Trip to Wonderful

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Technical difficulties continue...

I'm still without a laptop, having mine returned from HP unfixed yesterday morning. After yet another call to technical support, I finally happened upon a kind soul (in Vancouver) who straightened the entire mess out, and is having UPS pick it up today, with the promise of it being returned, fixed free of charge, by March 21.

I do have access to my spouse's FreeBSD machines, but they're more conducive to research than post construction. However, I'll have so much to write on by the time the laptop returns, I promise to make up for the recent drought.

Thank you for bearing with us. Ironically, the damage was autistic-child induced. Moral of the story? Get the accidental damage coverage. I just extended my warranty for another year, and added just that.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

It's all about timing...

As I move between my computer and the 50" x 40" laminated map of the US which now adorns the wall of our dining room, I'm slowly but surely creating a winding path of red marker, from New England to the Rockies, back to the Upper Peninsula, down to Southern Appalachians, etc., etc. Each of the points in the path are only placed if they fulfill two criteria: First is the expected temperature during the proposed visit, second, and somewhat related, are the expected crowds.

Now, some destinations have such small windows of opportunity that filling the first criteria means that the second criteria is bound to fail. Yellowstone National Park falls into this category. Camping in the park is essentially limited to three months. Those months also fall in the middle of summer vacation, the peak of the travel season for most families. So while that doesn't knock Yellowstone off the list, we know we're going to have to look at ways to mitigate the crowd factor. Visiting mid-week, camping at one of the lesser-known campgrounds, or even in one of the national forests which border the park may alleviate some of issues, should they even arise. I mean, let's be honest - it's a huge national park, not Disney World, so is being "crowded" at Yellowstone just relative?

But speaking of Disney World... This is one of those times where it is in fact possible to fulfill both criteria. You do, however, have to be willing to thumb your nose at your school's calendar, which we have never had a problem doing.

The least crowded times at Disney are in the Fall, after Labor Day and up to Thanksgiving, then in early December, and again in January and early February. In the latter, the weather tends to be a bit cooler, which may not actually be a problem for a heat-sensitive autistic child, but it does mean a lot of the water parks and pools, much beloved by autistic kids everywhere, are closed. That leaves the Fall, and frankly, near perfect weather.

I've been to Disney in mid-September (immediately following 9/11/2001), early October, and early December, and every time, the crowds have been so light that the lines where almost non-existant. Granted, it doesn't really count in September 2001, when we could actually remain on any ride we chose. Generally, there are still crowds, some days more than others (weekends and Columbus Day holiday, in particular), but they are so much more managable than during peak season. Even with the Guest Assistance Card for ride entry (which has changed slightly, from what I understand), just the crush of the crowds in the common areas during peak season would be enough to frazzle many autistic kids.

There are economic benefits as well to travelling during slow seasons. Rates at hotels, campgrounds and home/condo rentals drop dramatically during off season. With the savings, most families can upgrade to a larger living space, including those with cooking facilities, and remove one other potential stressor, dining out. At Disney, between the off-season discounts and other potential savings devices, such as annual pass rates or renting DVC "points" (both of which I'll explain in the near future in another post), families can save more than 50% on Disney "Home-Away-From-Home" properties.

Off seasons are often surprising as well. While Googling for information on the Florida Keys this morning, I learned that their high-season didn't begin until December 1st. For those of us who live in northern climes, November seems like a pretty nice time to be basking in the sun. Most vacationers don't really think of tropical destinations until they can't take winter any longer, and by that time, all their neighbors feel the same.

It pays to do a little research on air and water temperatures (if applicable.) While the both the air and water temperature on the North Carolina Outer Banks drop off in early October, both are still above 70 degrees for a few more weeks, and housing prices are at their annual low. Head south through South Carolina and Georgia, and comfortable weather, and prices, extend a little longer.

On our travels, we expect to run into times when we can't satify both crowd and climate control. In some cases, we'll settle for slightly cooler temps and fewer people. In others, particularly next winter, weather will tip the scales. But a little research and planning, and willingness to shrug off school administrators, can mean the difference between surviving a vacation, and truly enjoying it, for both parents and kids.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Cautionary Tales

Um, hi! [waving tentatively] I'm the mother of a girl on the spectrum and longtime cyberbud of MB. I thought for my maiden post I could function as a horrible warning. My daughter is somewhere in the HFA/PDD/Asperger's range. As one evaluator so clinically put it, she has a "prominent rigid personality." Mommy is fairly ADD, which means planning ahead? Not my strong point. We'd pick some sort of family destination--Hershey Park, say. This is a largish place, if you haven't been, full of opportunities for sensory overload. My daughter's poison of choice was merry-go-rounds.* Like many autistic kids, she likes the sensation of spinning. And like many girls with Asperger's, she loves animals, especially horses. Hershey Park was fairly accommodating about the bracelets for people with disabilities: I do remember having to walk somewhere deep into the park to go to the relevant office with my antsy five-year-old, and then I had a very short discussion with a total stranger about my kid's diagnosis, and then we were given the Magic Bracelet,** which meant we didn't have to wait on line and (very important) didn't have to get off the preferred ride. Which we went on over and over and over. And over. And. Over. As in, for the first day we were there, it was the only ride we went on. I'm remembering that on the second day we were able to get her to try another ride (it must have had animals to sit in, or painted on the side), but pretty much that vacation I just stood there watching her, like Phoebe and Holden, except not.

She's grown, we've grown: now she is much more open to different activities. We've done best on vacations that have structured programs for kids: we're in New York, so we've done our tour of resorts upstate that have camps. They have structure and variety and they bring her together with other kids, and my daughter does much, much better with structure. Bonus: it also means the spousal unit and I get to have a bit of time to ourselves. I take a lot of naps on those vacations.

*I used to know a lot about various parks and zoos in the LI area that had merry-go-rounds.

**I'm going to skip, for now, my musings about wearing those bracelets and suddenly having physical evidence of an invisible disability.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Buying travel books

If my readers haven't figured it out yet, I'm a research hound; I live to do research. Probably the reason that in my pre-Stay-at-Home-Mom days I wore the professional mantle of archaeologist. It was just a means of spending hours upon hours lost in the stacks of the local research library.

Of course, that was before the massive expansion of information now accessible on the Internet. I don't even have to leave my home to do much of the work at hand.

Generally, that is. It's still difficult to find most books on line, particularly travel books. That, however, gave me the excuse to spend hours thumbing through relevant volumes in our local Borders. And, to be honest, as long as you're not looking for books on travel with special needs kids, there are a lot of interesting and useful books out there. Pretty ones, too. One could spend a fortune in fact, just properly outfitting a library on US locations alone. Ah, there's the problem - I don't have a fortune to spend, and if I did, I'd much rather spend it on actually traveling, not reading about it.

Libraries are great, but often don't have the most up-to-date editions, which are generally more important in travel books, than, say, the history of the Middle Ages. Enter the underappreciated utility of the online used book store.

I first entered this new domain through good old, when I noticed the "buy it new or used starting at $---" below their list price. The first time I clicked through, I was amazed that some bookstore in Massachusetts was offering the same book, which they claimed was in "like new" condition, for a little over a dollar. I figured they must get you on the shipping charges, but it turns out, there's a flat fee of $3.25 per item. Not cheap, but less than Amazon's basic shipping charges, and I still would get the book for less than a quarter of what I would have paid through Amazon, and a sixth of my local Border's sticker price. I took a chance (the book seller had a record of good feedback) and placed the order. Ten days later (twice as long as it usually takes Amazon), I received my $4.50 book, with the original $19.95 sticker still attached, in perfect condition. Not even a mark, although the seller warned me there might in fact be one.

Since that time, I've ordered six such books. All but one I previewed at Borders, and the one I missed (a 99 cent late 1990's edition) was in fact a dud. All the others. ranging in price from $1.07 to $7.45, have been great additions to my growing travel collection, and I've added a few more to my future purchase list.

Other online bookstores offer similar passthroughs to used sellers; I like Powells a lot, and although they don't have as extensive a selection, their shipping prices are lower. I've read here and there about, but I can't say I was impressed when trying to find any of the books on my original list for a lower price than Amazon's resellers.

I'll be adding the new books to the sidebar in a few days. I've been putting it off, hoping the new site would be up, but I won't delay much longer. Yesterday's lot (two books via post) was particularly enjoyable as I vegged on the couch, recovering from some form of late winter flu.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The mystery of the National Park Reservation solved!

Whenever I see "reservations recommended" at a campground, my heart falls. See, I've always assumed that you have to book a half-way decent site, heck, any site, in a popular National Park at least a year in advance, and let's be honest, parents of autistics just don't think that far ahead.

So imagine my surprise when I received my $1.09 "used" ($24.99 tag still intact) Charles Wohlforth's Frommer's Family Vacations in the National Parks (2nd Edition). According to Wohlforth, I could in fact still book both the months of July and August in all the reservable parks, with the exception of Yellowstone, which in fact does book a year out. (That's okay, the campground we want, Norris, is first-come, first serve anyway.)

So I scooted over to the National Park Service reservation website, and lo and behold, he was correct. The way it works is that the Park Service only books five months out, but they open an entire month at one time, on the fifth of the month. Thus, if you want to book a site anytime from July 5th - August 4th, you can't attempt to reserve until March 5th (tomorrow!). If you want an August 5th - September 4th site, you have to be on the phone or at the website starting April 5th.

In order to make life a little easier (which is really what we PoA's need most of all, isn't it?), I sifted through the NPS site so as to list below which parks and campground accept reservations.

(Moving East to West)

Acadia (Blackwoods)
Assateague (Bayside and Oceanside)
Greenbelt (all)
Shenandoah (Big Meadows)
Cape Hatteras (Ocracoke)
Great Smokey (most campgrounds)
Big South Fork (Blue Heron, Bandy Creek)
Everglades (Flamingo, Long Pine)
Sleeping Bear Dunes (Platte River, South Manitou Island)
Rocky Mountains (Glacier Basin, Moraine Park)
Grand Canyon (Mather South Rim, North Rim)
Zion (Watchman)
Glacier (Fish Creek, St. Mary)
Joshua Tree (Black Rock, Indian Cove)
Channel Islands (all islands)
Death Valley (Furnace Creek)
Sequoia-Kings Canyon (Dorst Creek, Lodgepole)
Yosemite (Lower Pines, Upper Pines, Crane Flat, Hodgdon Meadows, Tuolumne Meadows, Wawona)
Whiskeytown (Dry Creek, Oak Bottom)
Mount Rainier (Cougar Rock, Ohanapecosh)
Olympic (Kalaloch)

Now, I'll be online tomorrow reserving sites at Yosemite (Tuolomne Meadows) and Mt. Rainier (Cougar Rock), so no jumping the cue.

Happy trails.

Turns out the Yosemite is on a slightly different booking schedule than the other parks listed above. The key date is the 15th of the month, not the 5th. So on March 15th, dates will open through August 14th. On April 15th, dates through September 15th.

All Aboard!

Since Dwight has been discussing travel by planes and automobiles, I thought I'd fill in the missing method of transport in the trilogy, trains.

Autistic children generally love trains. Well, at least mine do. Okay, so they love the Brio kind. Jonah can take up our entire living room floor with elaborate rail configurations, often elevated with the help of soup cans, books and anything else he finds in his immediate vicinity.

But I digress. Train travel is often well suited for children with developmental or neurological special needs, as it allows more mobility (and energy release) than planes or cars, where kids are not only stuck in their seats, but generally strapped into car seats as well. The rhythmic movement of the train as it chugs along the tracks can be soothing to kids craving a varied sensory and auditory diet. And although it may be a bit much for those children with sensitive hearing, ear plugs or earphones can help significantly in that area.

Amtrak offers special discounts for disabled customers (15% on weekends, 25% during the week), but their kids fares are a much better deal at 50%, with up to two kids travelling per adult. Just in time for Spring vacations, Amtrak has an even better deal for families along the East Coast. When two adults pay full price, up to four children under 18 ride for 90% off the full-price fare. Details can be found at, or here.

Greyhound and other bus companies offer discounts for children and disabled riders, but there's nothing like a train for moderate distances with special needs kids.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Travel stories

My co-editor and dear friend, Dwight Meredith, has been sharing his experiences and acquired wisdom on the subject of travel with his ten year-old autistic son, Bobby, over on our political advocacy blog, Wampum. So far there are three episodes, Travels with Bobby, Part I, II, and III. I highly recommend them.

I will note, however, that our experiences so far with Sam (a little verbal but otherwise high functioning) and Jonah (moderately affected) have been rather tame compared to Dwight's. But his make for much more colorful narratives.

Dwight has promised to offer more of his experience and wit, and so I will be linking frequently to Wampum in the future. The time right now is excellent, as my laptop suffered a serious Jonah-related injury yesterday, and will be in the shop for at least a week. While Eric is fine with sharing his hardware, it's generally easier for me to research and post on my own more familiar platform.