Posted in Uncategorized

Tips For Planning a Walt Disney World Resort Vacation with an Autistic Child

Upon hearing the diagnosis of autism for our son, we thought that our visits to the Disney Parks in California and Florida would have to stop. We thought dealing with tantrums and meltdowns would be best handled at home rather than in public. That’s partially right, but what we didn’t realize at the time was just how much easier it would be dealing with the tantrum if a huge motivating distractor came into play.

That huge motivating distractor was Mickey Mouse.

That’s because during the throws of a transitional issue leading to a meltdown, a Disney character was always around the corner. In the majority of cases, it was Mickey Mouse appearing almost out of nowhere, waving or walking down a path. This would divert my son more often than not and make our day so much easier. While on vacation, we picked our battles and planned carefully.

In fact, when dealing with tantrums from my son alone at home, I often felt more isolated and deserted. I, when the meltdown was over, wasn’t distracted by fun stimuli to take my mind off the stress that the melt down caused. This would leave me in a state of defeat and sadness where I kept going over and over in my mind what I could have done better to prevent or reduce the severity of the meltdown. At home I felt trapped with the reel of the day playing over and over again in my mind, constantly re-evaluating myself and my actions. Most of the time, I became trapped in the aloneness and isolation. Not the case at the Disney Parks, I too, became distracted and focussed on what mattered. Best of all, there were people everywhere and always a Cast Member at hand anticipating my needs. Always.

Here’s the other thing to consider. While vacationing at the Disney Parks, I was organized and ready to handle my son’s situations, but I wasn’t stressed out in doing so because I was prepared and if a tantrum did happen, I didn’t fixate on re-evaluating myself, I picked my battles and moved on. I didn’t stay in that bubble of isolation and aloneness, instead, those huge motivating distractors helped me  move forward to the more positive aspects of the day.  I had, after all,  all my pegs lined up for our visit, which made each and every visit unique, fun and memorable in positive ways. Best of all my son emerged with huge developmental and social gains while at the Disney Parks….these spontaneous bursts of him coming into our world made leaving extremely difficult for fear of what we would miss out on next.

Here are my tips on planning a vacation at the Disney Parks with an autistic child, based on my personal experiences with my son.

PLAN AHEAD AND STAY ON DISNEY PARKS PROPERTY

I can’t stress this enough. Planning ahead involves simply registering on any Disney Parks websites. For example by going over to  Walt Disney World Resort you can plan and control every aspect of your vacation. It’s super easy and a lot of fun!

From there, you can easily book your own package with theme park tickets, dining, and accommodations (I recommend that because it ends up being more economical and convenient). You’ll be prompted to manage your entire vacation, controlling all aspects such as  FastPass+ selection times, your dining reservations and entertainment times easily through My Disney Experience and MyMagic+ right there on the website.

In fact, you can get into My Disney Experience right after you’re done with booking your resort package and they’ll automatically link everything up for you. You can even share your plans with family and friends who are travelling with you. You’ll have everything you need all in one place and it’s all available on a mobile app which allows you to make amendments, track attraction wait times and even locate characters. The personalization of your profile is available too, affording you your very own page. Isn’t that great!? It’s super easy with many user friendly prompts along the way.

Staying on property has many conveniences and benefits. The minute you hook into MyMagic+ the conveniences begin. You’ll be able to book your Disney Dining reservations, your FastPass+ experiences where you can reserve your favourite attractions ahead of time, you’ll be able to personalize your innovative Disney MagicBands which unlock your Disney resort room, hold your theme park tickets, store all your Disney Dining and FastPass+ information, allow you charging privileges and free you from carrying around important identification and money. Wait, there’s more….you can store all your Disney PhotoPass photos and videos on your account, so there’s no need to drag around cameras or video cameras, just go out there and have fun. All your personalized plans and conveniences are around your wrist and if your child doesn’t want to wear his/her MagicBand, no problem, Disney has attachable MagicBand Keepers which allow you to clip the MagicBand onto yourself or your child. Whatever is best for you.

The Disney Parks have fun all year long and we find visiting during the ‘less crowded’ times also helps with our navigating the parks, as well as buying separate hard tickets into special theme park events, such as during the Christmas season for “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party” and during Halloween season for “Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party” because the crowd is limited. I have discovered that the months of September, October, first two weeks of December, January and February have more manageable crowd levels.

That’s not all!

Even before you leave home the Disney’s Magical Express luggage tags arrive for you to place on your suitcases. Upon arrival at Orlando International Airport, no need to visit baggage claim, instead, head over to Disney’s Magical Express Check-In area and board your complimentary motor coach shuttle to your Disney resort. It’s that easy! Your luggage will follow and be placed right in your room a few hours later, ( I always pack a day bag with first afternoon essentials, such as medications, bathing suits, sunscreen, Mickey Mouse Ears etc.).

Once at your Disney resort be prepared to receive complimentary transport to and from your Disney resort and the four theme parks, two water parks and Downtown Disney. How much more convenient can that be!

One thing I try to do is stay at a Disney resort nearest the theme park we like to visit the most. It really cuts back on travel time and gives you the opportunity to whisk your child back for a quick nap or some down time. Plus, if you have your own car, Disney resort guests benefit from free parking anywhere on property.

Disney strives to provide an inclusive experience for all, regardless of ability. They have a system in place called the Disney Parks Disability Access System Service Card which provides accommodations for guests who are unable to wait in the conventional queue at a Disney attraction as a result of a disability, including a non-visible disability. We use this for our son only when necessary, as we are attempting to teach him proper conduct for waiting in lines. This card in conjunction with booking your FastPass+  attraction experiences in advance makes visiting Walt Disney World easier for you and and your child.

But here’s the best part with staying on Disney property. You’ll have Disney magic twenty-four hours a day, you’ll get to visit the parks earlier and/or later than non-Disney resort guests with Disney’s Extra Magic Hours. How great is that!

My favourite perk? Shopping and having the luxury of sending all my packages back to my Disney resort-no lugging parcels around. I just love that!

Did I mention that all Disney resorts have different budget points and all have amazing, detailed themes? The authentically replicated themes will leave you awestruck. Where do I begin?

If you need help with planning, you can even chat with someone on the Walt Disney World resort website if you like or click on the helpful link called the Disney Parks Moms Panel a comprehensive, informative planning site dealing with every aspect of travel to Walt Disney World Resort, Disneyland Resort, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Vacation Club, ESPN Wide World of Sports and runDisney. These panelists are Disney enthusiasts with first hand experience and get this, they even have panelists who have experience with special needs family members. How great is that!

Stay tuned for tips for staying at Walt Disney World resort with an Autistic child….

Oh, and here’s Andrew on a character greet with Buzz Lightyear at Disney California Adventure Park. Just look at the joint attention there. It only took Buzz a mere two seconds to get that reaction from Andrew.

Priceless, unique experiences each and every time!

It’s what keeps us coming back.

Buzz and Andrew DCA

Posted in Disney Cruise Line, Europe, Special Needs

Sailing the Mediterranean with Disney Cruise Line

For years and years I dreamed about exploring the historic sites of Europe. As an art history minor in university, I had written countless essays on architectural and artistic genres, I had identified slide upon slide of famous sculptures and paintings, and I knew I could navigate my way through these incredible places from all the readings I had done.

Europe had to wait, however, our son was unable to make the lengthy overseas trip, let alone be expected to stand around the countless museums and fully appreciate what he was looking at. What he could do, to his immense pleasure, was to visit Walt Disney World Resort, Disneyland Resort and sail with Disney Cruise Line.

We’ve sailed ten cruises on all four ships in the fleet, with the great majority of those sailings including itineraries of seven days or longer. These cruises laid the groundwork for my son and helped him acclimate to vacationing because there were many rewards all around him. It was on these cruises that we saw huge developmental improvements, there was motivation everywhere. I could use my ‘first and then’ routine and get him to do just about anything. After all, who wouldn’t want to finish their dinner to go and greet Mickey Mouse, or play in the full scale version of Andy’s Room from the hit movie ‘Toy Story’, after many attempts at minor social behaviour training sessions while sailing. Reinforcement was instant and anything we attempted to teach our son was a hit.

Without fully realizing it, vacationing with Disney Cruise Line and the Disney Parks had laid the foundations for expanding our horizons beyond and had prepared us to embark on new adventures.

We decided to sail with Disney, on our first ever, family trip to the Mediterranean, with stops at our ancestral homeland of Greece. We were beyond excited! We selected the nine day Disney Cruise Line itinerary aboard the re-imagined Disney Magic, in our regular mid-ship verandah stateroom. Sailing the Mediterranean with Disney Cruise Line meant peace of mind and stellar standards. We would know exactly what to expect each and every day. We would be sleeping in the same bed every night which would afford my son consistency and no transitioning issues, which can make or break a vacation. So, I began to plan the port adventures in the Mediterranean with ease right through Disney Cruise Line’s online Planning Center. I selected a port adventure at every single port and all were almost day long excursions with outstanding and well planned itineraries.

Our adventure began in Venice, Italy where we decided to spend a few days before the cruise in order to visit various historical places. I booked a private tour company for these days and although the tours were extensive and detailed, they were exhausting, demanding and proper breaks were not included, you kept going all day long. I tried my best to keep up with the groups all the while attempting to keep my son comfortable, well-behaved and happy. That was difficult for me.

Andrew Venice

I secretly couldn’t wait to board the Disney Magic and was excited when our Saturday came along and we boarded our motor coach for the ride to the port. The port, owned of course by the port of Venice didn’t look anything like the one in Port Canaveral, but Disney Cruise Line made many successful attempts to make it look and feel like the one in Port Canaveral, with colourful Captain Mickey banners, booths and cast members wearing the familiar outfits and big, white Mickey Mouse hands waving away. Boarding process and screening was similar, but we had to walk outside, alongside the ship towards a make-shift building with huge elevators and a stairwell in order to reach deck three and board the ship.

DCL Venice Port    DCL Venice Gangway

Once inside, it was as if a huge burden was lifted off my shoulders because we were home and all would be well. My son even lead the way to our stateroom and helped me decorate our stateroom door. Things were back to normal now, we were on the Disney Magic.

Jackie Selfie with Helmsman Mickey      DCL Venice Stateroom Door

Right away normalcy dominated because we knew the ship well, and knew what to expect at every turn. It truly was just like being at home, with a whole lot of fun everywhere you looked.

The first port of Katakolon, Greece, took us to ancient Olympia and here, my son had the unique opportunity to stand on the actual marble starting point in preparation for his sprint through the length of the stadium. In Pireus, we were taken to the Panathenaic Stadium, Athens Acropolis, Plaka and the Athens Museum. We visited Kusadasi, Turkey and went through an extensive tour of the last known House of the Virgin Mary, saw the magnificent ruins of Ephesus, followed by an outstanding lunch at a replicated version of ancient Ephesus. The Lindos Acropolis fascinated my son and we tried to get him on a donkey but he felt too shy. Old Town Rhodes was breathtaking and we always caught a brief glance of the beautiful Disney Magic, which dominated the sea and land. The windmills in Mykonos captivated my son because they were enormous and he’d never seen anything like that before. Upon our return for two glorious days in Venice, in the luxury of the Disney Magic, there was nothing better than looking out of your verandah and seeing St. Mark’s Square a stone’s throw away. Andrew at that point said, “Epcot.” Imagine that! He made the connection and I was so grateful.

Photos below at Olympia’s Stadium marble starting line and the Disney Magic docked at Katakolon, the port nearest Olympia.

My children enjoying the views atop the Athens Acropolis.

Pete Andrew Olympia starting point   Disney Magic Katakolon

Pamela Andrew Parthenon

Below, a most captivating day at Ephesus.

Psarianos Ephesus

Siblings getting along in Rhodes.

Pamela Kissing Andrew

Approaching the fortress of Old Town Rhodes.

Andrew going in Fortress Rhodes

Strolling through Old Town Rhodes.

Andrew Pamela Rhodes Old Town

Andrew winding his way through Mykonos.

Andrew Mykonos

Andrew and my mom.

Andrew and Grandma Mykonos

Andrew made many connections to the Italy Pavilion at Epcot’s World Showcase at St. Mark’s Square in Venice.

Psarianos St marks

Here is what I was most grateful for. On every port adventure, every guide made Andrew feel valued and important because he was given the opportunity to have a purpose. Andrew was presented with the task of leading each of our tour groups and I cannot express how that made him or us feel. What I do know is that I saw his confidence soar, right before my very eyes. I saw a joy in my son’s eyes and a happiness I had never seen before, all because the tour guides afforded him a completely inclusive experience. All this because of Disney Cruise Line port adventures.

Andrew Holding DCL Sign   Andrew DCL Sign Acropolis

Watching my son leading the tour group by holding the Mickey Mouse tour group sign was one of the most gratifying moments of my life. Andrew has come such a long way and the majority of his developmental improvements have happened during our Disney parks vacations and sailing with Disney Cruise Line.

Psarianos DCL Europe Dining Room

Posted in Disney Parks, Special Needs, Uncategorized

Autism and Disney Parks Disability Access Service Card

“I’m doing this because I want to do it better.”

-Walt Disney

They did do it better.

People were initially freaking out when changes to Disney’s Guest Assistance Card were announced. People don’t like change, it’s inherent. Criticism and blame were at the forefront and negativity spiralled to new depths.

It’s like looking at a new food that doesn’t look appealing, yet when tried tastes delicious.

My point?

Try it first and then let’s talk.

The new system that accommodates people with invisible and/or physical disabilities that is in place at the Disney Parks is called the Disability Access Service Card. The function of this system affords guests a return time based on current attraction wait times.

I, having a moderate-severely autistic teenaged son had initial pangs of panic. Questions surfaced, such as, “what will I do when we approach an attraction for a time stamp and then we have to leave and return later, how will Andrew cope not going through?”

That’s easy. When approaching the attraction queue for a time stamp, Andrew, the Cardholder, doesn’t have to be there, one of us does, that way we don’t have to tease him by taking him up to the queue and then leaving. One of us can wait with him close-by while resting or enjoying a treat.

And if you plan your day properly with the assistance of Disney’s incredible planning tool known as “My Disney Experience” you can further book attractions using the FastPass+ for your day and then also use the Disability Access Service Card in between the designated FastPass+ attractions that you booked ahead of time.

What does this do?

You can create a visual schedule board using My Disney Experience right on your tablet or your regular, small, portable one. Our kiddos love schedules right? Well here you go. Your entire day is planned and your child will know exactly what to expect.

Let’s face it, while at the Disney Parks, you have to have some sort of plan. I’ve experienced this first-hand and can vouch that the system in place works.

Our experience for our return time, was that we were directed (based on Guest Services’ assessment of our needs) to the FastPass queue. Other people may have different accommodations based on their specific needs.That needs to be determined when at Guest Relations.

Bottom line? The Disney Parks Disability Access Service Card worked for us. It can for you too.

Here are some guidelines to help you out:

  • head over to Guest Relations main entrance at any Walt Disney World Resort or Disneyland Resort to discuss needs, register and have a photo taken
  • once you have the card, you get your time stamp two ways depending on which Disney Parks resort you are at AND the Cardholder does NOT have to be present for the timestamp
  • return times at Disneyland Resort are to be arranged at specific kiosks (with all of your travel party tickets in tow) located throughout the park and you are told when to return; all tickets in your party are electronically updated with the return time
  • time stamps at Walt Disney World Resort are to be done at the specific attraction
  • you don’t have to ride at the exact return time, rather times are valid until redeemed by the DAS Cardholder, how awesome is that!
  • register over at “My Disney Experience” and book all dining reservations and FastPass+ attractions for each day of your visit
  • download the “My Disney Experience App” on your device to link all resort, dining, theme park tickets, FastPass+ reservations together, as well, you’ll be able to adjust your FastPass+ times and dining reservations on the spot
  • consider staying on property, it’s just SO much easier and in the long-run saves you a bundle of money

Vacationing at the Disney Parks and with Disney Cruise Line has changed our lives in a positive manner forever!

Andrews DAS