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Saturday, August 15, 2020

Access Granted – Special Needs Travel Made Easy

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AAA Travel partners offer programs for special needs travelers

When Billy Andrews first took his daughter Brooklyn to Walt Disney World, he was excited to share his favorite place in the world, where some of his own first joyful memories were made with his parents.

“To me, Disney is an escape from the outside world,” he says. “I know that theme parks are not for everyone but, especially now seeing it through my daughter's eyes, it's still my favorite place to go.”

What made the trip more significant was that it showed that Brooklyn, who had been recently diagnosed with autism, could visit the park using Disney's services for special needs children.

“There's no way that Brooklyn can wait in line for two hours for a ride,” Andrews shares. “And that's the beauty of the Disney program. We can keep Brooklyn engaged and doing something else, rather than waiting. She can do all the rides that she wants to do.”

Brooklyn was diagnosed with autism when she was 2 years old, after a period when Billy and his wife, Laura, saw telling signs.

“She wouldn't look at us and had some delay in walking and with speech. After doing some research, we had her tested and found out that she's on the autism spectrum, but very high functioning.”

In addition to the worries that any parent would have for their child, there was also a concern that Brooklyn would not be able to travel very far from home.

For Andrews, a AAA Travel Agent in the Summerville, S.C. office, trips to Disney World, visiting family and exploring other destinations together are a cherished part of family life.

He was born in New Jersey, a self-described “Army brat,” in a Disney-loving family. 

“One of my first memories is when I was 3 years old. It was the 10th anniversary of Disney World in 1981. I remember sitting on a curb waiting and watching for a parade to start.”

After four years in the Coast Guard, he completed a degree in tourism and hospitality and joined AAA in 2010 as a drive trip specialist. For the last several years, he has focused on Disney and cruises.

Andrews visits Orlando each year for research trips to learn all that's new at the parks. He had long looked forward to sharing Walt Disney World with Brooklyn, now 6, and his youngest daughter, Katherine, age 4.

However, shortly after Brooklyn's autism diagnosis came another diagnosis — epilepsy — making travel even more a concern. But the family was determined not to let the conditions stop her.

One of Brooklyn's first travel experiences was a Royal Caribbean International cruise with her aunt, Liz, who helps with home therapy and is also her classroom aide.

Any concerns were soon forgotten soon after Liz and Brooklyn boarded the ship. Like many cruise lines, Royal Caribbean offers children's programs and staff who are trained to care for autistic children. The ships even have “sensory rooms” that are not as bright or as noisy as other areas in the children's activity zone.

Some autistic children need quiet and calm environments in which to soothe themselves, and Andrews has found such spots are critical to smooth trips. He now makes it a point to ask about such facilities and staff training, including at all-inclusive resorts he’s visited on research trips. He’s discovered that Beaches all-inclusive resorts, for example, offer children's programs with counselors trained in working with autistic children.

Each child with autism reacts a little differently to the new experiences that come with travel, Andrews said.  For Brooklyn, hot temperatures, loud noises and flashing lights can trigger a meltdown or an epileptic seizure.

“We have things, like a cooling vest, to keep her body temperature down. And we know that sometimes we need to take a break and go back to our room.”

In addition, because autistic children need structure and schedule, preparation is key, he says.

“I would recommend that families make the child part of the planning process so they have an idea of where they’re going and what they’re going to do. Keep reinforcing the message in the days before the trip that their schedule will change because they are going on vacation, to ease the tension for the child.”

Andrews explains that a family vacation to a quiet park or to a familiar relative's home can be relatively easy, but Disney World and other theme parks are more of a challenge because “over-stimulation” can happen if steps aren't taken.

Under Disney's program for special needs children, families are allowed to designate their child's stroller as a wheelchair.

That's an important service because strollers are not allowed in the lines at Disney World. Also, Disney's Disability Access Service allows families to check in at a ride and receive a time to return to board so there is little time spent waiting in line, Andrews says.

“She wouldn't be able to do any of the rides because of a prolonged exposure to waiting in the heat. With the noise level and all the people, it would be overwhelming."

With trouble-free travels now under her belt, Brooklyn shares her father's thrill for visiting Walt Disney World and the family is looking forward to many more such vacations.

“We can't wait for the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in the fall of 2019 at Disney in Orlando,” says Andrews. “And then there's the 50th anniversary of Disney World in 2021 with lots being built and lots of new rides. It's going to be even more phenomenal.”  

Call your local AAA Travel Agent about programs for special needs travelers, 800-750-5386. 

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