Sunday, June 20, 2010

One of the Few Perks of Being a Kid With Special Needs

We don't leave town very often. With all the convenience and gaiety of handling our children's special needs, making every day a vacation; coupled with general poverty resulting from Mike being a junior high school teacher, eliminating the need to worry about dealing with any pesky extra income; we usually spend our time hanging around our humble abode.

Once in a while, however, the planets align and we have a brief window of opportunity where we can hurl the first things we see into the car, throw ourselves in after them, and bolt out of town before someone has the opportunity to develop a never-before-discovered rash that lands them in the New England Journal of Medicine.

On one vacation we ended up bringing 2 toothbrushes (there are 4 of us), a box of Kashi Go Lean cereal that had been in the pantry for three years, a basket of dirty laundry, and our inflatable swimming pool. At least the basket of dirty laundry had extra underwear in it. We think one of the kids put the swimming pool in.

Anyway, we experienced one of the rare planet alignments last week. We had the fabulous opportunity to leave our cold and rainy city and head to the blue skies, warm sunshine, and sandy beaches of Southern California. I am from So Cal and despite having lived in Utah for most of my life, I still consider myself a California girl. Just leaving the desert wasteland of Primm, Nevada and entering the desert wasteland of Primm, California brings tears to my eyes. I don't care about traffic, pollution, filth, and road rage; California will always be my home.

So this trip was especially exciting, since I was going home. We were also going to one of my favorite places in the world - The Happiest Place on Earth - Disneyland. Aaahhhh, even the word brings a smile to my heart.

During this trip, and during a couple others we were fortunate enough to enjoy, we unearthed some very valuable information about Disneyland. You may already know this, but I didn't, so I'm going to share the wisdom of my experience. Ha. Drumroll please:

This is not advertised, but if you know what to ask for you may be able to get an amazing little piece of paper that I call a 'special needs access pass.' There may be an official Disneyland name for it but I don't know what it is.

Have you ever been in line for Splash Mountain for an hour and a half and seen someone flash a magical, secret card at the ride attendant and then immediately enter the fastpass line? Have you wanted to curse their loins and scratch out their eyeballs? Yes? Well you, too, may be lucky enough to be among The Most Hated People at The Happiest Place on Earth.

I want to preface this by saying that the vast majority of the time I want my kids to be treated just like every other kid their age, or at the most be given accommodations to help level the playing field. In general I don't think they are deserving of special treatment just because they deal with challenges that may be more difficult than most. That philosophy does not extend to Disneyland.

So how do you get this special card? Here's how we did it. Kaitlyn was 5 the first time we went to Disneyland. She could walk pretty well by then, but she has a condition called hypotonia that makes it difficult for her to be on her feet for long periods of time without causing her complete exhaustion and severe pain. She was in a stroller, and for the first few rides we tried to navigate the stroller through the lines. After a couple hours of this and a lecture from an employee who was less than thrilled that we were breaking the rules (which we didn't know existed), we parked the stroller at the end of the line and carried her in with us. So we're in line for Dumbo, there are 600 screaming kids in line with us, we're in the middle of about 12 billion other screaming kids who are in lines for the surrounding attractions, it's 95 degrees outside, there is NO shade anywhere to be found, and we're carrying a 50 pound kid for 6 1/2 hours while we wait for our turn to spend 45 seconds on a flying elephant. We were not too happy.

After this miserable experience we decided to go to City Hall to see if anything could be done before we told The Happiest Place on Earth where to stuff it. We approached the smiling girl behind the desk and explained our dilema. To our surprise and delight she apologized profusely that no one had noticed our plight and offered us assistance. She then promptly produced the amazing, beautiful, life-saving magical pass that allowed us to use a stroller as a wheelchair and thus enter rides through the wheelchair line. She also noticed her hearing aids and Coke bottle glasses and asked us if we would like a magical stamp on her magical pass that would allow her to have front-row access to any of the shows she wanted to see. This pass allowed up to 5 people to join her, so everyone in our family, including Grandma and Grandpa who had paid for the trip, were able to enjoy these fabulous perks. This was heavenly and turned an almost unbearable experience into a pleasure.

This time when we went, she was much too big to use a stroller. We very carefully explained to her that she'd have to walk through the park on her own because she is a big girl now. She walked valiantly and stalwartly for about 20 minutes before whining and asking for a piggy back ride. Not wanting a repeat of our first experience, we rented her a wheelchair and were again able to use the wheelchair access line. We got plenty of dirty looks and loin cursing when Kaitlyn would jump out of the wheelchair and bounce onto the rides, but we got good at ignoring it after a while.

A couple years later we went to Disneyland again. This time Ashton had been diagnosed with autism and we finally had an explanation for his quirky behavior and random tantrums. Since we had just endured a singularly horrible trip to Chuck E. Cheese, we were pretty worried about how he would handle all the noise, crowds, confusion, and people dressed as stuffed animals. Turns out we were right to worry. We went to California Adventure and didn't use Kaitlyn's wheelchair pass because all of the rides in CA are wheelchair-accessible. After the second ride, and hours spent in noisy chaos, he stopped all pretense of cooperation and put on a spectacular tantrum that impressed even the other kids who were having their normal, every day tantrums. I'm sure he taught those kids a few things that became very valuable as they learned how to use them to their advantage. When the tantrum appeared to be subsiding, a concerned looking mother recognized the signs and walked up to tell me that her son had autism and had a pass that allowed him to use the exit to the rides instead of the entrance, thus permitting him to avoid the worst of the noise and confusion. Off we went to get this magical pass, and the rest of the trip became tolerable, if not downright enjoyable. It saved Ashton enormous amounts of stress, and saved us enormous amounts of aggravation since we were able to use our $200 passes for more than 4 rides.

There are of course a few caveats and rules of etiquette for using these passes. First, it is usually, but not always, faster using the special needs access line (which is usually either the exit to the ride or the fastpass line), but there are a few rides that can be counted on to have longer special needs lines. Some of the most prominent are Pirates of the Caribbean, it's a small world, Star Tours, and sometimes Space Mountain. Use this information as you will.

Second, it can be tricky to know exactly where to enter the ride. If you have any questions, you can ask any cast member who happens to be nearby. They have all been wonderfully accommodating and haven't sneered at us ever. Well, maybe they have twice but that's it.

Third, if the special needs line is 10 minutes long and the regular line is an hour, you should wait at least 50 minutes before riding a second time. It is considered bad form to ride Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters 6 times in a row before the people in the regular line have ridden once.

Fourth, you should use fastpasses and regular lines as often as possible. If you don't have to use the special needs line, don't. It's just plain good karma.

Fifth, and this is pretty obvious but bears mentioning, the person to whom the pass was issued must be riding the ride. You can't use it to go on Indiana Jones if little Suzie is terrified and refuses to go. But nice try.

Last, you might want to come up with your own rules governing the pass. The rule we use is thus: When whiney child says, "I wanna go on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride RIGHT NOW!," we walk past the ride, see how long the wait is, and make whiney child wait that amount of time before we get in the special needs line. This teaches them that they still have to wait their turn, and helps them appreciate their enormous perk. We fill in the time with less desirable rides (although it is difficult to find a ride less desirable than Mr. Toad's Wild Ride) and other rides they have waited for. This also eases our consciences a bit, because after a while when we've ridden every ride in the park twice, we start to feel guilty.

So there you have it. The secret to our success at Disneyland. And if you don't happen to have a child with special needs, there are only four people in our family so we can take two others with us. We'll start accepting bribes as soon as we announce our next trip.


  1. I still haven't gotten over my jealousy that you got to go to Disneyland. :P

  2. Tee hee hee.

    In the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room...

  3. Thanks for your insights. This give me better perspective as ouf family embarks on a road trip to California tomorrow (yes, I said road trip including a two and four year old). So, I'll most likely think of you and your family on your adventures and marvel at your bravery and hope that I may exhibit some of my own. Thanks for the good and useful read!

  4. Todd - I hope you had fun on your trip! Hope some of my ramblings were useful!