Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Happiest Place on Earth – Part III: Random thoughts that didn’t make it into Parts I and II

As time has passed, a few more thoughts have popped into my head about things that happened on our Disney vacation.  And when thoughts pop into my head, I usually like to write about them.  So if you can stomach one more post about Disney World, I promise that I will write about something different next time!  School starts here in about a week, and I have one kid going into second grade and one starting kindergarten.   That ought to provide TONS of good blog fodder.  But first, three more Disney stories:

1 – If your child worries about every single ride being “too fast,” then don’t take him on the “Star Tours” ride at Hollywood Studios.

We have been taking SB and AB to amusement parks and local fairs and carnivals since they were 3 and 1.  They both have always loved the kiddy rides, and have ridden almost everything with no issues.  AB is a bit braver than SB, who has avoided the truly thrilling rides, but SB has handled most of the ordinary ones just fine his entire life.  Last June, however, when our family went to the “Celebrate Fairfax” carnival in Fairfax, Virginia, we experienced a drastic and unexpected change in SB’s ride tolerance.  The first ride he rode was small cars that go around in a circle – almost too much of a “kiddy ride” for a 7-year-old.  In the middle of the ride, he began crying and screaming bloody murder!  “It’s too fast!  It’s too fast!”  The worker stopped the ride to remove him.  After he calmed down, we put him on some alligator-shaped boats that also went around in a circle.  This ride was even slower than the cars.  Although he boarded the ride willingly, he again began screaming and crying as soon as it got moving.  So again, he was removed mid-ride.  My husband and I had absolutely no idea what was going on.  He had never been bothered by rides this ordinary before.  In the past, he had always enjoyed them.  And my stomach started to churn as I realized that our much-anticipated Disney vacation was only 2 months away.  Would he ride ANYTHING at Disney?

The only ride that didn’t send him into a fit of terror that day was the merry-go-round.  In order to get our money’s worth out of the “all-you-can-ride” wristband that I had already bought for him, I let him spend a large chunk of the afternoon in the fun house, climbing up the rope ladder and sliding down the slide over and over again.  He seemed perfectly happy in this attraction, since it didn’t move.  Was he just having a bad day, or had he suddenly developed a fear of ALL rides?

After a discussion with our therapist, we decided to try to expose SB to some calmer rides before our vacation to see if he could handle them.  We took him to Burke Lake Park, which is near our house and has a merry-go-round and a very tame train ride.  Our family has been to Burke Lake Park hundreds of times throughout the boys’ lives, and we have bought enough tickets for that little train to get us to New York City and back.  Charlie even brought the video camera on this day to video any meltdowns or panic attacks so that our therapist could watch later.  I wondered how it might look to a stranger if our child was screaming in terror and we were just sitting back and videotaping it!  I decided not to worry about it.

The merry-go-round went fine that day – no panic or crying at all.  Whew!  So then we boarded the train.  As soon as it started to move, SB started to breathe a little faster.  “Mommy?  Is this ride fast?” he asked me.  “No, sweetie!” I replied.  “You’ve been on this train many times before, remember?  It’s not fast at all.  It’s a nice, slow ride.”  He seemed to calm down at my words, and was able to stay calm for the whole ride.  Again, whew!

Our master plan was to find another local carnival or fair to expose him to a few more kiddy rides before our Disney trip.  But our weekend schedules are busy, there is not a fair every weekend, and sometimes we intended to get to a fair and the weather did not cooperate.  So that plan never happened, and we left for Disney World, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.  This is one of the reasons that I chose the Winnie the Pooh ride as our first ride at the Magic Kingdom.  Winnie the Pooh is a character for toddlers – it HAS to be a tame ride, right?  Thankfully it was, and both boys loved the ride.  There were a few times that day when he asked me if a particular ride was going to be fast, and I always assured him that it was not.  We didn’t take him on anything thrilling at all, and he loved everything that he rode at the Magic Kingdom.  Oh, thank God!

I think that after a successful Day 1, I got a little too complacent too soon.  I should have been more diligent.  When SB asked me what rides there would be at Hollywood Studios the next day, I listed them all for him.  When I said “Star Wars ride,” he got incredibly excited.  “Ooooh!  A Star Wars ride?  I wanna ride that.  Yeah!  I wanna ride the Star Wars ride!”  Although he knows some of the Star Wars characters, this child has never seen a Star Wars movie, so I’m not sure why he latched on to the Star Wars ride.  But he did.  He was more excited about the Star Wars ride than the Toy Story ride, which is a movie he HAS seen many times.  (By the way, the Toy Story ride at Hollywood Studios KICKS ASS, and is a must-ride for all ages.  In fact, you should plan to ride it more than once.  After your first ride, you will want to ride it again because you will be dying to see if you can improve your score!  But I digress.)

So we got in line for the Star Wars ride (which is really called “Star Tours.”)  I was not worried about how SB would handle it, because I knew it was a simulator ride, and that it didn’t actually move.  I figured that your chair shakes around while you’re watching a movie, and that’s it.  We’ve been on rides like this before at Hershey Park.  I mean, it doesn’t actually GO ANYWHERE!  How bad could it be?  Both SB and AB were totally pumped in line, checking out C-3PO and all of the other things to look at while we waited.  We picked up our 3-D glasses, and as we approached the “boarding area,” my dad pointed to a sign on the wall and said, “Mindy?  Charlie?  Did you see this?”  I looked at the warning sign, which said something like this:

“Star Tours is a highly turbulent thrill ride through space that includes sharp drops and sudden turns.  Passengers should be in good health, and free from heart, back, or neck problems, motion sickness or other conditions that could be aggravated by sudden movements. This is not a slow ride. Children who don’t meet the requirement of 48″ may not ride; expectant mothers should not ride, and children should be accompanied by an adult.”

Uh oh.

The doors to the ride opened, and SB was already inside the ride before I had completely processed what I had just read.  There was really no turning back.  Again, uh oh.

So we sat down, put on our glasses, and buckled in.  It was only a few minutes into the ride when our vehicle “launched” into space.  I must admit, the effect was really cool.  Between the seat vibrations and the 3-D movie, it really did feel like we were traveling at light speed through space.  SB lost it immediately.  “It’s too fast!  Too fast!  I wanna get off!  I WANNA GET OFF!!!!”  We had been closed into our little capsule with about 25 or so other people for the duration of the ride, so there was not an employee in sight for me to even ask to let us out.  The only thing I could do was to remove his 3-D glasses, put my arms around him, and cover his eyes.  He sobbed and screamed and begged to be let off for the entire ride.  Thankfully, the movie was loud, and I really don’t think that the experience was ruined for anyone but my husband and me, who were on either side of him.

I had been so absorbed by SB’s anxiety that I kind of forgot about AB, who had been sitting with my parents.  This hit me as we exited our capsule.  That was really intense!  Oh boy, was AB upset as well?  Was that experience as miserable for my parents as it had been for me?  It turns out that AB absolutely loved it!  Well, at least 50% of my children enjoyed it.

I’m thankful that after a short rest and snack, SB recovered fairly well and was able to move on to other rides and shows at the park that day.  In the parking lot tram to our car at the end of the day, SB struck up a conversation with the strangers sitting in front of him.  (For someone who is socially awkward, this is surprisingly common.)  They asked him, “What was your favorite thing today in Hollywood Studios?”  He quickly replied, “It was NOT the Star Wars ride!”  Fair enough.

2 – Tom Sawyer Island at the Magic Kingdom is boring.  Skip it.

Although I read many books and websites in my Disney vacation preparation, my favorite book was “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World” by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa.  I liked how the authors (and their band of amusement park testers!) had written very honest reviews of every single ride and experience.  (I also dreamed about what a fantastic job that would be – to simply enjoy Disney World every day as your job, and then write about your experiences!  Maybe someday…)  And now that I’ve been to Disney World after reading their book, I have to say that I agree with all of their assessments.  Except one.

The first thing the review says about Tom Sawyer Island is that it’s “the place for rambunctious kids.”  Well, I have two of those, so I’m already interested.  Here are a few other quotes from the book about Tom Sawyer Island: “a getaway within the park.  It has hills to climb; a cave, windmill, and a pioneer stockade to explore…It’s a delight for adults and a godsend for children who have been in tow and closely supervised all day.”  And also, “It’s a must for families with children ages 5-15.”  And lastly, “A true haven.”  Well, with a review that stellar, we had to check it out.

Tom Sawyer Island proved to be a major disappointment.  First of all, it was really hot at this point in our day, so no one in my group was feeling their best.  You have to ride a raft to get there, which requires waiting in line.  And then it turns out that there really isn’t much there to do, except for hiking trails.  And of course, the one thing everybody wants after a day at a Disney amusement park is MORE HIKING!!!!!!  The thing I will always remember about Tom Sawyer Island is that it was the place where AB (who is generally the easier child) decided to have his biggest knock-down, drag-out meltdown.  I don’t even remember how it started, but it ended with me and AB leaving the rest of the group to have a stare-down in some shaded spot that contained a few rocking chairs.  After we had been there having it out for a few minutes, everyone who had been relaxing in the rocking chairs got up and left.  (My kids often have that effect on people in public.)  Once AB finally got over himself, calmed down, and stopped behaving like a major brat, we got in line pronto for the raft to the mainland, never to return.

3 – Pretending is great!

I’ve mentioned in my blog before that pretending is hard for many children with autism, because their minds are so literal.  I talk about this a lot in “I’m not an ABA therapist…but I play one on TV.”  SB in particular has had a very hard time learning to pretend.  He had no interest in any dolls or stuffed animals for the first 5 years of his life, and I think it’s because he didn’t understand what he was supposed to do with them.

But recently, this has all changed.  The boys’ very favorite thing to do lately is to find all of the stuffed animals in the house and use them to reenact whatever we did that day.  If we went to a birthday party, the animals go to a birthday party.  If we got stuck in traffic, the animals get stuck in traffic.  If we eat at a restaurant, the animals eat at a restaurant.  It’s always fun and silly, and I’m so happy that both are using their toys to pretend and make-believe.

This pretending with stuffed animals is pretty much ALL the boys did whenever we were back at our hotel room on our Florida trip.  In fact, before we left, my husband had to limit the number of stuffed animals (or, “friends,” as the boys call them) that could come to Disney World with us.  If he hadn’t, I’m sure our suitcases would have been filled with 30-40 stuffed animals, and no underwear or pants.  Each boy was allowed to choose one animal for their suitcase and one for their carry-on.  (Of course, we acquired new “friends” in the gift shops as our vacation went on.)  And when you are on a Disney vacation, you spend a lot of your day doing this:

 

Hey, Dumbo! Is this the Fast Pass line?

 

Their favorite thing to reenact from our day, however, was riding rides.  First, they would find some sort of receptacle, like a grown-up’s shoe, which could be used as a pretend ride.  Then they would put an animal in the shoe and fly it around the room, pretending that it was the Peter Pan ride, or the Haunted Mansion ride, or whatever other rides they had done that day.  But they didn’t always choose a shoe.  Anything that could resemble a car-type vehicle that a stuffed animal could ride in would work.  And I mean ANYTHING:

 

Are you OK, Cookie Monster? I heard that this Blue Moon ride was a bit “hoppy!”

 

As I said before, our vacation was great.  Disney World is a fantastic place for kids, and I know that the boys will have fond memories of this trip for their entire lives.  But now it’s back to reality here!  We are gearing up for school, and I think SB is feeling it.  He has been particularly cranky and bratty lately, and his behavior has been worse the last 2 weeks than it has been in a really long time.  My theory is that he is feeling anxious about going back to school, and taking it out on his parents.  Say a little prayer for us that we navigate the beginning of the school year without any trauma or bloodshed!

 

The Happiest Place on Earth – Part II: All the Things That Went Right

After reading my last post about our trip to Disney World, Lessons I Learned the Hard Way, you may get the impression that we did not have a good trip.  On the contrary, our trip to Disney World was fantastic.  Not perfect, of course, but pretty darn great.  Here are some of the things that helped make it so successful.

1 – The Guest Assistance Card (GAC)

The GAC was an absolute game-changer for our family.  Some people talk about Walt Disney World being a “magical” place.  Well, I am completely certain that our vacation would not have been nearly as successful without this “magical” little piece of paper.  The GAC is simply a pass for any guest with a disability.  For example, it allows people in wheelchairs to use a wheelchair-accessible entrance to a ride.  Disney has realized, thankfully, that children with autism have a very difficult time waiting in line for rides.  I know, I know, nobody likes to wait.  But if the wait time for a ride is 60-75 minutes, which is common at Disney World in the summer months, then the ride becomes completely unrealistic for a family with an autistic child (or 2.)

To understand how the GAC worked for us, you need to understand Disney’s Fast Pass system, which is available to every guest in the park.  A Fast Pass is kind of like an appointment to come back to the ride at a later time for a very minimal wait.  At all of the popular rides, there are kiosks where you can insert your park ticket and then it spits out a paper ticket just for that particular ride with a 1-hour window of time printed on it, such as 1:20-2:20 pm.  When you return to the ride during that window of time, you hand your Fast Pass ticket to the employee at the entrance, and then you can get on the ride with an expected wait time of 5-10 minutes.  It’s a great system, but its biggest flaw is that you can only have one Fast Pass ticket at a time.  On a crowded day, even with Fast Pass, it still may be hard to get all of the favorite rides in.

When we approached a ride, I showed the employee at the entrance my 2 GAC passes.  (Disney limits each GAC to a party of no more than 6.  Since we had 7 in our party, I had to get one pass for each kid.)  We were immediately ushered into the Fast Pass line, even though we did not have a Fast Pass.  We never waited for more than 10 minutes for a ride.  This was SO AWESOME, and I can’t thank Disney enough for helping out families with autistic children this way.  Many children with autism (like SB) just simply can’t wait very long for a ride, and therefore without this pass, a Disney vacation would be out of the question.  I’m so impressed that Disney understands this, and also understands that children with autism are probably not going to last as long as typical children in an amusement park.  Their day will simply not be enjoyable if most of their park time is spent waiting in lines/melting down.  My husband called it the “Silver Lining Pass,” which made me laugh.

Did I feel guilty about bypassing all of those patiently waiting guests?  Yes, a little bit.  But have you read Panic!  Terror!  Meltdown!?  SB’s impatience and anxiety is currently at an all-time high.  There were times that even in a 5-minute line, he would start to lose it.  On the 5th day of our vacation, with fatigue adding to his normal anxiety, he was being constantly irrational and melting down all over the place.  Finally, when we couldn’t stand it anymore, my husband threatened to remove him from the line of “It’s a Small World” if he didn’t calm down and stop complaining.  He continued to complain, and if you are a parent, you know that we HAD to follow through.  The screams were loud as my husband carried him through the crowd and out of the line, but I am impressed that he pulled himself together pretty quickly.  And he behaved a LITTLE bit better the rest of that day.

It was a piece of cake to get a GAC.  I went into the City Hall building just inside the entrance of the Magic Kingdom.  I told the woman at the desk that I have 2 children with autism.  That was it.  I did not have to provide any proof or documentation.  It occurred to me that this would be an extremely easy system to abuse.  I sincerely hope that no one ever does this, because that could ruin it for those who truly need it.

2 – Great Big Playgrounds

I have always been a little bit jealous of my friends who have nice, calm little girls who like to sit and color for long periods of time.  My guys like to move, move, MOVE!  They are always moving, always running, always jumping, always climbing, and ALWAYS yelling.  Thankfully, we found some of the coolest playground areas on this vacation which allowed my kids to be themselves.  I’m pretty sure SB would still playing be in the Boneyard at Disney’s Animal Kingdom if we hadn’t insisted that he leave with us.  After more than an hour, his hair was soaking wet with sweat, his face was lobster-red, and yet we still got an “Aw, MAN!” when we gave him his 2-minute warning to leave.  Both boys spent probably close to 2 hours in the Net Climb at Sea World.  (They ought to give it a more interesting name than “Net Climb,” don’t you think?)  The Net Climb is a huge play area that is 4 stories tall and has an extremely wide array of nets, slides, and tunnels.  Both SB and AB were happy as clams inside this monstrous structure.

The only frustrating thing about the Net Climb is that it has more than one exit.  If you are not aware of this, you might place yourself on a shaded bench near one of the exits and relax, assuming that you will certainly see your children when they leave the structure.  Then at some point, you will realize that one of your children is NOT in the Net Climb anymore and start to run around and panic.  Not that this happened to us…

And this is a perfect segue way to number 3:

3 – The Safetytat

A friend told me about Safetytat a few months ago, and I thought it was absolutely brilliant.  It’s a temporary tattoo that you order online.  It says, “If lost, please call” and then your cell phone numbers are printed right on it.  They also make tattoos that say things like, “Non verbal, please call,” “Alert: Nut Alergy,” “Alert: Diabetic,” and “I have autism.”  All brilliant.

We spent many days walking around extremely crowded amusement parks, and I felt so much better knowing that both of my kids had my cell phone number and my husband’s cell phone number tattooed on their arms.  The tattoos lasted about 2 days before they started to flake off and become unreadable.  When that happened, I just stuck one on their other arm!  In the future, I will make sure to pack rubbing alcohol or nail polish remover so that I can easily remove one that is no longer readable.  Thankfully, the information on the Safetytat was never really needed.  There was never a moment where someone called my cell phone and said, “Hey, I’ve got this hysterical kid here, and this number is on his arm…”  But my peace of mind was totally worth the 20 bucks I paid for the tattoos.

4 – The Opening Ceremony

If you read my last post, you know that despite my best efforts, we did not arrive at the Magic Kingdom on our first day in time to watch the opening ceremony.  I was truly disappointed, but since we had planned to spend 2 days in the Magic Kingdom, I was eager to try again.

So 2 days later, we got up early to get to the Magic Kingdom before it opened, and this time everything worked out perfectly.  From car to ferry boat to park entrance, everything was smooth.  We waited with the rest of the crowd right outside of the park entrance, and at 8:50 am, music began to play.  At first, people in Mary Poppins-type costumes came out and did a song and dance on an elevated platform over the park entrance.  And then, the train arrived.  And who got off the train, arriving for work for the day?  Why, Mickey, of course!  And Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, Donald, Cinderella, Snow White, etc. etc. etc.  They were ALL there, singing and dancing and exploding with Disney magic.  It’s a good thing I was wearing sunglasses, so no one could see me tearing up and getting all blubbery.  I’m SO glad we got to see that.  I hope the kids remember it as fondly as I do.

5 – The Quality of the Shows in the Disney Parks

Like I said earlier, my kids like to be constantly moving, so shows are not their favorite part of an amusement park.  But we went to some of the shows anyway, armed with Goldfish crackers to try to keep them quiet.  And we were usually frustrated by how disinterested they were in the shows, because some of the shows were REALLY good!  One of my favorites was the Finding Nemo musical at the Animal Kingdom.  It was a theater show where all of the actors on the stage were manipulating extremely large and elaborate puppets.  At first I was just impressed with the puppetry, and assumed that the soundtrack was prerecorded.  But then I realized that all of the actors were wearing microphones.  They were actually singing!  And they sounded GOOD!  (This is high praise coming from a professional musician.)  Both of my guys like the movie Finding Nemo, so I was frustrated by how little they seemed to enjoy this show.  At least my husband and I appreciated it.  The other impressive show, also at the Animal Kingdom, was the Lion King show.  It was like a circus, with several things constantly going on at the same time.  There was singing, dancing, gymnastics, and colorful costumes, and it was all impressive.  The guys seemed to like this one a little bit better than Nemo, but I don’t think they truly appreciated the talent that they were witnessing.  If nothing else, going to shows at least got them out of the sun for a little while to rest and recharge.

6 – The Character Dinner at Chef Mickey’s

As I mentioned in my last post, my favorite thing about amusement parks is riding the rides.  But for many little kids, rides are NOT the main attraction.  Sometimes the most magical thing a child can do at Disney World is meet the characters.  And who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me?  Why, it’s M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E!  For little boys who are between 5-7 years old, meeting Mickey Mouse feels as exciting as meeting Oprah Winfrey, or Michael Jordan, or (insert your favorite celebrity here) would feel to you or me.  There are places in all of the theme parks where you can wait in line to meet the characters.  The characters will give kids a hug, pose for a picture, and even give autographs!  In fact, some kids spend all of their time at Disney World trying to fill up autograph books by attempting to meet and get an autograph for every single Disney character during their vacation.  I did not introduce this concept to my children, because I did not want to spend ALL of my vacation waiting to meet costumed Disney characters.  However, I do understand the appeal, and definitely wanted my kids to experience this Disney tradition.  The easiest (although not the cheapest) way to meet desired characters is to book a character dinner at one of the parks or resorts.  So I made reservations for dinner at Chef Mickey’s, a restaurant in the Contemporary Resort near the Magic Kingdom.

And it was awesome!  The boys loved it.  Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, and Donald were there, and each made a special visit to every table for hugs and pictures.  Sometimes when a character approached our table, SB got so excited he just didn’t know what to do.  All he could do was jump up and down and yell, “It’s Goofy!  It’s Goofy!”  I usually had to remind him to go hug Goofy, and then to turn around and look at me and smile so I could take a picture.

The meal was a buffet, and the food was pretty good.  There were quite a lot of choices, and even my vegetarian brother made several trips to the buffet.  With all of the variety and choices, what do you think SB ate for dinner?  Three heaping plates of Kraft-style, powdery macaroni and cheese.  Oh well.  The bill was a bit steep, (and we didn’t even order from the bar that night!) but it was worth it because both boys had a great time, and I think it was one of the more memorable experiences of our vacation.

 

I spent over a year planning this trip, and am feeling pretty sad that it’s over now.  Charlie said he worried that after we got home, I would get a bad case of “Post-Wedding-Letdown.”   And there is a little bit of that.  But I had a great time, and more importantly, my kids had a great time.  We also have some great photos and videos to help us remember the trip.  So I’ll leave you with a few shots of the cutest little boys on the planet getting to meet their favorite Disney characters.

 

 

 

The Happiest Place on Earth – Part I: Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

In 2009, when the boys were 2 and 4, I decided that I wanted to take my children to Disney World.  My husband quickly talked me out of it.  He said that they were too little to remember it, that SB was behaviorally too challenging to take to a hotel for an entire week, and that there were plenty of places we could take them locally for a vacation that would be closer, cheaper, and just as much fun at their ages.  I was disappointed, but I realized that he was probably right on all accounts.  We decided that when they were 5 and 7, we would reconsider a Disney vacation.  And you better believe that I didn’t let him forget it!

You see, I LOVE amusement parks.  I always have.   And Disney World is the quintessential amusement park, the one that sets the standard all the others try to live up to.  There are just so many things that I love about amusement parks.  I love the electricity that I feel.  Every guest in the park has come with an expectation for fun, and I can sense that excitement as I approach the gate.  I love the sounds I hear as I walk past a roller coaster.  I love hearing the roar as the train speeds by on its tracks, accompanied by the terrified screams of its passengers.  I love the smells in the air of sunscreen and fried food.  I love to eat ice cream, soft pretzels, french fries, candy, and all of the other junk food choices amusement parks have to offer.  And I actually love the summer heat.  At least, I don’t really mind it.  My tolerance for heat seems to be much higher than the average person’s.   My tolerance for cold is nonexistent.   I hate, hate, HATE being cold, but I’m just not that bothered by being hot.  Most of all, however, I love the rides.

I just can’t get enough of amusement park rides.  On an ideal day at a park for me, I go on every single ride at least once.  When I arrive at a park, I usually head straight for the most thrilling rides first, so that I make sure to ride the best ones early in the day in case I don’t have time to get to them all.  My very favorite rides are the roller coasters, and the faster, the better.  I think it all started at Disney World back in 1978.  My parents took me to the Magic Kingdom when I was 5, and we all got in line for Space Mountain without realizing what kind of ride that it really was.  It was my first roller coaster, and I absolutely LOVED it!  The very best thing about roller coasters is that exciting feeling of anticipation that builds with each “clack, clack, clack” of the chain as the train climbs up the first hill, followed by the exhilaration and speed of the first drop.  Again, the faster, the better.  I also love being surprised on a ride, so I enjoy rides that are inside of buildings and run in the dark, and any other types of rides that are original or do things that are unexpected.  But mostly, I just love the weightless feeling of speeding down that first hill.  As my husband and I waited in line for Space Mountain last week, he referred to it as, “the ride that created the Monster!”

So after thinking about this vacation for 3 years and planning it for literally over a year, my little family finally got on an airplane to Orlando on August 4th, 2012.  We were joined in Florida by my parents and my brother, who (for reasons I will never understand!) agreed to join us on our magical trek to Disney World.  We stayed in Orlando for 7 days and 6 nights.  And overall, the trip was great.  There were some bumps in the road, of course.   But I’m sure that the kids had fun, I think that the adults had fun, and I’m certain that my children will have fond memories of this vacation for their entire lives.  I have so much to say about our trip that I realized I wasn’t going to be able to fit it all into one blog post, so I’m going to devote 2 or 3 posts to our vacation.  This first post is about some of the mistakes I made on the trip, so if you are planning a trip to Disney World in the near future, I hope that you can learn from my mistakes.  And if not, well, I hope that you can at least laugh with me at the craziness.

Lesson 1 – Do not use your GPS for directions to the Magic Kingdom.

Disney World doesn’t want you to be able to just drive right up to their theme park.  That would be too ordinary.  They require you to park far away from the entrance, and then take a ferry boat across a man-made lake to the opening gate.  This limited access adds to the magical quality of Disney World.  You have to actually leave reality behind to enter this special world that Walt Disney has created.

Oh, a GPS will give you directions to the Magic Kingdom, all right.  And these directions will lead you right to the park.  But you won’t be able to get in.  We found ourselves desperately lost on our first morning, driving around on all sorts of access roads and “Employees Only” roads on the Disney property.  At one point we drove by the park only a couple hundred feet from the giant, white, futuristic structure that houses Space Mountain.  But there was not a parking lot or park entrance in sight.  As we fruitlessly drove around and around, we grew more and more frustrated.  The kids were especially irritated, since they were so incredibly excited to finally be headed to Disney World after months of anticipation, and didn’t understand why were weren’t there yet.  To make it all even more frustrating, we were driving around in a 2-car caravan with the rest of my family.  We finally stopped and asked for directions when we came upon a “Lost and Found” facility.  Eventually, we got to the parking lot, but then we had to ride a tram to the ferry boat and THEN ride the ferry boat to the park entrance.  It all seemed to take forever when we were already exasperated.  We left the hotel at 8 am, hoping to catch the opening ceremony at 8:50 am, but by the time we arrived in the park it was already 9:30 am, and I was disappointed that we had missed some valuable park time.  But my frustration (and the frustration of the rest of my family) was not over yet.  Keep reading!

How you can learn from my mistake – Skip the GPS, and ask someone at the front desk of the hotel or resort where you are staying for the best route to the parks.

Lesson 2 – Be aware that the “Armed Forces Salute” 4-day military passes require activation at the park gate, even if you purchase them in advance of your trip.

After the morning’s GPS/direction debacle, we finally arrived at the gate to the Magic Kingdom.  Ready for the fun to begin, I pulled out my “Armed Forces Salute” passes that I had purchased for the whole family several weeks prior to our trip.  The pass is a 4-day Park Hopper for $136, which is a fantastic deal.  I need to state here that I am incredibly thankful for the discount that Disney provides to military members and their families.  However, no one told me that before the passes can be used, they have to be “activated” at the park.  I handed my pass to the attendant at the entrance, and she told me, “You haven’t activated these yet.  Take them to Guest Services to be activated, and then come back here.”  As I looked in the direction she pointed me, my heart sank.  The Guest Services line was LONG!   But what else could we do?  So, all 7 of us waited for over 40 minutes in the baking sun in the Guest Services line to activate our passes.  Between getting lost and then waiting to activate our passes, all of our nerves were already fried and the day really hadn’t even begun.  We left our hotel at 8 am and didn’t get onto our first ride until 10:30 am.  Thankfully, the day did get much better after that.

How you can learn from my mistake – Know that “Armed Services Salute” military passes have to be activated at one of the park entrances, so try to arrive early on the first day before the Guest Services line gets too long.  Also, know that only the person with the active duty military ID needs to wait in the line.  All others in your party can go somewhere else and wait in the shade.

Lesson 3 – Weigh carefully the pros and cons of staying on Disney property vs. staying off property.

I researched lodging options for months before deciding where we would stay.  I finally chose a Fairfield Inn and Suites off of the Disney property.  It was a nice hotel and it had a pretty good free breakfast, but I’m still not 100% certain that I made the right choice.  There are many advantages and disadvantages to both options.  The obvious disadvantage to staying on property is price.  Disney resorts aren’t cheap.  Being military, we could have stayed at Shades of Green, which is a very reasonably priced resort on the Disney property for military members and their families.  But Shades of Green has a few disadvantages, such as no free breakfast (no Disney resorts provide free breakfast, because they want you to purchase their meal plan) and Shades of Green also doesn’t have suites.  (Well, they have a few suites, but they are not reasonably priced like the ordinary rooms are.)  I knew from past experiences that it is very difficult to get my children to go to sleep when we are all sleeping in the same room.  It was much more appealing to me to have a suite so that my husband and I were sleeping in a separate room from the kids.  I found a good rate on a suite at the Fairfield Inn, so I took it.

I didn’t discover the biggest disadvantage of staying off property until we had spent several days driving our rental car to and from the parks.  Although we were only 8 miles from the Magic Kingdom, it took at least 30 minutes just to drive to the parking lot.  The heavy traffic and long lights made the commute to and from the parks feel frustratingly slow.  I had read several books in advance of our trip about planning your Disney vacation, and most recommended the following plan: get to the parks as soon as they open, then return to your hotel room in the middle of the day when the weather is the hottest and the parks are the most crowded, and then return to the park in the evening after a nice afternoon nap.  This sounded great in theory, but after realizing how long traveling to and from the parks actually took, we decided that the travel time just wasn’t worth it to return to our rooms in the afternoon.

How you can learn from my mistake – I’m not sure that I made a “mistake” here, because I truly believe that we all slept better having a suite.  And my children (particularly SB) are naturally “early to bed, early to rise” types, so the “nap in the middle of the day” plan may have not worked even in the most ideal lodging circumstances.  I just want to emphasize that if you are planning a Disney vacation for your family, you should carefully weigh what is most important to you in your lodging accommodations and plan accordingly. 

Lesson 4 – Don’t let your children open their own maple syrup packets at the hotel breakfast.

OK, in the big picture of our vacation, this was not a huge deal.  But it did make a colossal mess, requiring about a dozen wet paper towels and a complete change of clothes, including socks, for the 7-year-old.

How you can learn from my mistake – Supervise your children as they prepare their breakfast.  And make sure you bring extra clothes, just in case.

Lesson 5 – Don’t push your family too hard or too long.

As I mentioned earlier, I LOVE amusement parks.  I spent countless hours preparing for this trip by reading books and websites about Disney World.  I wanted to do EVERYTHING!  Every ride, every show, every experience.  I didn’t want to miss a thing!

But in my excitement of vacation planning, here’s the thing that I forgot – not everyone loves amusement parks as much as I do.  Even people who enjoy amusement parks have their limits.  And when you push people (both children and adults) past their limits, there is a point of diminishing returns on the fun.

I had a plan for Day 1 in the Magic Kingdom that I was certain was going to be just perfect, and, well, magical!  We were going to arrive at the park in time to watch the opening ceremony at 8:50 am.  Then we were going to ride all of the rides we could until 1 pm, at which time we would return to our hotels for a nice rest.  We had reservations for the character dinner at Chef Mickey’s for 5 pm, and then we were going to return to the Magic Kingdom in the evening for more rides, and then see the 9 pm “Main Street Electrical Parade,” the 9:45 pm “Magic, Memories, and You” light show, and then cap off the evening with the “Wishes” fireworks show at 10 pm.  Catching the fireworks show was extremely important to me.  Every Disney DVD my children watch starts out with an opening menu showing Tinkerbell flying around Cinderella’s castle with fireworks overhead.  They had seen this little clip hundreds of times, and I so very much wanted them to see it for real at the Magic Kingdom.  But Day 1 did not go according to plan AT ALL!

I’ve already mentioned how the morning didn’t go as I had intended.  But once we started riding rides, everyone’s moods improved.  Since it took us much longer to get going in the morning then we had planned, and because getting to and from the park took so much longer than we had realized, we decided to scrap our plan to return to the hotel in the afternoon.  We came up with an acceptable plan B, which was to take an afternoon break by riding the monorail train to the Contemporary Resort.  This was where we needed to be for our 5 pm character dinner, anyway.  Although not our own hotel, this at least got us out of the crowds and sun for a few hours.  The resort had a decent-sized arcade, so the boys had a good time playing air hockey and skee ball.  At one point I realized I hadn’t seen my parents for a while, so I went looking for them, and I found them both at the old-fashioned pinball machines! 

The character dinner was awesome! (More on that in a later post.)  After dinner, we returned to the Magic Kingdom and rode a few more rides.  I started to get distressed as I watched the sky grow dark and cloudy.  We all dug out our plastic ponchos and put them on as the rain began.  Even though it was raining, the park was still crowded as we claimed a spot on the sidewalk to watch the “Main Street Electrical Parade.”  As we waited for the parade to begin, the rain started to come down even harder.  How miserable it felt to be just sitting there in the pouring rain!  And since it was approaching 9 pm, and my kids normally go to bed at 8, they both fell asleep in our laps.  SB woke up when the parade began, and seemed to enjoy it, despite the continuous rain.  AB finally woke up in the middle of the parade, but was so groggy that he was only mildly interested.  When the parade ended, we decided to make our way toward the park exit and try to catch the light show and fireworks right before leaving.  My husband held one groggy boy and my dad held the other as the light show began, still in the rain.  I was enjoying the cool effects on Cinderella’s Castle until my dad said to me, “They’re not paying attention at all, Mindy.  Let’s just go.”  He was right.  Both boys had their heads down and were dozing.  It was STILL raining.  No one else in my little group was having a good time.  They were all too tired and wet to care about lights, effects, or fireworks.  Feeling dejected that my kids would miss the fireworks that had been so important to me, I agreed that we should make our way to the car.

We were at least out of the rain once we boarded the ferry boat to the parking lot.  And as the boat took off, the fireworks began over the Magic Kingdom.  AB was out cold.  SB was sitting on a bench, slouching over, looking miserable.  I grabbed his arm and said, “Quick!  Come here to the edge of the boat and you can see the fireworks over the castle!”  “No!” he shouted, and yanked his arm away.  “I just wanna sit here!”  So I sighed, and then walked to the edge of the ferry boat and watched the damn fireworks all by myself.

I beat myself up in my head for a while as I watched, lamenting that so many parts of the day did not go as planned, and that it was all my fault.  (Well, the rain wasn’t my fault.)  But I was pretty certain that most of my family was miserable because we had been at the park too long and tried to stuff too many things into a single day.  And I knew that my children are not late night people, and that trying to keep them up for fireworks at 10 pm was taking a risk.  So I vowed to take the rest of the trip a little slower, to understand that we probably weren’t going to ride every ride, see every show, and take in every experience that Disney has to offer in 4 days.  And I sadly came to the realization that we weren’t going to catch any of the nighttime shows, because my kids just can’t stay up late. 

How you can learn from my mistake – Don’t push your family too hard or too long, especially if you have several days in a row of amusement parks planned.  Know the temperaments of your family members, and understand that if you spend too much time in a park, everyone will be miserable.

Despite the mistakes mentioned in this post, our trip really was fun for all.  I don’t mean to sound negative about our vacation.  I have another post planned about all of the things that went right.  I’ll hopefully have that ready in a few days.