4.22.2019

Visiting Zion National Park While Autistic

Because I am very smart, it only took me ten years to realize that Zion National Park is a mere three-hour drive from Las Vegas, where we often stay with family. For us, that's day-trippable. I wasn't sure if Zion would be an ideal place for our team, but as last week was Leo's Spring Break, we were looking for new adventures, and our friend and fellow road-tripper Dr. Deb Karhson was game, we decided to see if Zion was our kind of place.

Oh yes, it was.

First of all, we are all about Transportation Days. If we can spend a day riding buses, trains, subways, ferries, boats, trams, and/or cable cars, that is a day in which everybody wins. And Utah's town of Springfield, AKA the gateway to Zion NP, has a clean, efficient, free shuttle bus service. Yes! We won! (Parking in Springfield was not free, but it was not exorbitant either.)

[image: Deb Karhson, me, and Leo riding the free shuttle bus
from the town of Springfield to the Zion park entrance.]
Another reason we were heading to Zion is that it is in fact a National Park. And people with disabilities can get life-long free Access Passes to National Parks. And I thought Leo should have an Access Pass. So I brought all his documentation—birth certificate, passport, diagnosis paperwork, most recent IEP, etc., to prove that yes in fact, our dude is who he says he is and yes, he is disabled.

Turns out the ranger believed Leo without any of that, and just needed him to sign his name (and waited without comment or prompting during that process, which for our dude takes as long as it takes). OK then! Now Leo (and anyone who comes with Leo) can get into any national park, and can even get the car that Leo rides in, into those national parks. I think the Access Pass is an excellent program and I am grateful for it.

We then headed to the next part of our excellent day, the Zion NP free shuttle, which takes visitors to nine different parts of the canyon, with on/off privileges at every stop. Except, d'oh:

[image: Leo next to a very long line of people waiting to board the
Zion National Park free shuttle bus.]
We were there on the Friday before Easter Sunday, which turned out to be a Really Busy Day. The rangers said they had Summer attendance but Spring staffing and shuttles, so we ended up having to wait for 30 minutes to board the bus. Thankfully, waiting for a bus is a perfectly acceptable way to spend one's time, according to the teenager in our group. Whew! 

We then rode up and down the canyon, possibly more than once. We got off the bus at Zion Lodge and poked around a bit, but we'll need to go back again to get our usual hiking on—the crowds made the trails inaccessible to our party, for various sensory reasons. The crowds also made for waits at many of the shuttle stops, which could have been an issue if we had had a crisis and needed to board right away, as the park has no priority boarding policy for people who have a hard time with lines. I look forward to heading back on a less-bustling day.

But, damn, Zion was so beautiful. The temperature was warm but not intolerable, flowers were blooming everywhere, and the skies were as blue as any I've seen. I did not even try to capture that beauty, as it is staggering on a scale incomprehensible to my puny camera phone. Let's just say that there's a reason there are windows in ceilings of the buses. You should see Zion yourself if you can, or watch a dedicated video.

[image: Leo from behind, looking down the Virgin river, from a bridge.]
Also note that there were lots of places to rest and chill, even with the crowds. Benches and lawns and more. This is important for our crew, which requires downtime. Also important: Water fountains and spouts with tasty, clean Zion spring water everywhere. Don't forget to bring your reusable water bottle!
[image: Leo and me lounging on the lawn in front of the Zion lodge.]
And finally, we were glad to have Deb along with us. I think sometimes Leo gets bored of me, as teenage boys tend to do with their mothers, plus Deb is the least boring person on earth and Leo loves her (as do I). Also Deb says she misses her brother, who lives in another state, and who is a lot like Leo. Then there's that Leo's dad doesn't like the two of us traveling by ourselves, but there aren't a lot of people who think traveling with us for a few days is a vacation. So, more gratitude on my part. Thanks, Deb!

[image: Leo and Deb on the grass at Zion Lodge, seen in
profile. Deb is cupping Leo's cheeks and he is smiling
at her.]
If you or your family member are autistic and/or disabled, and you've been to Zion, I'd be interested to hear about your experience. For now, I can report that we had a wonderful time, and I am raring to return.

3.28.2019

Leo's Adventures in Disneyland, 2019 Edition

image: Leo in front of a "We're Monsters, Inc." poster with four monsters posing jovially, while waiting in line for the ride
The Monsters, Inc ride is a perennial fave.
[image: Leo in front of a "We're Monsters, Inc."
poster featuring four monsters posing jovially.]
It's been eight years since Leo's first successful trip to Disneyland, when we discovered that, for him, the Land of Mouse really is The Happiest Place on Earth. We now try to make annual pilgrimages, because Leo deserves to be happy and when we can make that happen, we do.

Here's how the latest trip went, and how we made it happen—because unfortunately, visiting Disneyland is also expensive AF. Note: this go 'round it was just me and Leo. Seymour and Iz were in New Zealand (Iz is doing a college semester abroad*) and J and Leo have some competing access things going on just now. J drove down with us, but spent the night at a local friend's and went to the park with them separately. We did meet up with J and crew once to check in.

One of the most pricey parts of Disneyland is the tickets. Leo wants to see both parks, not just one, as he has has a two-park circuit that we follow for optimal joy. That means $$$ for a park-hopper pass. Luckily, we live in California, and our regional center has a program called Community Involvement (CI) that provides discounted Disneyland tickets. If you live in California and you or your child are regional center clients, ask about this! (We were lucky; our social worker told us about the tickets, but just because yours hasn't doesn't meant it's not an option. Ask!) The CI dates available are limited and subject to blackouts, but the savings are significant—and allow provide discounts for a limited number of accompanying family members.

More routine/joy: we stayed at the Grand Californian Hotel. This is important, because being a hotel guest means access to a "Magic Hour" for hotel and other select pass holders, before the parks open to the general public, and during which lines are extra not-crowded. However this meant we had to pay for the hotel room. For this, I am beyond grateful to Leo's grandparents and other family members who understand how much going to Disneyland means to Leo, and gave him cash for his birthday and Christmas that we were able to use for the hotel room—because otherwise and even during "low season," room prices at this place verge on imaginary. (Though the same Magic Hour benefits hold for guests of the Disneyland Hotel and Paradise Pier hotels, which are slightly less astronomically priced, Leo's routine for as long as he's been going has been the Grand Californian.)

Selfie of me and Leo in a hotel hot tub.
[image: Selfie of me and Leo in a hotel hot tub.]
Staying at the hotel meant using the hot tub and pool the night before. This is important. Because we always use the hot tub and pool when we go to Disneyland, and Routine is Life. We both like pools and hot tubs.

We have most things Disney figured out. The one unpredictable factor is lining up to enter the park in the morning. We need to be there relatively early because if we have to wait in a long line at Town Hall to get Leo set up for Disability Access Service, then that cuts into his Magic Hour relaxing rides time. However, if we end up being surrounded by kids who are crying or whining (which is an act of the goddesses and no one's fault), that is distressing to Leo and we can't stay in line.

As always, we gave the park entry waiting line a solid try. And after a few minutes, we were surrounded by crying kids. I tried not to panic, and asked the people standing behind us if they would hold our spot, which they kindly did. I then took Leo around the side of the entry kiosks to talk to a gate agent, and told them about our pickle. Much to my relief, they were able to help us out. We might not need this accommodation next time, but it is good to know that the staff will make those kinds of accommodations if requested.

FU Straw Ban
[image: Leo waiting to ride Star Tours, looking hip with
3D glasses, nonchalant attitude, and mouth-held straw.]
We were the first people in line at the Disneyland Town Hall, and Leo's Disability Access Service (DAS) pass—which is tied to the entrance ticket you bring everywhere with you—was activted forthwith. So many exhalations.

The current version of the pass (there have been several iterations over the past few years) meets Leo's needs beautifully. If you've not used the DAS before: it makes it possible for people like Leo who have a hard time waiting in lines to have the shortest line experience possible. This doesn't mean jumping lines, though; you get assigned a "return time" for the FastPass or disabled access line entrances that is roughly equivalent to the ride's current standby (regular folks, non-FastPass) waiting) time. This means that if the wait time for Pirates of the Caribbean is 45 minutes, you get to spend those 45 minutes doing something that is not waiting in line, like going to the Tiki Room—and then you can come back to the FastPass entrance any time after your DAS-appointed return time.

(Apparently you can also use the DAS in conjunction with the regular FastPass service, but that is more planning and executive function juggling than my head had space for, and we were perfectly happy using the DAS alone.)

[image: Photo of a MedAlert safety bracelet
clipped onto Leo's pants' belt loop.]
A final logistics note: As Leo has, on occasion, followed his enthusiasm more quickly than I could keep up with him, I wanted to ensure he had a visible form of ID with my phone number and his MedicAlert info on it (even though, as I learned, The Mouse has eyes everywhere and escaped kids get returned to parents surprisingly quickly). We used Safety Tats for a while, but they aren't that obvious, especially during cold weather which means long sleeves, and they also don't have enough information for some of Leo's medical considerations. Leo is also not a fan of safety bracelets or other medical ID tags. But I figured out that if I use a metal binder ring to attach a metal safety bracelet to his belt loop, he is not only OK with that but considers the bracelet chain an excellent fidget. Another win-win.
[video description: Leo rubbing his hand along the wavy
metal guardrail at the Nemo submarine ride line.]
Overall, a lovely time was had. Though it was a holiday week, it was a Tuesday, plus the park wasn't as crowded as the IsItPacked Disneyland Crowd Forecast foretold. Leo got to ride all his rides, several more than once. We found more spots of joy, like the stim-worthy wavy metal railguards along the lines at the Finding Nemo submarine ride. We also found many spots of quiet and regrouping and rest, such as the circumnavigating Disneyland Train that lets you ride indefinitely. These were important, as were the Benches Everywhere (though New Orleans Square could still use more benches). 

The only real bummer was the brightness. The weather report said it was going to be overcast, so I didn't bring hats. Which meant that once we found ourselves squinting (a situation that leads to horrible headaches for our young hero), hats needed to be purchased. And there is no getting a non-merch-branded hat in Disneyland; I looked. So I ended up, reluctantly, with a Darth Vader trucker hat while my companion scored a "P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney" baseball cap that was the least obnoxious option. (I am old and grumpy and getting tired of branding and merch everything everywhere all the time. Except for at the new Guardians of the Galaxy ride. That was cool.)

The Guardians of the Galaxy ride has so many Easter eggs!
[image: Leo next to a painting of The Collector and The Master
laughing while playing a game at a table.]
A final happy result: Leo spent the months leading up to our visit watching Disney park ride-throughs from parks all over the world. As we made him a bunch of his own ride videos while were were there, and made them part of his YouTube channel, he can now watch videos of himself riding rides at Disneylang on our YouTube-connected TV as easily as he can watch his favorite Netflix shows and DVDs. Sometimes I really do love living in the future:



[image: Selfie of me and J in front of the Vasquez Rocks.]
It gets better coda: Road trips have sometimes been hard with our youngest two. It is a mark of how much they have both matured that when the main freeway pass between the central valley and Los Angeles got shut down due to snow, and we ended up sitting on the freeway for four hours and were eventually turned around and had to to do a three-hour detour and did not reach our destination until 1:30 AM, they were both good sports about it and the situation was totally manageable. It is a mark of how my approach to life has changed that as long as my kids were not having a hard time, I was cool with whatever needed to be done, and am just glad it all worked out, and did not have a panic attack or meltdown. Plus when we woke up, we discovered we were five minutes away from one of the most iconic Star Trek locations in the Southland. It's hard to be mad about geekery opportunities.

 ----

[image: Photo of Seymour's hand holding up his gold wedding
ring next to the volcano that was the film version of Mt. Doom.]
*When I studied abroad in Ghana nearly 30 years ago, making a phone call to my parents was only possible at the airport, and I had to arrange the phone via mail weeks in advance—because that's how long the mail took. In contrast, Iz can and does text us all day long, time differences allowing (she is three hours behind me, but in tomorrow's time). I much prefer the contemporary situation, now that I'm in the parent position. Also: She and Seymour found the one true ring!