For many of us, summer is almost here. This means school will be out and you may be beginning to plan your summer vacations. I know how challenging vacations can be for parents who have a child with ADHD or other special needs. It can be a struggle to try to make everyone in your family happy and also take into account your child's unique needs. I am going to share some of my hard earned experience with you about how to make your vacation with your ADHD child less stressful and more fun for all.
A Tale of Two Vacations
One spring my family and I decided to make a trip to Walt Disney World. We opted to go during spring break when the kids were out of school. We made reservations at a hotel on the premises. It was a bit of the spur of the moment thing, with not too much planning ahead of time. We did make reservations for dining, however, including breakfasts with the Disney characters. My son Max was extremely excited by the thought of Walt Disney World and was getting very hyped up before our trip. We did not prepare him very much for the big event as we were so busy getting things ready for our vacation.
Can I tell you that this particular trip was one of the most memorable vacations we have ever had as a family? But not for the reasons you might think. It was forever engraved in our memory because it was the vacation from hell.
Know that my whole family loves Walt Disney World. The service is wonderful.
There are more than enough fun activities for any child. Unfortuantely, our lack of adequate planning for Max took a huge toll. Here are some of our mistakes:
- We went on our Disney vacation during one of the most crowded times of year. There was a sea of people everywhere we went and lines were unbelievable.
- Our hotel room, although fun and festive, was too small for our family. And Max, who needs space to unwind and relax could not relax in such a room.
- We centered much of our time on getting to reservations for dining with the Disney characters. Guess who ended up being frightened out of his gourd to eat with the characters? As we were waiting in line for our table for breakfast at the Polynesian Hotel, Max got to see the characters banging drums and marching around the tables and he ran down the hall to get away from all the commotion. We had no clue that he would react like this. We ended up ditching all our dining plans.
- We tried to do as much as we could in one day and because of that we didn't allow for much of a break in between activities. By early evening Max would begin to have meltdowns.
- Max didn't know what to expect each day because we would just decide that morning where we might go, but never gave him a rundown of choices for activities.
The experience was simply too overwhelming for Max. He became too anxious and wired to truly enjoy the trip. He wasn't sleeping well and was cranky and irritable for most of our vacation. We ended up leaving a day early as nobody was enjoying anything due to Max's escalation of meltdowns and hyperactivity.
I know you are thinking (as we did afterward), "What were we thinking?" Our lack of planning - and especially for Max - had backfired in a major way. If we wanted to go on such a vacation again we would have to change a lot of things. For several years after that trip we would see a Disney commercial and cringe. We were afraid to go back. But then we decided to do a vacation make-over and do it right.
The next time, we made some changes. They made all the difference in the world to us.
- We went to WDW during the off season when the parks are not so crowded.
We stayed in a cabin at WDW this time which offered quiet, privacy, and much-needed space. Max had room to spread out and unwind.
No dining reservations this time or scary character meals. We opted to eat in our cabin for at least one or two meals a day as we had a kitchen. This saved us so much time, money, and sanity. It was also practical as Max has a special diet due to food allergies and we didn't have to worry so much about finding food in the parks that he was able to eat.
We not only took lots of breaks, we also lowered our expectations of what we could do in one day. We did not visit two parks in one day and we included lots of down time.
This time we prepared Max with lots of information about our vacation some weeks in advance. I printed out images of the parks and rides ahead of time and created a little story book for him. We discussed how we would spend each day with a breakdown of activities and also gave him choices so that he could have more control over what he wanted to do.
The number one reason why this second trip turned out to be so successful is we brought Max's beloved babysitter. It was worth every penny to do this. This way Max could spend some time alone with her doing things he wanted to do or unwinding as the rest of my family could get out and about and do what we wanted to do.
We brought relaxing activities for Max during down times. Unstructured times can be the worst time for a child who thrives on excitement and being on the go. So we brought arts and crafts activities, bubble bath for a soak in the tub, and some of his favorite DVD's so that he had things he could do when we wanted to take a rest.
We purposefully stayed at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort cabins because they have so many outdoor nature activities. We could take a leisurely stroll in the woods with Max, visit the horses or make sandcastles at their beach. In studies conducted by Frances Kuo, Ph.D., Professor of natural resources and environmental sciences and of psychology, and Director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, it was found that children with ADHD function much better in more natural settings. They are less hyperactive and are able to concentrate better in a green natural environment. I can testify to this for my son who was far more relaxed at the cabins surrounded by woods than staying in a hotel.
Our second trip to Walt Disney World ended up being one of our best family vacations ever. Max and the whole family had fun without all the stress and anxiety of our first trip. Planning made all the difference between a wonderful family vacation and a horrible one.
There is a lot of information out there for parents who wish to take their child with ADHD or other special needs to Walt Disney World. One online resource is All Ears Net where parents share tips and suggestions on how to make a vacation to the mouse world a good one for you and your ADHD child.
For more general information about how to vacation with your ADHD child please read these articles from ADHD Central:
If you have any tips or suggestions about how to take the stress out of family vacations for your child with ADHD please share them here. You know we love to hear from you