Preparing for a Disney Vacation with Kids with Autism
Welcome to those of you joining me from Magical Mouse Schoolhouse and those of you just hopping aboard. I am the 2nd stop on our Magical Blogorail. This month we’re sharing our tips for preparing for a Disney vacation. Specifically, I’d like to share my tips for preparing a child with autism for a Disney vacation. (For those of you with typically developing kids – don’t leave! Most of the techniques that are essential for ASD kids also work really well with neurotypical ones too.)
As a Mom, I would love to surprise my kids with a trip to Walt Disney World. I daydream about packing them all in the car under false pretenses, only to casually remark as we get on the Interstate “Oh – yeah, our meeting is in Orlando. Mickey and Minnie are expecting us.” Unfortunately, in real life that kind of stunt might not go as well as planned. The kids would be thrilled. No question about that. But they might not be able to instantly switch gears from mundane to excited. Reality is, they need time to adjust to new plans. They just don’t do quick 180 degree emotional u-turns. Sudden changes in plans aren’t fun for them – even when they involve something as incredible as a Disney vacation!
Besides, I’m a pretty bad liar. I’m a good storyteller – but ask me to keep a secret? Forget it!
So here’s how we’re going to prepare our kids for our next Disney vacation:
Phase I: Planning
First, we’ll tell them that we’ve booked the trip. Finally! It’s been a lot longer than we’d hoped, but (fingers crossed and pixie dust!) we’ll be able to make it back to Disney later this year. We’ll sit everyone down at the kitchen table, and I’ll have the laptop and PC ready to go with the Walt Disney World websites up. I’ll spread Disney brochures out on the table. We’ll show them pictures of the resort we’ve chosen, and some of the experiences we didn’t have time for on our last trip that we think they’ll enjoy this time around. Then we let them go at it, and take notes on the things that are most important to each of them. This is their time to imagine up their dream vacation!
Next, I’ll go into planning mode. When we travel, we try to be a little more unstructured and spontaneous than we are at home. Some kids with autism need 24/7 structure. Ours need downtime – and so do we. But I’ve found that being really organized during the planning phase, and going into the vacation with a plan makes it easier for us to be spontaneous. We don’t spend too much of our time debating on what to do next, because we’ve already negotiated most of the big things. “On Monday we’re having lunch with the Princesses, and you will be polite about it because on Tuesday we’re doing something you want to do.”
The planning comes in three chunks:
Dining is tricky for our family. We have one child with a nut allergy, and I was diagnosed with a variety of obscure food allergies (like tomatoes. Who is allergic to tomatoes???) and Celiac disease last year. Managing our dietary restrictions means table service really is the only way to go for our family. Yes, we could do quick service, but then we’d be standing in line trying to decide what I can safely eat while a dozen other guests wait impatiently behind us. I don’t think well under pressure, and making snap decisions – especially about food! – stresses me out. So we’ll stick to table service and the deluxe dining plan.
For a 5-7 day vacation, we each choose one special meal. It might be a character meal, or a restaurant we really want to try, or even just pizza delivered to our resort room. Once those reservations are made, then I’ll fill in the rest of our dining slots. Since we try to travel at the least crowded times of the year, I don’t worry about making dining reservations for breakfast or lunch (unless it’s a character meal of course). We don’t want to be in line for Space Mountain and worry about missing our lunch reservation, or have to rush through getting everybody dressed just to make it to breakfast on time.
Once we know where we want to eat, we decide which experiences we want to have and make those reservations. That will determine which parks we visit each day.
I’ll load our dining reservations and special experience reservations into a trip planner app on the iPod Touch (for the kids) and our iPhones. It is a lot easier to carry around the iPod than paper visual schedules, and our kids are much more comfortable with technological solutions anyway. Disney just released the My Disney Experience app, which looks like a competitor to Undercover Tourist. I’ll have to compare the two and report back to you!
These apps are useful for kids with autism before we even get to the parks, because they allow them to “rehearse” their vacation, and get comfortable with our plans before we arrive at the resort. They know exactly what to expect, and can look at their itinerary any time they need to, in order to feel secure about what is going on or where they will go next.
Finally – how are we going to get from the middle of Illinois to Orlando, Florida? Last time, we flew. We compared the costs of flying vs. driving and they were pretty close to equal, and the convenience factor won out. This time around, when we priced out flights they were three times more than they were last time. The flights alone would cost our family over $3,000 – putting the entire trip out of our budget. So we’ll drive this time around. The kids are older now, and we’re hoping they can handle the 18 hour trip. We’re planning to leave late in the afternoon and drive overnight to minimize the number of waking hours they spend cooped up.
I expect they will spend about 8 – 10 of those hours awake: about 6 hours on the first day, in the afternoon into the evening, then about 4 hours the next morning between the time they wake up and when we arrive at the resort. This will be a new experience for them. We’ve never driven more than about 5 hours at a time before. Like all new experiences, we’ll do a lot of preparation beforehand. We’ll find or write social stories about long road trips. I’ll make choice cards (basically just index cards with pictures of items they can choose) showing the activities they’ll have available in the car.
Before the trip, I’ll pick up several new travel games and activities that I’ll keep stashed until the boredom sets in, then I’ll trickle them out. Hopefully they’ll be good and exhausted for the trip home and sleep most of the way!
I also plan to load up a customized Google Map on the iPhones so they can watch our progress, and have several new audiobooks ready to go. Combine those with snacks for everyone and caffeine for the grownups and I’m hopeful that the drive won’t be too bad.
Phase II: Getting Ready!
About a month before the vacation, I start pulling out Disney Parks videos. They’re a little dated now, but they still serve as a great reminder of things we don’t want to miss, and they help us all immerse in the magic of Walt Disney World.
A week or so before, I’ll have each of them put a few books and small travel-worthy toys in a backpack for the car ride. Those get stashed away so they grow a little bit of novelty by the time we hit the road.
The day before the trip, the car gets a thorough cleaning out. If I’m going to spend a total of four days in the car with the kids, I want it to at least start out clean! I’ll also do a grocery store run to pick up road snacks. With our dietary restrictions, it’s much easier to buy food in the grocery store than to try to find fast food restaurants that we can safely eat at. That doesn’t mean I buy the same things I get on a normal Saturday grocery run! Road snacks must be fun. It’s the one time I actually go into the chip-and-cookie isle and let each of the kids pick something. Teddy Grahams find their way into the cart, along with Goldfish crackers, instead of the much less expensive full-sized graham crackers. Oh well, it’s a road trip! I splurge too, on gourmet gluten-free chocolate covered pretzels.
Since we won’t leave until late in the day, I can do most of the packing the day we leave. It will keep us all busy, so we aren’t tempted to leave too early, and it will keep the nervous energy down. We’ll keep Disney movies playing all day, and load up Disney apps on the iPad to set the mood!
Looking for more tips for experiencing Disney magic with a child on the autism spectrum? Check out Disney World with Autistic Kids.
Thank you for joining me today. Your next stop on the Magical Blogorail Loop is DIStherapy.
Here is the map of our Magical Blogorail should you happen to have to make a stop along the way and want to reboard:
1st Stop ~ Magical Mouse Schoolhouse
2nd Stop ~ Return to Disney <– You Are Here!
3rd Stop ~ DIStherapy
Final Stop ~ Delightfully Disney