This is our first overnight trip as a family of four since R’s diagnosis…over two years ago! Until a few month ago, he couldn’t even make it a few minutes in the car without having a total melt down. Every single stall or stop of the car would illicit high pitched screaming, violent outbursts, kicking and flailing his arms and legs and throwing any object within reach. I avoided taking him anywhere in the car, resolving to only go grocery shopping while he was at school or on weekends when he could stay home with dad. I took routes with all right turns even if it meant going completely out of the way. Even with years of OT, Speech and ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) therapy, we could still only do short car trips (30 minutes or less) before the screaming would begin. It has improved tremendously with therapy, but little brother C still loves to push his buttons and he knows exactly how to do it. At first the thought of going anywhere new was unbearable, I wasn’t even going to think about staying overnight somewhere. New sights, smells, people, sounds and routines could send him into complete sensory overload and fits of rage at any moment. There were a million scenarios that would run through my head when I thought about it. Would it be too overwhelming for him and in turn for us? What would we even be able to eat being on a gluten free/vegetarian diet? How many days could we survive on fruit pouches and pretzels? What if he didn’t sleep because the bed was different or the sheets were scratchy or the room was too dark or not dark enough? Would he wake up his brother, even worse would he wake up the people in the next room? Would they call hotel security and ask us to leave in the middle of the night? I know you’re probably thinking that last one was pretty far out there, but hey, you have to prepare for all the possibilities that could happen when your an Autism parent!
A few months ago I decided I was done with sitting at home watching life pass me by. I was tired of not going anywhere purely out of fear that it would be a complete shit show the entire time and then I would be left with a miserable experience and a large bill to go along with it. I got to a point where I didn’t care. I think you have to get to a point that you don’t care about that stuff before you’re able to do something about it. I had to try. Not only for myself and him, but for my youngest son, C, too. He deserved to have fun, kid experiences too. Either way, I would have a story to tell in the end. I thought to myself, I’ll be the guinea pig for the other Autism families, stuck at home, watching the world go by. The sacrificial lamb if you will. If it’s safe, if it wasn’t completely terrible, I’ll wave you guys over!
We live fairly close to Orlando so I figured Disney would be a good option. There’s lots of stuff to do for the kids and they would be in good company, maybe even blend in, if they were going to melt down. Sounds like the perfect place to me! I looked up which places had a playground and a pool on property. I was just willing to dip my toe in the family vacation pond on this trip so I didn’t really want to leave the hotel if I didn’t have to and since we weren’t going to go to any theme parks on this trip, we needed activities to do. I wanted something on Disney property because they typically offer a ton of things to do that are included in the price you pay for your room. I also didn’t want to spend a fortune because like I said before, this was a trial run and if it was going to go South, I didn’t want to be left with an expensive miserable trip. We settled on Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside Resort.
The car ride on the way there wasn’t so bad. There wasn’t very much traffic so the car continuously moving helped. As we passed the big Walt Disney World sign, I felt excited and nervous all at the same time. A little bit of “Fuuuuuuck what was I thinking?!?!?!”, but I also felt like there was no turning back now, we were committed! As you pull into Port Orleans Riverside there is a beautiful old world style cobble stone bridge that goes over the river running through the resort. That’s nice and relaxing, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. After going through security we realized there is only the option, to self park. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but with two young kids, one being Autistic, and all the crap that you have to take with you, this could present as challenging. We loaded everyone up in the stroller with our bags and trekked across the parking lot, into the resort and over to the line for check in. The lobby was cutely decorated with large working boat paddles hanging from the ceiling. It was packed with people and long long lines. There had to have been 20 people ahead of us for check in. I handed R my phone to play a game since I knew this was going to take a while. When we finally got to the desk, she informed me this was only the line to check in the room. To store our luggage we would have to wait in another line….outside and to confirm our dinner reservation and horse and carriage ride (more on that later), it was again another line. I also learned at this time, Disney no longer offers toddler beds or pop up cots. Only pack and plays. By the time we checked in at all three lines, it took over an hour. We had one melt down because dad had to run to the car and put a parking pass in the dash and R never likes seeing daddy walk away. First lesson: Pick a hotel with a more streamlined check in process.
From the main building you cross over a bridge to a little island that holds the main pool, playground, campfire and pool bar. We went straight to the playground to let the kids run off some energy. It was completely shaded by giant pine trees that covered most of the resort. Big boulder rock style stairs, wheel ladders and slides, the kids loved it! Sounds of the kids laughing, the smell of the pine trees combined with the view of the river, I was so glad we took the chance and came. After the playground we went to the pool. There is a main pool and a small round kiddie pool. The main pool has water pouring from buckets and spouts as well as a water slide. There were plenty of chairs to choose from. The boys had a great time swimming and splashing around for a couple hours.
We decided to go back to the room and give them baths and let them relax and watch a cartoon before we headed to the restaurant for dinner. The buildings of the resort are reminiscent of old New Orleans. My husband has been there before and said it looked very authentic. Sprawling front lawns with perfectly manicured landscaping. Fountains and benches lined the courtyards of each beautiful white building. Lantern lined walkways gave everything a warm glow in the evening. It was pretty magical even for Disney standards. After a short walk down the jogging trail, we arrived at our room. We went for the upgraded room that had been recently renovated. it was designed very Disney like with over the top light fixtures, colors and even displayed familiar characters in the design on the boarder. The headboards featured a fiberoptic firework show at the push of a button. This was a huge hit with the kids. C kept saying “stars, please” to turn the fireworks on. So. Cute.
Port Orleans Riverside offers a boat that goes to the other side of the hotel called Port Orleans French Quarter and then on to Disney Springs (the new name for the old Downtown Disney). Leaving every 20 minutes from Riverside, we had just enough time to ride the boat roundtrip along the river and make it back by our dinner reservation at 5p. The boys loved this and so did I. It was so relaxing and you got a great view of the scenery of both resorts and Disney Springs from the water. Why does everything look so much bigger from the water?! It definitely felt like you had been transported to the bayous of Louisiana. The little touches of Jazz music playing on the speakers when you entered back closer to the hotels was sweet. This was the first time C had ever been on a boat and had he not been so tired from not having a nap, I think he would have been really excited.
Dinner was at Boat Wrights Dining Hall. Right off the boat dock, with large window lined doors, this place was very cute. A little something for everyone. They had a full sized bar and lounge with TVs playing the games. On the opposite side was a full dining room featuring stone fireplaces and lantern style chandeliers. At this point we were pretty hungry for something other than the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we had been snacking on all day that we brought from home. When our server dropped off our bread basket I politely gave it back to her and informed her we were gluten free. She immediately offered their gluten free “allergy friendly” menu and promptly brought us a gluten free bread basket. Had I just stepped into some kind of magical (Disney pun intended) place? I told her I wasn’t aware the hotel offered gluten free items. She told me that most of, if not all, Disney properties had this allergy friendly menu and all you had to do was either list it on your reservation or ask and they would be happy to provide it for you. This was a full menu with everything from appetizers to desserts. Not only were there items for T and I, but also an entire kids menu that was allergy friendly. I was so happy and excited I couldn’t contain myself! This was our first dinner at a restaurant as a family of four and they had things we could eat! T and I split a spinach salad and pasta and the kids ate pizza and fruit. All of it tasted really great. It was so refreshing to have actual items to eat that were allergy friendly! I knew I loved Disney!
After dinner we went on a horse and carriage ride. I set this up in advance because they require reservations, but the sign did say walk up is available if they aren’t booked. This was the witching hour so I was prepared for it to go either way. Located directly outside Boat Writes Dining hall, next to the docks was where we waited for our ride. Our horse was John and our driver was Ray. Ray was so nice. Tall and dressed the part, looking and sounding very John Wayne in the old westerns. A jack of all trades, doing something different every day. Vet tech for horses one day, headless horseman in the halloween parade on another and chauffeur to a bride and groom in a cinderella carriage with white horses the next. He told us all about the fabulous life of a Disney horse. They are only used a short while and then sold at a very low price to live out the majority of their lives owned by families. They cannot be used commercially after they work for Disney. They also have many talents including knowing to move over into the grass if they have to tinkle! “They are a Disney horse after all” said Ray. Ray also told us about some other fun things to do with the kids at the resort including a fairly large splash park located in the pool area of Port Orleans French Quarter. Why didn’t I know about this splash park?! Must make sure to ask hotel which pool has what features in the future.
After our 30 minutes carriage ride around the resort, we said goodbye to Ray and John the horse and headed back to the room. At this point everything had gone great, but I was definitely feeling like I wanted to be driving back home. The fear of the unknown about this night was setting in and C was melting down. At least it wasn’t R and in fact he seemed to be doing the best out of all of us! As we walked back to the room (R holding my hand and C being carried over daddy’s shoulder while kicking and screaming), another mom looked over and gave me a knowing nod saying “Long day huh.” and I responded “Yep, but at least it’s only one and not both. I feel like I’m winning actually!” We both laughed and went our separate ways at the end of the bridge. That felt pretty good. No ugly stares, no dirty looks. Just understanding smiles and laughs about kids being kids, Autistic or not.
We did our normal nighttime routine of bath and book before bed. C was passed out before I could even crawl in bed next to him. I decided to let R stay up and watch a little TV. After about an hour past his normal bed time I shut the TV off, but he still wasn’t tired. He probably didn’t fall asleep until about 10:30p which is about 3 hours past his normal bed time. In the other bed, C kept rolling over and almost falling off the bed. I lined the bed with pillows so that if he rolled too far to that side I would hear the pillow fall before he did. About every 30 minutes I would hear the pillow fall and found myself grabbing his shirt so he didn’t plummet off the side of the bed onto the floor. Not my finest mom moment. Bring bed rails next time, bring bed rails next time I chanted to myself, over and over. By 6:30am when they were waking up, I just remember thinking I thought I had a better night sleep the day they were born. ZZZZzzzz. Not as bad as I expected though and over all a success! Will locate travel bed rails when we get back home. They make those don’t they?
Must. Find. Coffee.
We got the kids dressed and looked at the hotel information on the desk. No room service here, but the dining area opened at 6:30am. Looking like our only option, off we went. The place you go to get breakfast looks similar to the food court at your local shopping mall. Each little window had different fare to offer. We asked if we could order gluten free items and they sent out the chef. He was more than happy to make up whatever we wanted and asked us to come back and get it from the window in about 10 minutes. When T left the table to go get the food, another melt down from R. Still that’s only two so far this whole trip if you’re counting along and that’s awesome! Mickey waffles weren’t such a hit with the kids, but they devoured some eggs and fruit. We let the kids run around the playground again before heading back to the room. After a cartoon we packed it all up and headed out to the character dining experience we had booked at another Disney property.
This was one of those things that could go either way. My kids were wither going to be deathly afraid of these life sized characters or they were going to love them. In our case we had one of each. R climbed on dads lap and there he remained, white knuckling it until we left. C, on the other hand, must have thought this is what heaven is like. Minnie Mouse was up first and he wasn’t so sure. Donald Duck was next and he gave him high fives and kisses. By the time Goofy was making his way over, he was chanting “Goofy, Goofy, Goofy” swinging his little hips back and forth in the chair. The Mickey waffles were much better at this hotel. The chef explained that some hotels, even though still Disney property, used a different batter and I will agree theirs was better. Chef describes it as a mix between traditional Belgian waffle and cornbread batter. Either way, delicious!
We had originally planned to drive back to Port Orleans Riverside and take the boat to Disney Springs, but we decided to just drive and park there. The idea was to let the kids ride the little train and carousel and head home after. In my opinion, at 2 & 1/2 and 4 & 1/2, they are now past the age of those little rides. They had fun, but it wasn’t anything special to them. It was getting close to regular nap time and between skipping the nap yesterday and not enough sleep the night before, it was catching up and fast. We made a bee line for the car and headed home. I don’t think we made it out of the parking garage before C was asleep. R maybe got in 10 minutes, but he was over it. He wanted his bed and in his opinion had held it together long enough. The ride home was a little rough. You could tell he was trying to hold it together, but the lack of sleep and routine was getting to him. Some crying and throwing of things, but not enough to wake C up. After we got home and got him in his own bed, he took a great nap and was like new for the afternoon.
All in all, it was a really great trip. We learned what we wanted and didn’t want, in a resort. We learned the kids limits as well as ours. Most importantly we learned that we CAN actually do this! And if we can do it, SO CAN YOU!
Here’s our list of things to remember for next time:
- Make sure the hotel has valet and bell service if you’re going with multiple small children. It takes a village and it’s no different on vacation.
- Ask in advance what check in options you have i.e. can you check in online?
- If your resort has a sister side, ask what each side offers for kids and/or which pool/playground is better for toddlers.
- Ask if your resort has room service! While totally convenient to get food from the food court, if no restaurant is available that early, with kids its sometimes easier to just get food delivered to the rooms.
- Ask if the rooms have an empty refrigerator. Its always good to have items that are familiar from home to snack on.
- Learn and respect you and your kids limits. This may change every single time, but its good to have some idea. Also have a plan of what you’re going to do if it starts to go south. Will one of you (and which one) go to the room or take a walk with the one melting down? Having that figured out before it happens will save time and frustration during an already heated time.
- Know if the kids tantrum, it happens to everyone, even Neurotypical kids and it passes usually just as fast as it starts.
- Make notes of your allergies or accommodation requests at the time you are making your reservation. If you make it online and there isn’t an area to list these things, call and let them make a note. Your entire stay especially at restaurants can be customized. They want to make you happy!