It’s hard to believe that our Great Western Adventure is over. During our 2 1/2 weeks in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and California, I definitely had a few “what was I thinking?!” moments, but overall, it was a very fun trip. (I’ll never call it a “vacation” though!) We are blessed to live in such a beautiful country and I'm so thankful I got to see parts of it for the first time and share it with my family. If anyone is planning their own adventure with special needs kids, here are a few tips from our experience to hopefully help make your trip run smoothly.
Bring help! I’m a single mom to 18-year-old twins, Tom and James, on the autism spectrum, and Daniel, who just turned 14 (while we were in San Francisco). I was extremely fortunate that my brother, Bill, who lives in LA, joined us for the first part of our travels and our French friend, Charlotte, took her vacation with us for three weeks. Merci to both of them! Nothing beats having at least a 1:1 adult:special needs individual ratio. Dan is an “old soul” and extremely helpful with his brothers, but I would be reluctant to take this trip as the only adult with my guys. Hats off to anyone who attempts it!
Airlines: You can call the Transportation Security Administration in advance (855-787-2227) and request a special line for security. They sent me an email, stating we could bypass the line, but we did not need to show it. Tom does not always follow directions and stay still long enough for the screening to take place, so having a special line option was helpful. I know TSA gets a bad rap, but the agents were nothing but kind to us. I had looked at their website (www.tsa.gov) to see what we could and could not carry-on. We also requested early boarding for each flight (4 total) with the gate attendants, which was very handy. It was a lot easier for Tom to board an empty aircraft. This also had the added benefit of having room for our luggage, which was all carry-on. Since we got on first, we left last, allowing everyone else a chance to get off before we even got our luggage down. Again, it was so much easier moving (shrieking, jumping) around an empty plane! Although I think the cleaners were ready for us to go!
ID cards/other documentation: I had gotten state ID cards for the twins at the DMV when they were 16. I don’t know if the ID’s were absolutely needed, but they were nice to have “just in case” and they made boarding the flights easy. I also carried a copy of their latest doctor’s evaluation and a copy of the guardianship certificates. I now keep the latter in my purse with the boys’ medical cards.
Disability / Access Passes: We visited several National Parks (Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite) and were able to get a National Parks Access Pass at the first one that was good for all of them. This is a free, lifetime pass for U.S. citizens or permanent residents of any age that have a permanent disability. The website says you need documentation, which I brought, but did not have to show. I just walked up to the window and asked about it and the ranger issued the card to James on the spot. Since there was a line, I didn’t get one for Tom at that time, but I did later because I wanted him to have his own as well. The pass covered the whole vehicle or our whole group if we took a bus into the parks, so we never had to pay to enter. We also visited Guest Services at Universal to get a disability pass for the day. We were able to go in the VIP line and often get right on the ride, or in some cases, we received a time to return and bypass the line. Many amusement parks offer this service and it's worth a phone call to check out. Sometimes the policy is not easily found on the websites. I also purchased our passes online for the day we visited and saved a few dollars and skipped the line to buy tickets at the park.
National Parks Access Pass: store.usgs.gov/pass/access.html
Universal Studios Hollywood: universalstudioshollywood.com 800-864-8377
Disabled Parking: We don’t currently have a disabled parking placard, but at times I wished I had thought to apply for one before our trip. We never had a problem with parking, though. If you have one, bring it!
Medications: Both twins take meds, and I brought everything in the prescription vials, since I didn’t want to have to explain a half dozen different types of pills to security personnel. (It never came up.) I also have daily pill cases that we use. Most of the meds are in the morning and evening, but Tom has an afternoon one that he takes as well. I kept extras of each med in a plastic snack bag in my backpack and could give them when needed. I liked having extras in case we forgot before we left the hotel in the morning and I now carry extras in my purse all the time. Neither of my kids needs to take his pills with water (I don’t know how they do it!), but we usually had water with us anyway.
Water & snacks: We used one of our carry-on backpacks for our reusable water bottles and snacks in the parks. Dan also had a “camelback” backpack. I had brought some drawstring backpacks, but those thin straps can cut into sunburned shoulders and be uncomfortable. We put snacks in a plastic bag inside the larger backpack after the “banana incident” which made something of a mess. We stopped in a grocery store and bought some bagels, apples, and other (hardier) snacks, which were useful for mid-mornings when a meltdown was imminent. My twins don’t always express themselves well and looking back, I think some of the behaviors James had may have been hunger-related. The National Parks are fantastic about supplying water to fill containers and we took advantage of that! The only times we had a bit of trouble with hiking was when we didn’t have enough water. If you see a sign saying how much water you need for a particular hike, BELIEVE IT! I tend to have the “how far can it be?” attitude and if you or your kids are thirsty, it’s REALLY FAR!
Down Time: I consider myself a very “thorough” tourist (others may describe me differently) and I like to see and do EVERYTHING! Traveling with the twins forced me to take it down a notch and let a few things go. (Some of the times I pushed things a little bit too much did not end well.) In the middle of the trip, we spent several days at my brother’s house in LA. Aside from a great (and long) day at Universal Studios, we did a whole heap of nothing. I think it was good for the boys to have a few days without traveling or even leaving the yard. (It helps that Bill has a pool!) They also got to sleep in the same place for several nights in a row, which was nice too. Thank you again to Bill and Robert, who stayed elsewhere and gave up their home for us to spread out!
Have a sense of humor! If you’re a parent of someone with special needs, I probably don't have to tell you that! Some of the things that were so challenging in the moment make for a funny story after some time has passed.
Give it a try! James tends to perseverate and we made a “bingo” game of all the phrases that he repeats constantly. Although we all get tired of hearing him respond “LATER” to everything, I do always like it when he says to “give it a try!” And we certainly did! I recommend to other parents to be smart — you know your own kids and what they can do — but don’t be afraid to push the envelope a little and try new things. Some of the things that I worried about were the things that my boys seemed to enjoy most!
So, best of luck to other parents who are contemplating a trip! I hope this advice might help a little. And thanks again to Charlotte, Bill, Robert, and my parents, who kept the pets and helped make this trip happen!
Here's the whole itinerary! Click below for details on any of the locations and feel free to comment or reach out to me for more information.
July 6 - 8 Nevada - Las Vegas & Hoover Dam
July 8 - 9, Utah - Zion & Bryce National Parks
July 10, Arizona - Antelope, Horseshoe Bend, Little Colorado
July 10, Grand Canyon Desert View & Sunset
July 11, Grand Canyon South Rim & Bright Angel Trail
July 12, Rafting in the Grand Canyon & Helicopter Ride
July 13, Palm Springs & Pee Wee
July 14 - 17, Los Angeles
July 19, Yosemite
July 20 - 22, San Francisco
Welcome! This site was originally intended to focus on skiing and snowboarding, but I've included marathons and some family adventures as well. Thanks for visiting.