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.