The last few months have been really stressful around here. It was perfect timing that we headed out to our Disney cruise last week. This cruise was not sponsored or hosted so I’m coming to you with some raw feelings because I’m very particular about my cubs, especially accommodating a special needs family. As you might remember, I raved about how Disneyland was so accommodating to special-needs individuals. The Disney cruise line on the other hand is the antithesis of that.
My family and I had the opportunity to go on the Disney Halloween on the High Seas Cruise last week. This isn’t my first cruise but it is our first one as a family. We were so excited to experience the magic of Disney on a cruise ship, but we were left disappointed by the experience and the lack of inclusiveness that we had expected from Disney.
As you can imagine, we had been planning our family trip for a year and had invested lots of resources into our vacation to ensure that it would be a memorable and magical experience. After discovering the lack of reasonable accommodations for neurodiverse children, I’m disappointed to say that we will not be returning to another Disney Cruise.
This isn’t our family’s first Disney experience. Last year we enjoyed our first trip to DisneyLand. This visit was made more comfortable by the special accommodations that Disney had provided that allowed us to bypass the long lines. We had anticipated Disney to make similar considerations and provide some form of accommodations for neurodiverse children with special needs, but this was not the case with this cruise. Unfortunately, the staff on the cruise ship were not trained or equipped to deal with my child’s needs.
Disney Cruise’s Oceaneer Club
The cruise line has a reputation of being family friendly, but we found that they did not provide him with any supervision or accommodations while he participated in the Oceaneer Club. I strongly believe that parents of children with autism should be able to go on vacation without having to worry about whether or not there is someone available to assist their special needs child, especially when they need very little support.
Unfortunately, the Oceaneer Club is perfect for most Neurotypical kids, but for a child on the spectrum it is a struggle. Whether your child needs a limited or a large amount of support, it is still a struggle. As a child on the spectrum, my son needs very little support, but something that children on the spectrum struggle with is self-regulation, also known as Interoception. Interception is a perception that allows us to feel sensations from the inside of our bodies such as eating when hungry or going to the bathroom when we need to relieve ourselves.
As a special needs child, it’s often easy to find someone to count on for prompting such as a parent, a teacher or a caregiver. This has been our experience at every kids club, except for Disney cruise line. To provide more context, the Oceaneer Club is designed like so: children ages 3-12 years of age are free to roam about various rooms without order or being assigned to a particular guide. There are no opportunities for an aide or one-on-one care. This is what worried me from the moment we boarded and proved to be a huge hurdle we could not get past.
My son may not communicate if he is hurt or in need of help. Consequently, he needs prompting to go to the restroom. This can be easily observed in a group setting or having a designated leader in charge of his age group. However, in an environment like the Oceaneer Club, kids have free range to roam and run. They’re switching rooms continuously without being given a specific schedule or assigned a designated host. Fortunately, we have another son who can look after his brother when he happens to remember. Though he shouldn’t have to be burdened with this responsibility, right?
High Seas and Lowered Expectations
As a parent, I’m grateful to have experienced other kids clubs that have been Autism accredited. It’s an incredibly worry-free and stress-relieving service to have access to. On the contrary, during our one week tenure on the Disney cruise ship, there was not more than 20 minutes to an hour that our son was able to stay without getting a call that he needed to be picked up. It’s not that we feel accommodations should be made for us at every turn, but if smaller resorts or even local churches like our own are better equipped for children on the spectrum, why not Disney?
I have to admit I expected much more from Disney. I spoke with a team leader about my concerns and she could only confirm that they could not offer one-on-one care or guarantee anyone would prompt him while he was in the kids club. It’s already a struggle to trust strangers with your child, but when they are set up for failure from the beginning the only opportunity I have is to spread awareness for fellow neurodiverse families that Disney cruise line isn’t presently a neurodiversity-affirming destination and we don’t plan to return.
In short, if you and your family are not prepared to compromise on accessibility, then Disney Cruise is not a cruise line for you. If you’re willing to make sacrifices in terms of the ship facilities, then Disney Cruise might be the best vacation choice for you. Overall, it’s not for me, and I suspect that most families like mine won’t be returning anytime soon. But as always, there’s more than one way to have fun.