family with Goofy on vacation at Disney world

Therapeutic Vacationing

Guest Author Post

Have extraordinary experiences

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Dena and I’m a parent of two children, now adults, through adoption. I originally started writing this whilst on vacation at Disney World in Florida last summer, but today I sit in my kitchen reflecting on our vacation and why it was such a memorable time.

Some of you have been asking for guidance about what has helped some of us veterans through our parenting journey. In this 2-part post, I want to share with you some insights into how Theraplay® and Disney came together to create a therapeutic vacation for my family.

Maybe, like me in my earlier Mom days, you find the daily reality of becoming a family and managing your child’s needs a real challenge. Perhaps some days it feels like a trip to the park is a major undertaking. A vacation–especially to a far-off destination–seem impossible. You may feel like the whole Disney Parks environment would be too overwhelming for your child and would undo your hard-won progress. Or perhaps even just the thought of managing the food situation has put you off the idea of ever going on vacation there. If any of these sound familiar, you’re not alone. I felt the same way for many years.

When you wish upon a (Disney) star

But here’s the thing…having a family vacation to Disney is the sort of dream many of us have. It can be a “once in a lifetime” memory-making occasion, the place where “dreams really do come true.” For all the above reasons, for a long time, there was no way I could bring myself to dream big when our daily family life was so fraught with the tension borne of developmental trauma. Our children never even saw a Disney film until they were over the age of ten.

Thus it was with reluctance that we began planning our first trip to Disney, when our daughter was 14. We’d agreed our son, age 17, would not join us. I had little knowledge of the parks themselves and what was on offer. I was surprised to discover there were six parks and many more resorts. We went on our first vacation to Disney in 2015 and it was so blissful, we became Disney Vacation Club Members.

We returned to Disney in August 2018 and it was during this visit that I started to realise this could actually be a therapeutic vacation. I am currently finishing up my qualification to be a Theraplay® Practitioner. As I became aware of the therapeutic opportunities at Disney, I started seeing them everywhere. I want to share a few of these with you. 

Theraplay® Disney-style

Theraplay® is characterized by four dimensions:

  • structure
  • engagement
  • nurture
  • challenge

These dimensions mirror the typical interactions between parents and their children. When used in parent-child therapy sessions, these experiences can be deeply healing. I will explain here the structure dimension and how it relates to the Disney experience, as structure is fundamental to the success of any vacation. Then in my next post, I will explain the other three dimensions.

Structure has to do with safety, organisation, and regulation. It is an important piece of parenting a child who has had disrupted attachments and is key to helping them feel safe. It includes how parents schedule the day so their child can calm down after an exciting time. It puts some predictability in place, and demonstrates that the parents are in charge. This allows the child to feel safe. It also lets them know where to be and what is expected.

Incorporating structure on a Disney vacation

The parks provide plentiful examples of structure. These, along with adding your own structure, provide the felt safety your child needs. Here are just a few examples:

  • There is no running allowed, anywhere. Disney wants you to have a relaxing and enjoyable time. They don’t want you rushing around everywhere stressing out.
  • There are evening activities on offer at the resorts to help calm children after a busy day such as outdoor movies, campfires, or a quiet swim before bed.
  • Develop your own routine at Disney:
    • If your child doesn’t sleep well, or manage crowds well, there are ‘magic hours’ late at night. Ride at night, sleep in late and have a relaxed start to the day.
    • Frequent your favourite café for a morning drink then have nap time every afternoon.
  • Disney adds structure by organising how guests prepare for their ride:
    • Sometimes, this is quite elaborate. Just before going on the Pandora ride, for example, every guest must stand on a colored circle and watch a video. The video is interactive and won’t begin until everyone is standing in the right place. Then each colored circle goes through a series of fun graphics, allowing an opportunity for calm standing and waiting in a structured way.
    • Disney also provides simple tools to add structure to your day in a fun way, like footprints on the pavement indicating where to stand as you await your tube at Blizzard Beach.

Vacation success!

The loss of structure was one of the great fears I had around attempting a Disney vacation. Without any knowledge of the parks themselves, I felt unable to achieve the level of predictability I knew my children needed in order to feel safe. I was happy to discover that Disney provides many opportunities to structure the day, at both a macro and micro level.

Next time, I will share key features of engagement, nurture and challenge dimensions and how these play out at Disney. Thanks for reading!

NB: child refers to children and young people. Parent refers to parent, carer or guardian.



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