Yesterday I gave you the good. Today, the less good.
Prior to leaving for this trip, I contacted Royal Caribbean via email:
My family and I have booked a cruise on Voyager of the Seas from Galveston on Jan 25. We have 4 children, and one has special needs. He has an overgrowth syndrome called Sotos syndrome which means is physically larger than his peers -- he will be 5 when we sail, but he is the size of a 9 or 10 year old child. He also has a speech delay and some speech articulation issues, but he is fully toilet trained and does wonderfully in his preschool program.
I want to make sure we will be able to leave him in the children's program on the ship, because otherwise it won't be much of a vacation for us! D. is a very sweet little boy who might require a little more help to complete some tasks, and he is taller than other kids, which means he can reach things they can't, so you have to keep an eye on him. I don't hide his disabilities or attempt to make him sound like something he isn't -- he is not a typical kid, but he is great. The easiest way to explain D. is to think of a child with mild autism and Down syndrome. D. sometimes fixates on a particular activity or item, and he has delays. But he is clever, and he loves people who are kind to him. People who make the effort to engage him will find that he is incredibly loving and truly a special kid.
Please let me know if you think it would be helpful for us to speak by phone.
I received the following reply:
I just sailed on the Voyager of the Seas for vacation. Gorgeous ship! Your family will love it.
It sounds as if D. is a wonderful boy and he is absolutely welcome to participate in the Aquanaut program for 3, 4 and 5 year olds. When you board, you will have the chance to complete the Medical Consent Form. On this form (or an additional paper if you would like to get it down before you board to save you the time), you can list anything we should know about your son to make sure he enjoys a safe and amazing cruise vacation like all of the other children. I am copying the VY Adventure Ocean Manager to ensure a beeper is set aside for your family in case we ever needed to contact you while he is in our care.
Please feel free to contact me by phone if you have further questions or concerns.
Thus reassured, I was able to keep my nerves to a dull roar, and only mentioned my concerns aloud several dozen times a day.
Well, on SUNDAY, we got to the ship (and boy, howdy folks, Galveston will never recover from Hurricane Ike) and got on. Our connecting rooms were, in fact, connected, and we quickly located the ice cream machine. Priorities, peeps.
That evening, we took our kids to the welcome event at the kids' club and signed them up. The kids played happily with the toys and ran around smiling and laughing. I spoke with the program manager who assured me that she had a soft spot for kids with special needs, because her brother has Asperger's. Almost as an afterthought, she asked if D. would be able to participate "mentally," because theirs is an activity-based program. Well, um, I'm putting him in the 3-5-year-old group, so I'm going with yes as an answer.
On MONDAY, we took the kids to the program and signed them in. All the 3-5-year-olds were sitting in a circle learning the rules for the program. Our boys were told to take off their shoes and join the circle. D. went straight to the Lego table and was told that it was not Lego time. It was time to sit and learn rules.
The boys began to cry. We sat for a time and watched what was going on. Every so often, one of our boys would venture into the playspace, only to be immediately told to remove their shoes and join the rules circle, which caused them to cringe in terror and return to our sides. "Could you maybe give them a few minutes to acclimate?" we asked, and we were told that no, that was impossible. Other parents came, and were told that crying children would not be accepted into the program. "We don't force them," the staff said. Another boy was put in time-out for sitting in a chair instead of on the floor as he had been instructed. Eventually we took our boys and left.
The next three days were port days, so we took our kids off the ship and enjoyed their company immensely. The girls went to the kids' club after dinner for some "late-night" (7 to 10 pm) entertainment. On WEDNESDAY night when I picked up my daughters from the kids' club, the manager called me over.
"I got an email from [the woman with whom I had corresponded by email] and she suggested some ways that we could be more accommodating. So let's try that tomorrow."
Thursday was the third port day, so the kids were with me for swimming and stuff. After lunch, I went out with friends to shop and Mr. WG took over parenting duties. When I returned, Mr. WG told me that the boys had gone to the kids' club for an hour. This was thrilling news.
We took them back there on FRIDAY morning. About seven minutes later, they paged us. "D. wants to leave."
We played this game for the rest of Friday. We'd leave him; they'd page us. We'd get him. We'd try again. They'd page us. Accommodating, my ass. You know what? Tell me the truth. Tell me your program can't handle special needs kids, and I'll make my decision. Either I'll choose a different vacation or I'll hire a sitter to come along and give me a daily break or something. But don't tell me you can handle my kid if you don't even want to try. It's just annoying.
My favorite was on Saturday, when they paged me, and I walked up the 7 flights of stairs to be told that the captain had been there to take pictures with the kids and D. was hard to control during that time. But now, we're going to play bingo. Does he like bingo?
Let me ask you, moms of typical three to five year olds, how many of your three year olds play bingo? I have a typical three year old, and he can't play bingo. My special needs five year old can't, either. So I told them that, and they allowed as perhaps someone could sit with D. one on one and help him. But they paged us again a few minutes later. The most annoying part of the paging was that they would frequently page us at 11:45 when pickup was by noon anyway. Just handle the kid for the extra five minutes and assume I am going to retrieve my sons on time, just as I do my daughters EVERY DAY.
So, if you planned to take a special needs kid on a Royal Caribbean cruise with the intent of placing said child in the kids' program, my advice is don't count on the kids' program, but do take the cruise. Find another alternative for child care, whether it's a schedule with your spouse, a teenager you hire, or grandparents you can sucker into coming along. I really don't think that D. is so delayed that it was inappropriate to place him in the 3-5-year-old group. I think that he functions at least as well as a typical 3 year old in most areas. Yes, his language is not as developed as J's, and he doesn't understand sarcasm, but he can communicate his needs and wants, and he can participate in many, many activities.
Maybe I'm delusional. But I don't think I'm quite that bad.
Anyway, we still had a great time, because we actually do like our kids and enjoy spending time with them. So, that is the story of our Caribbean Cruise.