I was browsing old photos on Facebook this morning, searching for inspiration. That’s when I realized that seven years ago yesterday, I posted an album of our first (and thus far only) trip to Disney.
Seven years! I can’t believe it has been that long. But even more than that, I can’t believe how successful that trip was, given how much both we and Ryan have grown and changed in the interim.
I think the trip was successful because we made some very smart decisions about how we tackled it. We know going in there would be some challenges. Long lines and Ryan were a combustible mix, as were disrupted sleep schedules.
Aside — we did not consider pursuing special disability access for Ryan. We probably didn’t know such a thing existed. But even if we had, I’m not sure either Veronica or I was at the point in our advocacy that we would have sought one for Ryan.
I know that a Disney vacation remains a goal seemingly beyond reach to many families with a child on the autism spectrum. With that in mind, here are some things we learned from our trip that may provide some guidance if you are one of those families. As always, your mileage may vary. You know your child best, and as we ALL know, if you’ve met one child on the spectrum, you’ve met ONE child on the spectrum — so take this all with a grain of salt.
Keys to our successful Disney trip
1. Do your homework
Disney World in Orlando is a large, chaotic, confusing place. But a guidebook. Do some research. I’m not saying you should plan the sequence in which you will hit the various rides, but you should probably have a general itinerary for each day of your trip. Look up the dining options. Locate the places where you will be able to find suitable menu choices for your potential picky eaters. Book things like character breakfasts in advance. Learn how the ride-booking system (since completely overhauled) works. Identify must-hit attractions and work them into your schedule. If your kid is dying to meet the characters, learn about how that works and where the most likely meeting spots are to minimize wait times. All of this info and more is available in various books and online. It’s worth some time.
2. What age?
What’s the right age to take your kids to Disney? Opinions on this will vary greatly, but to me, you want wait at least until they’re past the stroller stage and can handle an entire day on their feet. That place is hot, and there are hills, and I can’t see the appeal of pushing kids around in a stroller all day. We went when our kids were almost six and seven. I would not have wanted to go much sooner than that.
3. Figure out where to stay
Are you going to stay in one of the hotels on the resort? Rent a villa? Rent a house outside? Where you stay is very important. It will determine how you access the parks each day. The single most important thing I learned in preparing for our trip is that the majority of kids surveyed about their favorite part of a Disney vacation is “swimming at the hotel pool.” Where you stay will be important to your kids.
We opted to rent a house for the week. It was 15 minutes from the gates by car. We were traveling with another family, so we rented a four-bedroom house with a pool. It came at considerable savings to what hotels on the resort would have cost and I’m certain that all the kids enjoyed it more than they would have a hotel. Having a house with a pool and a kitchen and a game room gave us a place to retreat to away from the crowds. We were able to buy groceries and cook meals, which may not be your idea of a vacation, but eating at restaurants three meals a day for a week can get old, too.
After we left the park each day, the kids would pile into the pool while the adults would enjoy an adult beverage and fire up the grill. It was great.
4. Flying? Check airports besides Orlando
If flights to Orlando give you sticker shock, look around. We ended up flying into Daytona, which is an easy 90-minute drive to Orlando. If you’re going to be renting a car anyway, you might find more palatable flight options at one of the numerous other central Florida airports.
Of course, flying with kids on the spectrum can present its own set of challenges, so balance the savings against things like changing planes, added wait times, total length of trip, etc. We were lucky and found a direct flight to Daytona, so the total trip time wasn’t that much longer.
5. Plan some downtime
Disney resorts are tons of fun, but they are exhausting. It’s hot, and you walk miles and spend hours on your feet. You, and your kids, will be fried by the end of the day. We were there for a week, so we started the trip knowing we were going to take one day off from visiting the resort in the middle. It was a wise decision, and allowed everyone to recharge their batteries. Don’t worry about whether you are “wasting” your vacation. Which leads me to …
6. Listen to your kids
One of the big mistakes people make at Disney is trying to justify the cost of admission by staying at the park until closing every night. You’ll know when your kids are ready to leave for the day — which will probably be around the same time you are. Remember that hotel pool statistic. It’s their vacation too. If they want to go back and swim, listen to them. Chances are, the next day will be much more pleasant because of this choice.
Since all the kids on our trip were early risers (protip for vacationing with other families: don’t do it unless your kids all have similar sleep schedules. Thankfully this was not an issue for us), we got to the park when the gates opened, hit a bunch of rides, had lunch, hit a few more, maybe a show, and then were out of there by late-afternoon. By 5 o’clock we were back at the pool with the grill going, music playing, and the bottle opener handy. Best decision we made the entire trip. Keep in mind, too, that lines are often the shortest early in the morning, so if you have a family of early risers, it pays to get there when the doors open. If your kids like to sleep in, well, see the title of this section.
7. No, really, listen to your kids
We really did not know what to expect with Ryan on the trip. I didn’t know whether he would enjoy the rides, embrace the characters, or manage the lines. It required a leap of faith. The best way to handle that was to try and leave ourselves options. That meant if Riley was dying to see a certain show or meet a certain character or hit a certain ride, and Ryan was ambivalent, we split up.
That also meant while we pushed Ryan to try certain things — I remain amazed that he actually rode the Mt. Everest roller coaster with me — we also let him make choices. The Disney parks are fabulously designed, with something for just about everyone. You have no idea what’s going to ignite a spark. So when something does, go with it. For us, that meant spending hours at some of the playgrounds. It meant letting him get up and dance at the High School Musical street show. It mean riding Buzz Lightyear a half-dozen times, or more, in a row. And it meant when the nerves started to fray in the mid-afternoon, we got the hell out of there.
8. Don’t force it
Allow your kids to dictate. Don’t worry that other families might stay at the park longer or squeeze more rides into a day. Nobody is keeping score. Yes, it’s expensive and it can be painful to realize you’ve parted with a lot of money for a day that might not last as long as possible.
But psst. here’s a little secret.
You’re not really paying for admission. You’re paying for the memories you’re going to create. And trust me, those memories will be better if you let your kids lead the way.