For many years, my oldest daughter has been ready for Disney. Her youngest sister was also ready and like most kids, when the Disney commercials come on with all the magic they want to leave that very minute to go there. For my middle daughter, though, this has never been the case. When those same commercials come on she looks at us and says, “Please don’t take me there.” And so we didn’t.
Our oldest will soon turn thirteen and so we decided that a Disney trip might be a good idea because she’s growing up and that’s scary, exciting, and strange all at once. Let’s give the vacation to the girls as a Christmas gift, we thought. On Christmas morning my husband and I watched as the girls opened the gift with the Disney t-shirts, our video rolling as to not miss their excitement. When they opened the cool wristbands, our oldest and our youngest were all smiles. Our middle daughter, who has Asperger’s and a few other difficulties, began to cry. On Christmas morning. I’m not talking about tears of joy. She was crying because she was afraid and nervous and did not want to go, just as she had never wanted to go before for all those years. She is terribly, terribly afraid of costumes and will have a panic every time she sees one. It doesn’t matter if it is Smoky the Bear, the cute girl character at Great Wolf Lodge, her school mascot, Olaf, the cat from the bank, or even Elsa and Anna; they are all really upsetting for her. As she cried at the thought of Disney, her five-year-old little sister immediately comforted her, wrapping her in a hug and reassuring her that it would all be okay. It was one of the sweetest moments I have ever seen, but I wondered if I had just given the worst Christmas gift for her.
I had been told that costumes were staying away from everyone and that with COVID restrictions, we would be fine. This was definitely true but for us, the “staying away” wasn’t far away enough. If you have a child in a similar circumstance as ours and you have been delaying Disney like we did, I hope that our experience will help you as you plan out your own. It was a family effort the whole time we were on vacation. In the midst of wanting my girls to have a “normal” experience I forgot how stressful it was for my middle daughter. Every time we entered a park she would ask, “Can we go back to the hotel now?” Her anxiety was going through the roof. I wasn’t thinking at all the first time she asked that and I responded with, “Why do you want to go back already? We just got here.” To which my oldest daughter replied, “Because the hotel is safe and there’s nothing unexpected there.” She was so right. There’s a difficult dividing line between wanting to provide your children experiences to help them stretch and grow and have fun, and recognizing that what they may need is not those things, or those things differently. If I could do our trip over again, I would not go in January and would try a different time of the year that might be less crowded. Ride wait times were two hours long and that was not happening. We purchased the Lightning Lane to help, but it was still just way too many people for us. I would also never go to so many parks without a day break in between each one. We knew this might be our only Disney trip and so we tried to squeeze it all in, which for our family, was not the best idea.
Avoiding Characters Like the Plague
One of the first times a character parade came by at Disney, I hid my daughter behind me at an ice cream stand to help her feel safer. One of us spotted Winnie the Pooh walking around so we all shifted ourselves to block him from view until we could get inside the building. When we got in the building there was an unexpected Mickey Mouse right in front of us. Mickey was behind a red rope, but that red rope means nothing to my daughter. We huddled around her and moved quickly past as panic was setting in. When we saw Joy from Inside Out, we all kept it quiet, shifted ourselves, and kept it moving. There were no character pictures, no character dining – we avoided all of those things like the plague.
Indiana Jones is Alive!
Another thing I would suggest for any first timers going to Disney with a child with Asperger’s is to explain that the Indiana Jones show is not real. The show was ridiculously, miserably crowded with people packed in and standing up everywhere. We were standing, right up against a row of people, with another row right up against us. The folks behind us were nice enough to let us get in front of them so the kids could see the show. So just picture us – standing up, holding our youngest, squished in, and the show begins. The stunts are great, the special effects are awesome, and everyone in the crowd cheers. Our middle daughter burst into tears. She thinks Indiana Jones is dead! Then I really thought I had officially given her the worst gift ever. I reassured her he was just fine and that is was all just pretend. I love her heart for other people, even if sometimes she misunderstands.
We Did It!
We did it. We did Disney…a little bit differently. The girls enjoyed themselves and all of them say that they want to go back someday. Doing things differently can be stressful, but we worked together as a family to to give each of our girls some great childhood memories.