Visiting Disneyland With Our Daughter With Cerebral Palsy

We just survived a day at Disneyland with my 9-year-old daughter who has cerebral palsy, my 12-year-old daughter and her friend.

This day required extra thought and planning. We circled around the blue placard parking lot to find the closest spot, then navigated the tram ramps to get to the main gate. At every ride, had to ask where the wheelchair entrance is located, because there were no signs. We got frustrated at waiting in line for the accessible restrooms — all the while my daughter was complaining that she didn’t have to go potty — only to see mothers and children without apparent disabilities exiting the stalls. Later we waited over 30 minutes in line for a ride, only to have to run back to the bathroom again.

These last things sound like moments many parents might face at Disneyland with any toddler. But my daughter is 9 and a half and stubborn like her mama! She has limited mobility, which means that the transfer in and out of her wheelchair adds a good five minutes to getting on and off rides. She doesn’t want to be treated like a baby. We have learned to be flexible and patient.

Sometimes it’s hard to be patient with our older daughter. While I was three steps ahead plotting how I would lift my younger daughter into the Rockets first, cognizant of the people behind me waiting to board, my older daughter wanted to go in first. She likes to get situated and ready quickly, so no eyes are lingering on her. For her, it probably seems like all eyes are constantly on our family, since we’re often holding up the line — and isn’t 12 such an awkward age anyway?

The Disneyland staff members gracefully managed my family. It hit me as we left the Haunted Mansion. We were never rushed, never made to feel like we were holding up the line or that maybe we should have let our “capable” group members ride while the other one waited to the side. I got a little choked up as I stopped to thank the last employee for the considerate care with which each of the three people along that ride handled my family.

In my experience, parents of children with special needs pray for the support of angels like this along our journey. It makes no difference if we are challenged with mobility issues or non-visible disabilities like autism or mental illness. We all often feel at a loss, self-conscious and overwhelmed. We are still learning to be flexible. That’s hard when people, including our own kids, set expectations. Not everyone would have the patience to go with the flow this way. Sometimes this patience is difficult for us too, but we cannot escape the situation, we just have to learn to deal.

But at the end of the day, going through these “normal” rites of passage like Disneyland is well worth the joy that it brings to our children. None of the extra effort for me mattered when I saw the joy in my daughter’s face when she finally wasn’t too scared to go through the Haunted Mansion, and when she white-knuckled through the Matterhorn roller coaster for the first time. What’s better than overcoming your fears and having the time of your life at the happiest place on earth?

The Cota family -- mother, father, two daughters and their friend -- at Disneyland
The Cota family at Disneyland.

Luckily we chose a great friend to go with us — a friend who was ready to push the wheelchair at any time. She was an angel who brought her laughter and good spirits, and helped to remind my family what it’s like to have fun and not be so bogged down by the intricacies of our situation. I’d like to think that the experience served her well too, helping her see what it’s like on this side of the spectrum. Although she was raised to be kind to all people, she might now have a better appreciation for the challenges that people with disabilities face every day. She might go out into the world and be a little more kind at school or at the mall or in the library when she passes by another disabled person who is just trying to make it through the day.

People with disabilities can give society the necessary gift of love, laughter and perspective. By accepting and including people in activities and interactions, we all grow in compassion exponentially.

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