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A lot of the most fun places to vacation also have pretty big down sides, which is what I mean by "opposite extremes." A theme park, for example, has a few minutes of extreme fun, followed by being kicked off the ride, out into the heat and the crowds.

One of our daughters is especially sensitive to this due to her cerebral palsy. When she finds something fun she latches onto it. She would be perfectly content riding the same ride all day. Crowds are also extra stressful for her. If you think it's hard walking through a crowd, try driving a wheelchair through one sometime. The other kids deal with the ups and downs somewhat better, but also take cues from their older sister. When she cries they all cry.

What ideas do people have for still letting children enjoy the highlights, but minimizing the trauma in between?

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This is an interesting question, but perhaps not too much different than trying to do a theme-park with younger children. It sounds like you, like most parents, want to maximize the amount of time/fun you and your kids have in the theme park before they burn out for the day. The most obvious way to do this is to minimize the amount of time between rides, and find fun things to do that aren't necessarily rides which allow your kids to get a bit of a rest. Here are some of my thoughts initially:

  1. Be selective about the time of year you choose to travel to these destinations. This may or may not be an option for you, but trying to travel to major theme parks during peak travel seasons is going to (obviously) be more stressful.
  2. If you cannot change your season of travel (working around school schedules is obviously a big deal), then visiting theme parks during the week might net you larger returns than on a weekend.
  3. As amazing as theme parks are, sometimes they are best viewed in small chunks rather than all at once. Visiting the park over the course of several days would allow you to ride 3-5 rides that are closer together multiple times over the course of half a day rather than try to visit 15 rides that are spread out all over the park over the course of a full day but only once. This would also mean that you could visit either early in the day or later in the evening when it's not as hot and probably not quite as busy. The down-side of this is that it might be prohibitively expensive. Many major theme parks provide multi-day passes, but not all.
  4. Disney has recently started offering a FASTPASS which allows you to minimize your wait-time at many of their more popular rides. I'm sure it costs extra, but it might be worth the extra money for you if you're looking at visiting Disney.
  5. It might be worth it to you to visit a smaller theme park that's not as busy which could allow your daughter to ride the same ride over and over again.
  6. IF you are planning to visit one of the Disney parks, they have software called RideMax. There are some great reviews from parents who have children with disabilities who have used RideMax combined with the FASTPASS system. It costs about $15.00 and allows you to plan which attractions you want to visit using wait-time data gathered from the Disney parks over the past 6+ years.
  7. Whichever park you're planning on visiting, certainly contact their guest services and see what kind of accomodations they have for visitors in wheelchairs. They might provide transportation that can move you through the park faster than having to push her from point A to point B all the time.
  8. Don't overlook the shows. So many theme-parks have really good shows that are air-conditioned, much less of an emotional high/low situation, and allow you and your family to catch a breather before moving on to the next big attraction. Even at Dollywood (the big theme park closest to where I grew up) where most of the stages are covered, open-air situations, a good ceiling fan and water or lemonade can go a long way toward revitalizing everyone.
  9. Wherever you're going, I think having a plan is the key and being realistic about what your family can handle. Some people (especially older kids) thrive on going to a theme park with no plan, a park map, and all day to go wherever they want. I don't think this is realistic for large groups or families with younger children. Downloading a park map and making a plan might help your daughter to know what to expect. Yes, she had an awesome time on ride X, but we're planning on visiting ride Y next which she's also looking forward to riding, too. If she's old enough, having her help plan out the itinerary or being in charge of the itinerary might help her make the transition from one ride to the next without mourning having to leave the one behind she just REALLY enjoyed.
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