Successful Vacationing with Special Needs

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As a special needs family, vacation can seem out of reach. This is our experience with taking a successful vacation as a special needs family.

successful vacationing for special needs families
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Everyone needs a little time away

Here in the northeast the winters are long, and this is the time of year we long to get out of the snow, even if just for a long weekend. It takes a little extra planning to go away, but it can be done successfully!

Choose a vacation spot to meet needs

Our kiddo is a sensory seeker, and it can be hard to meet her need for speed when we’re indoors for several months. To escape the SNOW in APRIL (yes, that is not a typo) we decided to go to Great Wolf Lodge for one night. 

Great Wolf Lodge is an indoor water park that is family friendly: down to the clap-clap-stomp-stomp wolf howl.  It is LOUD.  It can be crowded.  (We went during the week when there were less crowds). 

Like any indoor water park, it necessitates the ability to wait for one’s turn, in line. In our case, it necessitates parents who will don a swimsuit and not mind buckets of water dumping on our heads.  Parents who are quick to divert from long lines or would-be meltdowns.  What it doesn’t require, however, is onerous meal planning — the chef met with us to provide a gluten and dairy free experience filled with pizza, pancakes and vegan cupcakes.

It does get easier

Now that Nats is a pre-teen, we have vacationing (somewhat) down pat.  I can remember when it used to nearly cause ulcers.  No longer do I sweat the backwards glances from judgy parents, or worry about doing everything, lest we don’t get our money’s worth. 

Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses

We know it’s a must to create down-time, or walk the hallways at 2 am.  I’ve learned that it’s OK not to do all the things.  I’ve redefined what a successful vacation looks like, and it ain’t what you see on the front of a Disney brochure.  Sometimes, success includes sleeping all night, remembering a favorite calm-down toy, exiting an activity before the meltdown, or seeing a smile.   It’s knowing tolerance levels (for both of my kids) and making sure that everyone gets to do something they enjoy.

I have to say, this mini-vacation was a success.  Were there bumps?  Sure.  Overall, however, my kids (mostly) got along, slept in the same bed (which did not require my husband and I to each sleep next to one kiddo), and enjoyed the water park and the food.  Both kids fell asleep on the ride home.  A good time was had by all.

Our plan-for-success guide

Research online (or call) to understand logistics: i.e., if we’re camping, I want to be near the bathrooms and away from bodies of water; If we’re in a hotel I want to know if there are sliding glass doors to a balcony.

Plan for off-peak times

We try to avoid busy times like weekends and popular vacation times like spring break. If eating in a restaurant, we might plan to eat dinner at 4:00pm and have a snack at 7:30pm to avoid long wait times or large crowds.

Know the meal options

Is there a restaurant in the hotel? If so, I look up the menu. If there aren’t gluten, dairy free options, then I search for local eateries nearby, or plan to bring food (after making sure our room has a fridge and microwave)

Pack for downtime

Crayons, card games, favorite stuffed animal, portable DVD player- we bring a small box of favorite calm down activities. We also bring whatever is necessary to keep our sleep routine (favorite book, PJs, blanket, etc.)

Review the itinerary

We choose a few things that we think we’d enjoy rather than trying to cram everything in. When there is a super popular activity in one area, we’ll often choose to skip it and instead, enjoy an area that has less noise or people.

Have a safety plan

Ask if the establishment offers emergency bracelets for kids in the event they get separated from you; if not, make your own.

Entry bracelets

Ask about the company’s policy on this. Indoor water parks sometimes require a bracelet on at all times. We’ve put them on our daughter’s ankle, or gone to the desk staff in the evening to take off the old one, and to get a new one for the morning (to avoid sleeping with it on).

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