Travelling with a disabled child: Happiness is a dolphin and a golden ticket to Disney

Sally Phillips


When Olly was born, was determined that life was going to carry on as normal. So we travelled as much as – possibly even more than – we might have done had he not had Down’s syndrome. By the time he was three, we’d lived in Melbourne, Toronto and Devon.

At first it was great: Olly loved
flying – crawling circuits of 747s became a favourite pursuit, he ate
everything the airlines could throw at him and he never cried.

Two bottlenose dolphins swimming underwater together

Diving buddies: Olly and his brothers loved swimming with the dolphins

also seemed to enjoy sampling foreign cultures – even coping with
Gymbaroo, Australian Gymboree, the most hardcore baby group on the
planet. It’s basically the Iron Man Challenge for under-twos. But in
recent years, holidays have got harder and not just because there are
now five of us: my husband Andrew and myself, Olly and his two younger

One disaster was a package trip to a
resort with a pool and pirate ship. Olly hated it so much he asked to go
to Granny’s house every 30 minutes, stopping only when he fell for a
five-year-old blonde on day ten. Even then he cheered when we said we
were going to the airport. Definitely no more than a holiday fling.

Sally Phillips

Win-win situation: Miranda star Sally found Florida offered more than enough to keep the children entertained…and allowed the actress a rest too

Next we tried a hotel with self-service ice cream. Olly gained half a stone, broke out in eczema and suffered chronic flatulence.

Then we had a week among lovely families in a lovely family-run hotel in Cornwall.

Olly loved the lovely waiters, and somehow purloined a waiter’s notepad. That was it; every night he spent dinner going round the other families taking their orders. Then he sat down with them and ate their child’s pudding.

Everyone was kind, but then they always went on to ask me all about Miranda Hart. At the end of the holiday, Andrew and I hadn’t spoken to each other, but were on first-name terms with every other family.

It seemed that holidays with Olly were destined to be a fortnight of feeling different and wishing we weren’t. But last year, instead of carrying on as normal, we decided to hunt down a break tailored to Olly, then seven.

If you Google ‘holidays+disabled’, up pops ‘swim with dolphins’. Now, I enjoy lentils as much as the next hippy but I don’t believe dolphins are magical spirits, beamed from space to give humans physio. Nor do I believe my child is ‘not whole’ and that being rubbed by a marine mammal will complete him. But I liked the idea of a holiday at the beach where my son might be allowed to be as eccentric as he wanted.

However, after checking out a few sites, we began to feel uneasy about the dolphins. Even if it helped Olly, Andrew and I didn’t want to watch some Fish Fagin pimping sad-faced sea mammals round a tank.

Panama City Beach, Florida

Beach boy: The white-sugar sands of Panama City Beach left a huge impression on Olly…who could swim and snorkel until his heart’s content

Then I came across Water Planet USA, which offers swimming in the open sea with dolphins that turn up because they feel like it. It runs programmes in Florida tailored to those suffering numerous conditions. A dolphin encounter has ’emotional impact’, we read. It couldn’t be that bad. And in case it was, we booked a week at Walt Disney World to follow.

For the first time, we used Virgin’s Special Assistance team. We’ll do it every time we fly from now on. While we fiddled with passports, they made sure Olly didn’t check himself into the hold via the tempting baggage chute. The kids loved their free rucksacks full of toys, and when I left my notebook on the plane they sent it on to me.

On arrival in Florida, we drove seven hours north-west from Miami to Panama City Beach, a gentle curve of pure white sand on the Gulf of Mexico. We checked into the Inn at St Thomas Square, a terracottaroofed home-from-home where we sat on the balcony overlooking a lake and marvelled at American apples as big as ten-month-old Tom’s head.

Lightning McQueen at the Wheel Well Motel

Ideal brake: The Cars wing at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort

Water Planet USA’s website was full of rules and regulations, so it was a relief to find its Swiss founder Denis Richard laid-back and rather cool. There was nothing Olly or any of us could do to stress him out – except perhaps touch the dolphins. We didn’t.

Denis so strongly disapproves of people feeding and hassling wild dolphins that he hassles them back. That’s why we chose him, of course, and the kids soon started calling a dolphin-molesting tourist boat ‘the naughty ship’ because it was feeding them. The only downside to our conscientious objecting was we spent a morning cruising around looking for dolphins that weren’t interested in us as we didn’t have fish for them.

But the hunt became part of the fun – we all took turns on the binoculars. When we did find a pod and got close, we rushed for the snorkels and flippers and waited for Denis to signal that we could go in. I’ll never forget five-year-old Lukey screaming ecstatically: ‘I saw one, I’ve seen one, I can see it, I can still see it!’ Once in the water, Olly didn’t want to get out, even when stung by jellyfish. We were all overwhelmed.

I stared in awe at a mother and baby dolphin surfacing together – they swim no more than a foot apart for the first three years. Now there’s a guilt trip for a working mum.

It was a memorable week. Finally I got my kids to love being outside more than TV. I’d like to say they ‘reconnected with nature’, but ‘connected for the first time’ is closer.

As the holiday was designed around Olly, there were enough adults on hand for it never to be unsafe and for us never to have to apologise for him. Olly was allowed to be Olly and, after a week under Denis’s influence spotting crabs and sea birds, his self-esteem was through the roof – he was a marine biologist and wilderness explorer. But the real highlight for him was being allowed to drive the pontoon boat. At heart he’s a speed freak and it blew his mind.

Even the weather was exciting.

Darth Vader and a young fan

Heaven for little boys: A battle with Darth Vader

We were marooned on an island waiting for a hurricane. On the last day, we sat at Morrison Springs nature park among deer and woodpeckers, danced like idiots to Shakira and then packed for Disney World.

Disney are used to people like us. So from the second we checked in at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort we were happy. The kids went bananas: we were in a section themed after the movie Cars – a truck-sized model of Mater sat outside our room. The Finding Nemo salt-water pool with music piped underwater, kids’ games morning and afternoon and kids’ film screened every night were beyond their wildest dreams – and all this before we actually got to the theme parks.

After a few days latched on to the fibreglass bosom of Disney, we realised everything – from breakfast with the Neverland Pirates to the Jedi Training Academy where your child can defeat Darth Vader – is designed to create the feeling that you are having the happiest time possible.

It works. On the last night, the fireworks pushed Lukey over the edge. He burst into tears. ‘Why are you crying, Lukey?’ I said. ‘Because I’m just so happy,’ he choked. ‘It’s all ending and I never want it to! I just want to do it all over again.’ If I can advise one thing, it is never to go to Disney World without someone with a disability.

The queues were airbrushed out for Olly. It was wonderful to hear Lukey thank his big brother for getting us all a golden ticket – his disabled pass. Months later, we’re still talking about it.

Luke has already mounted the campaign for Disneyland 2016 but the rest of us talk more about Panama City Beach. When you have a child with additional needs, you don’t let them more than an arm’s length away. Yet in Panama City I could let Olly swim in the sea, snorkel, wreck-dive, wave-jump and drive a speedboat, while resting myself.

Our holiday tailored to Olly benefited all of us; he was the star and we were his ‘plus one’.

Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859, offers seven nights in Orlando from £935 per person. This includes return flights on Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick to Orlando, accommodation at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort on a room-only basis and car hire. The Virgin Holidays Special Assistance Team can be contacted by email at, or call 0844 557 3998 (Monday to Friday, 9am-5.30pm).

For information on The Inn at St Thomas Square at Panama City Beach, visit Water Planet USA ( offers a range of dolphin swim programmes. A one-day course costs from $105 (about £66).


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