Updated: Mar 4
Sensory Sensitivities: When Fun Becomes Painful
Disney World is not always the happiest place on Earth. I know this is hard to imagine, but it’s true, and an “unfortunate” experience can happen to the best of us.
The Bagdade family version went something like this: We quickly rubbed the sleep out of our eyes, poured the kids heaping bowls of Fruit Loops, and boarded a Disney shuttle bus. The kids, still too tired to talk, exchanged excited smiles with us as we wasted no time taking plenty of pictures. It wasn’t until we drove under the Magic Kingdom archway that the bus full of sleepy passengers erupted with excited chatter. We took more pictures by the welcome signs as we disembarked and were herded into line. Besides all the visual fantasy surrounding you, it’s easy to tell you are at Disney World because of the lines, the never-ending lines—for everything.
We waited an hour before the park opened, just like all my meticulously researched blogs and Pinterest pins had told me we would. The kids whined but were easily distracted by the excitement of the day. The anticipation became palpable as I obsessively checked my park app, reminding myself of our itinerary, which I kept sharing with Jeff. I had planned everything ahead of time, taking multiple factors into account, from weather to appetites to shopping, and even room for taking spontaneous photos––all calibrated to meet the expectations of our family. What could possibly go wrong?
Our plan was to run immediately to the back of the park as soon as it opened and do Fantasyland first, before the lines got too long, which they always do, and then work our way back through the rest of the park.
The picture-perfect staff scanned our tickets, opened the queue for us to enter, and off we went––running at first, until we realized we weren’t supposed to do that. Instead, we did what Jeff and I came to call “walking in a family hurry,” which means you move as fast as you can, loaded down with a stroller and two short-legged humans who can’t stop pointing at everything in sight and saying, “Look!” and “Who is that?” and “Where’s Mickey?” We visited with every princess in Disney history and gasped and cheered just as the commercials show, complete with all the requisite “Oohs” and “Aahs” that accompanied every adorable, perfect pose we could manage before posting them by the hundreds on Facebook.
Next, we got in a surprisingly short line for It’s A Small World. I figured that after our Pirates of the Caribbean debacle the day before, where we forgot that we have a kid who is irrationally afraid of the dark, It’s A Small World would be just what we needed––a welcoming environment of friendly music, laughter and fun––where no one could possibly be unhappy. As the line snaked inward, Gabi, our little blond bombshell, grabbed my hand when she realized we were heading inside a giant space.
“Mom, will it be dark?” “No, it’s a happy, cheery ride. You will be fine.” I said that with a smile stretched across my worried face, as if that would fool her. “Mom, it looks dark in here now.” “We are just indoors. Don’t worry, Honey. It’s not dark.” “Mom, it’s going to be dark!” Her whole body turned into a ball of panic. I felt as if I could see her heart beating through her big, gorgeous blue eyes. “Mom, it’s dark. I can’t go. Mom, it’s dark!” I shot Jeff a look. He shrugged and busied himself with our other little one. “Honey, it won’t be scary, I promise. Hold my phone, and you can use the flashlight.” “Mom, she can’t shine a flashlight. That’s weird. No one is scared of this baby ride. This is embarrassing.” What can you do when an older sister decides to retort like that? Gabi started to cry, and I quickly distracted her with the iPhone flashlight. Somehow, I managed to get her seated next to me in the small boat that glided up through the water and paused for us. It felt like the Disney gods were there to rescue us with a calm and collected vessel, to usher us through this lazy river to relax and enjoy the ride. But the Disney gods didn’t know Gabi. At every turn, she jumped, shrieked, and recoiled. I smiled, cooed at the baby, as if everything was okay, and reminded Gabi that she had the flashlight in her hand, just in case.
This whole time, during each turn we made from one exhibit to the next, moving in an out of dimly lit areas, my dreams of the happiest place on earth came crashing down all over me. I understand anxiety. I’ve worked with kids with extra needs for more than 20 years. I know it’s chemical, and I know that my daughter’s body is wired to constantly fight these urges. In her case, she constantly feels a bear breathing on the back of her neck, even when it’s only animatronic multi-cultural kids swaying to the never-ending sounds of “It’s A Small World,” trying to convince us for five minutes that we all get along, in spite of our better judgment. All of this ran through my mind as I felt my own bear breathing down the back of my neck, reminding me that all the prep in the world can’t protect you from moments like this. I couldn’t help feeling angry and disappointed.
We can’t even have fun at the happiest place on earth? How could this happen when I was so well prepared? What did I do wrong in a former life?
At that moment, stuck in a cave of singing robots with a panicked child, I was anything but happy. This particular instance was only a reminder of all the meticulous planning I had gotten wrong. I wasn’t two steps ahead of my child. Not at all. I hadn’t anticipated her triggers and that she wasn’t yet ready to self-soothe or calm her own fears. I had failed––again, and my older kid looked at me with her head shaking, undoubtedly adding notes to her list of how she will be a better parent when she grows up.
That night, when we returned to the Embassy Suites, we put the kids to bed. As our oldest and youngest babbled on about the excitement of the day, I listened with relief that we were able to push through our challenges and save the experience for them. As I bent over to kiss Gabi goodnight, she asked if the rides tomorrow would also be dark. I told her I would double check and that she was safe now. I showed her the nightlight next to her bed, kissed her forehead, and tucked her in.
Jeff and I closed the door to the kids’ side of the suite and plopped exhausted onto our bed. We were both drained, disappointed and confused. He looked at me cautiously and I could see him calculating all of his words carefully. That was a good strategy because my patience was at an all-time low, if I even had any left.
“Franki, do you think we should take our kid, who was scared of the dim lights in It’s a Small World, to Hollywood Studios, where everything is Star Wars themed?” “But she’s obsessed with Star Wars!”
Gabi’s fascination with that epic franchise was one of the things about her that charmed the heck out of me. It made absolutely no sense, as she was scared of the silliest things, but she had an uncanny passion for action and adventure, science fiction and “The Dark Side.” Pretty ironic for a kid who sleeps with 17 lights on. Maybe she found Darth Vader’s voice soothing. Jeff and I discussed it more and decided to scrap all of our plans for the next day and start over. This was painful for me, as it had taken months of research on Facebook groups, blogs, and websites to get the planning and dining reservations just right.
Our oldest, Ruby, has life-threatening food allergies, so I needed to quickly find safe dining options for her. We decided that Disney’s Animal Kingdom, with its historically smaller crowds and mostly outdoor experiences, would be a better fit, initially because it would definitely not be dark. In a moment of brilliance (if I sa