My family and I have visited Walt Disney World many times over my 30 years of marriage. My husband and I went on our honeymoon, and since children, we have visited with children ranging in age from a few months old to 24 years old and with just two people to a group of 7. We have taken along a babysitter for a business conference, and have taken my mother. Every one of our trips is different, and we always try new things – restaurants, experiences, and resorts.
Even though Jack-Jack is 10 years old and has autism, I feel that we have had minimal melt downs and problems with traveling. The first trip to WDW with him we had plenty of extra hands and help with our older children. However, on one business trip, I alone ventured into the Magic Kingdom with 2 small children. Jack-Jack was 3 1/2; his brother Dash was 5.
Jack-Jack has some magical connection with Disney. After each trip to Walt Disney World, he has had major educational advancements. During our last trip, he stopped a stimming noise he had been making for 6 months (and it hasn’t returned), and after we returned home, he began to button shirts on his own. After a trip last year, he began to read and spell. Granted, he is spelling “The Little Mermaid,” “Magic Kingdom,” and other Disney related words, but he is still spelling.
No matter what age Jack-Jack has been, we have employed some skills, procedures and tactics to keep things flowing smoothly. In this 3 part series, I will highlight our Advanced Preparations, Tactics While in the World, and Our Home Again Routines. I will not talk about hotels, restaurants, or recommendations on rides. I will discuss the Disability Access Service Card (Disney Parks blog Disability Access Service Card information). Since Jack-Jack looks normal as he ages, it may be necessary for Cast Members to realize there is a disability. I will discuss that more in Tactics in the World.
Read, research and know the layout of the land! Make as many advanced plans as you can. Know about the resorts, travel times from resort to park, travel methods (bus, monorail, resort ferries, or your own car), dining options, and Fast Pass+. Make yourself as informed as possible.
Obviously our advanced preparation includes where we are staying. We have stayed both on-site and off-site, but knowing the theme of the resort is key. One visit we stayed at Disney’s Beach Club Resort and it is a wonderful place, however, I was totally unprepared for the pool area. They have a lazy river that is 8 feet deep in some areas, and the entire area is open without fencing between the child’s area, the adult pool and the lazy river. You can see overviews of the resorts on the WDW website.
In addition, the theme of the resorts is important. If your child hates Tiki men, do not stay in Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.
We generally make a calendar of the year for Jack-Jack. He has a horrible sense of time, and the calendar helps him keep track. We mark other events too. He is already asking when we can go to Disney next. He likes knowing what is coming up as far as holidays, travel plans and birthdays. Most days, Jack-Jack marks off his calendar and will say something like, “David’s birthday is next,” even though David’s birthday is still a month away, it is indeed the next big landmark in his life. Before traveling to WDW, I make sure to include our travel plans on his calendar complete with poorly drawn pictures of each park. This way Jack-Jack knows how long we will be gone and when we plan to visit each park.
I usually make a “booklet” or some other visual of rides and attractions. When Jack-Jack was younger, I would sit down at the computer with him and YouTube each attraction and ride starting with the Magic Kingdom. If it was something he thought he wanted to do, I would print out a picture of that ride and place it in his booklet. This gave both of us a reminder of what was important. This one thing eliminated melt downs on our last day, and it also eliminated the scare factor of certain rides.
Jack-Jack has watched videos, but has never ridden certain rides such as *Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Tower of Terror, and Stitch’s Great Escape. Either the content or the music has prevented him from riding. He is very sensitive to ominous music, and many times that is enough to keep him off a ride. Even now, when he has ridden so many of the rides, we will YouTube the rides beforehand to see if anything has changed. Most of our trips have one or more rides that Jack-Jack has gone on in the past, but for one reason or another he decides not to attempt again. On our trip last year Jack-Jack wanted to see “It’s Tough to Be a Bug,” which he has seen in the past. Afterwards, he said very little about that 4D movie experience. On our most recent trip, on the day before we were to go to Animal Kingdom, he announced, “I don’t want to see the bug show.” Apparently, the scare factor was more than he felt comfortable with this time around.
*Since this original post, Jack-Jack has ridden Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, Expedition Everest, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, but he still hasn’t ridden Tower of Teror or Stitch’s Great Escape.
Because Jack-Jack was child number 5 we didn’t really have the opportunity to allow his meltdowns to keep us home. We had 4 other children that wanted to go to the mall, movies, Chuck E Cheese and travel. He had to learn to adapt. However, Jack-Jack has never eaten well if we are not sitting down. He might snack on crackers or fruit, but we cannot eat a meal “on the run.” It is very important for me to schedule our Advanced Dining Reservations. I check out the menus and make sure there is food available for Jack-Jack’s picky taste. I know that even if there isn’t anything on the Children’s Menu, if there is chicken breast and fries, we are set. Jack-Jack does not eat macaroni and cheese, pizza, or sandwiches. Jack-Jack also eats for a very long time. He needs that downtime, and we allow him to have it. It might mean that we don’t get to ride as many rides, but we generally have a calmer experience overall.
I try to include Jack-Jack in the packing. I don’t want to get to WDW and find out that he wanted a certain shirt, swim trunks or toy. As he ages, he really doesn’t “play with his toys” while we are gone, but he still fills his backpack and carries it into the car. I think it gives him a sense of connection to home. “We took the toys from home, and the toys belong at home, so therefore, we are going back home with the toys” kind of logic. His selection of toys is always different, but his backpack is always taken. If you are flying this may be harder for you to do, but since we drive this is an easy one to accomplish. We don’t have to worry about carrying nonsensical items with us and paying extra to fly them. Jack-Jack just carries the backpack into the car, and we are off.
Letting Go of “The Perfect Vacation” and Changing My Focus:
This tactic is actually important before, during and after your trip and is more important for you and the rest of the people traveling with you than it is for your child. Jack-Jack is sure to cause some ruckus. I have had to let go of my views of what vacation is and how things should flow. Being together and building memories is my ultimate goal, and with our family, this now looks different than it used to. I remember visiting a bed and breakfast with our first-born son when he was two. The caretakers of the bed and breakfast were amazed at how well-behaved he was. On another trip, we had two small (ages 2 and 4), well-behaved little boys, and toured a mansion in Toronto. I would not venture into the mansion with Jack-Jack, nor would I stay at a bed and breakfast with him. I believe that God has a different plan for my life and gave me Jack-Jack to accomplish that plan. If I go into the vacation with my views of what should happen, I end up very disappointed. But, if I change my focus and just enjoy the ride, I will have a much better, relaxed trip. When you get home and find that “perfect picture in front of Cinderella Castle” didn’t come out perfectly, embrace the quirkiness of your family and change your focus to what you do have, instead of what you can’t do.
|Jack-Jack really wanted to be happy for the picture,
but he just was too upset!
Involve Your Child as Much as You Can in the Advanced Preparations:
I often read stories about families that “surprised” their children with a trip to Disney. I do not think that is realistic or healthy for Jack-Jack. He usually packs his backpack and selects items that he deems important. I certainly don’t want to be hitting the border of Florida when he announces that he “needs” something. Allowing Jack-Jack to see us packing, be involved in the process, and select items to take along helps him to make the transition for leaving. In addition, we are leaving behind some pretty important people in Jack-Jack’s life (big brothers, their wives and a niece), and he needs to be able to give hugs and say goodbye!
Enjoy the Planning: Join a Disney Facebook Group to find out the latest, or ask for recommendations from other Disney travelers. If you have questions, ask the Disney Parks Moms Panel Group. This is a wonderful group of both men and women who love all things Disney, and will be happy answering your questions. There is usually a person on the panel experienced with traveling with disabilities, food allergies, and children!
Make the countdown fun! There are all types of countdown ideas from calendars to Mickey chains strung across the house. Check out Pinterest for more ideas.