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 for 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’s happening next. No surprises.
“Sometimes he handles it better than others,” said Lanza, a special-education teacher. “Sometimes he has a meltdown.”
But on this trip to Central Florida, Lanza expressed a sense of relief. She stayed at a vacation rental that caters 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, Miami-based 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. (myvillakey.com/autism-friendly).
“We really offer the peace of mind,” said Alice Horn, president of 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 noise bothered him.
Lanza appreciated that 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. A checklist from VillaKey helped Lanza prepare her son for a day at the amusement park.
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 a long weekend in a vacation house that normally costs between $200 to $375 a night, depending on the season. Lanza’s house was free.
VillaKey donates 10 percent of net profits to help families who need financial help — like Lanza, a single mother — to afford a vacation.
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 that 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 “Aladdin” in a darkened movie theater.
“It’s their own movie theater,” Lanza said.
“Who has that?”