Hi and thanks for reading. Sorry about my unannounced hiatus last week, but we were at Southern California amusement parks, which is what this post is naturally about.
I can remember thinking, maybe twenty years ago, that people jockeying for advantage in amusement parks probably fake or exaggerate the disability of a member of their party. I used to think that people would pretend that their kids have, you know, a particular aversion to lines (queues). I remember thinking: you’re disabled? Cheyeah right.
Now I think: Chuh! Yeah. That’s right.
My kid is the sort of kid that I once doubted the existence of: one that does great while riding rides and one that freaks out while standing in lines. That became crystal clear during two days in June at Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo. Instead of waiting in queues, Dar gravitated to one of those major water features that deluge kids from above, below, and in-between. And we mostly let him. Discovery Kingdom was mostly for his brother anyway, and I didn’t particularly care what we did. Plus I felt that disability passes for amusement parks are really for people in wheelchairs, not the relatively able-bodied like Dar. When I did feel that Dar needed to have the experience of a ride, as with the “White Water Safari,” I put Dar in line, to no avail, then waited while wifey and brother slowly and steadily reached the front of the long line, at which point I’d walk through the exit and meet them.
That was all a warm-up for last week’s three consecutive days in amusement parks. But I had planned to do something similar (enter at exits after wifey waited in the official queue) right up until the morning that we arrived at Universal Studios. I had emailed as much to my cousins, whom we’d meet the next day in Anaheim. But…something changed my mind. Partly it was the intense-ness of Universal Studios, where I felt I needed to jockey for any possible advantage. Partly it was the fanciful notion that Universal’s rides were better and that Dar needed to experience more of them. But mostly it was the power of suggestion and the serendipity of Universal’s first water feature. Discovery Kingdom doesn’t have any kind of water feature on the outside of the park. Universal does, to wit:
Dar loves staring at and putting his hands in something like this. So we allowed it for a moment. Then we thought, okay, we got here at the park’s opening for a reason, we need to get on Harry Potter sooner rather than later, let’s go. Dar freaked the fruck out. I walked him to the entrance anyway. I took this quick selfie, where you can almost tell how much he’s freaking/focused on the fountain, but not really:
As we arrive at the entrance we already had all kinds of apologies to make, because Dar was eliciting the usual concerned stares from employees and strangers. The lady who dinged my phone (with our four tickets) said, “See guest services for an accommodation pass.” Wifey and I entered and walked Dar brusquely past the next fountain. Dar was screaming and fussy. I assumed people assumed we’re molesters. We walked about halfway down the Main Street area when I’m like, you know what? Maybe we should see about getting this pass.
At Universal, it was easy. I just told the guy and he filled out my name on a slip of paper. He didn’t need to see Dar; he just took my word for it. Yay! With this pass, I could get privileged access to rides even if I didn’t have Dar with me. WOW. A whole new world for us. And…based on Dar’s behavior, we felt like we’d earned it.
Let me emphasize that these were Dar’s first times at any Southern California amusement parks ever. And perhaps last. I can’t imagine us doing this again very often; even with the pass, Dar really is a lot of (and a piece of) work.
Harry Potter, also known as Hogwarts/Hogsmeade (or “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter”) was the real reason for my visit and, uh, AWESOME. I hate asking a rando stranger to take our pic, but felt we had to in this one case:
Dar loved the ride in the castle, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. He did not love the very slight wait. But the main ride was aces. Dar isn’t exactly Helen Keller; he notices things. His head moves to acknowledge it when dragons and dementors appear. But they don’t bother him in any way; he just finds them sort of interesting. His brother would have absolutely freaked out and we wisely kept him off that ride. The currency of representation is fascinating to me. Scary things have a lot of valuation in his brother’s world; in Dar’s, they don’t. As an example, we also went to the Kung Fu Panda movie, and Dar lasted longer than his brother. Ah, yes, when we take our 8-year-old and 6-year-old to parks, they don’t even make it through the rides. Can someone put some emoji of dollar signs and burning flames up in here?
Anyhoo, I ooooooohed and aaaaaaaaahed over Diagon Alley. No one else really cared. We walked into the 9 3/4 station. Dar found a stuffed Hedwig and enjoyed it long enough for this photo.
Not long after, we headed over to Springfield. I know you’re not supposed to have a cow, but I had a cow, man. As an old-line Simpsons fan, I loved everything about it…the tiniest aspects hailed obscure jokes that I thought I’d never hear again. It really embiggened the smallest man, or even the most autistic one, like Dar, as seen here:
Springfield really couldn’t have been done any better. I was tickled pink at every corner. Even by the now-standard pink donuts. Because I’m enough of a fan to know the old, old, episode where Homer first was like “oh, you think I’m so desperate I’d even eat a pink donut?”
Dar was that desperate. He kept pushing the box containing the souvenir donut in my face. $6.95 for a donut?!?! I caved. He ate about ten bites before giving up. Uh…let’s say I didn’t let a three-eyed fish eat it.
Even with our newly enabled pass, we had to wait a while for the Simpsons ride. I notice this new move in amusement parks where queues get broken up by little rooms of special features…which is absolutely awesome for 95% of park guests, but not so much if you are the first one there or, uh, have a pass. (First world problems alert!) So we waited all the way until we were actually boarding the Simpsons ride, and Dar’s brother freaked out crying. This time, wifey was nice enough to take him. (Later, she went back and rode the Simpsons solo.) Dar and I rode it and loved it. Motion simulators are certainly enough for Dar!
For some reason, Dar connected hard to Barney. Parse that how you want.
Many days later I would ask Dar’s brother what was his favorite ride in the three days of amusement parks. He would take a long time and then finally say the studio tour. Really, the studio tour? It does have the advantage of being the longest ride. Dar freaked every time it stopped, was great every time it was in motion. Oh sigh. What follows is a very brief shot with his mom that doesn’t capture the experience at all:
When left to his devices, Dar stared at water. Like the rafts splashing down on the Jurassic Park ride. (He also enjoyed being in such a raft, with his mom.) The following picture was taken where Dar was watching such rafts. Did Dar actually notice the guy in the raptor suit scaring people? Well, I hope so. I think it may just look like he did.
Bottom line for Universal: the subtitle of the whole day was How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Disability Pass. And despite what I had emailed my cousins, I was going to ask Disney about it in the morning.
And I did. And it wasn’t half as easy as Universal. I even brought our handicapped placard (which meant I had to park the car somewhere other than in handicapped). The young lady said, “we appreciate that placard but we base this on the interview.” She asked me about ten questions that I answered honestly. Some surprised me, like “how does he speak then?” I said “he uses an iPad.” I think maybe she was testing me to make sure I really did talk about this all the time. In the end, we got the pass, although Disney, unlike Universal, insists that the disabled person (also known as “the primary”) actually rides any ride that the family uses the pass for. And each time we were to use the pass, we had to check in at guest services first so that they could scan Dar’s pass. (It took me about a day before I realized they didn’t have to scan all of our passes, just the “primary.” The other seven of us – yes, seven! Thanks Disney – were associated with it.)
Although this picture wasn’t taken until the second day of Disney parks, I’ll start with it just so you know the family: on the left are my first cousins, who are sisters. To the right of the one in sunglasses are her two kids. And then there’s us. And as usual, Dar has no idea what a camera is. Oh well, it’s a jungle cruise out there. Cousins had flown all the way from DC.
The first of two days at Disney we went to California Adventure. (WHAT? You say. Nobody does CA Adv before the main park!) Worked out well so that we could figure out all our kinks. Went right to the Radiator Springs racers, of course. Figured out the accommodation pass thing, which usually worked out to the equivalent of a fastpass. Guest services would give us a return time that was always sooner than the return time for a traditional fastpass.
Dar loved the Radiator Springs ride. We let his brother pass it up. However we put everyone on this Luigi dancing-car thing, because it was so easy.
The following is a weird picture to me, because this random woman in the pic has hair that reminds me of my mother’s. It’s like this picture was beamed in from an alternate universe where Mom got to live and enjoy her grandchildren and daughter-in-law.
Once again, Dar was happy at a water feature, in this case the one in the Bug’s Land. Man, that Bug’s Land is so tight now they don’t even need the Bug’s Life 3D movie anymore! (I miss it.)
Every ride was basically the same: Dar would cry if he even had to wait for two or three minutes. As long as I could basically keep him moving, he was fine. Here he is strapping into California Adventure’s very best ride, Soarin. His mom and my cousin (and her daughter) have got the big smiles. I appreciate it ladies! We need that sometimes to counter the autism.
Every so often, we were placed in a Fastpass line that was simply too long for Dar. That happened at the Toy Story Midway Mania; after we were kindly routed to the better queue I asked the guy how long it was and he said “fifteen minutes.” So I told wifey we were going back to the White Water Safari plan: I would hang out with Dar, and walk through the exit to meet them just as they were getting on. Then: a tiny bit of Disney magic. Dar glued himself to a railing much like the one overlooking the Jurassic Park ride…in this case, where he could watch the Incredicoaster launch. (It’s the redubbed California Screamin’.) I’m watching him, but I’m also thinking, he ain’t going anywhere. And what do we have here? A ten-minute line to meet Woody. So…this picture wound up being Dar’s gift to me. (Behind us is the entrance to the ride, where my family appeared about five minutes after this was taken.) Wifey doesn’t know about this until now. She won’t be happy, reading this. Because I had to be about forty feet from Dar. Wifey, let me tell you: my eyes never left him. Okay, maybe for a moment while this picture was actually taken.
WORTH. IT. To infinity and beyond.
By the way, we did every ride we wanted to do, and then some. Yay, the pass. Also adroitly and skillfully used/balanced with fastpass. For my fellow Disney-heads, I think the order was roughly:
The three rides in Cars Land
The five kiddie rides in A Bug’s Land
Quick detour to Guardians of the Galaxy for cousin Colleen and me
Soarin’ Over the World (hadn’t seen)
Monsters Inc Mike and Sully ride
Watching street performers
Grizzly Peak River Ride (but then we bailed because even the fastpass line was too long)
Various Pixar Pier rides (formerly Pacific Pier)
Turtle Talk with Crush
Some of us met Anna and Elsa
Frozen, the musical (it was good!)
Detour to The Incredicoaster for Colleen and me
Flying swings in Pixar Pier
Back to Candy Cane Inn to let cousins play together in pool and see Disney fireworks from our balcony
But don’t let the smooth taste fool you. More often than not, Dar was a major pain in the butt. And his butt was a major pain. I mean this literally because when Dar was on Full Meltdown, the only way to move him or cheer him up was to put him on my shoulders and walk. When he was four, this was no big deal. Now that he’s almost nine, I can feel that weight. This is one reason we won’t be abusing the disabled pass.
And the next day, at proper Disneyland, we knew what we were doing with Guest Services. Forget all the apps for wait times that I had downloaded into my phone, we could do it all ourselves.
I love the following picture for proof, for ten years from now. Hey, we TRIED to give Dar a normal childhood. We even took him to Disneyland.
Disney-heads, you want the order? It went:
Finding Nemo Submarine (because you can’t fastpass it)
Star Tours (movie we hadn’t seen!)
Buzz Lightyear Blasters
We would have done Indiana Jones next, but the ride broke down as we approached it…twice.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Enchanted Tiki Room
Finally, those guys got to go on Indy. Dar’s brother didn’t come up to the ride’s height requirement, and it would have scared/scarred him anyway. He and I walked around Tarzan’s treehouse instead.
Next two hours: lunch and bathroom breaks and photos around castle including some cast members.
Jungle Cruise was 11:15. My next ride was at 1:45. It was:
It took until the second half of Day 2 at Disney for us to really start using the disabled pass the way that smart people do…on every ride. And it was only in Fantasyland that we began coming in through the exit. And…it worked like a charm. And by then, Dar had been so exhausting that it all felt fully earned.
Continuing the list:
It’s a Small World
“Mickey and the Magical Map” (Some live show at Fantasyland)
Roger Rabbit Cartoon Spin
The last one was sort of a perfect bookend of how our disability-pass journey began two days earlier at Universal, because Dar was absolutely freaking, freaking out even in the fastpass queue. (There was a nearby fountain that he simply had to be in.) Because of crazy logistics that I won’t explain here, we were using our regular fastpass and not the disability pass at that point. But…the ride operators believed our story about disability – they didn’t think Dar was simply pretending to be crazy. (And they were right!) So they ushered us on, and indeed, as usual, Dar calmed the moment the ride began. And it’s a great ride.
That’s a full day! Cousins left; me and wifey and Dar and brother stayed for the Pixar parade, which was outstanding. In general, I loved the parks-wide celebration of all things Pixar. We also took the railroad for two stops with the intention of seeing the dinosaur part between Tomorrowland and Main Street. The thing broke down and the narration was way off and Dar freaked out. Oh well. Then he and I did Indy. Then we all left the park.
Dar never got violent with anyone, never even negatively flailed in a person’s direction, but he did uproot some real plants that were sitting outside the Snow White ride. Here’s my family heroically covering up the damage he’s doing. Yay fam!
Here’s Dar on Dumbo. Actually, he loved it. He screamed when I tried to take him off! That was a first-and-only. Go figure.
Here we are on Indy, where I happened to be seated in front left (behind the fake steering wheel). Can Daddy drive the Indy? (See what I did there?)
Finally, here we are waiting for the Pixar parade, waiting for Joy and Sadness (they showed up and were awesome!). This was basically the end of a very long day where Joy mostly triumphed over Sadness. From his look in this picture, you’d almost think Dar was happy after three days of theme parks. You’d almost think these were three days of not amusement parks, but amazement parks. Almost.
We can hope.