Rewind two years.
We had never taken a vacation as a family. Buddy was mostly nonverbal, usually saying only “cup” and “no.” He was almost four, the same age Lily is now. What a difference!
I didn’t know then that Buddy was autistic. Our family doctor just said, “Every kid develops at their own pace, and he doesn’t show any physical delays.”
I didn’t have his “ears” (noise cancelling headphones) yet. My baby brother joined us for the trip, and we drove out to Disney. The children handled it surprisingly well.
It was wet and dreary when we arrived; not what I had pictured at all. We piled out of the car, loaded up the stroller (before Buddy figured out how to get out of it) and went to check in.
The staff were wonderful. They handled the children perfectly, knowing when to be cute and when to back off. Buddy was fussy; he didn’t understand why he wasn’t home, why he didn’t have his toys, his bed, why was he in the car for so long, who are these people, can we go now?
Let me pause a moment to explain that even though I had been dreaming of this moment since I was a child (both going to Disney and bringing my own children) I full expected to be disappointed. I believed that I felt it would be a money sink — a waste of money.
Transportation is not an issue with Disney. They had buses to take us to the parks, and trams to take us inside, with lots of room for strollers. They were quite roomy, and you don’t have to pay for parking. If you did park, the lots were divided into Heroes and Villains, and given a character. No worrying about whether you parked in E-3 or P-3; you parked at Peter Pan! Worried about bringing back souvenirs? Disney sends them to your hotel room for you! I was already getting more excited.
Disney turned out to be everything I wanted and more. Everyone was friendly and happy. The staff was amazing, especially the characters, who never lost character, no matter what we threw at them.
Our first experience after checking in was to meet Tiana and Naveen, from The Princess and the Frog. Buddy was terrified and already overwhelmed, so he stayed back while we met them. Just when we were leaving, I heard Naveen say, “AH, there’s my buddy!” I looked, and it was Buddy, creeping up to us! It turns out that while we waited in line, Naveen had been calling to him, waving, and telling jokes. I was worried they would want us to move along so they could get to the rest of the line, but Naveen got down on his level and spoke gently to him while Tiana chatted with my oldest (Lily being almost two didn’t have much to say yet). Buddy got up there, gave some high fives, and walked away smiling.
Without going into every detail of our trip, I can sum up most of it by saying Disney is surprisingly Autism-friendly. Many shows were small and dim — just light enough to not have him be scared (he hates the dark) but dark enough that the lights didn’t bother him. He enjoyed the many characters he was not yet familiar with. They have many quiet areas, especially peaceful gardens, where people can take a break from the crowds and noise. I wish we had known more about Buddy and Autism; we would have used those a lot more.
I first noticed that something was different with Buddy when we went to board a Toy Story ride. Toy Story was the first movie Buddy had sat and watched, and he lit up every time he saw it. This was no different. He took to the ride beautifully and begged to go back on.
Our time at Disney was amazing. The food, the memories; I tear up thinking about it. They have so much to do for every age and preference. None of us were ever bored. It was perfect.
One of the biggest moments for us came as we sat down to dinner. It was an all you can eat turkey dinner. I expected standard restaurant food, but it was incredible. Buddy, though, was done with the day. It had been a lot of stimulation. He kept excusing himself to the bathroom, but when it got busy, he began hiding under the table. I was embarrassed, wondering why one earth he was doing that if he never did it at home. What would people think?
Looking at that memory, I am more embarrassed of myself. I wish I had known then what I know now! I didn’t know he was overstimulated; I thought he was misbehaving. The staff at the restaurant, though, acted like it was perfectly normal. One even said, “Ah, I understand. He’ll come back up when he’s ready. I won’t push.” I felt something click in me when he said that; even though I didn’t understand it, I knew it was true. I stopped trying to get him to sit at the table. Sure enough, he came up after a while, back to his smiling self, and ate a bunch of food.
That night, after a truly magical display of fireworks on the castle, I tucked Buddy into his bed and told him to get some rest. Tomorrow, we would go walking again. I used “walking” for lack of a word I thought he’d understand better, since we often took walks at home with the stroller. He looked up at me. “Walking?”
“Yes, honey. We’ll go walking, eat more food, go on more rides, have more fun, take more pictures.”
He pondered this, smiled, and went to sleep. We had a hit!
DAY TWO – THE DAY BUDDY SPOKE
The next day, we went on another Toy Story ride, which started his day off right! We met some green Army men and attended a stunt show. Buddy was in awe as the cars zipped around, doing crazy tricks. He only panicked once when the explosions started and clapped his hands over his ears.
I didn’t know then, but they have a Padawan Academy. Kids get dressed up in robes and use the Force to battle Darth Vader. Buddy loves Darth Vader for some reason, and he called out to him several times. Unfortunately, unless you sign up for it first thing in the morning, it’s full, so he was unable to do it. I plan on it next time, though!
That night was The Night; the night everything changed. My brother took my oldest off to the Tower of Terror, while I stood in the longest line of our trip so that Buddy could meet Buzz and Woody. I didn’t know that Disney allows kids like Buddy to stand in a shorter line. Another thing I wish I had known.
Buddy kept trying to cut in front, kept trying to sneak away so that he could see his favorite characters. As time crept on and it got closer to closing time, I began to worry we wouldn’t make it. We only had one day at each park, which meant we couldn’t come back another day. I bounced between fretting and trying to keep Buddy with me. A neat idea of Disney’s was to put lots of stuff for kids to do while they wait in line. For example, props from the movie were all around. You could strap yourself to a rocket, get your picture taken so it looked like you were stuck under a crate, or pose as the new Stinky Pete. It was a lot of fun, when I could get him to notice them.
When we finally got up there, I walked forward to hand out notebooks for autographs and noticed Buddy was missing. I looked, and he was hiding around the corner. After all the cutting in line he did, when we finally got there, he suddenly panicked and hid from Buzz and Woody. Again, I was embarrassed and thought everyone would think poorly of us. Again, I was wrong.
Woody reached out to Buddy. Buddy backed up, hiding his face in his hands. Woody was patient and just waited. Buddy eventually crept forward, slowly peeked through his hands. He saw Woody waiting, not moving. He took his time, but he made it into Woody’s arms, who hugged him. This may be my favorite picture of all time.
Woody and Buzz played with him, took pictures, danced, and listened to him babble. Yes, babble! It wasn’t any words I could understand, but there were lots of hand gestures, and I recognized his humming the tune to “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”
I stood there, watching my Buddy, the real Buddy I knew had been in there all these years, and tried not to cry at this incredibly magical moment. I felt a hand on my shoulder and was surprised to see it was Buzz. I smiled at him and explained, “He never talks, ever, but he loves you guys so much. I never thought he would do this, though.”
Now, when you plan a trip to Disney and reserve a hotel room, they offer to — for a price — put a gift basket in the room, so your kids see it when they get in. Each child got something dear to them — My oldest got a Star Wars blanket, Lily got a Minnie Mouse bag that I use as her diaper bag, and Buddy got a Buzz Lightyear Mickey Mouse ear hat, all engraved with their names.
When Buzz heard me blabber on about Buddy and his love of Toy Story — Buzz in particular — he did something unusual.
Again, I have to explain something here. All characters wearing just costumes sign their names with a marker. Every character in a full costume, including mask (Like Pluto, Goofy, and Buzz) use a stamp, since they can’t usually see what they’re signing.
Buzz used a marker and signed Buddy’s hat. Buddy did not want to take that hat off for a year.
Eventually, when Buddy was ready, we left. We weren’t rushed, and from what I could see of the line, they seemed teary-eyed, too, and not at all impatient. I waved to them, thanked them again, and heard a small, fairly unfamiliar voice.
“Bye Buzz! Bye Woody! Thank you!”
My world stopped for a moment. My child spoke. My son said something. I heard my Buddy speak.
I looked at him, stunned. He smiled up at me and said, “Thank you, Mama. I am so happy.”
I hugged him and cried. I told him it made me happy that he was happy. He smiled, his words used up for now, and we rejoined the family to share his experience.
We missed the fireworks that night. No one cared.
We had been introduced to the Disney Vacation club and were offered free food if we sat down and listen to their spiel. Free food? Sign us up! While we waited for them to pick us up, they had a bunch of toys for the kids, so they weren’t bored. They had staff ready to watch them while we talked. In the end, we decided to do it when we had the money. For anyone wanting to go to Disney any kind of regularly, you should do this!
We went to the Animal Kingdom, which was nice, but it felt like every other zoo we’d been to, except we could sit in the shade of a Jeep instead of walking. After two days of walking, this was perfectly scheduled. Buddy didn’t like not always being able to see, but children aren’t allowed to sit on the outside for safety reasons. Disney is wise.
We ate at the Rainforest cafe. Buddy loved all the wildlife, but there are fake thunderstorms periodically, which I did not knowing going into it. He didn’t like that idea.
Epcot is pretty amazing. It’s very science-focused, which Buddy didn’t quite care for, but he loved all the robots. We went during the flower festival, so they saw lots of their favorite characters made of flowers.
This is the place for souvenir shopping! We went to Japan, my favorite, and the children picked out what they wanted. Buddy picked out a winking Pikachu.
That evening was one of the best. We had scheduled a dining experience with the princesses. Ariel, Snow White, Aurora, and Cinderella were there. They took turns visiting each table and taking pictures. Buddy instantly took to Ariel! He didn’t want to leave her side.She called him Pikachu for the plushie he carried, and he got a kick out of it.
At one point, the princesses led all the children on a parade around the dining hall. Children glowed, waving to the crowds as though they were royalty themselves. After a rotation or two, the children returned to their seat.
(This would be the first time he went missing at Disney.)
I looked around; I called. I saw Ariel about to leave and on a whim, I went up to her and asked if she had seen him. She gasped. “My little buddy? Missing?”
She stepped into the middle of the room and cleared her throat. Everyone went quiet.
“Pikachu? Oh, Pikachu? This is Ariel. Where are you?”
Buddy came flying out from under someone’s table (judging from their faces, they had no idea he was there) and ran into her arms. She escorted him back to our table and told him to be a good boy and eat his food. She planted a huge kiss on his cheek (it left a perfect lip print) and slipped away. He glowed the rest of the night.
Also, the food was amazing.
Our last day at Disney. Too short a trip for most of us. For Buddy, we should have taken a break at some point. Perhaps skipped the Animal Kingdom and relaxed at the hotel.
Buddy was familiar enough with the place that he posed for pictures, went on rides, and was mostly patient in line. During one of the most popular attractions, Dumbo’s ride, they actually have an indoor (air conditioned!) playground for kids to play on while they wait.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know about over-stimulation. I didn’t know about eloping. I didn’t know how quickly and quietly an autistic child could disappear.
I learned a bit that day.
One moment, Buddy was in the stroller. The next, he was gone. Vanished. Thankfully, I had taken pictures of each child every day, just in case this happened. I notified a staff member who quietly alerted everyone in the park.
Here is how brilliant Buddy is. We were back at the Magic Kingdom, where we had been on our first day. We were at an area we hadn’t explored before, but Buddy seemed to have a mental map in his head. He made a beeline for the first people he had met, Tiana and Naveen. They recognized him, noticed we weren’t there, and kept him entertained until we could come get him.
We took part in parades, met with the last of the characters, and joined a dance party with Mr. Incredible and Frozone, who could really dance! We let our oldest run around, playing some kind of interactive card game I wish we had known about our first day.
Our last meal was with the characters from Winnie the Pooh. My kids didn’t know who they were (they’ve never been interested), but it was great food and a great way to end the night, as we watched the parade go by the windows. We stayed for the fireworks show again and called it a night.
For months after the trip, Buddy would get excited whenever we got ready to go somewhere, especially if he saw the stroller. “Walking?” he would ask. I hated to tell him no.
Our trip to Disney was the key that unlocked my son. He just finished pre-K, and is talking like most other kids his age. He loves to sit and look through pictures of our trip. Once in a while, he still asks to go back there.