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Thursday, 28 August 2014

Planning a Walt Disney World Florida holiday for a child with autism

When I was nine, I got to visit Walt Disney World Florida with my parents and two brothers. We had just spent six months living on an oil tanker in The Bahamas... but that's a story for another time.
Stephs Two Girls blog autism
Picture of my beloved Nana wearing the Mickey Ears hat we brought home for her after our Disney Trip
Planning a holiday at Disney Florida is not something you get to do every day. Just as well, as it can be quite time-consuming I found!

It was difficult to know where to begin looking for our holiday for next year, but I decided to start by asking for advice from friends who have visited Florida recently. So much great information came back that I almost felt overwhelmed, and I soon realised that we'd have to start by making decisions to suit ourselves.

First we needed to work out when would be the best time of year to visit. For this, I used the fab website www.mousesavers.com - in fact, I used this website for so much information that it would be my Top Tip for any Disney planning. Another great link to check is undercovertourist.com, where they have lots of advice for planning your first Disney holiday. Their day-by-day map of expected crowd volumes is extremely helpful: crowd calendar

So next we had to consider the choice of staying in resort or in a villa. Art of Animation and the Wilderness Lodge are two Disney properties which came highly recommended to us. Whilst we loved the look of all the Disney resorts, we did see some with a hefty price tag to go with the amazing facilities. There were some reasonable options too though, and other non-Disney resorts such as the Bahama Bay Resort with its four swimming pools, splash park and other facilities. For us though, having a kitchen and making our own meals is one of our top priorities, and so we felt that having our own private villa would be the right choice for this trip. We also felt that our seven year old girl with autism (Sasha) may have struggled with all the noise and stimulation in the resorts, and a villa would be a safe haven for her to escape to.

We turned to Virgin Holidays as we've always had great service from them when flying previously. They have several villa options to suit different budgets, but as Sasha struggles with car-sickness, we felt it was worth a small premium to be as near to Disney as possible.

Although the holiday is now booked, there is still plenty more planning to do over the coming months. I've been reading lots about the new Disney access policy for people with disabilities. It's a long story, but in a nutshell too many people were trying to cheat the system and so Disney have tried to bring in a new system. The jury is still out on whether it a) works or b) is fair, but there seem to be lots of reports coming back of how it has made the Disney experience much more difficult for children with autism.

The old system was a Guest Assistance Card, which let cast members know what issues you were having, and if relevant, you were entitled to go to the front of the queue to avoid the wait. We have used a system like this very effectively at Paulton's Park here in the UK, and it has enabled us to have a lovely family day out rather than one where we end up leaving soon after we arrive.

For Sasha, queuing is a very difficult thing to do. She gets easily overwhelmed by the noise (and smell!) of lots of other people near her, and is just not good at waiting. That goes for most toddlers of course, but Sasha is a 7 year old girl with autism. She is probably just about able to understand now that if she wants to go on a ride, she has to wait for it, but that hasn't increased her ability to actually wait. She is far more likely to decide not to wait, and move on to the next thing, where she would also have to wait, so she would move on... and so it goes on. Not much fun for our elder 9 year old daughter Tamsin if she never gets to go on a ride because Sasha can't stand and wait with us, and actually not much fun for Sasha either if she is never really achieving anything.

The new system is called the Disability Access Service (DAS) and this allows guests with disabilities to receive a return time for attractions based on current wait times - so in effect you don't have to stand in the actual queue, you get to go off and do something else, and then when you return you do get to go to the front. I agree that in theory this sounds fairer, but in reality there's more to it than that. Every time we visit a new park, we will be expected to go to Guest Relations and we'll have to wait there while we explain again why Sasha has this difficulty and forms are filled in, photos taken and computers updated. Not exactly an easy start to our day. If we receive a return time for a ride, then go off and look at something else, then Sasha decides she doesn't want to ride the original ride (yes, that's quite likely), we would have to return to that original ride anyway to get the return time crossed off before we could then go and use the DAS card at another ride.

From my understanding, everyone in the park, disabled or not, now has the option to use FastPass+, which enables you to book a ticket/ride time. There was an old FastPass service which differed slightly, and there's a great comparison and explanation of the new system on this blog here

You can book up to just three rides per day, from 30 days before your visit. However the specific times you can book the rides for are limited, and popular times sell out well in advance (you can book them 60 days in advance if you are staying in a Disney resort), so this will involve a lot of planning if we want to avoid waiting around. Sasha is all about being spontaneous, and in control, but is sadly not yet old enough to plan a day like this for herself. We can never guarantee that Sasha is going to do what we have planned to do at the best of times!

Into all of this, we have to factor in the fact that Tamsin is allowed to use the DAS with Sasha, but of course only for rides that Sasha wants to go on. So as Sasha is not quite as adventurous as Tamsin, and is unlikely to want to go on that many 'bigger' rides, Tamsin must of course queue like everyone else, understandably. This just leaves us with the problem of how to amuse Sasha whilst we let Tamsin enjoy what she wants to, or face the fact that we are going to have a very split holiday.

Someone recently queried why I would want to take our autistic seven year old girl to Disney, a place bound to invoke a total sensory overload with all the big characters and flashing lights and noise. In all honesty, we're not doing this holiday for Sasha, we are doing it for her big sister. Tamsin is a real star and lives with her sister's autism every day, and we feel she deserves a special holiday. She loves roller coasters and water rides - in fact any kind of adrenalin rush. Of course we've had to take Sasha's difficulties into consideration, but we hope that Tamsin will have a fantastic time at Disney - and with a bit of luck Mummy and Daddy will too!

Do please come back to my blog over the coming months as I'll update with what we have managed to plan in advance, and I will of course let you all know how the trip panned out in the end!

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