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Our day at Discovery Cove: A Certified Autism Center

Nicole Thibault

My boys and I happened to be in Orlando the day that Discovery Cove announced that it had become a Certified Autism Center. I was so excited; my husband and I had gone to Discovery Cove 15 years ago on our honeymoon, but we hadn’t take the kids yet.

My oldest son is 14 years old and on the Autism Spectrum. While Discovery Cove might seem like the perfect destination for all kids, especially because Discovery Cove only allows 1,300 guests per day (so no lines and lots of quiet spaces), I was still worried how my son would do during some of the activities at Discovery Cove because of his Anxiety levels. His biggest challenge is overcoming anxiety and fears, and participating in new activities can be daunting for him.

So while we were in Orlando, I decided to try Discovery Cove with my boys. My oldest is 14 and has Autism, my middle son is 12 years old and typically-developing, and my youngest son is 10 years old and has Speech Apraxia and Sensory Processing Disorder.

We arrived for our day at Discovery Cove and checked in at the lobby. We all received our lanyards and our Dolphin Swim times on the card.

Checking in at Discovery Cove

Checking in at Discovery Cove

Once we were checked in, we made out way to Laguna Grill for some breakfast. All three of my boys loved the breakfast food selection and there was something for everyone. My son with Autism is quite a picky eater, and even he had a full plate of food.

Breakfast choices at the Laguna Grill

Breakfast choices at the Laguna Grill

Once we finished breakfast, the boys and I headed over to get our wetsuits for the day. We could choose a full wetsuit or a neoprene vest. My son with Autism tried the wetsuit, but found it too confining, so he went back and got a vest instead.

Wetsuit cabana

Wetsuit cabana

On the way to our cabana, I was so delighted to spot this sign on the pathway, letting guests know that Discovery Cove in a Certified Autism Center. It also shows a Sensory Guise for each attraction, letting guests know what to expect from different parts of the Park.

A Sensory Guide showing sensory levels for each attraction at Discovery Cove

A Sensory Guide showing sensory levels for each attraction at Discovery Cove

We were super lucky to experience an animal encounter on our day at Discovery Cove.. The Animal Expert introduced us to an armadillo, and told us all about how to care for her, her eating habits, and what her shell is made from. The boys were encouraged to touch her and feel her hard shell.

Meeting an armadillo at our Animal Encounter

Meeting an armadillo at our Animal Encounter

After the animal encounter, we made our way to the Explorer’s Aviary. My middle son is a Bird Boy, and loves to interact with birds every chance he gets. He was thrilled to be able to get a small bowlful of fruit pieces and feed the birds in the Aviary.

My son, the Bird Boy.

My son, the Bird Boy.

After the Explorer’s Aviary, we made our way to the Grand Reef to try our hand at snorkeling. This is where I thought my son with Autism would have the most issues. He has anxiety about swimming with fish and sea creatures, and was not sure how he would do with snorkeling. While not everything is a huge success, he did put the mask on and get into the water. It’s progress. Perhaps on our next trip, he will put his face in the water. Baby steps.

Not quite ready to try snorkeling

Not quite ready to try snorkeling

My youngest son was quite brave and like checking out the different colored fish and giant sting rays in the Reef.

My youngest son was fascinated by the giant rays in the Grand Reef

My youngest son was fascinated by the giant rays in the Grand Reef

Finally it was time for our Dolphin Swim Experience. Again, this activity was an unknown, and I had no idea how my son would do with being in the water with a dolphin.

I have to say the Dolphin Trainers were AMAZING. You could absolutely tell that they’ve been thought the Autism training, as they were very sensitive to my son’s anxiety and fear. They were calm and inviting, and patient while he worked up the courage to touch the dolphin.

Seeing his face as he conquered his fear and let the dolphin swim with him through the water brings tears to my eyes. With every experience like this one, I know he will try more new activities and go new places.

Although he was hesitant to touch the dolphin, my son overcame his fear and was able to interact with her.

Although he was hesitant to touch the dolphin, my son overcame his fear and was able to interact with her.

All of my boys loved the Dolphin Interaction. Some were more comfortable that others, but all participated and had an incredible day.

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Our day at Discovery Cove was one we will not forget. Discovery Cove was already a quiet oasis in the middle of theme-park central, but now that it’s a Certified Autism Center, it’s a must-do destination for ALL families.

Our successful day at Discovery Cove

Our successful day at Discovery Cove

Our Inaugural Autism Family Group Vacation to Walt Disney World

Nicole Thibault

With the possibility of sensory meltdowns, the thought of finding foods that their child will eat, and the possibility of being completely overwhelmed, many parents are unsure it’s possible to travel with the children with Autism.

As a Certified Autism Travel Agent, I assist many families with Autism with their travel plans. With all of my clients with children with Autism, I offer a service called “Pre-Travel Counseling,” where I sit down with the entire family, review the vacation itinerary, and answer any questions from both the adults and kids; I find this reduces a lot of the travel anxiety everyone might be experiencing, and gets them ready for having FUN on their vacation.

Many times, I hear comments from parents like, “Ugh, I wish you could just go with us! It would make things so much easier to have you on hand, just in case we need something.”

I listened. And now I’m introducing our first Autism Family Group Vacation to Walt Disney World and Aquatica this August!

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This Group Vacation will include 7-10 families and is tailor-made for families with kids on the Spectrum. We’ve partnered with two Certified Autism Centers to create an amazing stay - VillaKey and Aquatica.

What’s included in the Group Vacation?

  • A VillaKey Autism-friendly 4-bedroom Vacation Home that comfortably sleeps 8 guests (larger homes are available for extended families)

  • Minivan rental to be picked up b the family within the Orlando airport

  • Assistance with grocery delivery upon arrival

  • Welcome dinner and party with a short orientation for parents and fun activities for kids

  • 5-Day Base pass to the Walt Disney World Parks for all guests

  • In-Theme Park support from Sally Black and Nicole Thibault to provide a worry-free experience and the support you need to get a Disability Access Service pass (DAS) at Guest Services, navigate the Parks, and maximize enjoyment and family time in the theme parks.

  • One "Parent's Date Night" with trained Autism Therapists supervising kids at our resort clubhouse

  • 1-Day pass to Aquatica Water Park, a Certified Autism Center, for all guests, along with final farewell party to say goodbye to all your new travel friends.

  • All Taxes, service fees and gratuities are included

  • Access to Live Facebook Counseling Sessions in the months leading up to the trip with Nicole Thibault, Certified Autism Travel Professional, to learn about the Disability Passes at each Park, how to maximize your DAS Pass Return Times, recommendations for restaurants due to food aversions/food allergies, finding quiet spaces in the Parks, and more.

  • Access to a Closed Facebook Group, just for the families booked on the Orlando Group Trip, so you can ask questions and get to know the other families in your Travel Group

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VillaKey Vacation Homes are Autism-friendly, but what does this mean? It means that each vacation home has a quiet family-friendly location, pleasant soft lighting, neutral paint colors, fragrance-free cleaning products, alarms on the exit doors , and security fence around your private pool.

Having a Private Facebook Group for the families on the trip will be immensely helpful during the months leading up to the Orlando vacation. Here, parents can ask questions and get answers from our Group Leaders. Families can also post bios about themselves and everyone can get to know each other before meeting up on at our Welcome Party on the first night. There will also be bi-monthly Live Chats, hosted by our Group Leaders, and also some special Guest Hosts along the way.

The In-Theme park assistance will also be an amazing help for families with Autism, who may be trying Walt Disney World and other theme parks for the first time. Our Group Leaders will meet families at the front gates, and assist them with obtaining the Disability Access Service pass/Attraction Assistance Pass. They’ll also be able to help families find quiet spaces in the Parks, troubleshoot sensory issues and meltdowns, and counsel families on menu choices at quick-service and table-service restaurants.

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For families that are interested in joining our Autism Family Group Vacation this Summer, please follow the link to review the daily itinerary and book our spot with our travel Group:

https://www.vacationkids.com/autism-disney-group



The G Adventures Trip That "Took Me," Not the Trip I Took

Nicole Thibault

John Steinbeck once said, “People don't take trips... trips take people.” Well, my G Adventures trip to Belize definitely took me, and not the other way around.

In the Fall of 2017, I applied for a year-long position as one of G Adventures’ Ambassadors of Change. I had read a book by the founder of G Adventures, Bruce Poon Tip, called “Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business,” and I loved so many ideas that he detailed in his book - finding his own personal path and purpose, and outlining his journey to create a company that can change the lives of the people in the communities into which G Adventure client’s travel. I was really excited at the prospect of working with the company that Bruce Poon Tip created.

Hundreds of travel agents from across the country applied for one of the seven Ambassadors of Change positions that are available each year. The application and interview process was quite rigorous, and in truth, a little quirky. (One of the Core Values of G Adventures is “Embrace the Bizarre,” and the interview process had a little of that core value as well!) I waited on pins and needles as the finalists were announced, and I was so honored to be named one of the 2018 Ambassadors of Change.

The seven Ambassadors of Change were charged with several tasks. The first was to travel to an assigned destination to experience first-hand a “G Adventures for Good” project within a local community, and see how travel can truly change people’s lives. Ambassadors for Change then share their experience with others in their community, advocate for G Adventures with agency partners, and collaborate with the Planeterra Foundation to support G Adventures for Good projects.

The G Adventures for Good projects are funded by the Planeterra Foundation, the non-profit sister-organization of G Adventures. The Planeterra Foundation has contributed millions of dollars towards projects in areas of social enterprise, healthcare, conservation, and emergency response since 2003.

In May of 2018, I embarked on my assigned G Adventures trip - the 9-day “Explore Belize” itinerary that would take me to Burrell Boom, San Ignacio, Hopkins, and end our journey in Caye Caulker. This trip, part of the National Geographic “Journeys” line, has not one, but two Planeterra Foundation-funded social enterprise programs - the San Antonio Pottery Co-op in San Ignacio and the Bike with a Purpose student-lead bicycle tours on Caye Caulker. I was absolutely thrilled to be experiencing the Bike with a Purpose project; I am a travel agent that works almost exclusively in Family Travel, and love to help all kinds of families take amazing vacations, so getting to see how the Planeterra Foundation and G Adventures helps children of Caye Caulker with their education and work-preparedness was going to be a dream come true.

First, our G Adventures group visited the San Antonio Pottery Co-op, located in a small village near San Ignacio.

Visiting the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative

Visiting the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative

In this community, where resources are scarce, education is not free, and schooling for girls beyond primary levels is not prioritized. Mothers often rely on other forms of income to help support their children’s education. So the Planeterra Foundation provided a grant to the San Antonio Pottery Co-op; with these funds, the San Antonio Women’s Group built several buildings with which to host travelers. Now, the women offer guests to the Cooperative a delicious homemade lunch, a tortilla-making lesson, and a Mayan pottery-making demonstration - all to support their families and help pay for their children’s education.

After a delicious lunch of chicken, red beans and rice, salad, and an amazing watermelon punch, we were treated to tortilla-making lesson.

First, the ladies taught us how to hand-grind the corn on a special pestle that is usually handed down from generation to generation.

Hand-grinding the corn for the tortilla-making lesson

Hand-grinding the corn for the tortilla-making lesson

Once the corn was ground, we each got our own sample of the dough to flatten and shape, and then we cooked the tortilla on an open-fire griddle.

Cooking our tortillas

Cooking our tortillas

Once we finishing cooking our tortillas (and tasting them!), we were also treated to a pottery demonstration. Our demonstrator spoke about the harvesting of the clay, using the pottery wheel, and using ancient Mayan techniques to decorate the pottery.

The pottery-making demonstration

The pottery-making demonstration

I even tried my hand at making a clay pot, although it turned out a little lopsided!

My not-so-successful attempt at making a clay pot

My not-so-successful attempt at making a clay pot

After the demonstrations, we had time to visit the Cooperative’s Gift Shop, so we could purchase handicrafts to bring home with us - beautiful pottery and embroidered items.

Both the tortilla-making and the pottery-making demonstrations were great hands-on experiences for our whole group, and we loved connecting with the people of San Antonio.

Later on our Explore Belize trip, we made our way to Caye Caulker, an island off the coast of Belize. This small island has a very relaxed feeling, and the island motto is “Go Slow.” There are no cars on the island, and most people get around by foot, golf carts, or bicycles.

Because Caye Caulker is so small and far from the mainland of Belize, historically many students have chosen to quit school and find work after their primary-school years. In recent years, the local economy of the island has focused more on tourism and hospitality. In an effort to keep more of the children on the island enrolled in school longer, the Ocean Academy school opened in 2008, so the children wouldn’t have to commute to the mainland for high school. The Ocean Academy is the first secondary school on the island of Caye Caulker, and their programs provide hands-on and practical tourism programs, in addition to the traditional classes.

The Planeterra Foundation donated the funds needed for a set of bicycles, so that the Ocean Academy could develop a student-led bicycle tour of the island. Many of the G Adventures’ Belize travelers enjoy the Bike with a Purpose tour, and the proceeds fund educational programs for the students at Ocean Academy.

We arrived on Caye Caulker late in the afternoon, and made our way to the meeting point to start our Bike with a Purpose tour. At the school shop, we met Lillian, our tour leader; Lillian was a senior at the Ocean Academy, in her final weeks of school before final exams.

Lillian, our guide for our Bike with a Purpose tour

Lillian, our guide for our Bike with a Purpose tour

As we prepared for our tour, we were able to choose from a selection of beautiful purple bicycles, donated by the Planeterra Foundation.

The Bike with a Purpose bicycles

The Bike with a Purpose bicycles

Our group consisted of 4 G Adventures travelers, and Lillian began lead us as we wove our way around the island. We talked along the way, asking questions about island life and what it was like for her growing up on Caye Caulker. She pointed out many points of interest, like the Seahorse Farm and the island’s Human Society.

Lillian, our tour guide for our Bike with a Purpose tour

Lillian, our tour guide for our Bike with a Purpose tour

We made our way to Lillian’s school, the Ocean Academy. It was after-school hours, and the students had all gone home for the day, but I made arrangements with the co-founder of the school, Joni Miller, to meet with me for a tour of the school and to learn about some of the programs offered at her school.

Lillian and I visit the Ocean Academy school on Caye Caulker

Lillian and I visit the Ocean Academy school on Caye Caulker

Lillian showed us several of the classrooms, the student-made murals that covered the walls, and the award cases that lined the hallways. She also proudly showed our tour group a scrap book of her school’s accomplishments and photos from events and awards the students received.

Lillian showing us the school’s scrapbook

Lillian showing us the school’s scrapbook

Before traveling to Belize, I contacted Joni Miller to see if the Ocean Academy needed any supplies or donations. She suggested I bring several portable first-aid kits to donate to the Bike with a Purpose program, so that if anyone ever had a spill on one of the bikes and hurt themselves, they would be prepared with first-aid supplies. She also requested some plastic cups, so that the tour guides could offer water to the guests. I happily packed them in my suitcase before my trip, and presented them to Joni and Lillian during my visit.

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While on our tour, we asked Lillian about her studies and her plans for the future. She told us about how she planned to study hospitality and tourism at college, and that she was already accepted to a university in Mexico.

I could see how the hands-on tourism programs from the Ocean Academy, as well as the Bike with a Purpose project, had prepared her for such a career. When the tour was over, we parted ways and wished her all the best on her future endeavors.

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Now, months after my Belize trip, I think back - not to how many tourist attractions I crossed off an itinerary - but I think back to the people that I met. The smiles of the women at the San Antonio Women’s Co-op, and the incredibly authentic food they served at lunch. I think back to Lillian’s laugh, and the hope she had in her eyes as she spoke about studying at college. I smile now as I write this, thinking of Lillian in her first semester at college, fulfilling her dreams.

I truly believe that my trip to Belize took me, and was not just the trip I took.

Becoming a G Adventures Ambassador of Change has been such an honor and privilege. Being able to experience two G for Good programs that G Adventures and the Planeterra Foundation have established changed my whole perspective on the possibilities about how people travel and the good it can do in the world. For those Travel Agents interested in learning more about the G Adventures Ambassadors of Change program, be sure to bookmark this link and check back in the Spring of 2019, when the search for the 2019 Ambassadors of Change begins.