Thanks for joining me again on my second installment on having a stress-free (or less stressful) theme park trip with a special needs child!
In this installment, we are going to talk about how important the pre-travel prep is. Because, let’s face it - getting to Disney or Universal and discovering you have forgotten that ONE item you thought you had but your child can’t live without will either cost you a fortune or a lot of aggravation (at a minimum!)
My top tip is to make sure you have a Travel Professional who specializes in Special Needs Travel as your partner! While this may be your once-in-a-lifetime trip, I plan them for my business. I plan them all day long, every day! I live them! I keep up with the ever-changing tech and rules so you don’t have to! (that was my 5-second commercial!)
Now, the first thing we want to get over is the myth that there is a non-busy time to go to a theme park. Once upon a time, that was true, but since covid, it is no longer true. (unless you count during a hurricane, or in the middle of a tropical rainstorm!) That’s not to say that timing isn’t important. Weekends, especially around holidays, are busier than regular weekdays. School breaks are busier than non-school breaks. Of course, not every school system follows the same school break schedule, so there is pretty much some school system out pretty much every day. Also, weekends are more expensive than weekdays, both in ticket prices and room prices. So, if it fits into your family’s schedule, try to avoid them.
On this question, my best advice is to find a time that works best for your family, and if you are somewhat flexible, let your Travel Professional know. Sometimes a promotion might help take the sting out a bit.
Along the same lines of when to go, remember that Universal uses dynamic pricing - meaning that as the tickets sell, the prices go up. Purchase early for the best value. But with special needs kids, you really do need to plan early - especially for the first trip!
Next, let's talk medication. Make sure you have spoken with your doctor and have all the medication your family needs for the trip. Sometimes the doctor will want to make a change in a child’s medication, but knowing there is a big trip coming up they may change their mind. Depending on the child and the child’s medical needs, a change in medication can cause changes in a child’s behavior or condition that may be masked by the sheer excitement or stress of the trip.
Also, make sure your doctor’s office has the phone number and address of a pharmacy close by your hotel (or one that delivers) in case any changes in medication or if medication is accidentally left at home. (Ask me how I know about this one!) And if your child has a rare condition that may need to be followed up while on vacation, be sure to get the name of a doctor they can be seen in the case of an emergency (like a children’s hospital)
Now, let’s get the family ready! That old tried and true countdown chain is a marvelous thing! On ours, we would write a ‘chore’ to be done each day as we got closer. Each day it was taken off, there was a simple chore that needed to be done and it was catered to the child that was to remove it. Things like how many pairs of socks do we need to pack? Pick out one ride that you HAVE to ride from each park. What one toy do you want to take? Simple things like that. As they got older (we were homeschooling) the older sister got things like ‘pick from a list of animals we might see on the safari and do a report on it’.
We would have a weekly ‘family’ meeting to go over one part of the plan. Maybe what ride they were looking forward to the most, where they wanted to eat, or what color shirt did they wanted for this park or that? (we always wore matching shirts. It made it easier when we had a running child!) Since we almost always made our shirts, we always made it fun to discuss what we want our shirt to say for each park or each restaurant. After a while my daughter got pretty good at designing our shirts, and the dresses that went with them. (Yes, we were THAT family!)
For the Special Needs child, we worked on storyboards and Picture books in our homeschool. As an adult, he still only reads on a 2nd-grade level, so these were important, for him to know what was going to happen as well as what he WANTED to happen! We still do a relaxed itinerary for each day. Not a turn-by-turn, but a 'these are the rides we want to do before lunch' and 'these are the rides we want to do after lunch' sort of itinerary. We set the expectations and then make adjustments as we need to.
It is also important for the parents to set their own expectations. Know that there is no such thing as a perfect theme park vacation. Everyone’s idea of perfection is different! We don’t measure by perfection, but rather successful. Our trips are successful if everyone gets to ride their top two rides during the trip at least once. If they got to ride more than two of their favorites or more than once, then it was a huge success! We don’t count meltdowns. (from kids or parents!)
Knowing how your child handles stress will help you to determine how many breaks you may need. A good idea is to add in more breaks than you think you will need, and use them as needed. Some days you will need more. Some days you will need less. Just like at home, you have to be flexible.
At both Disney and Universal, they have sort off 'built-in' breaks. There are both scheduled and unscheduled events happening on the streets. Some are shows, skits, artists, or maybe even unscheduled characters walking through. We always find time to find a bench and sit for a while. You never know what or who you might see.
A good plan is to have a few rides that are important to the majority of the family and try those first. Taking breaks as needed. Then add in more of the ‘second tier’ of importance. We quickly found that as Mr D got older, he was much better at handling the waits if he had something to keep him occupied. For him, it was his iPod. We went from silly Disney and Sesame Stree music to more rock n roll as he got older. But as long as he was occupied, the need for breaks decreased. They never left, and even as an adult, we still need them!
Luckily, all the parks have places that can be used as a quiet space for rests, but we have found that when he was younger, Mr D preferred to have a stroller with a cover. He would put the cover over himself and ‘hide’ from the world for a few minutes and then be ready to go.
Both Disney and Universal now have an accessibility card that needs to be acquired ahead of time. For Disney, the DAS Card is applied for between 2 and 30 days before your trip. While Universal uses the IBCCES Accessibility Card to apply for their AAP card. Both have their own method of application and have differing requirements. Your Travel Professional can help you with either of these. One important thing to note - You can pick up the Disney DAS in the park without pre-application (but will not have access to the pre-selection rides per day - only one at a time) but the AAP at Universal MUST have the IBCCES Accessibility Card pre-done as well as the phone call!
While I understand that the above information is a bit vague, it is that way for a reason. In the past, many people have given out information that is a bit too much like ‘coaching’ on how to get an assistance pass. As a result, many people who don’t need one, are getting them. Making it harder for those who actually need it to get it. And I realize it can be a scarey process on your first time applying for one - which is why, I suggest you have a Travel Professional help with your Special Needs Travel.
While we will NOT tell you what to say, we will assure you that the process is not as daunting as you might think and is there to help your family not to hinder you in having a great time in the parks. We can explain how the process works in each park, both in applying and once approved, how to maximize the pass for your specific trip.
Back to those breaks and rests - make sure they are fun and keep the child occupied. They are not a punishment. The child is overstimulated and needs a break. Bring a toy, a book, a snack, something they will enjoy for a 3-10 minute break away from the hustle and bustle. Mr D loved to color. We brought colored PENCILS in a plastic bag (Don’t bring crayons! They will melt!) and a small Disney coloring book. That, along with a few legos in another bag, his iPod, and some snacks kept him occupied most days. At night we added some glow lights! Those things kept him occupied forever!
Here we are, another long one! Thanks for staying until the end! Again, please send me your suggestions, questions, or ideas! At the end of the series, I am putting this into a list form so that everyone can have it in one place. So, seriously folks, I need your input!
Next Installment Handling Enroute MeltDowns
Most of the content is written by people at JMorris Travel. Every once in a while we will have a guest blogger, usually it is part of our 'family'.Always with a nod to Family Travel!