We were so excited to plan it out. My husband and I decided that our 2 boys NEEDED to visit Walt Disney World for the first time (Ok, I decided…). Admittedly, excitement soon turned into anxiety over how our youngest (Jake) would react to a vacation.
Jacob was nearly 2 years old and we had just been told that he is on the severe end of the Autism Spectrum. We were confused and didn’t know if a vacation was even a good idea. We stressed about every little detail and all of the “what if’s”. What if Jake cried ALL week long over every little thing? What if he was afraid of the crowd even from his stroller? What if his older brother was upset that we were taking so many breaks? These are all questions that we went over in our minds so many times. But we decided to just do it and roll with the punches. It was the best decision we ever made.
From the moment we started our walk down Main Street I knew that our family would be forever changed. I don’t know how. I just had a feeling that being there would somehow help Jake. When he wanted to get out of his stroller and walk to Cinderella Castle I knew that I was right. We assumed that he would be happiest in the stroller. He felt safe in strollers. To see my son holding his brother’s hand and walking down Main Street was something I will never forget.
One day at Epcot (after walking back from an attraction with a family member), we spotted the most adorable little boy jumping around in the water fountain…fully clothed. He was squealing with joy and laughing hysterically. When we got close enough we realized that it was Jake. To some it was just a cute kid laughing in the water. To us it was a bigger deal than I can explain. Jake was always afraid of water. It took me and my husband to give him a bath- one of us holding him, the other washing. He would scream during the whole thing. It broke our hearts and was something we didn’t know how to help him with. He also didn’t laugh often. He was (and still is) non verbal and we cherished the few times that he did laugh or use his voice.
Crowds were also an issue. He got scared and upset if people were too close to him. We wondered how he would handle waiting in lines. We weren’t visiting during peak season but we were still worried. I did some research on the Guest Assistance Pass. This is something available to guests with special needs and can be issued at any Guest Relations location in the parks. It isn’t a front of the line pass, but rather a way for those with sensory issues to wait in a less crowded area. In a lot of cases it would send us to the Fastpass line. In other cases we were directed to a separate waiting area. In either case, it helped tremendously. It made us so happy that Jake was enjoying the attractions with the rest of us.
In addition to the Guest Assistance Pass, we were given a red sticker with a picture of a wheelchair on it for our stroller. This allowed the stroller to act as a wheelchair. It was very convenient in the restaurants that Jake had a safe and familiar place to sit and eat (high chairs were not always the best option for him). This sticker was also convenient during shows. If we needed to leave the show quickly we were able to do so without disrupting the other guests. Jake likes to “bolt”, meaning he doesn’t like to sit still and will run away any chance he gets. It can be dangerous as he has no safety awareness.
Needless to say, we had an amazing vacation. But it was more than a vacation. I can’t explain it. Both of my boys returned home different kids. Jacob is excited to take baths! We now call him our little fish! Nick learned that he can have fun with his brother despite his limitations. This was important and to this day I believe there is no better big brother on Earth. Everyone was brought closer together during our amazing trip. We still talk about all of the milestones reached during that one week.
We could not have picked a better destination for our first “family” vacation. We were so happy with how accommodating Disney was with their special needs guests. Our worry about the difficulties we might face completely disappeared. Some would say a vacation with a special needs child is out of the question. I would say that’s because they haven’t visited Walt Disney World.
If you are considering a visit with your family and have questions, feel free to contact me.
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Erin Santamaria – ErinS@Travelwiththemagic.com 877-377-0505