Monday, November 17, 2014

One Autistic Teen's Disneyland Success Story

Shannon Des Roches Rosa

Have you or, if you're a parent, have your kids ever been to a Disney theme park? If so, does it hold you or yours in thrall the way it holds my teenage son?

Leo has been asking to go to Disneyland nearly every day since his last visit 20 months ago, because the Land of Mouse is his very favorite place, largely thanks to its disability accommodations. But after that Happiest Place on Earth changed that disability pass system last year, I balked at going. One of Leo's personal philosophies is Anything Different Is Bad. Really bad. So a different Disneyland experience would be Really Bad. Plus I heard nightmare accounts of vacations gone sour, endless lines, folks having meltdowns, and more (DRtC*). I didn't think Leo deserved to have a rotten experience at a place he considered his personal Wonderland. Best to stay away.

But he kept asking. He kept watching YouTube videos of Star Tours and California Screamin'. And I kept thinking it over. And I started thinking maybe. And I read reassurances from many folks (Moriah, Ellen, Jess) that the system was different and somewhat bumpy but doable. And his generous grandmother had given him and his little sister Mali Disney passes as 2013 Christmas gifts...

And I thought, hey, maybe it could work. Maybe the key to avoiding bumps was not adapting to the new system itself, but going during a low attendance day. So I checked the Disneyland Crowd Forecast calendar for a low attendance day near Leo's birthday. And it said that the day after Veterans Day, which was a Wednesday this year, would be a mellow day.

So we went on the day after Veterans Day. (Leo's big sister Iz and my husband Seymour, sadly, were not able to come with us.) We went for just one day, in case things went kablooey. (Spoiler: things didn't go kablooey. Not once.)

I think Leo had a great time, such a happy time, because we planned carefully. We stayed at the on-site hotel for just one night, so we could have a relatively relaxing drive on the way down, and a relatively relaxing pre-Disneyland afternoon and evening at the hotel pool, at the hotel restaurant, and wandering around the adjacent Downtown Disney shops and restaurants. Leo likes all of those places.

[Image: Leo sitting on a lounge chair,
with a hotel pool in the background]
(Side note: I was still nervous about Leo having a different experience even after we arrived at the hotel, even during a pleasant afternoon in the pool area, so I asked the good folks of the TPGA Facebook Community about their Disneyland experience and advice. They mostly reassured me that we would be fine.)

Staying at the hotel allows for other conveniences: we could leave our car at the hotel overnight, and pick it up right after we left the park -- no waiting in endless post-closing lines for the parking lot shuttles. We could leave our luggage at the hotel as a courtesy the next day, even after we'd checked out. We could buy our tickets for the park as we checked in to the hotel. We could get Happy Birthday pins for Leo and Mali at the same time, because we were there for both of their birthdays.

Leo's Happy Birthday pin meant that everyone, everywhere -- hotel, park, restaurant -- wished him Happy Birthday by name (Mali, who is slowly starting to care what other people think, declined to wear hers). Leo thought constant happy birthday greetings were great. The hotel pianist even changed his tune to Happy Birthday when Leo walked by. (We were en route to the Lounge, where Leo could chill while I had a mai tai, and Mali went and made Lego racers with a local friend at the Lego shop.) I thought the birthday awareness and recognition was a lovely touch.

 [Image: Leo lounging in a fireside chair,
playing on his iPad, with one leg thrown
over the chair's arm. I did say "lounging."]

Another, really important part of staying at one of the three Disney hotels is that you have access to Magic Hour, which means one park per day (it alternates) opens up one hour early for hotel guests only. Even better? They actually open up the gates 15 minutes before Magic Hour. Which means we got to hit the California Adventure Chamber of Commerce and get Leo's Disability Access Pass (DAS) before the park was even officially open. It was great; there was only one other family in line at the Chamber of Commerce when we arrived.

[Image: the line at California Adventure's
Chamber of Commerce: Exactly one
very blonde family.]
Getting the pass was straightforward. They asked me why Leo needed the pass, and over his bouncing and giggling because OMFG Disneyland, I told them his disability meant he had trouble waiting in long lines. They said "No problem," took a picture of Leo, and printed the pass out.

[Image: Disneyland Disability Access Service
Pass. It has Leo's picture, & lists his name,
the date, place issued, & party number.]
We didn't even need the DAS during magic hour. As soon as the park rides opened, we walked over to Soarin' Over California (which Leo loves, and calls "helicopter!"), and waited only 10 minutes. Leo was ecstatic.
[Image: Leo sitting on a bench in Disney's
Grizzly Gulch, next to an empty sidewalk]
We then walked the nearly empty streets over to the California Screamin' roller coaster, which Leo did not enjoy as much as he remembered, and unfortunately (from roller coaster fan Mali's perspective) did not want to re-ride. There was a bit of sadness over that.

[Mali & Leo leaning on a wrought-iron
fence with a roller coaster and a Mickey
ferris wheel in the background. ]
Mali was especially disappointed, because as you can see from the California Screamin' sign below, the wait time during Magic Hour was all of five minutes, and she could have gone many many many times in a row. Alas. Compromises smart sometimes, when one is not yet ten.
[Image: Digital sign, yellow with red/blue text,
with approximate wait time sign for California
Screamin' roller coaster, reading "5" minutes]
Then the park opened to everyone, and the lines for the popular rides got long, and it was time to use the DAS pass. I was nervous, but all the Guest Services cast members administering the DAS pass logistics were friendly and helpful. And using the pass was much less complicated matter than it sounds: go to a kiosk, and tell the person which ride you want to ride (Don't forget to say "please"). The cast member looks up the current wait time, cuts it in half, and writes down the current time + half wait time as the time you can go on the ride. Then they stamp the ride time with their initials. Honestly, the most stressful part of using the pass was locating the Guest Services kiosks.

Once we got to the rides, the pass worked exactly like the previous disability pass did: you go in the accessible or FastPass entrance. Sometimes you have lines, sometimes you don't. And Leo was fine with any the waiting he had to do, because damn, he was at Disneyland!

[Image: DAS pass inside. Guest services folks
write out rides and times by hand, using a
grid and stamped initials. The pass is white
with a green border, and is passport-sized.]
One caveat: the DAS pass logistics will apparently be changing as of this week, though cast members were not able to reveal much, other than that they all had to go to training. They (and by "they" I do not mean the woman pictured below) did say folks were still finding ways to game the system, by getting multiple passes per family, and splitting up to get multiple times, but then having the whole family use all of those times (as opposed to having two different kids who qualified for the DAS pass and wanted to go on different rides at the same time, which would be fine). Commenters at TPGA also mentioned rumors that people were forging ride times. If you look at the pass above -- handwritten with stamped initials -- I allow how easy that could be for a motivated person to falsify.

[Image: Guest services woman writing out
the next ride and time on Leo's DAS pass.]
The only ride we had to wait more than 15 minutes for, even with the DAS pass, was the new Cars ride. Which was absolutely worth the wait. But there was plenty to do while we waited, because it was (say it with me) a low attendance day. So there were plenty of nearby rides that needed no DAS access because the lines were so short. Rides like Leo's beloved twirly ladybugs. In fact, on this low attendance day, most lines were so short that we didn't even need to supplement Leo's DAS pass with Fastpasses, as many folks had recommended.

[Image: Leo seated in a spinning lady bug car.
His official Happy Birthday Leo pin is visible.]

We also used our downtime between DAS rides to have snacks, meals, and pit stops. We sat on more than a few benches to chill with iDevices or snacks, or just rest. Walking around all day is tiring! Breaks are good!

[Image: Mali & Leo lounging on a bench in Hollywood Land]
The cars ride, again: totally worth it. I recommend it. Even though we only went once because of the long wait.

[Image: Leo, Me, & Mali on the Cars ridecam.
Our car is purple, we are in the front seat.]
One ride we did go on three times was Star Tours. Because it is Leo's favorite ride in the entire galaxy. But we did do the DAS wait time every time, and Leo was OK with that because of other rides he liked that had short wait times. Including that ultimate sensory seeker experience, the Spinning Tea Cups.

[Image: Leo wearing 3D glasses next to the Star Tours
loading area. Star Tours uniformed dude in background.]
You know what else made our visit great? Everyone was just so nice. This is the aspect of Disneyland that is actually magic, to me -- accommodation is part of the the culture. The cast members ask what they can do to help, take accommodation requests seriously, and we didn't have a single encounter with WTF face.

[Image: triple selfie. Mali on left, looking over my shoulder,
me in center, Leo smiling on the right. It's a Small World
topiaries and blue canal wall in the background.]
I think we'll be going back next year, and repeating these circumstances as much as we are able**. Not sooner, because the logistics that make these trips work for us are expensive, even with gift cards from Grandma. And going on a low attendance day requires scheduling sleight of hand and will not be possible for everyone, and indeed for us most of the time. But our trip was such a success. We kind of have to go back, because Leo is leaning against me as I type this, giggling at these photos of our trip, and asking, "Disneyland?"


*DRtC = Don't Read the Comments. No, seriously, do NOT.
**Repeating it minus the doing-it-all-in-44 hours time frame. The wham-bam timing was mostly OK, but a solo seven-hour drive after a full day at a theme park is not something I recommend.