As you walk down Main Street you are filled with sights and sounds of happiness. Smiling Cast members, Disney characters waving, children exclaiming and pointing, Disney music that seems to be embodied by the very buildings and sights around you,…and inside you, your heart sings. Disneyland! I’m actually in Disneyland! As you approach the central square you are welcomed with an iconic statue titled “Partners”, framed in colorful flowers and trees blossoming, with Fantasyland as it’s backdrop. The figure of Walt Disney, holding hands with Mickey Mouse, waving and welcoming everyone. Underneath you read the following inscription, Walt’s own words:
“I think most of all what I want Disneyland to be is a happy place…where parents and children can have fun, Together.”
I had thought of bringing Cody to Disneyland a few years back, when Dan and I took Jessica for her first magical visit. I built up my courage a little…only to back down and decide to leave him with my parents, back in Palm Springs where we visit yearly over Spring Break. We had a magical time of 2 days there, …but Cody wasn’t with us. The “Together” wasn’t there.
Several years later, and another plan to visit Disney and Mickey emerges. This time I feel courageous, my parents will join us, I have some ideas and tools I will use. We spare no expense. We rent a house in Anaheim, close to the park…with a heated pool and hot tub for Cody to enjoy. I figure we’ll need to have short days at the park and will need an oasis of rest to return to. We rent a house with enough rooms that we all have space; space for comfort and quiet. Dan brings his nephews from Alberta (aged 13 and 15); flies them in to join us on their first trip out of Canada. This time, we will be together when we go to Disneyland…Cody will join us.
There is definitely anxiety as we lead up to this trip. Many questions and “what if’s” that I try to first reconcile and some which I choose to ignore. We are a group of 8, and I desperately want each one of these 8 to be happy. It’s a lot of pressure. Mostly I worry about Cody. The crowds at Spring Break are crazy; the noises and closeness to hoards of people inevitable. The busy and almost frantic pace at which one needs to plan out the day at Disney; the fact that Cody is constantly needing food, the challenge of using public washrooms with him, the line ups…and the list goes on. How will a 12 year old non-verbal, blind and autistic boy handle it all?
I speak to him about the park far in advance; the noises, the people, the lineups, the heat, the music, the rides. He quietly listens each time…no indication of excitement or anxiety. I decide to rent a wheelchair each day. Cody can walk, but his idea of walking is very different from those of us sighted people. Walking is largely about taking in the sounds around him…he stops frequently to cock his head and listen. He revisits little bumps and curbs and drain holes by wanting to turn around and walk over it repeatedly. He doesn’t have the visual motivation to walk long distances to reach something interesting he would otherwise be drawn to. By using a wheelchair, we can keep a steady walking pace, not having to worry about navigating him and his cane through the crowds.
I also bring his noise reducing headphones. When he feels overwhelmed by the noise, these reduce the steady sensory input, softening it a bit so he can use his resources for other purposes…as opposed to having to process the noise. I pack lots of snacks, I bring extra clothes, I bring a couple of his favourite fidgets and an extra little blue blanket. I give him information about what he can expect; we talk about everything I can anticipate he may experience based on my previous visit. I tell him about the different rides and how he will get in and out, how he will sit and how one of us will always be beside him. I tell him about how some rides are very loud and shaky. I explain that to get to the park and home we will be in a different vehicle each time, using Uber as a form of transportation. He loves cars, but he is familiar with ours, his dad’s and Papa’s…not those of a stranger. I talk about how line-ups work and when we will have food, that there are bathrooms and times we can sit and rest in the shade. I show him the wheelchair that first day, let him run his hands over all the parts of it and explain it’s purpose.
I research and plan to use Disney’s Disability Access Pass. It gives us the ability to reserve our space in line, all 8 of us, for each ride. For many rides, they let us through the exit and we are able to get right on. We will skip many 1.5 hour line ups each day. Lineups which would have been impossible to tolerate.
…And then we are there. We approach the magical gates, the big clumsy group of us, wrapped up and enveloped with our hopes, dreams, anxiety, excitement, love, fear and joy. Will this possibly be what I dream it could be; for Cody, for all of us?
Walt Disney was a remarkable man; filled with all of these same feelings; full of life and aspiration. The creations he dreamed up and brought to life have touched and continue to touch millions around the world, including us: from a 15 year old girl who can’t wait to buy her lightsaber, to a 42 year old mom who can’t wait to spot Winnie the Pooh; from a pair of grandparents who can’t get enough of Splash Mountain to 2 teenage boys from Alberta who have never seen a Palm tree, and, who after seeing the intricacies of each ride can’t believe “how they did that?!”; from a loving fiance who just wants to have fun (because he’s just a little boy at heart) to a 12 year old boy born totally blind, with autism and no ability to speak.
Walt, your dream came true; for us it truly did. Cody absolutely loved each and every one of our 5 days there; in fact, I think he loved it most of all of us. He was eager each day to go once again. He gave us his happy noises and body motions; smiled and jumped and flapped his hands at the mention of the next ride. He crawled bravely in and out of each crazy ride, trusting us as we told him where to place his hands and feet and how to climb in and out. He was resilient and had remarkable tolerance to the noises and all the crowds. Whether the ride turned you upside down, rocked you side to side or up and down, whether it spun you in circles or took you for a lovely ride through Alice’s Wonderland…Cody loved it and did it all. After exiting a ride, he would often have a delayed flurry of excitement; jumping, smiling, giggling…his “Happy Dance” we call it.
Perfect place for your Happy Dance, Cody.