Going to a theme park at Christmas seems like a crazy idea, right?
But think about it…
Many of you have told me stories about how difficult the holidays can be in your households. When you combine family of origin drama, wartime trauma and the stress that comes with the preparation and presentation, MOST holidays can just be too overwhelming for anyone. The fact that Warriors have issue during the holidays is something a caregiver accepts and understands it may always be that way.
This year around September, we received an unexpected message through Operation Homefront. There was an owner of a condo in Orlando that wanted to donate a week there to a Veteran’s family, were we interested? It took about 30 seconds of conversation to say YES. We had not yet been able to explore any part of Orlando since moving to Florida a year and a half prior to that and our youngest had one mission, and one mission only: The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter. Knowing that the price of three meals a day and a week at a hotel was completely impossible for a disabled Warrior family, this became the first time that we thought we could do something like this for the last monkey still at home.
Then the planning begins!
I knew where we wanted to go and after figuring out the ends and out of how that would work, we settled on two park annual passes through Universal Studios Orlando. Visiting just twice in a year pays for them and they have an extended pay plan where you pay a down payment then small monthly payments to have an annual pass. (We chose Premiere Passes.) This pass is also good across the park for a discount on literally anything you purchase so there was an additional cost saving in doing so. After that, I scoured the internet for insider blogs on how and when to attach the various areas. An indispensable resource for us was the Orlando Informer. Time and time again, the information I needed always seemed return me to links on their site. They have GREAT background information on the two separate areas for the Harry Potter experience and their crowd calendar was fantastic. We planned over the course of the week what we wanted to do most, assigned them days and ranked them. As it happened, you can see displayed in multiple areas of the park wait times for a variety of popular rides so it was easy to adjust the schedule when a window of opportunity popped up.
Despite all my recon, there was no way to anticipate what days were going to be full on bumping into each other days versus plenty of room to roam. I thought Christmas Day would be the light day, WRONG. It was actually Christmas Eve that afforded us the lightest crowd. I wasn’t sure how my Warrior would take the situation, you can never really predict, but especially because our last theme park visit was a radically different situation. We ended up spending four days at Universal, can you believe that? There were also a great deal of lessons we learned that I would like to pass on!
WHAT I LEARNED ON MY WAY TO THE ROLLER COASTER
- Plan, plan, plan. Know what park you are going to, look at maps, rides, reviews and know what is your optimum day/time to visit for the easiest visit on the Warrior that has difficulty with crowds.
- Keep an eye on the Warrior. They may not be the best judge in stressful situations of when they need a break or need to step to the side/alley/bench and get out of the thick of it for a bit. At Universal, this was generally Butterbeer time.
- Stay occupied. Notice the details, talk about them with the Warrior, and carry on conversation. Often what they need is less of an “ARE YOU OKAY?” and more of a “hey check that cool thing out over there.”
- An AWESOME idea that we saw of some families waiting in long lines for rides doing was playing games. Most popular was the Heads Up app from Ellen. This borders on brilliant in terms of being able to keep everyone’s mind off of things.
- Know your limits. If you are crabby after a couple of hours of walking, make sure you eat something. Chances are that if your blood sugar is dropping, so is the kiddos and the Warriors. This can spell disaster.
- Don’t be afraid to be spontaneous. While a plan is great, you can sometimes miss great opportunities by trying to be too rigid. If something looks fun, tasty, interesting, stop and have the experience. It’s about the experience and you should really immerse yourself in it, no matter how long you will be there.
- Be flexible. I didn’t buy tickets to anything else because I wasn’t sure what everyone would want to do. One day we were there super early, another we went late in the day and yet another midday. It turned out to us, early was best so we know that for next time. Even though crowds were kind of crazy, we stayed a whopping 6 ½ hours one day!
- Look for deals. This is likely the biggest way to reduce the stress for your Warrior. Make a daily budget, stick to it and use coupons, discounts and thrifty shopping. A great idea we had for the kiddo was to put her in charge of her spending money. She had a budget for the trip and we gave it all to her. When it was in cash form, suddenly the idea of giving it up was harder. (Sometimes when parents swipe with plastic all day, they have a hard time visualizing how much things cost.) Instead of coming home with things that would be discarded in a couple of months, she made very thoughtful purchases of items that would recall her favorite memories of the week. It was a fantastic thing to watch.
- Consider where you stay. We were lucky to have a week donated to us but without the kitchen option, we would not have been able to afford to do this trip. Look for kitchenettes where you can take your precooked items to your room for dinners in the room. Some chains have free breakfast and great rewards programs that let you accumulate points for free rooms. Think about that when choosing a place and sign up in advance if you haven’t already. Don’t forget there are great resorts that offer certain packages to Veterans like this and this.
- Remember to have FUN! It won’t always be perfect but you have the opportunity to do things out of your comfort zone. Multiple times during the trip my Warrior took the time to utilize techniques from his 12-week workshop that allowed him to talk himself down on his own. It was fantastic progress to witness.
You CAN do this! Don’t stick to old traditions that make everyone unhappy in the end. Sometimes mixing it up a little is exactly what every one needed! Caregivers get stuck in not changing things at all for fear of what will happen. Sometimes seeing the look on the face of a kiddo who is beside themselves with joy is exactly what a Warrior needs!