The week before our trip to Disney was not an easy one with my son. For one thing, it was spring break and he thrives on structure. There was a bit of angst on his part and a lot of work on my part to keep him happy and busy, so we could avoid meltdowns and tantrums. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to predict when episodes are coming. We knew we were hitting Disney with a challenging child, but our plan was to have a good vacation and come back feeling rejuvenated.
Knowing that, as we set out for a week away from home, I had the following check-list in mind:
- Structure: We’ll work on and talk about our daily schedule everything at dinner. He’ll go to bed knowing exactly what to expect the next day: what time we’re waking up, where we’re eating breakfast and where we’re going.
- Routine: As much as we’re not big fans of following a routine when we’re on vacation, we need to be more conscious that he thrives on routine. We would need to have our meals around the same times everyday with no delay. Wake-up and bedtime would need to be coordinated so that he gets enough sleep. Whatever works at home, we’d be sure to implement on vacation.
- Praise/Encouragement: When the behavior is positive, my son will hear it again and again and again. He loves being told he’s a good boy, and if it keeps up the positive behavior, then we’ll max out the compliments like there’s no tomorrow.
- Predict the Unexpected: There are signs that challenging times are ahead, and sometimes it’s easier to spot them than other times. When he’s hungry, the behavior reflects his empty stomach. An easy way to prevent that: carry snacks, feed him more regularly, don’t let him get to that point. If he’s tired and can’t take anymore, it may be time to take a rest or even call it a day. He gets agitated by noise. If we sense the noise in a place is getting to him, we’ll leave. We won’t drag ourselves though the mill if the signs are in place. We’d try to catch on and move on.
- No over-planning: When traveling with a challenging child, it’s good to be structured and organized, but it’s not good to over-book. We won’t want to ruin the trip with constant melt-downs and bad behavior. We know we can always revisit a place when they’re older. We don’t have to see and do everything now. If it’s not the time, it’s not the time.
So, weary but cautious, we set on our way. We all needed to get away, and what better place than Disney for any child? I can sound as clever and organized as I’d like to sound, with all my strategies in place, but the reality is that it’s never easy. When put out of his zone, my son needs time to adapt, even in a place like Walt Disney World.
The first day at Epcot around 11:30am, my son almost went into oblivion. We had an early start that day, as I was determined to enter when the park opened. Perhaps I was breaking rule #5? Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the hunger signs in time and when we sat to sat down to eat, it was too late. He wouldn’t eat anything and we had a couple of bad moments. I wasn’t sure if the moment would recover itself and if our wonderful day would resume, but it eventually did after he ate and regrouped. We stopped at arts and crafts projects, watched clowns and musicians along the way, met characters, stopped for ice-cream, got a beer at the UK pub (adults, not kids). Our ride on Test Track was a highlight of the day for him, and not much could bring him down after that. Rather than stay for the fireworks that night, we opted for a quiet dinner back at our resort. We didn’t want to push him any further. I, being a Disneyphile, was actually hard to pull away from the park, but I knew that over-planning wasn’t the answer in this situation. We had some wonderful times that day, and we tried to learn from the experience. The next day we took the day off and went swimming at our resort. A day with little action is what he needed.
The next day we opted for Magic Kingdom, which was crowded with long lines and he was over-whelmed. When you know there are issues beyond their control, it’s important not to blame the child, and I don’t blame him. It was very hot, too, and the combination of noise and heat was difficult. We headed to Hollywood Studios after that, which was a good move, and he calmed down and was able to enjoy the rides more. He loved the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground and Tower of Terror and took great pleasure out of being tall enough for most of the good rides (strategy #3) . His behavior certainly improved with the thinner crowds and ease of the park. The next day, we took another day off and enjoyed the pool and slides of our resort again.
On our last day, we strolled into Animal Kingdom after it opened and went at a leisurely pace. There was no rush and the lines were not long. We had a plan of what we wanted to do, and I explained the structure of the day with him before we started the day. When things moved around, we went with the flow. He was more on top of his body signals and let me know when he needed to eat, when he needed to stop and thankfully, there were areas with fewer people than others. I was laid back about what we ate and when. There was no sign of a lunch place near Exhibition Everest at 1pm, so we had ice-cream to hold us over. Even though my son likes routine, sometimes you just gotta have fun. I knew precisely what to avoid on that last day and the day was pure job for us all. The park has the most amazing parade in the middle of the afternoon, and my son was happy to have a front row seat to the event’s festivities. We left the park at a decent hour in the afternoon before exhaustion hit and went back to make dinner in our kitchen and eat on our balcony. To end the perfect day, he and I went to the pool alone at 9:30 and rode tubes in the lazy river and sat in the jacuzzi. He was relaxed and on the way back to our room, he told me “I love being with you.”
That was all I needed to hear.
So, the real trick to traveling with challenging children? Learn their signals and follow their lead. Sometimes it will take some time to understand, but be patient and improvements will come.
Disclosure: These opinions are completely my own.