Before Shabbat I posted about the beginning of our trip and our all being under the weather. I want to update on the rest of the trip and then write a little about our experiences at Disney and Universal. When last I wrote, Avi and I were planning on a second day at Universal on Friday and we did just that, and I will talk about that below when I talk about Universal. After Universal, I drove to the Winn Dixie store that we went to on Monday. Before we left, I had emailed the Rabbi at the local Conservative Synagogue asking about Kosher food. He told us about a local Winn Dixie that has an expanded kosher section. It was actually pretty nice. A lot of selection including kosher wine! Since everyone was a little under the weather, I went back to the store to get some prepared chicken soup, and some veggies. I cut up the veggies and doctored up the soup a bit. I also got a jar of premade matzah balls. They were not half bad! Of course I had to do some koshering in the kitchen of our time share unit, but it was definitely worth the work.
We had brought down Shabbat dinner from Glatt 27 so we had a nice meal including our chicken soup and chocolate chip cookie bars that Marsha baked before we left. After dinner we had a visit from a cousin of Marsha’s who lives down here and works for Disney. Rebecca is actually 3rd cousin to our kids. We had a really nice visit and learned all about her work at Disney as a character handler. One of the best parts about Shabbat on vacation is that we do not set an alarm for the morning and just get up when we want. Of course that does not stop the kids from waking us, but we did get to stay in bed much later than any other day this week. Shayna, Noam, Marsha and I played a game, went to the pool and later visited the water park that is on site here at the resort. It was a nice day and very restful. After dinner we began the process of packing. The timeshare units usually come with a washer and dryer and so we try to clean and fold everything so that we can come home and not have a ton of laundry in front of us. To make things easier, Avi and Noam went to the main building here where they show Disney movies throughout the day. Tonight they showed “Guardians of the Galaxy” which Noam really wanted to see, so that worked out well for them, and gave us time to get some packing done without them here. Now we are waiting for the ball to drop at midnight and then get to sleep before tomorrow’s long drive to Virginia.
Now to the main part of this post. The last time we were at Disney was eight years ago. Avi was eight years old, and although we knew there were some issues, things were a lot easier. He loved being at Disneyworld and we did not have super huge lines so he was able to manage pretty well. Fast forward to today and he is sixteen years old, and we are here during one of the busiest weeks of the year. We knew going in that there would be very long lines and heavily packed theme parks. So Marsha and I and found a great website called autismattheparks.com. Here we learned about Disney’s “Disability Access Service” and Universal’s “Attraction Assistance Pass”. These services are very different and can take some time to learn how to use. The Disney service is definitely the better product because when you purchase a Disney ticket, you also get to use their Fast Pass plus service which allows you to have up to three fast passes on your ticket at any one time. The tickets are all electronic and tied to the Disney app so you can check your fast passes and add more as the day goes on. So weeks before we left I had already added a few fast passes on our tickets. We chose Hollywood studios because they have a lot of new Star Wars attractions there and that is what I put on the fast pass. The Disability pass allows you to go up to a ride and if there is a 10-minute wait or less they let you right in on the fast pass line. If the wait is longer, they give you a return time which is equal to half of the current wait. So if the current wait is 90 minutes, they will give you a return time for 45 minutes. You can then do something else and come back in 45 minutes or any time after that. You can only have one of these active at a time, but with some planning it will help you to see what you want.
When we got to the park, we went right to Guest Services and asked to get the Disability service. We came prepared with a letter from Avi’s doctor, but that was not needed. They trusted us that we had a child who will have difficulty waiting in line. Together with the fast pass system we were able to go on all of the rides and see the nighttime show “Fantasmic”. If you have never seen this show, you should get there and see it. It really is magical! There is also a LOT of Star Wars features at Hollywood studios. The old ride Star Tours has been updated and is a lot of fun. There are storm troopers marching all around the park and there are a number of short films that you can watch around the park. There is a small area with models of ships and props from the movies. One highlight is that a few times a day they have “march of the first order troopers” and Captain Phasma marches a bunch of troopers through the park and they put on a little show in the center. Definitely a lot of fun.
I was definitely most impresses with how the Disney cast members were able to be helpful for all kinds of disabilities. They were kind and understanding. They treat every person the same as any other person and that was very nice to see. They also understand what social anxiety means and are really willing to do what they can to make sure that every person has a true Disney experience.
We had originally planned on two days at Universal and this had to change somewhat. So we went there on Thursday and spent the entire day doing the Harry Potter experiences. Universal’s “Attraction Assistance Pass” is similar, but since Universal does not have a fast pass system like Disney, everything works differently. Universal does have an express pass system, but they charge and there are different versions with different prices attached to them. They are expensive so that option was really out. The disability pass here works basically the same. If the ride has a 30 minute or less wait, you go in the express pass line right then. If not, they take 15 minutes off of the wait time (30 minutes during less crowded times) and you come back. You also can only have one out at a time. This is where the problems show up. At busy times, all rides have more than a 30-minute wait, so if you get a return time on one, there really is no time to go and do anything else. So this is where the Guest Access Pass comes in handy. If you push when you are at guest services, they will give you this pass which is an express pass that is complementary for guests who have difficulty waiting, but they do not advertise this pass. You really have to know it is available and sometimes fight for it. I did not have to fight, but I had to ask a few times until they said yes.
Express pass is not accepted for any Harry Potter attraction, so we used the other pass for this, and it worked ok. We got to go on both the Gringotts ride and the Harry Potter ride at Hogwarts Castle, as well as ride the Hogwarts Express in both directions. You need a park to park ticket for the train since Hogsmead is in the Islands of Adventure Park and Diagon Alley is in Universal Studios. We got that ticket and although the train ride is great, I do not know if it is worth the extra expense. Despite friends telling me they got sick on the Harry Potter rides, I thought they were amazing. Most of the rides at Universal are simulation rides, where you don’t move a lot and the movement is through movies that make you think you are. The Harry Potter rides do move, in that they spin and pivot, but I did not find them difficult. We spent the entire day between Hogsmead and Diagon Alley, including purchasing the wand that you saw in my last post. I was totally amazed at the Harry Potter world at Universal. It looks just like the movies and was a lot of fun. And contrary to what some told me, I did a LOT of research including many emails with the food services department at Universal and found that Butterbeer, which not hechshered, has nothing treif in it. It was worth the price!
For the second day, Avi and I went back and used the Guest Access Pass cards and went right in on the express lines for all the rides we wanted and got to do Minion Mayhem, Transformers, Men In Black, and Spiderman all by 2pm, including a ride on the Hogwarts express to go between the parks.
So while both Disney and Universal understand special needs, I will have to say Disney has the better service because you have to know about the second level of assistance at Universal.
Tomorrow we do the 11-hour drive to Virginia, and then on Monday the shorter drive to my Brother’s house to celebrate the 9th day of Hanukkah (the extra day for outside of Israel perhaps?)