26 Nov 2008

So why do Disney World?

Why did we put ourselves though what I had a fair idea would be a difficult flight?

Here's why...
That makes sense, doesn't it!

If anyone's still not convinced, have a look at a few more:

See how excited Goofy is to meet my children! I bet that made his day.

He's such a handsome fella!

Look at that sky! After a two week long summer at home, we relished the perfect Florida weather.

This little guy was so happy. He absolutely loved the parks.

Lady loved the Pirate Pool at our hotel. She was a bit disappointed that we only went swimming once.

Duncan got so much enjoyment out of meeting the Disney characters.

I won't write a long, detailed report of our time in Florida. Well, I might do so later, but I'll give fair warning so people can skip those posts.

There are a few memories I want to share now though.

Before we left Ireland, I'd drawn up a detailed plan for the week, having researched the parks and working out what attractions were unmissable and what we could live without, as well as what would be suitable for the different tastes of various family members.

We all agreed that the holiday had to begin with a trip to the most famous park of all, the Magic Kingdom, which looked beautiful in the sunshine. Right away I went to the guest services desk to get a GAC (guest assistance card) for Duncan. He wanted to go straight to Toontown to watch the Barnstormer. After all, he'd been poring over the park maps for weeks and looking up all the rides on YouTube, so already knew what he wanted to do and see.

So going with me to get the GAC didn't sit well with his agenda and he was rather fussy as I approached the desk and told the nice lady what I wanted, reaching in to pull out some relevant documentation from my bag as I finished speaking. She immediately told me there was no need (to show her anything) and within a couple of minutes, she'd provided me with the card and a bit of red tape for the stroller, to show it should be treated at the attractions as a wheelchair. Result!

Over the week, the card was so useful, as was the ability to let Duncan sit in his stroller in the films and shows, and until he was just ready to board the rides. He was much more settled than he would have been.

The card allowed us to use Fast Pass entrances, or to queue away from the crowd, and always for a very short time. The longest we waited for any ride was about 15 minutes, for the excellent Toy Story Mania (amazing blend of high tech 3d and old skool pull-ball shoot-em-up with theming based on all the classic toys and games- one of the best) and that was only because there were 3 or so other groups with disabled people in front of us.

We went on every decent ride in each of the parks. Duncan's favourite was It's a Small World, and it's a testament to how much I love him, that I rode it 4 times with him.

He also loved the Carousel of Progress, a strange attraction for a boy his age to enjoy, being as it is, about the technological advances available to an American family at different points in the 20th and early 21st centuries. On one scene, there's a cuckoo clock on the wall, and it goes off, making the whole 30 minute, dialogue heavy show desirable to Duncan. Gordon proved his love of our son by taking him there 3 times.

Lady has developed a bit of a taste for the bigger thrill rides, and went on 2 of the bigger roller coasters, Big Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain. Thomas does not like coasters. He went on the kiddie coaster Barnstormer with me, and was utterly terrified. He asked me to give his opinion on my blog;
The scariest ride that I went on was Barnstormer. The least scary ride I went on was the Carousel. My favourite ride in the Pixar studios was Toy Story Mania.
That was from Thomas.
Duncan opted to just watch these things and loved it. After months of looking at the videos and recreating them as best he can on Roller Coaster Tycoon, as well as drawing them and setting his train tracks up to resemble them, he was once again in front of the real thing.

The staff were unfailingly delightful, smiling and helpful. We were always nice to them too of course, and very grateful for all their assistance. Once I was with the boys while Gordon spent some time with Lady. They were hungry so I took them to a cafe, ordered a couple of children's meals and tried to figure out how to bring them to a table while pushing Duncan. One of the staff offered to carry my tray, which helped so much.
We never encountered that kind of positive, generous attitude in Disneyland Paris.

We loved all of the parks for different reasons. We loved the lush Animal Kingdom, the gentler pace and staff who took the time to talk to the children and point out little trails and tasks they could do, the utterly gorgeous and beguiling effigy of Everest at one end of the park, and the musicians giving children a chance to bang their drums and have a go. Duncan told me his 2nd favourite ride was the safari bus. Gordon and I took turns to ride Expedition Everest. Just wow.

The Hollywood Studios park was bunged with folk there to see their favourite soap stars, an event which despite all my planning, I'd failed to notice clashed with our appointed day there. But it didn't matter, they were there for the (to us) unfamiliar celebrities, while we wanted rides and shows and our needs didn't clash. We watched the studio's spectacular Fantasmic evening show one evening. Duncan slept through the whole thing.

I'd love to go around Epcot without any children some time. There's so much to see and try there, if you can take your time and savour it all. But as it was, we all enjoyed the Test Track ride (fast, thrilling, just a bit too much for Thomas 2nd time around) and each of us but Duncan went on Mission Space (the easier option) which might be my favourite ride of all. It was especially good having watched the shuttle Endeavour launch just before.

Duncan was keen to go to Germany in the World Showcase section of Epcot, and kept talking about the cuckoo clocks he'd get to see there. I was worried that there wouldn't be any and he'd be disappointed, but he knew better than me.

The shop had a wall full of clocks and Duncan was in his element. He stood watching, enthralled for, oh, about five minutes and then the trouble started.

He wanted me to buy one of the clocks. These things started at about $200 and even if I was willing to spend that sort of money (I wasn't) they're not exactly the kind of thing you can throw in your backpack and carry around while touring a theme park. He started to kick off, so I had to take him out. I made up a story that Daddy bought the clock, and the lady in the shop put it in a box, took it to the post office, and sent it to Santa who will bring it to him for Christmas. Yes, I lied directly to my child.

(I have to get a deal on a cuckoo clock for Christmas now!)

He was not happy for a while after. I wrote out what I'd said and read it to him, letting him hold the paper. He just couldn't stop thinking about the clocks and wanting to go back to see them and to get one, but I couldn't let him do that. At least when we'd been in, the shop had only just opened so we were the only (potential) customers in it.

Again, we split up and I took Duncan ahead while Gordon took the others to watch a film about France (amazing and beautiful-Gordon, boring-Thomas). We ended up in the England bit, and guess what Duncan found in the toy shop- a load of Thomas the Tank stuff. He played for a while with the display train set and when he asked for a $14 wooden train, I complied and bought it, just to help take his mind off the clock. The man in the shop took the train to a back room to cut the packaging off for us, and Duncan tried to follow him. I found a toy policeman's hat, popped it on and said, "Stop in the name of Plod!" (It's a Noddy reference.) Duncan, either annoyed or mortified, gave me a look of disgust and said loudly, "I hate it when you do that!" prompting all the nice mums in the shop to look at me. As usual.

Just once I sort of forced Duncan to go on a ride when he didn't want to. In Soarin', you sit in a row, raised and suspended over a huge screen showing footage of California scenes from the air, and fans blow and you swoosh around giving the sensation that you're flying. He panicked when he saw the ride, thinking it was a coaster but I got him on it, knowing that he'd be fine when it started, and he really did love it, grinning and pulling his feet up when it seemed we were skimming the tops of a forest. As it ended, he said to himself (a quote from a film) "It was the best birthday ever!"

We went to out hotel pool one afternoon, and intended to go to the Blizzard Beach water park for a few hours one day, but it was just a wee bit too cool and windy for a few days, and then we were too caught up doing other stuff. Lady was disappointed by the omission, but didn't feel too bad since we were still having fun in other ways.

We bought lots of take-aways in the evenings and ate in the apartment as we don't do restaurants with our family, not yet anyway. We ate at a few of the park counter service places, but usually in 2 sittings so someone was able to keep Duncan busy while the other ate. A few places sold these huge smoked turkey kegs, very Friar Tuck. We liked those, even Duncan managed to gnaw on one for a bit, and since he mostly ate chips (fries) ice-cream and candy floss, his ingestion of a bit of protein pleased me greatly.

On our last evening, we went again to the Magic Kingdom to watch the fireworks. We were just in time to see the night time parade, with the cast and floats all lit up and looking so pretty. I pushed Duncan in his stroller to a small gap along the route, but he pushed the woman standing slightly in front of him, right on her bum. Oops! I apologised instantly, and catching sight of his badge, she laughed and said, "oh my son's autistic too!"

The fireworks were wonderful, but the boys had both had enough after about 10 minutes, so we walked back towards the park exit, looking around every so often to see the show. We made it to the exit just as it all ended and were able to get on the monorail (we loved this) to the car park right away before the crowds.

So, this seems to be a good type of holiday for us. Duncan enjoyed keeping a map in his hand at each park and knew what he wanted to see and do. Coming home, I was already thinking about what we could do for our next holiday, whenever that will be. Top contenders now are Legoland Windsor (and seeing our friends in London, brace yourselves) and Drayton Manor Park in the Midlands; it's even got a Thomas Land!

25 Nov 2008

Lung Cancer in Northern Ireland

This may be off topic, but I wanted to highlight an interesting article on lung cancer research in last Friday's Belfast Telegraph. The paper seems to run a decent health section, with fewer credulous reports than the average regional rag, at least since they stopped publishing nutropath Jan de Vries self-publicising nonsense. (Miche, what was it he charged for a 5 minute consult, during which he was abrupt and dismissive, and insisted that you buy one of his many books and herbal concotions?)

The paper edition carried a photo of the researcher quoted, and damned fine he looked too (biased...moi?) It's always good to read positive stories like this, and hopefully people in the region will have more hope for a better and longer life with lung cancer thanks to the drug trials now taking place in Belfast and around the world.

24 Nov 2008

Flying Virgin

We're back home form our trip to Florida. Everyone had a great time and we made many wonderful memories.

I wrote a short post from Gatwick airport before boarding the transatlantic Virgin flight. I may not have been so chipper then had I known what faced me for the next 11 hours or so.

Lady, Thomas and Duncan make themselves at home in the V-room.

The Virgin Atlantic staff were all wonderful and as helpful to us as possible. We were able to check in at the Premium Economy desk and were offered a couple of seats at a bulkhead with 3 more in a row across the aisle. I thought this would work out well for Duncan; a bit more space and no-one in front to be bothered by him pushing against their seat back. Wrong!

The boys playing with Lady's Gameboy just before we boarded. Duncan sits in his indispensable Major stroller.
(The Gameboy was lost somehow in getting onto the flight, and hasn't been seen since.)

Duncan expected that after a fun time on the V-room, we'd simply jump in a taxi and in a matter of minutes, find ourselves at Disney World. After all, that's what had happened when we went to Paris. He was adamant that he wasn't getting on another aeroplane and was saying, "no Virgin!"

I explained many times, just as I'd done at home, that we had to fly a long way to reach Disney World. He consented to board the plane and we tried to get settled in before most of the other passengers joined us. He was still a bit fussy when they were walking past and one charming man strided past, saying to me, "I'm glad I don't have to sit beside him." WTF? Jeez man I can understand that you and every other passenger would prefer on a 9 hour flight, to sit away from the loud, struggling boy, but do you really have to say it aloud to his already harassed mother? I thought of many fruity curses to throw back at him, but at least I had the decency to merely think them.

The badge I made for Duncan, and which he quite happily wore around his neck throughout the holiday.

Sitting beside us in the bulkhead seats, were a man with his 2 daughters aged about 4 years and 4 months. He was nice and understanding and his girls were a couple of sweethearts. Across from us were Gordon with Lady and Thomas, both of whom were perfectly wonderful throughout. They can see when I've got my hands full with Duncan's needs and curb their own devilment in response. In front of them was a row of three people in their fifties. The woman nearest basically stared at Duncan and me constantly for the first 4 hours or so of the flight. The couple beside her didn't stare for so much time, but made up for it with intense evil eye, head shakes, scowls and tuts.

Duncan was hard work. He wanted to use the toilet almost as soon as we'd taken off even though I'd taken him just before, his teeth were hurting as I think he'd bitten one of the hard lollipops I'd brought for them to suck during take-off and landing. The noise and crowds were obviously bothering him, a matter helped little by rubber neck woman and the other staring eyes. He cried a bit and shouted out a few choice angry phrases. At one stage the baby next to us cried for a while (as babies quite reasonably do) but Duncan matched her for pitch and bested her in volume. Oh dear. I tried to distract and comfort. I got him to watch Wall-E for a while, and we looked at some books. I drew a few pictures and coloured a rocket picture book. I offered the ear defenders I'd taken, and a blanket, cap and eye mask to reduce the stimulation, but all were refused. I worked really hard the whole time, and bless him, so did he.

Once when the grumpy two-some next to us gave a particularly nasty look at his distressed sounds, I called to them, "Please, he's doing his best." They lent back to avoid me, and I spoke to rubber neck woman, asked her to tell them what I'd said and added, "this is hard for him as he's autistic." She said that they didn't speak English. They were obviously fluent in the body language of disgust though. Gits. Rubber neck woman took the time to exclaim that I must be exhausted every night after looking after Duncan, after all, as she said, "I'm exhausted just watching him!"

"SO LADY, LOOK THE HELL AWAY, TURN YOUR DAMNED TV ON AND WATCH BATMAN OR SOMETHING," I felt like replying. Instead I explained briefly, as I really didn't feel like chit chat, that he was under undue stress and normal days are nothing like what she was seeing.

Eventually after about 6 hours of this struggle, he consented to wear Gordon's super duper noise-reducing headphones. By then it was about 10pm UK time and we'd been awake since 5am, so he finally settled and slept for a few hours. Phew.

Asleep, at last. Do I look worn out or what!

At Orlando International, we flew through customs and immigration, encountered staff who were all pleasant and helpful and I got a kick from being called ma'am. A few hours later than expected, we arrived at our hotel apartment, finding it large, comfortable and clean. It's a pity the few hours sleep Duncan had on the flight sustained him for a night of fidgeting and bed hoping!

And just in case any one's wondering, on the flight home, we arranged to sit in the rows of 3 seats alongside the galley area, thus reducing the number of passengers around us. Duncan sat between Gordon and myself while Thomas and Lady sat behind us. It was an evening flight and we'd been on the go all day. Duncan wore his cap pulled low over his eyes, ear defenders and had a blanket around his shoulders. I'd changed him into his pull-up nappy and removed his shoes. He cuddled me and Gordon gently stroked his feet and he fell asleep before the plane had even left the runway, remaining asleep for the entire journey, Yeah!

17 Nov 2008

Holiday Post 2

So we're in Florida, and for the first 2 days we had very high temperatures for the time of year, then they all started chittering on the local weather stations about The Big Chill, and it's gone all the way down to 65 deg F (18 deg C for those of us who prefer SI units). It's perfect for us.

We managed to witness the shuttle launch on Friday evening, though we were all shattered. But you just have to make the extra effort to see something so amazing. I just couldn't stop thinking that there were people inside that huge cylinder of fire bursting into the sky. It was terrifying and thrilling just to watch.

The parks have been great fun. We got a special pass for Duncan and the staff here are so lovely and can't do enough for us. We're really enjoying that USA friendliness.

I've only booked a few minutes on the 'puter here and then I'm going to get a few coffees to bring up to the room for breakfast before we all head off to Epcot for the 1st time. I'm really looking forward to it.

Hope all the gang at home who read this are OK and I'll call later to find out about G and the baby who'll be out any minute now!

13 Nov 2008

Live Blogging the Holiday!

We've been up since 5am, got the taxi to the airport at 5.20, landed in Gatwick at 8ish and are now in the Virgin Vroom, whiling away the hours until we can board our Orlando bound flight this afternoon.

Duncan was a bit worried on the flight here. His ears hurt and he panicked a bit about landing, calling out loudly a few times that we were going to crash when we landed. He wasn't interested in my reassurances that we had a very able pilot looking after us. When we did land (very smoothly) he grinned and said, rather surprised, "we didn't crash!"

The Vroom is perfect for this gang. Gordon is on kid duty for now. There's a soft play area where the boys are currently launching themselves off foam structures and crashing into each other. Thankfully, there are no other children in it!

We've had bacon rolls and coffee, and the children have helped themselves to juice and croissants. We'll be here for a few hours yet, but I can think of worse ways to spend the morning. There are loads of terminals and we've all been checking out our favourite sites, the play room id helping burn off the crazy amounts of energy the bunnies possess, there are a few games consoles, and as much food and drink as we want. It's well worth the fee to come here.

So anyway, we'll arrive in Orlando at 6pm EST, get the hire car and head to the hotel/apartment thing. Tomorrow we'll hit the mouse kingdom, bur best of all, we're lucky enough to be in Florida while a shuttle launch (Endeavour) is planned. Obviously, no matter how tired we'll feel, we're going off to get a closer look at that tomorrow evening!

I'll update when I can.
Keep well, and don't let the cold, wet weather bother you too much!

6 Nov 2008

Politics of the people

People can change things. America has shown us so. I stayed up really late on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning to watch the results of the US presidential elections, enjoying the company of some fellow bloggers. I was delighted with the result. From what I've seen and read about the candidates, Obama is by far the better in his policies, aims and intentions. People have chosen the candidate who is clever, accomplished and well organised. His campaign was fantastic especially when compared to the nastiness of McCain's. I'm glad there will be no more McCain "my friend" speeches nor any of his nonsense about autism, and I am glad the majority of Americans showed their opposition to the global screw ups his party have made, and that awful Palin woman.

It's obviously wonderful to have an African American family taking up residence in the White House. I think that people all over the world who are of a minority race in their home country, will be happy with this. I know Gordon has been deeply affected.

I listened to Obama's victory speech live and warmed to his inclusive address to people of all racial backgrounds, to gay and straight people, disabled and non-disabled. How about that?!

But, closer to home, the Irish government has just announced their disgusting decision to scrap HPV vaccines for teenage girls due to budget shortfalls. Even if times are hard, this is a terrible decision and is a real let down. The HPV vaccine is the only medicine yet developed that acts as an effective preventative measure against a form of cancer. I live in Northern Ireland so my own daughter will still be vaccinated when she's old enough, but what about all her cousins? I have 5 wonderful nieces living in the Republic, they all deserve this protection too.

"An angry person" by Duncan. It's how this decision makes me feel.

Via Red Mum I read that people are being encouraged to write to Mary Harney, Minister for Health, telling her how they feel and attaching a photo of their daughter (if they have one). We've seen that when enough people are motivated to make a change, it can happen. Lets see if the Irish people can effect this small but important change.

It's a shame about California and Prop 8 though.

4 Nov 2008

Fun all over the planet

I took the children to a travelling fun fair last night in Belfast. Duncan was especially keen to go, associating Halloween with Planet Fun, even more than (as he calls it) "tricks and treats".

Gordon's been at a conference since Saturday. I asked Duncan if he would write him an email. He typed the 1st sentence and dictated the rest, and this is what he said:
Dear Daddy

Now Duncan is a cute boy. Daddy was a good man.

Duncan is drinking hot chocolate and playing Dogz 4 like a demo.

Tonight is Planet Fun from Halloween in Granda's apartment. We're
going to look at the Mad Mouse from Halloween.

Duncan loves Daddy the best boy in the whole wide world.
Gordon was able to receive his emails while sitting in a meeting, and somehow from his response, I think he liked it!
I love you Duncan- your letter made me so happy.

I hope you have a fantastic time tonight at Planet fun

I love you very much

Your Daddy

That night I loaded the children in the car and we set off into the cold, dark night. We parked at my Dad's place since he lives near the huge, ugly building hosting the fair, and I fueled myself with a bowl of pasta then hit the noise, lights and crowds.

I was very concerned about losing Duncan, though even if he had managed to sneak off from sight, I'd have a good idea of where to find him. But it definitely was more stressful for me to be out at night among so many people with no other adult on hand. Lady and Thomas were instructed to keep together and stay near me as I knew Duncan would be liable to dash off to whatever caught his eye with no notice. I even took a photo of him just as we arrived in case I had to give his description to any security staff, paranoid or what?

SO for all my fears, we had a good time. Duncan was pleased to watch one of his favourite coasters, the Mad Mouse, and then his siblings rode the Caterpillar Coaster/Wiggly Worm or whatever it's called. He enjoyed watching them from the otherwise deserted back end of the ride, and racing the train as it went.

He chose to go on the animal train and since there were few young children around by then, he rode up front and rang the bell ecstatically all the time.

It made him so very happy, and that made us all happy. The fella working the ride looked like he'd had a sense of humour bypass though.

They went on a few more rides, Duncan again choosing one usually favoured by the under five age group, and Lady and Thomas enjoying something a bit more thrilling.

Today I worked for a while on planning an itinerary for Disney World in Florida. We're leaving next week and are psyched about it. I dare say the parks will have a bit more to offer than the particular brand of fun and thrills available last night in Belfast, even if they're are much less easy to access.