It just might be “The Happiest Place on Earth,” but for Hudson, Disney World brings its own set of challenges.
The first time we went to Disney, Hudson was a month shy of turning 2. He rode everything he was big enough to ride and laughed excitedly at the sights & sounds around him. 11 months later, things had begun to change. I remember sitting in the Festival of the Lion King with an almost-three-year-old Hudson who was absolutely terrified of the noise in the room. Unable to find a way out, I climbed to the tip-top of the bleachers with him and he nervously made it through the show with his fingers in his ears. Throughout the week, he began to get more and more nervous about the rides, eventually refusing to ride almost everything. A year and a half later, it took a crisis negotiation to get him to ride Peter Pan’s Flight, and he point blank refused to get on Dumbo’s Flying Circus, a ride he’d ridden over and over again with glee during our first trip. I was thankful for a short 2-day trip as every thing we did seemed to carry anxiety and fear. We hadn’t yet learned about sensory processing disorder by name, but we were certainly beginning to live in the trenches.
When we began to plan another trip 2 years later, we were more aware of the challenges we faced and began to plan for how to help Hudson navigate the sensory-overloaded parks at Disney World. Every kid is different, but here are some things we did that seemed to help:
- Ride build-up: We began to realize that Hudson really doesn’t like for his legs to dangle. (Looking back, I see that in the way that he never wanted to ride in the front part of a grocery cart, but rather always wanted to sit in the back. This also was likely a part of the toilet-aversion.) There’s a feeling of being out-of-control when his legs are dangling on a ride that leads to a lot of anxiety. It took us awhile to figure out the trigger, but it really helped us shape experiences that weren’t too frightening. We made a couple of trips to a smaller theme park, Dollywood, before returning to Disney. During our first trip, the only rides Hudson road were designed for toddlers. He was the only kid on the rides without a pacifier in his mouth, as he had a good 2 (probably 3) years on everyone else. Still, it took him a full day to work up the nerve to ride, and we celebrated like he’d ridden a big-time roller coaster. He finally also fell in love with the Lumberjack Lift, a ride which required us to hoist him up and down a wooden pole again and again. After several more trips and sore arm muscles, one day we told him that we couldn’t pull him up anymore, having done it about 12 times already. He reluctantly agreed to ride a similar ride, and after several trips in and out of the line, he excitedly proclaimed it a victory. Slowly and often unsurely, he began to try a few rides.
- YouTube rides: Hudson came home from a “sleepover party” at Aunt Christie’s house excitedly telling us about riding rides at Disney World at her house. The kids had piled into laundry baskets in front of Christie’s T.V. and “ridden the rides” while watching YouTube. Hudson began to feel comfortable with the rides as he watched him from the safety of her house. (Aunt Christie always has the best ideas!)
- Comfortable clothes: Clothes are a thing in our house. I have to take Hudson with me when I shop for new clothes for him, because he has to feel them before I buy anything. If he doesn’t like the way something feels, there is a 95% chance he’ll melt down every time I lay it out. Pants (also known as shirts with sleeves) are not our friend. When I ask him why he doesn’t like them, the most common response I get is that they “touch [his] legs.” Jeans are only okay if they’re tight on his thighs, but then he can’t button them…so they’re really not okay. (Winter is such joy in our house.) Getting ready for Disney (in January), included digging out the summer buckets to find our shorts. Thankfully, we were helped out by a mild winter, but we would have needed the shorts regardless. When you’re heading into an overwhelming place, it’s important to be at peace in your own body. For Hudson, that means shorts. We also picked up some new socks, because tight socks are no good, either. (And yet, every time we stopped to eat, rest a minute or watch a show on this trip, Hud took off his socks and shoes. I’m still not sure why. He said his feet just needed to breathe. But not in sandals, ‘cause he would rather wear tennis shoes. Except when he doesn’t want to wear them. In which case, he’ll wear the sandals, but only until he remembers he wants the tennis shoes.)
- Playgrounds: Most Disney parks have playgrounds. Although we’ve come a long way in riding things, Hudson still doesn’t like to go “too high — or too fast — or too loud — or too scary.” This knocks out quite a few rides in Disney World, so playgrounds gave us a great way to get some safe sensory input. The Boneyard at Animal Kingdom, Tom Sawyer Island at Magic Kingdom, the tunnel play area at the Mission Space exit in EPCOT and the playgrounds at every resort are a few of the great places to play.
- Chewy snacks: We actually learned the logic behind this from our amazing OT after we got home from our trip, but we saw it in action while we were there. Chewy & crunchy snacks are good sensory input. Fruit snacks are a great snack for Hudson in this regard. (I’m kind of weird about fruit snacks, so we stock up on the big box of Kirkland Organic Fruity Snacks from Costco around here.) Crackers, smarties, & PEZ candy also works wonders. It’s amazing how often a pack of gummies settled down some major nerves.
- Noise canceling headphones: If you told me I had to plan a week-long trip to Disney World for our family and I had to choose between clean clothes and these headphones, the Freemans would spend a week wearing the same clothes. These headphones changed our trip. My dad had them and brought them along for Hudson to try. He asked for them all. the. time. The dreaded (for Hudson) Festival of the Lion King was a big-time-hit because of these headphones. Just this week, he asked me if he could start taking them to school. It’s amazing how much more willing he is to try new things when he knows he can control the sound that so often overwhelms him. There aren’t enough good things to say here. They were the number one thing that changed the game for Hudson. He enjoyed so many things that he would have either refused to do or hated because of them.
There are still a lot of things Hudson may never ride, which is – of course – quite okay. We also tried to ride a few things with disastrous results. (I still don’t want to talk about our Tower of Terror experience. Also, face-painting –> gigantic, smeary, mess. ) But there was so much that he enjoyed this trip that he had not enjoyed before. He’s excited to go back, and that is exciting to the rest of us.