging the little patience you have left in heat wave temperatures.

While we didn't want to, we really needed to separate the kids on the first day because it was obvious that both of them were losing their patience but to my great disappointment, Disney refused to give my children their own disability pass. Instead they had to share one. YES. This is true!!!! Two employees at the guest relations desk said that only one pass was given per "group" despite the group having more than one guest with a disability.

I explained to them that the kids were of different ages and that they would not enjoy the same attractions and they told me that the pass I was getting was "a really great thing" and that the other child could use the Fastpass option. I won't get into the Fastpass option right now but take my word for it, it is not the same thing as a disability pass. I was really peeved too. It was quite obvious that they were telling me that I was lucky to be getting what I was getting so I should stop my bitching.

I thought that maybe I just ran into two misinformed guest relations personnel but lo and behold, after an exhausting and frustrating first Disney day, I called Disney's customer service (for guests with disabilities) and they confirmed that this was indeed Disney's policy.


My kids are only three years apart but imagine if they were 7 years apart, both with disabilities and perhaps even very different disabilities? How could they be made to share the same pass? The whole point is to have them wait less to reduce any ill effect that a long waiting period could cause but waiting is exactly what would happen if they have to wait for each other to have his own thrill.

Of course, it would have been so much easier to just go into the guest relations office as two separate groups but who knew we would have to be stealthy this way? Of course, on the next day, that is exactly what we did. We went to a different Disney theme park and Kai went into the guest relations office without me and Logan and got Spencer his own pass. It was so easy. Like the day prior, no one asked for documentation although we did have it.

After we got the two separate passes, things were much easier by then. There were attractions that only one could really enjoy. To take advantage of the parks as much as they can, they should be allowed to repeat what they like and avoid what they don't like. Because they were of different ages, one child might even want to go to a totally different park. How can they share the same pass then?

Posing as two different families or "groups" is only the first lesson I learned at Disney. I also learned a few more things that I will randomly list below.

1. My kids were unbelievably oblivious to the disability pass, even my six year old had very few comments about it. I was relieved to not have to explain why we had it but it did sadden me. It is also possible that he knows what it was but didn't want to talk about being different as well. Either way, I did consult with his school psychologist about what to say in case our oldest son asked. We came up with "Mommy and Daddy got this pass to help keep your body calm." On a side note, Disney never asked me for documentation. I kind of wished they did. If the employees know it is so easy to get it, won't some of them be suspicious? Then again, what good is a note anyway? Anyone could make one up.

2. Except for the hugely ridiculous rule about only one pass per "group," I still am grateful that these passes exist. However, I do think that we as a family spent an awful lot of money on our vacation and that we just can not budget like other families do because of our special needs. Budgeting usually comes at the cost of the parents' sanity and if you know me, I have very little left to spare. I hope that Disney does know families like mine spend a lot of money in these parks. For example, I tried my very best to make sure they sat in table service restaurants even though they were very expensive because the fast-food places were unbelievably mobbed and many were outdoors so there was no air conditioning. Eating at the table service restaurants as a family were crucial to getting them fed allergy free foods and getting them to be safe while they ate.

3. Avoiding waiting on lines is not just about cutting the wait time. For some kids, it is also about cutting time spent in close quarters with a bunch of strangers aka your basic anxious kids' nightmare. Spencer freaked out when we got to the airport when he saw all the people there. Luckily, I found an attendant to help us check our bags in faster. I am sure we must have gotten evil stares but for those people who gave me the eyes, I just want to tell them that you would not like to have waited next to our family on that terribly long line. Do you want to hear my child crying inconsolably for an hour?

4. Never underestimate the lack of understanding about our children's disability. Because it is not physically visible, even fellow special needs families of guests in wheelchairs have given us a strange look. I remember for one attraction that was a show and not a ride, I asked if my "Guest Assistance Card" could help us with there and the Disney employee said "no," and I proceeded to wait online with everyone else. I only did it because it was moving quickly. However, when I got inside to the special "pre-show" area, I saw that there was a special area blocked off for people with wheelchairs to wait until they could be seated. That section was great for us because it kept us out of the crowd and therefore reduced Spencer's anxiety. However, it was in that same waiting area that a woman with a child jn a wheelchair ushered her family to come closer to her saying something like, "Wheelchairs should get in first." She obviously thought that I was hawking that spot "illegally." I casually explained to her why I was there. I know I didn't have to but I just had to.

Additionally, I stumbled upon DisneyWorld disability webpages after our trip and found that at least in these pages, they don't seem to include neurological disability as a disability for which they make accommodations but rather, all that they listed were for things for the wheelchair-bound, the visually-impaired and the hearing-impaired. Uh, has anyone told them about the new autism statistics yet? Maybe they missed that memo.

5. I should have realized that splitting up in the park would not be enough of a measure to prevent frustration. It is also just as important to be able to leave the park at a different time from the rest of your group. For example, the difference in Spencer's and Logan's age made it so that Logan could not only attend attractions for older kids but also, he could stay at the park a lot longer. Spencer on the other hand, lost interest in the park very quickly. He was ready to go home after just a couple of hours. I wished very much that I could have done that, instead, I missed two days at the theme park because Spencer and I couldn't handle another full half day at the park. He was invariably clingy to me when distressed and that made my life harder too. On one day, I had to carry him around everywhere because he hates strollers but he was too upset to walk around holding my hand. He either wanted to be left alone to run freely or be carried around. I decided that I rather have a backache than to lose him.

Note to self: If there is a next time, I will stay in a resort that connects to the Disney monorail so that I can leave the park in the middle of the day quickly and come back easily if I want. It might be more expensive but what else is new about vacationing with disabilities.

6. Why am I writing this last? It should have been first. The most important thing I should have done first was figure out what would be MY triggers and figure out how to avoid them. I barely gave this any thought. If I did think about this first then I would have never booked a vacation at the end of June in Florida where it is even more humid and hot than it is in New York. I lose my temper so quickly in this type of weather. For this trip, I did not lose my temper but rather, I internalized it all and so I felt extremely drained and frustrated. I also took benzodiapenes to help keep me calm. These usually have the effect of making me sleepy but nothing about that trip could make you sleepy so I used them but I had never used them so frequently. I was still using them within the doctor's guidelines but I realized that the side effect or possibly a withdrawal symptom was extreme fatigue. I woke up so tired everyday. I should have planned to work out my anxiety better.

7. We met friends from Logan's school down in Orlando and while we didn't go to the parks together, we did bump into each other at one of the rides and we also planned to have dinner together. That was a really great part of the trip and I hope I can do more such coordinating in the future. It was nice to be vacationing with a "sister." We shared info about certain attractions as well as vented via text messages when our kids drove us nuts. Kai was annoyed with all my texting but I loved to be able to talk to her during this time. The kids also liked being around familiar faces and so my next vacation, I am going to try to go where I can be with other families who have children that make my children feel good.

8. There are so many new experiences that made our kids' eyes grow wide with delight however, all of this was possible because I tried my best to make sure that they had as many comforts from home as they possibly could. My hotel room was a suite with a kitchen and two bedrooms. I had to do my own laundry and ate in more but that was more comfortable for the kids in the long run. Spencer went to sleep just as he usually did in our own home and that floored me because he is scared of soooo many things. Logan was just so happy to see his friends from school, even for the short time he saw them. A good dose of familiar given frequently throughout the day is therapeutic for us all even if it meant carrying around a favorite toy while they are in one of the biggest theme parks in the world. For me, I wish I had figured out where was the closest Korean restaurant and planned to eat there at least once. I think that would have been a definite mood changer.

9. Guilt. I tried very much not to have any of that. It was the key to having a good time and believe me, warding off any guilty feelings was a daily battle fought more than once a day. There were so many times I said, "I should have done this...." I hope to go back to Disney in the future and do it better next time around. Hopefully, I will find a like-minded family to travel with during a time when it is not as humid and hopefully I will have more money to spend so that I can stay very close to the parks. I also hope that Disney will change their rules for families traveling with more than one child with special needs. When I recover from my energy drain, that will be high on my priority list. They really need to change that rule.

10. Lastly, I have to remember to write a list of my kids' accomplishments and remind them of it as much as possible. Logan did great in facing his fears of scary things on some of the spookiest rides in the parks. He also rode a little mini-roller coaster and I think he was proud of himself for that. Additionally, his school shared with me a list of worries that Logan had about his vacation and the summer and I didn't know it but I think he didn't know how to process feeling worried and yet excited about the same thing; our vacation. It was so good to have a talk with him about it before leaving. I assured him that he would not be made to go on anything he didn't want to ride.

Spencer also surprised me because he went down a small slide in the "water park"in our hotel. He was really scared at first but he soon learned to enjoy it. He also challenged himself with touching the sprinklers. This triumph was huge for me to just witness. Taking him out of his element also helped me to better understand his fears and how he reacts to them. I also found out that he likes to perform which really surprised me because I know that Logan has stagefright but Spencer wanted to sing karaoke at an event in our hotel. I didn't let him only because of the time but I don't think I would have figured this out had we not left home.

All in all, I am happy we went but am even happier that summer school starts tomorrow. I am dreading the next break when summer school ends and I have three weeks before the fall semester starts. What will I do then?

Photo: Our little one's face is blurry here but I like this picture because they are leaving their last day at Disney with big smiles and lots of laughter. These bubble blowers which you might find positioned somewhere in the Magic Kingdom are the best. It is such an unexpected treat for the kids.


Unknown said...

I just found your blog today...I must say I love it! I have a son with PDD-NOS. We went to Disney in April, I have never heard of a disability pass. Do they let the whole family on with the pass? That would make sense, I mean the kids cannot ride alone. We had alot of the same problems that you experienced. My kids are closer in age (my son is 12,daughter 10) so they liked the same rides, but planning the day is key. We went at a very busy time, so the crowds where large and my son was very skiddish. I will be a regular reader of your blog from now on...I have found it so hard to find info for Nick and myself for that matter. It is nice to know we are not alone. Thank you

Unknown said...

We are planning a Disney Land vacation soon and are filled with worry - your blog gave some great ideas - two passes! Who would have thought! great idea! Can you get a two room suite at a Disney hotel? i don't think so at Disney land, because we've looked. thanks for sharing your experiences. I'm getting more excited and less worried now!

Anonymous said...

Just found this when I was looking up Disney with Disabilities. We took our son who has ADHD and Asperger's, PDD/NOS to Disney World when he was five. I must say that the Disablity pass was amazing and the biggest thing that saved us from major meltdowns was renting a stroller at the parks. The strollers are expensive but the shades over the top come all the way down so he had the ability to "hide" when the crowds got to be too much. We are planning a return trip next year and he will be 10 so he won't fit in a stroller anymore. Hoping all goes well.