Monday, June 17, 2013

13 Tips and/or Mistakes to Avoid When Taking Your Autism Spectrum Child(ren) to Universal Studios Wizarding World of Harry Potter

This post used to be titled, "Why I Won't Be Taking My Autism Spectrum Children Back to Universal Islands of Adventure"

I generally try to be pretty positive, and I realized my post and title were not at all positive.  So I'm rewriting this post in the hopes that my mistakes and errors will help someone else--especially if that someone else has a child(ren) on the Autism Spectrum--have a better time than we did. If you want the quick list, head to the bottom of the post. If you want to understand the story behind the post, keep reading. 

To be fair, I feel I should tell you I have spoken with a couple of other moms who had a completely opposite experience to the one that I had.  But like I said--if my experience can help others avoid the same problems, then at least something good can come from our experience.


I am fortunate that my kids are high functioning on the spectrum.  I know others who are not as lucky. Even though the kids are high functioning, we still have challenges.  While they don't seem to notice if they infringe on other people's personal space, they become quite agitated when others stand close to them or inadvertently bump them.  They have a difficult time waiting for long periods of time.  We have a range of sensory issues from those who get overwhelmed by sound and light (or lack of light), and those who seek more stimulation.  We have phobias of spiders, bugs, dark, heights, storms, etc.  It makes for an interesting life--let alone vacation.

These same kids who can hyper focus on one subject LOVE Harry Potter. If you have an ASD child you know what I mean.  I know more about Minecraft, Pokemon, dinosaurs, wolves, owls, Mario, trains, planes, whales and dolphins than any one person should know about.  This is because ASD children will often find a subject that sparks their interest and will learn everything there is to possibly learn about that subject and then want to tell you everything they have learned. 

I didn't mind the Harry Potter obsession because I found the books equally as entertaining as my children did.  I took the children to a weekend long release party for the final book where a town transformed itself into Hogsmeade. There were giant chess games and a sorting hat for children, as well as throngs of people dressed up as Harry Potter characters.  My favorites were the girls I saw dressed up as house elves.  They were adorable.  And I still chuckle when I think how the bathrooms in the library were renamed, "The Rooms of Requirement". 

We loved the experience of the town transformed, and were thrilled when we heard Universal was creating Hogwarts and a wizarding village complete with shops like Zonko's and Ollivanders.

You will recall with this post, that we used the Harry Potter theme to tell the kids we were going to Orlando.  We were really looking forward to it.

To prepare for our trip, I tried to do some research into the rides at Universal.  I wanted to know what height and health restrictions existed, as well as what rides my kids might find too scary.  (If you've read this post, you'll recall my kids freaked out at "It's Tough to be a Bug", and "Stitch's Great Escape".   I had a difficult time getting all the information I wanted from their website, so I decided to call.  The employee I spoke with on the phone was extremely helpful in me figure out in advance my kids would not do well with attractions like, "Twister", and "Spider-man" and even might find Harry Potter challenging.  He assured me they had Guest Assistance Cards (called Passes there). We also realized there would be a lot of rides Acroboy would miss out on because of height.

I relayed the information to my children and they decided it was worth the risk--they loved Harry Potter that much.

When we first arrived at U:IOA, we purchased our tickets and then found Guest Relations.  It was only then that we were told that Universal did not issue any GAP's when attendance was "low" and the "average" wait time (of the whole park) was about 20 minutes.  Not only that, the GAP is not good for a few of the rides--"Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" being one of them.  I'm sorry to say the employee at Guest Relations was pretty rude when we were requesting assistance. 

Disappointed, we moved on into the park.  We pretty much made a beeline for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Overall park attendance may have been low, but I'm pretty sure they were all in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  

See the crowds?

I knew from my research that would should have gone straight for "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey", but my kids had to take in everything at their own pace.  And sometimes no matter how much coaching you do before hand, this is not a battle you are going to win.  I did not want to start the day with meltdowns because I dragged them to the Forbidden Journey. (In retrospect they might have been smaller than the meltdowns that happened because we didn't make a beeline there).

Depending on which way you enter the Wizarding World, you will come across the "Dueling Dragons" coaster first.  My kids could not resist the pull of a roller coaster and rode it.  One of them came off the ride in tears because he was overwhelmed and the rest enjoyed it.  When I asked the overwhelmed child (Lawboy) about it later he said the coaster was, "Awesome!"  Hmmm.  Not how I remember it. Funny how time can change how we think about things.

The shops also pulled them in, and I have to admit the shops are very well done. 

We approached the castle and encountered an employee directing patrons to the line and checking heights of children. We saw him turn a family with a son who was too short away.  Knowing our youngest (Acroboy) was too short we asked where we should wait and were directed to the gift shop.   He never asked or offered the child swap option.  We had talked to probably half a dozen employees at this point and were never once told about the child switch option.  I don't know why it didn't occur to me to ask, but I didn't.  Now that I think about it, I think the entrance to the child swap is even in the gift shop, but I was ditsy from feeling so frazzled.  Navigating ASD kids through a new experience can be a challenge, but it can also be rewarding.  I was feeling challenged at this point.

In the past at other amusement parks ::coughdisneycough:: when we all approached a line together and someone didn't make the height cutoff, we were told then and there how we could switch off riding.  If anyone from Universal comes across this blog I ask that you train your employees to offer this option. (Please at least make it clear to frazzled moms like me where you go for child swap). 

The estimated wait time was 45 minutes.  This is twice the limit of what my kids can typically handle, but they trudged on.  One of the kids was already in tears (remember that roller coaster?), but wanted to go on Forbidden Journey so badly he tried to "suck it up".  An added problem was bags are not allowed on the ride, so my kids checked their fanny packs into a locker and did not have access to the DS's the whole time.  My husband and I kept texting throughout his wait.  It gotta say it was a train wreck.  Whirlwind kept bumping into others, trying to climb on things and caused general chaos.

I was so upset at the messages I was getting (and admitedly a little hormonal too), that I went to a second Guest Relations booth inside the park. I emotionally explained to them about my boys and their challenges--wanting to know what, if anything, could be done to help my boys.  Bruce was very sympathetic, and issued us a single GAP even though it was light attendance.  The GAP is not good for Forbidden Journey, though he tried to make a note for us to use it on it.

Eventually we all joined up again.  The kids were pretty tired and agitated. Only Whirlwind wanted to go anywhere near "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" again.  The rest of them wanted to just sit quietly and rest for a bit.  They assured me I wanted to go through the queue to see everything.  I gave the GAP to them in case they changed their minds and wanted to go anything.

I should have kept it.

I did enjoy looking at everything, but Whirlwind was having an even harder time waiting and having others in his proximity.  I tried to keep him distracted by asking him to point out things to me he had seen the first time around. It didn't help that the couple in line in front of us kept stopping the line so they could take pictures of them standing in front of significant props or rooms.  The rooms were definitely photo worthy, though I think I would have made a different choice in that situation.  Finally Whirlwind and I got to a point where we volunteered as solo riders and we passed them up. 

As Whirlwind and I were exiting the ride (over 45 minutes from the time we entered the line) I encountered the second really friendly and helpful employee of the day.  Elizabeth with curly hair asked how I enjoyed the ride. Poor girl did not know what had happened before this point in time.  I commented about the lack of child switching as an option.  She informed me that there IS child swapping--in fact they have an area devoted for parents and younger siblings to wait.  She apologized and told me if I brought back Acroboy, she would give him a certificate for him to come back and ride (a future express pass as it were) when he was the proper height to ride.   I did so, and she was gave us the certificate and wished us a good day. 

At this point everyone was pretty exhausted and hungry.  We entered the Three Broomsticks to eat.  It was a very popular place to dine.  We were hurried through the queue and sent to a kiosk to order our food.  We never once saw a children's menu amongst all the menu boards.  This is what was on the menu:
* Rotisserie-smoked chicken
* Chargrilled ribs
* Turkey legs
* Fish and chips
* Shepherd’s pie
* Cornish pasties
* Potato leek soup
* Split pea soup
* Ham soup

My children's sensory issues extend to food.  This was not an ASD kid friendly meal.   I now know there IS a children's menu which includes chicken fingers and mac & cheese.  Once again we were rushed and no help given to point out kids menus.

We ordered Butterbeers for everyone and some of the kids thought the foam was disgusting. Only after spooning it off did they drink it.  The rest of us loved it.

Lunch for my family of seven was over $100, and I hate to say not worth it.  There was a lot of wasted food because the kids didn't like what they had ordered.  I'm sure we would have done better ordering off of the kid menu since it is has chicken fingers and mac & cheese. 

We wanted to see Ollivanders, so I jumped in line while my husband took the kids around the shops some more.  Firstborn loves owls, so he adored the owlery.

When I was close to the entrance, I texted my husband and he brought the kids.  I had previously let the people behind us know I was going to be bringing my family into line, but that they were waiting elsewhere because of issues related to to Autism.  They were kind and gracious.

It was pretty amazing to go inside Ollivanders.  I was filming right away and to our delight, Whirlwind was chosen to pick a wand.  It was the single best part of the day by far.  Whirlwind had saved all of his money throughout the trip to Disney and held off on buying anything because he wanted a wand so badly.  Saving his money and delaying gratification was a major accomplishment for him. Major accomplishment.  Big.  Huge. Ginormous.  (Are ya starting to get the idea?)  :D This was a proud mama moment.

Whirlwind got to buy his wand, though we had to deal with a small meltdown from Princess Ballerina.  She did not have any money left for a wand and had not been chosen.  I tried to gently point out that at least she could say her brother had been chosen for the wand ceremony.  The other sweet children we entered with did not have that pleasure--to them some random boy got picked.  Additionally she had just spent her souvenir money the day before buying a Belle costume for her 18" doll from Target.

Funny thing is in all the time that has passed since the trip, I've only heard her lament the lack of wand twice.  I'm pretty sure that was a jealousy motivated meltdown.

We left the Wizarding World of Harry Potter finally and went to Jurassic Park.  The ride was wet and cold and the dinosaurs were too much for Acroboy.  We decided to blow off steam in the dinosaur play area next to the Pteranodon Flyers.  The kids saw Pteranodon Flyers and "had" to ride it.

It's too bad they have all of three working flyers.  (Really--I paid attention to who was getting on and off and how many flyers came in between).  It makes for a ridiculously long wait.  Seriously.  Three working flyers--two riders per flyer, you do the math.  By the way, the estimated wait time of 20 minutes was waaaaaay off.  (So, no, we didn't get to use the GAP here either). 

We let them run around for a long time in the dinosaur play land.  The sun was setting and we it was getting colder (for November at least).

At this point everyone's nerves were shot, they were overstimulated and ready to just leave.  We walked around counter-clockwise towards the entrance, but no one had a desire to ride or do anything else.  All the waiting and waiting and waiting and then hyper-stimulation in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter left us exhausted.  Even though we had finally gotten a GAP, no one wanted to ride anything else.

For a one-day visit to IOA and food it cost us nearly $800, and in my opinion it was not worth it.  I understand the more days you visit, the cheaper it becomes per day.  However, with unless you are REALLY into roller coasters, or getting wet,  this park doesn't have much to offer.

If you decide to go, I wish you better luck than we had.  My tips/advice:

  1. IF you can afford it, staying at one of the official Universal hotels will get you early access into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and a less crowded meal at the Three Broomsticks. Personally even at the off-season when we went, we can't afford it, but more power to you if you can. 
  2. Get to Islands of Adventure early and make a beeline for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  Do not get distracted by anything else.  Annnd good luck with that.  I couldn't pull it off, but I hope you can. 
  3. If you can't get there early before the park opens, you might want to make the Wizarding World of Harry Potter your last stop. I understand now that things often slow down towards the end of the day.
  4. They DO have child-swapping.  Don't let anyone at the ride gates tell you otherwise.  Ask away until you find it.
  5. Bring your electronic gadgets to pass the time, BUT make sure they are small enough to sit in a secure pocket. This will ease the time spent in line. 
  6. If park attendance seems to have picked up, check again for a GAP.  
  7. There IS a children's menu in the Three Broomsticks.  Know your options before you go, ask to see it or split the meals.  
  8. Split the Butterbeers until you know everyone likes it.  
  9. The line for Ollivanders is long and often in the sun.  If you have proximity/waiting issues like we do, have one member of your party wait in line until you have about 15-20 people in front of you.  Call in your group at that point.  Explain early on to the people behind you what you are doing and why you are doing it.  Most people are understanding when they know you're working with disabilities. 
  10. I think the fact I was filming Ollivanders from the second we stepped in the door and that Whirlwind was right in front of me AND the right age (tween) for "needing" a wand helped him get chosen. BONUS TIP:  Prepare everyone for the possibility that none of them may get picked.  If by chance one of them does, teach them to look at as a family victory.  "Isn't it great for all of us?"  That might be a challenge too, but it mostly worked with our family.   
  11. Keep your kids distracted when you are near the Pteranodon Flyers so you don't have to ride them.  It will also be a challenge, but you'll thank me later.  (They are kind of noisy when they are overhead so be prepared to sing a Barney song or something).  
  12. Buy your tickets before hand and/or look for deals.  I confess we bought ours at the gate even though I know better than that. 
  13. Skip the park all together, make your own wands and watch the movies over again if you are not into roller coasters.  You'll save a boatload of money that way.  
Good luck!  I wish you a stress free and wonderful visit. 

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