Monday, January 22, 2018

Disney and Disabilities

Being part of a family that has multiple disabilities, we know how hard it is to travel while meeting ALL the needs.  In my family of 5, we have mobility issues, heart issues, food allergies, and cognitive disabilities.  It can be overwhelming, and it's difficult to know how to start.  Disney has always worked hard to create a magical environment, and with proper planning, you can have an amazing vacation without your disability being the center of it.  

Cognitive Disabilities 
 Meet Timothy!

Timothy is our youngest child.  We had the joy of adopting him on Valentine's Day four years ago.  Timothy came to us with many special needs, including Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which affects his cognitive abilities.  Some of that manifests in ways similar to autism and other cognitive disabilities.

The Disability Assistance Service is designed to help those who can’t stand in line for long periods of time for cognitive reasons.  Disney cannot require a doctor’s note or any sort of documentation when you request this service, but do keep in mind that it is up to the cast member’s discretion on whether or not they believe it is required.  For example, somebody with MS might be told to utilize a wheelchair or scooter, but a person with Asperger’s or Autism might be granted a DAS card with no issues. 

The DAS card allows you to go to an attraction and get a return time for later in the day.  This return time is at least the same length as the current wait time.  For example, if you go to Anna and Elsa at 11, and the wait time is 2 hours, they will have you come back at 1.  Once you have that return time, you can go and enjoy other attractions in the park, and return to the attraction with return time at ANY point after, which is different from a FastPass, which gives you an hour window.  When you return to your attraction, simply present your card, and the Cast Member will direct you to the appropriate entrance. 

The best way to utilize this service at is to alternate FastPasses and DAS card rides.  

At Disney World, we start our first FastPass at 9:30, start the second around 11:30, and the third around 1:30.  Once we arrive at the park, we immediately go to an attraction we do not have a FastPass for, and get a return time. Then we do the attractions that don’t need a FastPass until our first window.  After our first FastPass, we go to our first DAS ride.  As soon as that is finished, we go to the next attraction without a FastPass, and get a second return time on our card. Then, we go to our next FastPass attraction.  We continue to alternate through the rest of the day.  When booking your FastPasses, be sure to leave about an hour in between each one so that you can use the DAS card in between each time, and that should leave enough time to alternate the whole day. 

 Physical (Mobility) Disabilities

Meet me!

Both my daughter and I have a genetic disorder called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome.  It can affect pretty much every part of your body, which can be really tough.  There are good days and bad days.  On the good days, I can do everything, including run half marathons!  On a bad day, even walking from my bedroom to the living room is painful.  

Fortunately, Disney is wonderful with mobility disorders.  Animal Kingdom was built in such a way that every single attraction can accommodate a wheelchair in every queue!  Most attractions at all the parks in Disney World and Disney can accommodate a wheelchair, but for those rides that cannot, they have an alternate entrance that your party can use.  Please keep in mind that when using an alternate entrance, sometimes the wait can be long if there are several wheelchairs.  Each ride can only accommodate a limited number of wheelchairs at a time.  

All of the shows that have seating have reserved rows for those who need to take in their wheelchair or ECV.  The whole family will be sat together, so be sure to keep your party together!  The fireworks shows and parades also have a handicapped section.  Your party whole party will be allowed to stay together here as well, but be sure to arrive early, as the areas can fill up, especially if you have a larger family. 

If you are like me, and you don't use a wheelchair in your everyday life, and need to rent one, you can do so either onsite with Disney, or you can use one of the many companies that will bring the equipment you need to your hotel door.  If you choose to rent from Disney, they do offer a multiday discount.  You will pick up your wheelchair or EVC at the park entrance, and return it there each day.  They will give you a receipt to take to the next park, where you will pick up the next one.  You will be given a courtesy wheelchair to use to get back to the parking lot, bus stop, or monorail.  

If you are cruising and you have mobility issues, there are companies that will lease a wheelchair or EVC to you for the length of your cruise.  Disney has many excursions with wheelchair accommodations for those who would like to explore.  Just like the parks, the shows have special seating for those who need it.

Food Allergies

Meet Davalyn!

Davalyn  has the same genetic disorder I do.  Hers primarily manifests itself with food allergies.  She has eight different ones.  Needless to say, that can make going out to eat or on vacation quite complicated!  However, Disney has mastered taking care of food allergies.  

All the chefs are amazing with food allergies.  Prior to your trip, you or your travel agent should contact the dining team, and let them know that you are coming.  They will give you a form to fill out that includes your dining reservations and what you are allergic to.  If there is a need, or if you have any special requests, they will have a chef from your chosen restaurants call you.  In most cases, Disney has separate kitchens for food allergies in order to protect against an anaphylactic reaction. They always have separate stations.  If they are not able to use a separate kitchen, they will let you know.  If you choose to dine at a buffet, the chefs will prepare your food in the kitchen so that you do not risk cross contamination with other foods on the buffet.  You you arrive at a restaurant, and there is nothing you can eat, or nothing looks appetizing, talk to your chef.  They will do everything they can to accommodate your needs.

Quick service is a bit trickier.  Each location has a book with all the ingredients with each item on the menu.  The location manager will come out and talk to you about your allergies and help you find something that works for you.  Now, we had a time period where our  son, Reese, was reacting to 16 different foods.  There was not much on any menu that he could eat! So the quick service locations went well far and above with us.  They took down his list of allergies, then prepared his food in a full service restaurant in the allergy kitchen.  This process is time consuming, so I recommend that you set aside a good amount of time, and that you try to eat at off times to avoid crowds.  

What to do if you have more complicated disabilities?  Disney does their best to anticipate as many needs as possible, and to have good practices in place to make the process as smooth as possible.  If you have disabilities that go beyond these standard accommodations, please reach out to guest services when you arrive, and talk to them about your needs.  They will do everything in their power to accommodate you as best they can. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

"Resorts for Everyone" - Beaches® Resorts

A Caribbean beach resort vacation sounds like a dream come true, yet for many families with children on the spectrum, it sounds like a definite impossibility.   However, it doesn't have to be!  Beaches®, award winning Luxury Included® resorts, were the first Autism-Friendly Resorts in the Caribbean.  The kids camps are certified Autism Centers and all team members have the training and skills to work with children of all ages.  Optional One-on-One Beaches Buddies are also available for familes who desire additional assistance.  Beaches® is home to many  Sesame Street® characters, including Julia who lets childen express themselves through art at Amazing Art with Julia in the Kids Camps.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to visit Beaches Negril and Beaches Ocho Rios in Jamaica.  Arriving hot and tired, I started my stay at Beaches Negril by treating myself to the chocolate treats left in my club level room before heading down to the pool where I relaxed and cooled off floating in the lazy river.  During my journey on the river, a little boy swam by and chatted with me about how much fun he was having on his vacation.

After the Lazy River, I hung out in a hammock while I waited for the exciting Sesame Street® parade to begin.
Sesame Street® friends and guests gathered in the front of the resort for a little dance party and face painting, before beginning the parade down to the beach for a giant beach party.
 I am ashamed to admit I did not take photos of the tables and tables of food available for guests to enjoy, but I did manage to take a photo of the beautiful sky backdrop to the party!  However, in regards to food, I must say that Beaches® knows how to do food right!  And if you have special dietary requirements, a Culinary Concierge Desk works directly with the chefs and restaurant managers to ensure you have a worry-free dining experience on your vacation.

As the Beach Party wasn't the only option for dinner, we made our way to The Venetian restaurant for some delicious Italian food and first class service.  I am a tiramisu snob and very picky about my tiramisu.  No worries here - it was as tasty as it looks!

While I did not have young children with me, I did find their accomodations for children smile-inducing and just kept thinking "too bad my children are too grown for this! What a fun place for a family vacation!"  Maybe some day there will be grandchildren to share it with. (hint! hint! grown children of mine! haha) 

At breakfast, I couldn't help but smile at this little guest seated at his own child sized table, having gotten food from the child sized buffet line.  The pool, is having an early morning rest, before laughing, squealing, happy guests join it shortly.

After saying goodbye, to a Sesame Street® friend at Beaches Negril, it was time to move on to a different area of Jamaica. 

Beaches® Ochos Rios was very different from Beaches® Negril, and is also a wonderful destination for a family vacation.  While my room at Beaches Negril was in a garden setting, my room at Beaches Ochos Rios walked out to the beach.  Super convenient for my snorkeling excursion and sunbathing, not to mention the gorgeous view, especially of the sunrise on the morning of my departure.  Sadly, my camera was not a fan of the humidity and would not cooperate with my attempts to capture its image.  You'll just have to go see for yourself.

Having spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach and snorkeling, we had a delicious seafood dinner.  It was pouring rain  yet we were outside under cover staying dry and enjoying the humorous banter with our server as we ate our yummy feast.  After dinner, we strolled up to the main stage area where we enjoyed a cultural taste of Jamaica with Silver Birds and their steel drums.  Afterwards, we sung karaoke - yes, even deepest apologies to the others gathered for the fun!! 

The Beaches resorts, with their beautiful beaches, bright blue sea and sky, luxury service and delicious food offer the best of both worlds for ALL families....a lovely mix of family activities and opportunities for couples time while children are well cared for and entertained in the Kids Camps!

Monday, January 1, 2018

Managing expectations with Special Needs Travel

Children giggling and whispering contendedly in the backseat of the car with nary an argument.  Cherubic children sleeping peacefully in their beds - where they went without a fuss -  after a full day of sightseeing.  A day in the Magic Kingdom without a single tear, cross word, or disagreement amongst family members.   Precious ...and extended moments with Mickey Mouse.  Every family member eating everything on their plate and not a bite of wasted food.  All family members equally interested in every event and activity planned on the vacation. 

When we are planning a family vacation, perfect peace and harmony and blissful vacation memories are what we envision for ourselves.  After all, once we get away from the stress and demands of our everyday life, we are "on vacation" and expect things to run smoothly for us during our break from the real world.  And while most do not experience complete perfection and no glitches or conflict during their family vacations, the positive experiences and memories far outshadow those glitches such that the glitches fade away over time, or more likely, become a part of the family vacation legend.

Realistic expecations and proper travel planning are a vital part of a successful family vacation.  When travelling with family members with special needs, those factors are even more important.  Over the next month, we will be sharing information about travel planning for family members with special needs.  Getting away from the daily routine and challenges of caring for loved ones with special needs is both necessary...and daunting.  We share a passion to help make that happen!

When travelling, having realistic expectations of what can be accomplished can make or break the trip. Prioritizing, allowing for periods of rest, and being flexible are crucial for minimizing the glitches that threaten to interfere with our vacations.

Prioritizing:  Think of vacation plans like a cupcake.  What is the "cake" portion of your trip? What must you see? That is the foundation of your plans.  While icing, is not mandatory for a good cupcake (just ask my daughter! lol), it does make it a whole lot sweeter.  What would you like to do that would make the trip even sweeter?  And finally, as sprinkles add a little fun and magic to your cupcake, what extras would be nice to hope for if all is going well?  As you have those things in mind when travel planning, you'll be sure to get in your vacation essentials and chances are, many of the extras as well.

Allowing for periods of rest:  We all know an Energizer bunny.  Sometimes they are even in our family and they can be relentless in their efforts for us to see and do it all.  While their heart is in the right place, in actuality, the results are often detrimental and can even be catastrophic in the case of special needs travel as family members are pushed beyond their limits.    Plan for periods of rest and quiet so that all family members are at the top of their game and able to enjoy themselves and savor the moments.  Yes, you will miss some opportunities and seeing some things, but the experiences you are able to take in will be all the sweeter for it as you avoid personal limits being maxed and possible meltdowns.

Be flexible:  Even the best laid plans, can experience unexpected obstacles.  Unforeseen circumstances such as weather, noisy hotel neighbors, or personal health issues can pop up.  While they can be aggravating and disappointing, keeping a level head and just moving on to the next best thing will help get you back on track quickly to enjoy the rest of your vacation.

While travelling with special needs family members may feel overwhelming and impossible, it can (and should!!) be done!  With realistic expectations and careful planning, wonderful vacation memories are a definite possibility.