I’m not going to pretend it was easy, but it was possible – and very worth it!
Every kid should get the chance to experience the “happiest place on earth,” and Jake is no exception. There’s a school of thought that says it’s OK to leave your child with ASD home when the rest of the family goes on vacation. I agree with this to an extent. If we go to the circus, we’re not bringing Jake. There’s just no way to augment that experience enough to make it enjoyable for Jacob. That’s not the case with Disney. Planning, forethought, and let’s face it – added expense, all contributed to our successful trip.
First, and most importantly, know your child. What works? What doesn’t work? What strengths does your child have that can be used to create a positive, memorable experience? What are the triggers that set off meltdowns? What situations will your child likely struggle with?
The answers to these questions are the basis for what kind of Disney vacation you’ll get.
Disclaimer: this is what worked for us. This may not work for you. As I said above, KNOW YOUR CHILD.
Further disclaimer: We had intended on having a caregiver come with us. We wanted an extra set of hands to deal with Jake (or anybody, really) should the need arise. This fell through, so we planned even more fervently than before. Remember that we were going to tackle Disney with three kids ages four, six, and eight.
Our first thought was to take a cruise. Jake would never be very far from a safe place should things get loud or out of control. But, with five of us, a regular stateroom wouldn’t cut it; we’d have to get a fancier suite. What we weren’t sure about, and had no way to mitigate, would be boat motion. None of us has been on a cruise, so we weren’t sure if this would play a role. Maybe it wouldn’t for us, but maybe it’d be a nightmare for Jake’s sensitive processing system. For this reason alone, cruising was OUT.
Where to Stay
This left finding a place to stay at Disney World. Our first look were the econo-level places like All-Star Movies or All-Star Music. These places are about $100/night, but are heavily trafficked, overly crowded, and appear to have music playing over the speakers all the time. They didn’t offer much in the way of a “safe” place to retire to. Plus, again, there’s five of us, so we needed something BIG, or at least two rooms. We were looking into staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, but it’s not rated for five people. We’d have to have rented a suite, but these are quite expensive, and large enough to hold up to 8 people. Too much. We discovered, much to our delight, the Cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness ($375/night). This would allow us space enough for the five of us in our own building. It was wooded, had a full kitchen, and bunk beds in the bedroom. There was also a full sized bed in the bedroom, too. Since there was a Murphy bed in the living room, this meant we could put the kids to bed and stay up as late as we wanted – something that would be impossible in a hotel room.
What to Eat
We did some digging and found a website where you could grocery shop online. For $20 delivery fee (for all orders UNDER $200), you could fill a cart, choose a time for delivery, and pay by credit card. I called the company and explained that we didn’t know our room number, and wouldn’t until we checked in. The guy assured me that they work with Disney enough, it’d be OK. We scheduled our delivery for the afternoon of our arrival day. When we got to the cabin, there was no food. We dropped everything and went out exploring. When we came back, there was cold food in the fridge, frozen food in the freezer, and dry goods on the counter. We found a thank you note and receipt on the kitchen table. Success! We had a hearty breakfast every morning, at lunch in a park, and had dinner back at the cabin.
How to Get Around
We opted to have Disney pick us up at the airport and bring us to the resort. No fooling around with rental cars for us. No maps, no getting lost, no tolls. Let Disney do the worrying. From resort to park, we relied soley on Disney’s shuttle system. The colored signs on the bus helped the kids identify our rides.
How to Get There
As for transportation TO Disney, we figured flying would perform two duties: giving the kids a great experience, and save us 4 days in travel round trip. How would Jake do on an airplane? This one had us stumped for a while, until we got the brilliant idea to introduce Jake to Youtube.com. Here he could watch planes take off, land, see the interiors, and really get a sense for what was going to happen, all from the safety of home. We had no idea we were jump-starting an obsession. Jake had no problem with air travel. How much of it was because of our efforts? Who knows? Who cares? The point is, it went well. We also used Youtube to get him familiar with the rides, and even the interior of our cabin.
How Long to Stay
We had 11 days in Orlando. We bought 10 day Park Hopper passes that would let us come and go as we pleased. Let me remind you, we had no idea how any of this would go down. This vacation wasn’t about Beth or I, it was for the kids. If they only made it through 3 hours of a given park, we wanted that to be OK. We gave ourselves PLENTY of time. How it actually went down is this. We’d get to the park early, but after the opening celebration. We saw this particular spectacle on our first morning, and it was too wild and crazy for Jake. By mid-day, we’d have had lunch at the park, then return to the resort pool for some chill time. Once the heat of the day had passed, we’d venture back out for a few hours before a late dinner. We got to revisit our favorite places and rides without feeling rushed. We even spent a half-day chilling by the pool, doing laundry. The kids needed the break and we never felt like we had to squeeze every cent out of the amusements.
When to Go
We went in mid September. This was on purpose. We wanted to let the majority of kids get back to school, so as to keep the crowds to a minimum.
This had the added benefit of keeping the daytime highs at about 80 degrees F. We bought Kleen Kanteens, and filled them half-full of water at night, allowing them to freeze in the freezer. If anyone out there’s ever bought a Coke at Disney World, you’ll understand the savings in having five full bottles of ice water handy.
How to Have Fun
As I discussed recently in This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, we went directly to Guest Services, where we were prepared to discuss Jake’s needs. We got the now defunct Guest Assistance Card, and this, in conjunction with hitting popular rides first, made for a great experience. We brought our jogging stroller, which gave Jake a safe place to be, and a second kid to ride on the canopy. An exhausted kid is NOT a happy kid, and we wanted happy kids. We also picked up an umbrella stroller, which gave us transportation options for the third kid. Rides aren’t built for five, so Dad had to sit alone a lot. Sometimes it’d be one of the kids. Liv was paired with an older woman on Expedition Everest, and ended up being the one to calm the old lady down. She said something like, “I’m 6. If I can do it, you can do it.”
We brought with us a small whiteboard, about the size of a notebook. We would write for Jake the next three things we had planned. For example: 1. bus 2. rides 3. lunch. That sort of thing. It served to give him some framework for his day. This helped alleviate some of the uncertainty that comes with being in a new place every day.
Bottom line: Our two week vacation cost approximately $10,000. This is why we haven’t been back, and have no immediate plans of returning, despite it being the best two weeks of our lives. Jake has grown a lot, and so have his sibs, so we might be able to try something less regimented. Renting a house and driving ourselves would save a TON of money, and we might be collectively able to handle this now that we’re “all grown up.”
We realize that not every child on the spectrum will be able to handle Disney, even with Herculean efforts on your part. However, with much knowledge of your child, plus LOTS of planning, most families can have a fantastic, memorable Disney vacation! We did.