Surviving Theme Parks With Chronic Illness

It has been just over a year since our family joined two of our closest friend-families for a trip to Universal Orlando, and while we all had a great time, it’s taken me a long time to admit something I didn’t want to believe I was old enough for–I felt like a speed bump the whole time. Granted, I’d just had breast reconstruction surgery two weeks prior, but it took a lot more pride-swallowing than I was prepared for to admit that yeah, my version of “feeling pretty good” was nowhere near normal levels. I paid dearly. I’m pretty sure my friends and family, while incredibly understanding and patient, felt as though I probably should have stayed home.

We’re planning another theme park trip in about a year. A huge undertaking; we’re dragging all seven of our kids, two kids-in-law, and three grandchildren to Disney. The excitement is both intoxicating and terrifying. So many variables. Teens and toddlers all at the same time!

And yet, one thing I fear losing control over more than naptimes or hormonal fits is my ability to stay ahead of the chronic pain and debilitating fatigue that fibromyalgia hits me with mercilessly at the worst times! No joke, my fibro is going to be the hardest park guest to accommodate. So before my entire family jumps headlong into park planning, I’m going to do some documenting of what I remember from the struggles at Universal so I can include some of that in our plans for this next trip.

Plan for downtime!

Seriously, chronic illnesses require rest. You simply cannot walk six or seven miles a day, surrounded by a half million other people, being barraged by lights and sounds and smells and heat and dehydration without cracking. You can’t.

Tired and cranky.

Spending four days in the parks? Plan for a day in the middle to sit at the hotel in the pool and do nothing else. And then do exactly that–nothing else. Eat and rest. Oh, and on the subject of eating … on that off day, eat WELL. Lots of veggies and good proteins.

During your park days, make an effort to sit and eat lunch or a snack. Don’t think you’re doing your schedule any favors by eating on the run. Your body will need that time to rest. Need to get to the other side of the park? See if there’s a train nearby so you don’t have to walk the entire way.

Know Your Triggers

Motion sickness isn’t the only thing that can make you sick at theme parks.

It wasn’t just me having a hard time.

This was probably the hardest part of the trip for me. My youngest has some pretty hefty sensory issues, and her anxiety over the immersive nature of the rides was just as difficult on me as dealing with it myself. Interestingly, the same loud, flashing, jarring rides and tightly-packed crowds that caused her to shut down in a teary heap caused my body to tense up and stage a painful revolt.

For some, it’s strong scents. For others, loud noises. Some can’t tolerate bright flashes of light. You need to know what causes your body to go into defense mode and do your best to either avoid those situations or, well … medicate accordingly. Don’t expect that you will suddenly be able to handle the sensory overload just because it’s themed well. Overload is still overload. Know what you’re up against and be ready to treat it. I suggest bringing some headphones or earplugs so you can shut out the outside world for a bit. And honestly, like my daughter and I were doing in the picture above, don’t be ashamed to find a spot to sit and have a meltdown. Nobody even blinked at us sitting outside of Hogwarts in the fetal position. πŸ€ͺ

Don’t Ignore Big Symptoms

I made a big mistake one of the days we were in Universal; I chalked up a pretty serious and compounding pain as “muscle aches”. Granted, my fibromyalgia makes sure I have some pretty hefty aches and pains to deal with on a regular basis, so I had no reason to believe what was going on was anything other than a bad flare. It wasn’t. I was stuck walking the two miles from the back of Universal Orlando to our parking spot with what ended up being a migrating kidney stone. I tried to ignore the pain because I didn’t want to ruin the day. I ended up needing to stop walking just to avoid passing out.

I should have let hubby get the wheelchair he wanted to go track down. I should have admitted how much pain I was in. But we do some really odd things when we are on vacation. Don’t do that. If you find yourself questioning whether you’re feeling a “normal” pain or some other symptom related to your chronic illnesses, don’t be a martyr! If things start spiraling out of control, ask for help! There’s no harm in letting the group go ahead without you for an hour or two. There’s greater harm in ignoring your body’s cues that something is very wrong!

If I had to pass on one bit of advice to you, it would be to be realistic. Don’t push yourself beyond your limits *just* because you’re on vacation. Oh–and plan on crashing for a few days when you get home. Your body will likely be in full mutiny! 😏 So what would you add to what I’ve listed? I’d love to learn from you!

2 thoughts on “Surviving Theme Parks With Chronic Illness

  1. First, you weren’t a speed bump at all! I think we tend to presume others are put off by something because it’s causing us so much struggle personally…when in actuality others are concerned, but not upset. If that makes any sense whatsoever. ☺️

    Second, my best travel advice for anyone is to lay out the top 3 specific things that will really make the trip for you and prioritize them from the moment you arrive. Then everything else on the trip is gravy.

    Beyond that, carry all the meds for chronic conditions, hydrate, two pair of good shoes, & recognize without guilt or recriminations that sometimes that ridiculously overpriced bottle of tap water is worth it in the grand scheme of things if it prevents the 40-something year old woman* from having an absolute melt down.

    *It’s me. I was that woman. πŸ˜‚

    1. The water … OHHHH the water. We definitely learned that lesson well our last day at Disney back in 2014. All water is worth it!

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