In our house, something big is brewing. We are about to leave for a trip to Disney World. I’ve been spending a lot of time prepping for the big trip, and most people don’t understand why I’m so exhausted about it. “Prepping?” you may be thinking, “What is there to prep?” Yes, we have had all our reservations in place for a few months (hotel, dining and flights) – but there is so much more to plan for when you are traveling with a child on the autism spectrum! I thought I’d document what I’ve done here, as a lot of it has to do with technology and communication. Tell me if you think I’ve gone overboard.
I knew, because I did extensive online research, that going to Disney World was going to be a big project, and I would need some help navigating some of the big decisions, such as when to go, where to stay and where to dine. I crowd-sourced for suggestions from friends on Facebook. One of those friends led me to Leigh Rosica of Mousekeplanners. Leigh’s travel agency does Disney travel exclusively. Because Disney pays her the commission, it is of no cost to the consumer.
I immediately liked Leigh because she understood the issues involved with traveling with a child with autism immediately. In fact, she had actually worked with children with autism in a previous career! I explained that since our February break was cut short this year (thank you, Superstorm Sandy) we would be taking a few days off from school to make our trip a long weekend. The trick was figuring out which weekend worked best. Leigh was able to access the predicted crowd levels for the parks. I took that information, as well as the dates for the “Play Stay and Dine” special offer (with big discounts for staying at Disney resorts) and came up with the best dates for us – the least crowded and cheapest!
Leigh also took charge of making dining reservations for us. I didn’t realize until I had spoke to her that most “table service” meals need to be reserved months in advance! I asked her a lot of questions about which restaurants would be sensory-overload. We went with early dinner times to avoid big crowds.
There are several bonuses to staying at a Disney resort. The first is that we get to go to the parks during “magic hours” – an hour before the parks open and a few hours later at night. It will be great for us to take advantage of these less crowded times. Secondly, we will have free transportation everywhere, including from the airport and between the parks. It’s nice to not have to worry about a car and all the parking and expenses that go along with it. Yes, we are paying a lot more to stay at a Disney resort, but I am pretty sure it will be worth it in the end.
Social Stories created
While Fiona is literally counting down the days, hours and minutes until we leave, I am unsure if Quentin really understands what is going on. I have tried to tell him (in very simple language) that we will be leaving soon for this big trip, and he does smile when I do. But I am never really sure what he understands.
A few weeks ago I reviewed Kid in Story – a social story app on the ipad. I decided to use this app to create two social stories about our trip for him – one about traveling to get there on the airplane, meeting up with my parents (who will be joining us) and staying in a hotel. The second story is about the Disney World experience itself – going on rides, waiting in lines, meeting characters, staying close to the grown-ups. Fiona demonstrates here:
I debated for a long time about which of our AAC devices to take. He has the Tech/Speak, which are supposed to be using all the time… but it just isn’t happening. It is really heavy, cumbersome, and hard to find what pictures you need in a hurry. He uses it at school, I am told, but spontaneous communication at home and during unstructured activities is really difficult as compared to the low-tech PECS. Recently, we took the Tech/Speak to a restaurant and then a museum outing. We found that we hauled the heavy device everywhere and Quentin only actually used it once all day. I just couldn’t imagine taking it with us to Disney World.
Yet, I wanted to make sure Quentin has a way of communicating what he wants to do while we are there. Therefore, I made the decision to take his old PECS book, which he can navigate very quickly. Because we are going to be visiting the Magic Kingdom park for the most part, I decided to make PECS for this experience. It was a laborious process that involved collecting images of all the rides on Google, then putting them into a document pre-sized for the small little squares that fit into his book.
I printed them out on photo paper and laminated them. The final step involved attaching velcro and finding space in his PECS book. It now looks something like this: Quentin will be thrilled when he sees these. I plan to spend some time on our flight going over each picture with him. I know it will be abstract until we get there, but hopefully he’ll understand once he sees the rides.
Sensory toys collected
The flights will be difficult for Quentin. He has flown to Florida before to visit his grandparents, so I know what we are in for. We choose to fly on JetBlue airlines not just for the good prices – having televisions on the back of every seat is key! Between that and his ipad I know that he will be okay. Still, he will get fidgety and difficult, and there is always those moments during take-offs and landings that the televisions are off and all electronic devices must be put away. To prep for that, I created a “sensory grab bag” of toys. Most of these I purchased at local dollar stores or drug stores – plus a few items we already had. He’ll have his favorite magazine for logos (O Magazine is for some reason the one he loves), in addition to a small photo album of various pictures. Also included are: a feather boa, art sponges, a squeeze toy, a mini-container of play-doh, a chewy tube, an accordion tube, Easter “squeeze” chicks, and a slinky.
Of course, we want to be sure to go to Guest Relations as soon as we get to the Magic Kingdom to receive the famous GAC (Guest Assistance Card). This card will allow us to have a shorter wait time for most of the attractions, so we can minimize the tantrums and public unpleasantness. To ensure that this goes smoothly, I asked our pediatrician to write a note explaining that Quentin has a PDD-NOS diagnosis.
I am also concerned that Quentin’s sensory-seeking behavior is going to mean he will want to bolt away from our family quite often. Given his speed and the crowds, I worry about the fact that he may be easily lost. I know he won’t tolerate holding onto a lanyard or anything attached to his body, but I really wanted to make sure our cell phones were available in case he got separated. Some online forums suggest making personalized tattoos, but Quentin has an aversion to those. I settled on making a lot of mailing labels with the important information. The plan is to surreptitiously place this on the back of his shirt every day.
Resources that helped me
The following resources have been the most helpful to me for planning this trip:
- Our travel agent: Leigh Rosica at Mouskeplanners
- Disney for Families with Autism Spectrum Disorders – This site has a large database of photos and they include some social stories that served as a guide for mine.
- The Allears website has a great section on going to Disney World with Autism. This site was also very useful for previewing the menus of Disney restaurants before we made reservations.
- As AllEars suggested, I did purchase the PassPorter’s Open Mouse for Walt Disney World and the Disney Cruise Line: Easy Access Vacations for Travelers with Extra Challenges
book. I have it tagged up and ready to go for the trip!
Now, of course, I have to go pack some clothes! Stayed tuned for how the trip went…