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My Daughter Fell Apart at the Happiest Place on Earth

Photograph by Leah Campbell

I always knew that I wanted my daughter to celebrate her 5th birthday at Disney World. When her big day arrived, I had our schedule completely packed: Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique first thing in the morning, lunch at Be Our Guest and dinner at Cinderella’s Castle. It was going to be the most magical 5th birthday any child had ever had.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans, right?

My daughter has sensory processing disorder. She tends to get overwhelmed fairly easily, and loud noises, warm weather, lots of people or strong smells can definitely push her over the edge. That might make Disney sound like a horrible idea. But I had a plan. We would take lots of breaks. We would be flexible. We would follow her cues. It would be fine! And for the most part, it was. My daughter fell in love with Disney.

The morning of her birthday, though, something was off. As we strolled up to Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, she started to get anxious. She said she didn’t want to do it, and honestly, I should have listened.

But I’d made the reservation 120 days in advance. (At three in the morning. Because that’s what planning a Disney trip requires.) And I was SO sure this was something she would love. She loves getting her nails done. She loves getting her hair done. Dressing up as a princess is normally one of her favorite things. This should have been a total win for her.

And on any other day, I think it would have been. But on that day, it was all too much. They got a few smiles out of her early on, but as the appointment progressed, her anxiety increased and her tears began to flow.

For those of you wondering why I didn’t just pull her from the chair and leave, I should have. I have been beating myself up ever since for not doing that. But she wasn’t in full-blown panic mode yet, so I kept justifying the whole thing, thinking that any minute she would realize how much fun she was having. But it never happened.

And still, I couldn’t manage my own expectations. I couldn’t just scoop her up and walk out.

It wasn’t until the appointment was over that she really fell apart. That switch flipped for her and we crossed the point of no return—the point I’m usually pretty good at keeping us from getting to.

It’s my job as her parent to help keep us from getting to that point; that day, I misjudged her limits completely.

We wound up huddled in the hallway of Cinderella’s castle with my daughter wailing as I held her close. I tried to calm her. But it just went on and on until she vomited. A lot. And then, she peed all over me, which hasn’t happened in years.

Immediately after, she just collapsed against me. The boutique called the park paramedics to come check on her and the medical staff was amazing. They clearly had experience with kids with SPD and recognized her immediately as a kiddo who had just gotten pushed to her limits.

So often, I can turn things around for my little girl. It always feels like there's this fork in the road with my kiddo and sometimes I'm actually able to pull us back on the right path. But, for whatever reason, this time it didn’t work like that.

That’s what parenting a kid with SPD is: constantly questioning yourself. Forever wondering when to push and when to listen. Knowing that other kids have tantrums but that if your kid crosses that line, it will elevate to a whole other level.

It’s my job as her parent to help keep us from getting to that point; that day, I misjudged her limits completely.

The paramedics talked me out of returning to the hotel and scrapping the day entirely. They told me to take her to the med clinic instead, let her relax, and then reassess and maybe try to salvage some of our morning.

After a bit of rest, a lot of water, some fruit and new undies from the fairy godmothers, my daughter begged to go visit Belle. Just like that, she was fine. A little fragile still, but ready to enjoy her day at Disney.

We took the rest of the morning slow. With each new thing, her smile widened a little more. By the end of the night, she was telling me it had been the best birthday ever, with seemingly no memory at all of how rough it had started. In fact, she was on cloud nine at Cinderella’s Castle and my heart swelled watching her beam at me as we explored the park that night.

A friend was telling me that Disney is kind of like that for all families: high highs and low lows. When I think about the things from that trip that truly were magical, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the highs were 100 percent worth the lows.

Which is kind of true of motherhood in general, don’t you think? High highs and low lows, but still so totally worth it in the end. Especially when everyone stops crying.

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