We recently returned from our family vacation to Disneyland. I have had so many people ask how it went so I thought I would share our experience and what I did to prepare us.
When we first decided to go to Disneyland I was so excited. Disneyland was a dream vacation for me. I had dreamt about taking my children there since I was a kid.; However, after a few weeks, reality set in. I started thinking about how Jacob reacts to new situations. Jacob’s behavior is very unpredictable, but one thing I know will always set him off is anxiety over an unknown situation. Any change in routine or surroundings can cause him to break down and become out of control. With this knowledge and my determination to go to Disneyland, I decided to prepare for any situation I could think of that would cause anxiety therefore preventing as many melt downs as possible. I became what my husband and I call an “Extreme Planner”. I am going to share what I did to help my children (and myself) have the best vacation ever!
- There are no suprises in our family. This makes me sad because I love suprising people with exciting news or thoughtful presents. But Jacob was able to emotionaly prepare himself for weeks before. By telling our children early they were also able to help us plan our vacation.
- About a month before we left the kids and I started watching youtube videos of rides and shows. This helped Jacob know what rides he wanted to go on and what to expect when he went on it. By the time we went to Disneyland he knew the names of the rides and the basic idea of what the ride was.
- Look up what rides are running. Very early on I looked up the ride closures. I am so glad I did because there were a few rides that Jacob wanted to go on that were closed. For example: when I told Jacob that pirates of the caribean ride was closed he had a total melt down. For hours he yelled at me that he hated Disneyland and they needed to open the ride for him or he wasn’t going, etc. After a few weeks of him getting upset everytime the ride was mentioned Jacob started to come to terms with it being closed. By the time we left for Disneyland anytime someone asked him if he was going on the pirate ride he responded with “no. that ride is closed”. Although we had many meltdowns about this ride it was always at our house where it was containable. Totally worth the forethought!
- I studied the map. When we got to Disneyland I knew where everything was. When Jacob says he needs to go to the bathroom you have about 2 min to find a bathroom so you better know where you are going. Studying the map also helped me navigate the park without dragging the kids down the wrong street over and over again.
- Social stories! I could write a whole book about social stories and the benefits of them, but I will try to keep it short. For those who don’t know a social story is basically a book about situations that you or your child will go through. So for example when Jacob’s kindergarten class took skating lessons his teacher made a social story that took the kids through the steps of the skating lessons. I have learned that Jacob needs his to be very specific and also very clearly state that we need to be flexible if something changes. I made social stories (words and pictures) for: the airport experience (for Jacob it needs to be every step. I also used actual pictures of the LAX airport so he recognized it when we got there), Hotel to Disneyland transportation (including actual pictures of our hotel room), Getting on rides and waiting in line, Meeting characters (how to talk to them, how to treat them, etc), pin trading (how to ask to trade pins). These stories helped so much. I would say something to Jacob about it while we were at the park and he would say “I already knew that. It was in the story mom!”
- We practiced. Jacob’s aide Amanda helped us practice “going through security” or “talking to characters”. We practiced different situations that could come up and that could upset him. We practiced being “flexible” and talked a lot about group plans and how we need to listen to what other people want to do.
- I called ahead. Before our trip I spoke with our airline, Disneyland, our hotel, the airports, and anyone else I could think of to ask details and to request help wherever possible. Most airports will allow you to take your child through a dry run of check in and security to help them get used to it before you actually have to do it. The airline was also very helpful. They allowed the kids to go in and meet the pilot and were very attentive and kind. Disneyland offers an assistance pass to people with cognitive disabilities. They were very kind and talked me through how to use it.
- Packing! I had seen this idea on pinterest where you put each days outfit in a ziplock bag. It seemed crazy, and Jason made fun of me but I thought I would try it. It was AWESOME! Jacob normally does not get himself dressed. (We believe it is because he struggles making decisions for himself.) I put everything needed to get dressed in the morning in each bag and also had night time ones. It worked great for Jacob. He would just grab a bag out of his suitcase dump it out and get dressed. I only had to get him dressed twice the whole week! (not including bedtime) This is a big deal for him, and has made me consider doing this all the time (not actually but I wish he could always do it himself).
- Informing the kids. Jason and I have gotten used to talking Jacob through situations so this came a bit more natural to us. At least once every hour I would talk to Jacob and let him know our plan for the next little bit. Although I couldn’t always do a visual schedual for him I was able to talk him through what the plan was. We do visual scheduals for Jacob on a daily basis so I knew this would help him remain calm.
- Do not have unrealistic expectations. Disneyland is exhausting for anyone. The amount of walking and patience required makes it very easy to fall asleep at night. The first few days I expected to get so much done. I expected to be there almost all day unfortunately that is not what happened. We ended up only being there for about 5 hours. At first I was upset that we missed out on some of the things everyone else got to do but I then realized that I needed to focus on what we could do and not what we couldn’t. I remembered that the reason they give kids like Jacob a special pass is because he doesn’t last as long as other kids.
Now that our vacation is over I know that all the preparation was worth it. It was the most amazing vacation. Jacob did awesome! What I was most amazed at was his behavior after we got home. Normally Jacob holds it together in public and then completely melts down as soon as we get home. This did not happen. We kept him regulated the whole trip so that there was no let down. We got home and he was still flexible and kind to all of us.
I loved our vacation and would recommend it to anyone. All I have to say is that if you prepare yourself and your child it will be worth it. I do not believe that this kind of preparation is only for autistic children. My daughter Sarah really benefits from all these things especially visually scheduals, and social stories. Feel free to contact me if you need more info or if you need help making any of the helps I talk about above.
I am ready to go back already and I am still unpacking!
Disneyland I miss you!