Two families we know with boys on the spectrum have made repeated trips to Disney World in Orlando. All four parents report hassle-free, autism-friendly vacations: luggage and organic groceries delivered directly to your villa (“Check a suitcase at LaGuardia. It shows up in your room!”); passes to skip the long lines for attractions; and a mix of exciting activities and, outside the main park, calmer spaces.
Adrian and I are considering taking Martin to Disneyworld. For me at least, I don’t want to go because I love Snow White or think Martin will be psyched for a magical castle. I want to do a Disney vacation with Martin because a Disney vacation is what American kids do. Right? Martin’s childhood, so far, has bypassed the standard markers. He attends a special school, he swallows a million pills and oils, he spends his afternoons in therapy, his friends have diagnoses, and he can’t eat—well, he’s not allowed to eat candy, or refined sugar, or McDonald’s, or processed food, or pizza, or anything much else I see in the hands of kids.
But he can go to Disney.
Despite the endorsement of other ASD families, we’ve been worried about whether Disneyworld really makes sense. It’s crowded. Noisy. Flashy. Crushing. Maybe the theme park would just overwhelm Martin.
Back in November, Superstorm Sandy led to an unplanned week without school here in New York City. In compensation, Martin’s school lost the scheduled February break but tacked two extra days onto the Easter break, and Martin ended up with eleven consecutive days without class. Martin and I utilized this vacation bonanza for his first-ever West Coast visit, to my brother Rudy and his wife in Laguna Beach.
Rudy came up with a great idea: As we were in Southern California anyway, why not take Martin to Disneyland? It could be like a trial run, a few hours at the original theme park that now seems like a junior version of the Orlando behemoth.
I jumped at the suggestion. On a Thursday morning Rudy and I collected Martin, his stuffed elephant, his afternoon supplements, and his special food and drove to Anaheim. We were headed, as we put it for Martin, to Mickey’s house.
I am pleased to report success.
The ticket agent gave me and Rudy and Martin big “I’m celebrating!” buttons; Martin insisted on pinning two buttons to his loose T-shirt, where they dangled all day. Inside the park he selected a fuzzy blue Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat (with mouse ears) to buy, and although it was 80 degrees and the thing was like a quilt wrapped around his head, he wore that all day, too. We stopped by guest relations. I explained that my son has autism and gave a little report on his strengths and weaknesses. The representative gave us an “accommodations” ticket allowing all three of us to use the special-entry lines, which are much shorter than the regular lines. And from there, we hit the rides.
With all the bustle, Martin was more distracted than usual as he wandered through the crowds. Nevertheless, he beamed. He rode “it’s a small world,” where he was scared to be in a boat but liked the children singing and the floating moon; flying Dumbo elephants, where Rudy showed him how to use the altitude lever; the Jungle Cruise, where the boat operator warned me before he fired a fake gun; and the carousel, which he handled like a professional based on weekends of carousel riding in Brooklyn. His favorite attractions were musical performances and the thrice-climbed Tarzan’s Treehouse.
Martin even survived the Roger Rabbit ride. Rudy and I assumed that because the Roger Rabbit thing was in Toontown, it would be mild. Holy cow, was that a mistake. It turned out to be a spinning car whipping us in circles through strobe lights, screaming, and demonic-looking animated characters. I was scared. Martin clung to me but didn’t cry.
We stayed in the park for seven hours. Seven hours! Martin got to bed late that night and slept well.
Two days later, on Saturday, Adrian surprised us all by flying into LAX. He’d ended up in Northern California on business and was able to sneak away for the weekend. Martin and I picked him up at the airport and then headed directly back to Disneyland for another seven-hour visit.
“Did you like Mickey’s house?” Adrian asked Saturday evening, back at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. “Was it fun?”
“Yes!” Martin said. He smiled.
“Would you like to go back to Mickey’s house again tomorrow?”
“No!” Martin said. He still smiled.
I think he was exhausted.
Everything in moderation. I’m sure that, by the time I manage to put together a family trip to Orlando, he’ll be ready again.