Little Julie and Jason Lanza were delighted to show off their souvenirs collected from a day at the theme park.
But the truth is, vacations are sometimes difficult on their mother, Lissette Lanza.
Jason — a sweet-faced boy of 7 with floppy bowl-cut hair and an affinity for cars — has autism.
Going somewhere far from home takes him away from the comfort of his routine. He likes a plan, knowing what was happening next. No surprises.
“Sometimes he handles it better than others,” said Lanza, a special-education teacher from Miami Lakes. “Sometimes he has a meltdown.”
But on this trip this month to Central Florida, Lanza expressed a sense of relief since she had less to worry about. She stayed at a vacation rental that is catering to families with autism and other disabilities.
“You don’t find a lot of places that completely understand what you do when you have a child with autism,” Lanza said. “This has been a welcomed gift since you don’t have to explain anything.”
Earlier this year, VillaKey launched an online platform that showcases homes that are more comfortable to people with autism. Many of the homes feature intentionally soothing neutral colors and allow service dogs.
“We really offer the peace of mind,” said Alice Horn, president of Miami-based VillaKey, which advertises about 200 homes in Orlando.
Horn grew up with a father who had Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, and remembers how hard it was for the family to stay in hotels because the noise bothered him.
For Lanza, she appreciated everything was washed with fragrance-free products, which wouldn’t bother Jason’s severe allergies. There was also an alarm on every door so if she looked away for a second, Jason couldn’t get distracted and sneak out undetected. A checklist from VillaKey helped Lanza prepare her son for day at the amusement park.
In Central Florida’s tourism industry, some attractions cater to people with autism.
For instance, the Blue Man Group at Universal Orlando Resort and WonderWorks off International Drive occasionally offer special Sensory Nights where the colors are dimmed, the loud noises gone, to be more accommodating.
More businesses are striving to be inclusive to families dealing with autism — which affects one in every 59 people, said Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association.
“We need it because there are so many people affected by autism,” said Fournier of the Rhode Island-based group that advocates and provides education on autism. “It’s nice to see businesses reaching out and making an effort to help these families.”
Some movie theaters turn down the speakers and turn up the house lights so the film doesn’t flash as much. Other hotels and resorts provide rooms with special door locks and safety kits — even temporary tattoos with contact information in case a child wanders off, Fournier said.
Lanza’s children and her parents stayed in a long weekend in a vacation house outside of Davenport in Polk County that normally costs between $200 to $375 a night, depending on the season.
This trip was particularly special. VillaKey donates 10 percent of net profits to help families who need financial help — like Lanza, a single mother — to afford a vacation. Lanza’s house was free.
The family decided to go to Legoland Florida since Jason loves Legos. He rode the roller coaster, loving every minute of it, which surprised his mother.
His 3-year-old sister, Julie, was by his side. The family joked she was like Jason’s lawyer because she argues on his behalf when he struggles to communicate.
Back at the vacation home, they plopped down in comfortable chairs and watched “Aladin” in a darkened movie theater.
“It’s their own movie theater. Who has that?” Lanza asked rhetorically.