Disneyland promotes itself as the “Happiest Place on Earth” and under normal circumstances — my belly stuffed full of churros after riding Space Mountain, or breezing through no line-up at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride — I’d have to agree. It’s a park built on the idea of family togetherness through shared experiences, whether marvelling at different cultures inside It’s a Small World (the characters all dressed up for Christmas this time of year), or being wowed by the nightly parade (complete with Santa and his elves).
But bringing a child with autism to Disneyland is a game-changer. Suddenly, the crowds, lights and chaotic rides that make Disneyland well, Disneyland, can become obstacles to enjoyment. But, I reckoned, with fast passes, gluten-free options at all Disney eateries, and the resort’s commitment to accommodating people with disabilities, we’d have a relatively smooth trip. Right?
I pitched the idea of “Inclusive Disney” to up! magazine (watch for my story in the spring) and soon the whole family was booked for the Disneyland World of Colour press event. We’d get to see Disneyland all decked out for the holidays and take in the World of Color — Winter Dreams water spectacular at Disney California Adventure Park. What we didn’t count on was Bennett contracting a nasty stomach bug en route to LAX.
Here’s how it all went down (or, more accurately, came back up) in Disneyland:
1 p.m. Nov. 13, Air Canada flight 860 from Calgary to Los Angeles, Row 26. Bennett says his tummy hurts, makes a retching motion, then vomits into the airplane barf bag (good news: they actually work). Thinking it’s a one-puke kind of airplane ride, I am unprepared for round two and must “catch” it in my hands (bad news: this is not an effective containment method). “Clean-up in aisle 26,” Blake tells the perky flight attendant as we disembark the aircraft.
6:30 p.m. Nov. 13, Disneyland. Having rallied from his earlier tummy upset, and after some French fries and applesauce at the Rainforest Cafe, Bennett is keen to board the monorail. During the ride into the park he spies the Matterhorn mountain’s iconic peak. “Can we go up the mountain?” he innocently asks. “Sure,” I say, forgetting completely how freakin’ fast and frightening the Matterhorn Bobsleds are. On we go, Bennett in front of me, clutching my hand as we climb up a hill in darkness… only to scream down past a RED-EYED YETI that jumps toward our sled. I’m not sure when Bennett starts whimpering, but by the time we get off this is all he has to say: “And I was scared up there.” Nothing quite like initiating our autistic son to Disneyland by making him go on the scariest ride at the park. #ParentingFail
9 a.m. Nov. 14, Breakfast at Goofy’s Kitchen, Disneyland Hotel. Bennett is not at all hungry for his Mickey Mouse-shaped gluten-free pancakes, but still poses for a picture with Pluto. Thirty minutes later he is in melt-down mode and Blake takes him back to the four-walled hotel
12:30 p.m., Nov. 14, Jingle Cruise, Disneyland. Blake hauls a fussy Bennett into the park and we meet up at the “Jingle Cruise,” a re-imagined holiday version of the old-school classic Jungle Cruise. Bennett is inconsolable so I take him back to the hotel, while Blake* escorts Avery to see Elsa and Anna from Frozen. (*Note: Blake participated in Movember, so he looks like a
porn star pervy 80s TV cop in our Disneyland photos.) We are making memories!
6 – 8 p.m., Nov. 14, A Christmas Fantasy Parade and World of Colour Winter Dreams. The kids love the parade and we all enjoy using Bennett’s Disability Access Service Card, which acts like a Fast Pass and enables us to get on Autopia and other rides quickly. Unbeknownst to us, Bennett’s flu bug is staging a last stand and he loses it on the march from Disneyland to Disney California Adventure Park for World of Color. I look like a child abductor dragging a screaming kid all the way back to the hotel.
7 a.m., Nov. 15, Disneyland Hotel. Bennett pukes repeatedly and is unable to keep anything down, including water. Blake takes Avery to Disney California Adventure Park for Extra Magic Hour, a perk of staying at the hotel. I stay inside
Cell Block C with a moaning boy.
4 p.m., Nov. 15, Urgent Care. Bennett receives two IVs of fluid for severe dehydration.
All topped up and ready for the Matterhorn!
6 a.m., Nov. 16, Disneyland Hotel. More puking, followed by a visit to the Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Bennett has a miraculous recovery on the taxi ride and proceeds to drink an entire can of Gatorade upon arrival at the hospital — as if he’s feeling great! — thus revealing to hospital staff that I’m one of those crazy Canadians who runs to the emergency room every time my child has a runny nose. They send us back to Disneyland
and charge my credit card $5,000 for the Gatorade.
2:30 p.m., Nov. 16, Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar. I park myself at the bar and order a margarita. It tastes heavenly — like tequila with a splash of lime. I feel like a Zombie, but not the kind you drink (also on the menu). Blake brings Bennett down from the
cell room and orders a Shipwreck on the Rocks, which at that moment describes our holiday. I ask for a to-go cup for my tequila.
4 – 7 p.m., Nov. 16, Disneyland. We tear ourselves away from Trader Sam’s and finally return to the park as a family of four, knocking off Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Casey Jr. Circus Train, Gadget’s Go Coaster, Splash Mountain and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Bennett is actually smiling, and I realize he much prefers straight-forward outside rides like Dumbo to the “trippy” character-driven rides such as Splash Mountain, where it almost seems like you’re “inside” a TV show or movie (I think Bennett has a hard time separating fantasy from reality on those rides and it freaks him out). Meanwhile, Avery loves all the thrill rides, including California Screamin’ and Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California; this disparity poses another challenge to experiencing the park as a family.
11 a.m., Nov. 17, Disneyland Hotel. Bennett is back to his teasing self as we board the Disneyland Express back to the airport.
It would be tempting to label our Disneyland trip a bust, but that wouldn’t be fair. The parks are fantastic and the staff friendly and helpful — for example, I showed up at Goofy’s Kitchen on Saturday morning looking for eggs (Bennett’s first food request in three days); when I explained my son has autism and that he’d been sick, the restaurant manager packed him up a meal-to-go at no charge. Indeed, the Disney complex runs as a customer-driven, well-oiled machine. If you take advantage of perks like Extra Magic Hour and use Fast Passes on popular rides, you’ll have a great time. I truly think Bennett would have enjoyed a lot more of both parks if he hadn’t been sick — and if his first ride had been Autopia instead of the Matterhorn. #WhatWasIThinking?