How An Appropriately Timed Meltdown at Disney World Made Us Feel ‘Typical’

“Simba one to Harambe Village, we’re on our way!” says the driver of our safari jeep as we head over the dilapidated looking bridge. My wife and I grab our children, we know the drill. This is our 30th time on the Kilimanjaro Safari, at the Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World.

It is the first excursion for our 16 month-old daughter and third for our 3-year-old son. Hobbs, our son who has autism, is a sensory seeker, craves lots of stimulation, thrives on outdoor sounds, and seems happiest when there are lots of people or cars passing by his stroller. He only gets overwhelmed inside, where sounds seem to bounce into his ears, but unless he pulls down the shade of his stroller to shut out the world he generally seems enthralled with the visual stimulation of Disney World. It’s where he learned to wave, watching parade after parade.

And now the Safari Jeep is about to cross the bridge, so we hold their bodies tightly to ours. We don’t want them to knock their heads into anything, even though everything is controlled with hydraulics. The bridge will sway, shake, and rattle but we will cross over safely. Some people will clap, and apparently, though we never noticed it before, some children will scream.

On this particular occasion our son is actually paying attention. Hobbs is observing, looking in multiple directions as we cross over the fabricated savannah ride and genuinely engaged. And as the bridge starts to move he starts to whimper. It builds into a full-blown terrified panic scream with tears and wails and face contorted, mouth agape. The kind of saliva dripping, snot and tear-filled cry that becomes one long epic banshee cry.

A mom behind us makes a “Poor little guy, I feel a little bit sorry for you kind-of-face.” The lady to her left in a matching vacation-friendly neon yellow shirt has a face that starts with kindness but immediately shifts to discomfort as our son doesn’t stop wailing or crying until we step on solid ground 9 minutes later. Exhausted from trying to comfort him, hold him, and muffle the sound, my arms just about give out as we whisk him over to the stroller. Not to mention attempting to keep our daughter from jumping out of a moving vehicle to greet a giraffe. Our entire bodies, our muscles, and our ears are aching from our worst nightmare. Public meltdown with no escape.

Disneyworld is our family’s mecca. Our holy place where manufactured perfection meets impossible to contain joy in everyone from toddlers to grown men. My wife and I got engaged at Disney World. We have a vintage map, antique stickers, and a copy of the original inspirational drawings for It’s a Small World framed in our family room. Disney is a big deal in our household, a very big deal. It was where our son learned to wave, and where we decided to commit the rest of our lives to becoming a family.

Our son went to Disney at 10 months of age for my 30th birthday, and at 17 months we returned for my Mom’s 60th birthday. At the time we were raising a little man who was obsessed with holding a rock in his hand for hours on end, who obsessively opened and closed the Mickey Mouse toy cell phone we had tethered to his stroller. A child who seemed to always be looking through objects in a way that appeared almost grown up, as if he was a philosopher. People commented on how mature and calm he was, like a miniature man. Yes his words were vanishing, and yes he was not behaving the way his peers in class behaved, but in our minds, it might be because he is the product of an art professor and a graphic designer.

I mean this kid watches Singing in the Rain, Mary Poppins, and Elvis movies, which means he is just beyond playing with things like a child. We jokingly felt sorry for the other parents whose children seemed to be begging for attention when our son could keep himself happy with an upside down truck while we cooked dinner or finished paying bills, with no interruptions in our house. We were the lucky ones, the proud parents of a visual thinker who saw the world differently, maybe even better.

So getting back to our latest trip to Disney, this was our first visit since Hobbs was diagnosed with autism, something we weren’t ready to face the last time he was here. Looking back now, we see the signs, but because of the diagnosis, we feel like we were taking him to the happiest place on earth for the very first time. Now he vocalizes in epic staccato guttural shouts, and he’s got some pipes on him. Now his cute excitement and joy at seeing an aquarium becomes twitches through his whole body that no longer look like a toddler, but more like a spasm. Now people expect him to talk, to hold up his fingers and say, “I’m four.” We didn’t know what to expect and had read too many blogs and travel advice columns to see fact from fiction anymore.

As we sat down to eat our lunch in the Animal Kingdom overlooking the lagoon, ducks at our feet attempting to steal crumbs, we were hectic but still smiling from his screaming. Dishing out our children’s vacation diet of French fries and apple slices we were surprisingly content after such an ear-piercing experience. It feels so odd to admit that now. So strange that we were happy to have had such an intense meltdown in our holy playground, but we were. Partly because we actually handled it.

Kathryn, my wife, rocked him on the ride, sang in his ears, held his hands and squeezed them. I kept rhythmically squeezing his feet to try to give him something to focus on instead of his fear. We both had our spare hands on Eliza and I was able to get her to point at a few elephants and a zebra hiding in the tall grasses. But we made it out alive and he didn’t jump out, he didn’t start hitting us, and no one started yelling at us for our son’s behavior. In the end our meltdown, our nightmare, was just another typical child getting scared and overwhelmed. For one short ride in an electric safari vehicle with 20 strangers, our son had made us feel normal. I felt invincible.

My son constantly teaches me to not pass judgment, not predict the future or deny the possible. Sure he dumped a glass of diet coke on Mary Poppins at breakfast because he was more interested in ice than talking to her. And yes, he signed “GO” furiously half a dozen times when the Festival of the Lion King stage show started, even though he watches the movie religiously at home (we left out a back entrance and had an ice cream bar to reward him for letting us know what he wanted).

Walking away from Cinderella’s Castle in the afternoon sun, you see sweaty pink children crying in rental strollers. You see grown men with shirts soaked through the back and front, lift their hats and wipe their brows. Women snap at their children who are begging for something that will inevitably cost a fortune, meltdowns are everywhere. There is a rag tag army of guests ready to take a nap, or a cold dip in a pool. My wife smiles at me as we pass through the front turnstiles, pushing our strollered children to the bus that will take us to the hotel room. We love this place for all the emotions it brings, the memories we make and the milestones we witness.

Our son screamed at something scary, he was terrified by something in the world and that makes us really hopeful for his future. A future where we can teach him about the magical power of make believe.

Ryan Mulligan

About the Author: Ryan Mulligan

Ryan Mulligan is father of 2: a child expert in fluid dynamics and a daughter who sings about having patience. Professor of Art at UC’s DAAP program, creator of the Hero Design Company now managed by Artworks, and designer of a sensory friendly golf course for the Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati. This summer he produced a film festival staring his old neighborhood, and dreams that his children will grow up to be Imagineers at Disney World where he will retire with his brilliant wife to their second career.

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  1. Rog December 02, 16:22
    Beautiful!