Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Disney Trip That Wasn't

A few days ago for about 24 hours Dan and I entertained the idea of taking the kids to Disney during April vacation. Buoyed by the prospect of extra vacation time and a tax refund, we thought we could make something work.

A year ago we would not have even entertained the idea. A year ago, the sight and sound of those Disney commercials, you know the ones featuring actual video of parents surprising their kids with a Disney trip, the ones with typical little boys and girls jumping up and down, screaming with joy and excitement, made me feel as if my insides were being ripped apart. A year ago, Disney seemed like an impossible dream that would, even if we ever got there and Ethan could handle it, never feel quite right.

Then over the course of the past year we made several discoveries. The first is that Ethan loves rides: any kind of rides, from those at carnivals and amusement parks to the carousel at the mall to the annoying loud rides with flashing lights at Chuck E Cheese. The rides don't seem to overstimulate but rather thrill him.

Next, more recently and with the advent of preschool we learned that Ethan has the capacity to wait in line (at least for a little bit), stay with mom and dad and public without the security of a stroller, hold our hand when necessary and (for the most part) cooperate.

These were two big reasons we were thinking of Disney for a day or so. And so I went online and did my research, as I love to do. I love research when it involves travel. I used to want to be a travel agent. I scoured sites on Disney packages and how to get the best value. I went to the autism sites looking for tips on doing Disney with a child on the spectrum. I went to "Mouse Savers" and "All Ears" to read reviews and comparisons on the most reasonable hotels, the dining plans, the ticket options, and so on.

After doing this for a few hours, the truth became evident: Disney is a HUGE place (that has grown quite a bit since I was last there in 1993). And it's a very expensive place.

But we still could do it, I argued with myself. I'll do more research. We'll find a way to pay for it. We ccould make it work. As I clicked and fretted I felt driven by something unseen, something telling me we HAD to do this.

In the midst of all of this I took the kids to Chuck E. Cheese during a snow day from school that turned sunny, where Anna quickly informed me that she was afraid of the animals on the stage (and their ridiculous "musical show"). She actually ran to the other side of the restaurant to get away from them. The girl is afraid of Santa as well. Hmmm, she's scared of animatronics and people in costume. That might not go over well at Disney, I thought.

Later, Dan and I gave her an impromptu Disney quiz. "Who's Mickey Mouse?" we asked. No answer. "Donald Duck?" She didn't know. "Pluto?" "Goofy?" Apparently my daughter doesn't know a thing about classic Disney characters.

Then I told Dan how much I thought we'd have to pay to "do" Disney the way we wanted to. We looked at Anna, happily engrossed in a Highlights magazine, and Ethan, likewise joyfully pushing bottons on a musical toy.

"Anna, what kind of vacation would you like to take?" I asked her, just kind of throwing the question out there. She shrugged. "I don't know." A big pause. "It doesn't matter. But I do like places with water."

Dan and I looked at each other. I crumpled up my paper with scribbles of hotel costs and meal plans.

The lingo out there in autism world labels kids as on the spectrum, having autism, being autistic, whatever, and kids without autism as "typical." Such a funny word, typical. An improvement on the word "normal," I suppose (as in "you're normal, Anna and your brother is not"). We supposedly have one typical child and one who is not. Except really, neither kid is typical. And more interestingly, what was molding my view of "typical" in this case, anyway? The Disney commercial that told me my kids must go RIGHT NOW to experience the magic, to be thrilled beyond belief?

Last year I watched those commercials wondering if Ethan would ever be a child to jump up and down with excitement about going to Disney World. Now I'm realizing his older-by-three-and-a-half-years-sister wouldn't be the jumping up and down type, either. She could care less about dining with Mickey or being hugged by Cinderella. She'd probably run in the other direction, this "typical" girl of mine.

I hope I don't sound like a Disney-hating curmudgeon here. We will go. And I know the kids will have a blast, in their own way. I can't wait to go, at some point. But I've realized we can't be driven there. Driven by some expectation created in the media about when to go, why, and what will make the ideal experience. We will go when we are ready, when all of us are ready. And we'll have fun in our own Whittemore family kind-of-way. It may involve riding the monorail many times, going on a certain ride over and over, spending an inordinate amount of time in our hotel pool; avoiding costumed characters at all costs. And it will be absolutely wonderful.

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