I'm not sure why, but sometimes I feel strangely guilty about visiting Walt Disney World on a frequent basis. It's not like we didn't go to Cedar Point constantly when we lived in Cleveland. I think it's because there's some stigma about the fantasy that the theme parks involve. For some reason, grownups tend to believe that fantasy is bad.
But I have a 3-year-old, and he has a few developmental delays, primarily with speech and both fine and gross motor skills. Simon loves Magic Kingdom, and while theme parks may seem like some superficial distraction, to him, they're a great opportunity to stimulate him and help him. That was never the intention of bringing him, but I'm surprised at how much value he gets.
From a physical therapy standpoint, a visit to the Magic Kingdom means a whole lot of stairs. One of his issues is right-side dominance, so he's physically weaker on the left. If we park at one of the hotels, that means stairs to go up to the monorail. Then there are stairs at two of the three train stations at the park. Long sets of stairs are awesome for getting him to alternate feet when walking up stairs. Last time we went, he actually asked, "We can do the right-left?" referring to the encouragement we give him to alternate feet. Going down is still really hard for him to alternate, but he can get practice just using his left.
Some of his social skills are a little behind too, and what better place to be around other kids his age? Disney has brilliantly been installing activities in queues for the last few years, so there are certain attractions where he's forced to engage along side other kids. Even when it's just a straight queue, he has to make friends and be nice.
Then there's the speech issue, which is easily the one that concerns us the most. There are a couple of ways that visiting the parks helps him out. The most obvious one is that he has had to learn to tell us what he wants to do. It starts with asking to visit the park, then asking us to do certain attractions. We pretty much let him set the agenda. He's even getting better at telling us when he wants to eat. It's also giving him the chance to learn new words, so he's getting beyond "train" and "cars," and starting to learn things like "people mover," "Barnstormer" and "Tiki Room." (I need to work with him still on "Hall of Presidents.")
The other cool thing happening is that we have more opportunities to have conversations with him, which is something he should have already been doing. This is a fairly recent development. Our exchanges vary in complexity, but have started with us leading interrogative loops. We ask him if he likes something, what he saw, who he saw, etc. Sometimes he'll simply volunteer things that he's excited about.
These environments that help him out are harder to create at home, because there are a finite number of toys, TV shows (he already watches too much), and a distinct lack of other kids. We don't even have stairs. What started out as entertainment for us all has turned into a surprisingly good opportunity to exercise Simon's little body and big imagination. If something there could get him to potty train, I'd buy stock in Disney.
Of course, we know he's going to be able to speak clearly and walk up stairs eventually. That's not the point. We want him to be able to start regular school on time and not get behind. Between school, his visits to theme parks, and now an athletic program where he plays with special needs kids as a peer, we're hopefully giving him the help he needs.