Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Disney Vacations with Special Kids

We are a Disney family. When I say that we are a Disney family, I REALLY mean that we are a Disney family.

Disneyland was my high school hangout. My high school was about 15 minutes from the park and all of my friends and I were annual passholders. We spent countless hours at Disneyland over the course of those 4 years. In college, still as an annual passholder, it became my sanctuary when dorm life was too crazy. I spent hours studying there and enjoying the people watching and ambiance.

My husband and I actually MET at Disneyland and both worked at Disneyland at the end of college and during our first year of marriage. Our honeymoom was on the Disneycruise and included our first trip to Disneyworld in Florida. We immediately fell in love with both Disneycruise and Disneyworld.

Hubby and I working at Disneyland, 2002ish.

When the boys were younger, I spent many days taking them to Disneyland. I was known to give into my 2 1/2 year olds' request to eat dinner at Disneyland and then drive the 40 minutes to do so. Benjamin even took his very first steps at Disneyland, at 2 1/2, in the building in which his daddy and I both worked. After we received the boys' diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy, the only place that I wanted to go was Disneyland. I needed to be some place that I could think, and that is what the park was for me.

The boys on one of their very first rides.

The boys' very first Disneycruise.

As the boys have gotten older, the dynamic of the trips has changed. They are no longer infants and toddlers, but 8 year old children with special needs. Plus, we now have a daughter. We have since moved from California to North Carolina. The trips can't happen as often because of the distance (it takes 9 hours to drive to Disneyworld) and the cost involved with such a trip.

Luckily, during our honeymoon trip, we decided to buy into Disney Vacation Club. We already knew that we loved Disney vacations and we also knew that we wanted our kids to enjoy them in the future. We didn't have kids yet, having just gotten married, so we decided to go ahead and do it. Since then, we have taken 5 more Disney Cruises and been to Disney World 4 more times. Our house is close enough to drive to Disney World in a day and Vacation Club covers the cost of the rooms. Thus, we go far more often than the average family.

That being said, traveling with any kids can be tough. However, it can be especially tough for kids with special needs. Disney, with its commitment to customer service, makes it as easy as possible.

Tips for Disney World or Disneyland vacations for special kids:

Disneyland 2012. Checking out the new Cars Land.
  1. Upon arriving at the park, head to City Hall (or Guest Services) and request a guest assistance pass. This pass will allow your special needs child and a certain amount of family members to have "back door" access to SOME rides and attractions at the parks. Some ride queues have been modified for wheelchair access through the regular line, so the pass will not work there. However, a good portion of the rides have a separate entrance and it will generally have a shorter line. Remember though that the shorter line is NOT a guarantee. They can only load so many from that line at a time and it will occasionally be longer than the regular line.
  2. Rent a wheelchair or stroller for your special needs kid who can walk, but may not have the stamina to walk the whole park. Otherwise, you may end up carrying that kid. We actually prefer to bring our own stroller to Disney World for help with navigating the trams and buses at the park. There are lots of buses and transfers and you cannot take the park strollers onto the buses with you. We like to bring an umbrella stroller with us so that we also don't have to carry sleeping kids back to the hotel room at the end of the night. Sometimes, the rooms are not that close to the bus stops. Disneyland is a lot closer together, so renting may be a feasible option there if your special needs child can easily walk from the parks to the rooms.
  3. Be aware of the height of your child who uses a wheelchair. Most of the larger rides have height requirements. These are important for the child's safety and the cast members have to be strict in following the rules. Andrew cannot stand up for the height measurements, but has no problem with upper body control and can safely ride the faster rides. It was very helpful to be able to say, "He's 48 inches" on a 40 inch ride. Also, use common sense on a ride. If your child does have issues with upper body or head control, don't put them on a roller coaster.
  4. It is a VERY overstimulating environment, especially if you have not been there before. There are sights, smells, noises, music, people, fireworks, screaming, cheering, costumed characters. Remember that your special needs child will probably have a difficult time dealing with these things at first. We have had a few times where our kids have melted down after a stimulating experience (roller coaster, scary show, etc). It happens.

Kate's first ride at Disneyland. She still loves the carousel.

Tips for a Disney Cruise vacation:

Disneycruise 2012. On our way to Castaway Cay.
  1. When filling out the paperwork for the cruise, make sure that you get the special needs form if your child has specific medical needs during the cruise. They need to know about oxygen tanks and other medical equipment and they also need a waiver from your doctor saying that your child is fit to travel on the ship with minimal access to medical care. We have not needed this with our sons, but they will not allow passage with medical equipment if the form is not filled out.
  2. Every person on the ship has to have a life vest in the case of an emergency. They put them in your rooms based on the ages of the people registered per room. With our boys, they are extremely small for their age. Make sure they have the proper life vest for their WEIGHT, not their age. 
  3. Make sure you know the procedures for people with disabilities in case of emergencies. During the drill, they will allow people with disabilities to use the elevators, but know what staircase you need to go to during an actual emergency. They will have crew members stationed there to help.
  4. If dealing with a wheelchair or walker, try to request a room that is accessible. In general, staterooms are VERY small. The walkways are small, the doorways are small, the bathrooms are small. Andrew is able to get out of his wheelchair and crawl around the room, otherwise a standard stateroom would be impossible for us. His small child's wheelchair BARELY fits through a standard stateroom door and the bathrooms in a standard room require a step up. We only had an accessible room once and it was fantastic for the wheelchair.
  5. Childcare WILL accommodate special needs children, depending on their needs. In general, children need to be 3 and potty trained to attend the labs or clubs. They state that they cannot accommodate children who need one-on-one attention and that for their safety, that they need to be able to function within their ratio limits. However, I have seen children in there that have many more needs than my sons and they have taken great care of them and try to include them when they can. There was a child who needed to be bottle fed and was not able to move around on her own on our last cruise. I often saw the crew members sitting with her and playing with her. Talk to the cruise line directly to see what they are able to accommodate. I know for a fact that they will not change diapers in the older kids' areas and children who have major medical needs cannot be accommodated since the workers are not properly trained for that.
  6. When registering your child for the childcare areas, make sure that you list ANY information about their needs that you need to. For instance, one of my sons has an obsession with hand dryers. I put in his notes about it and they were able to monitor the situation. My other son tends to go off by himself when overstimulated. They were able to get him involved. The crew members want to know about the kids and want them to have fun.
  7. They give you phones that work on Castaway Cay and on the ship when you drop your kids off. That way, they can text you or call you to let you know of a potential issue or if the child needs to be picked up. However, the phone does NOT work in other ports of call. 
  8. Kids have to be fully potty trained to use the swimming pools. No exceptions. The ships do have splash areas for non-potty trained children however.
  9. Childcare on Castaway Cay (Disney's island) is available. They have one sand wheelchair in the childcare area for special needs kids. It is very sandy, so a regular wheelchair will not work. However, if your child is mobile, then they can still have a fantastic time. Andrew crawled the entire time he was in there and had a blast.
  10. Sand wheelchairs, strollers, and wagons are limitedly available on the island. We have had slim pickings the few times we went onto the island later in the day instead of first thing in the morning. However, they are available in two different locations on the island.
  11. Be aware that many of the ports of call are not wheelchair or stroller friendly. We found this out the hard way. The laws are not the same as they are in the United States with regards to people with disabilities. Sidewalks don't have to have ramps for wheelchairs and a lot of the stores are accessible up a few stairs instead of with ramps. However, Castaway Cay is fully accessible, except for the sandy areas which are accessible with the sand wheelchairs.
  12. The crew members are fantastic with making special needs children feel welcome and important. My boys absolutely love going on Disney cruises. They tell me often that those are their favorite vacations.
Andrew in the Kids' Club on the Disney Wonder, 2010.

Ben in the splash area on the Disney Wonder, 2010
The most important thing is to have fun and experience new things! My kids absolutely love any Disney vacation. 

Pure happiness. Andrew having fun in front of the castle.

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