Winter Camp on a Single Mom’s Budget

Many of you who follow this blog already know I’m a single mom. How, you wonder, did I afford to do this? I’m certainly not rolling in money at the moment.

I thought I should do a post about this in case you’re in the same situation and would love to expose your child to this experience.

First of all, the camp isn’t expensive — about $250 for a full week — Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to noon. If you enroll your child for a full day, it goes up to around $400. I know there were parents who had children in the full-day camp, but my observation was that they were Clearwater residents and were using this as part of summer day care while they went to work. My feeling was that Neil had enough of the experience if he attended morning sessions. In the afternoons, we went to the beach, played a round of putt-putt golf, went to an indoor wave surfing attraction and sometimes just cocooned with a good Disney DVD and popcorn. At Clearwater Beach, you’ll enjoy Pier 60, which has family-friendly attractions and a wonderful cafe (great Grouper sandwiches!). And, Clearwater has a wonderful trolley service. For $5 per person, you can ride the “Jolly Trolley” all day and choose your area of the beach for relaxation. Next to the Clearwater public library on the beach is a public pool ($5 admission), and Neil and I spent the afternoon of July 4 there. It was a great break from the sand and surf, and hardly anyone was there!

For Dolphin Camp, there is an extra $50 cost for a back pack filled with snorkeling gear, a beach towel, an underwater camera and sunscreen. You don’t have to buy it, but let me tell you — it’s really worth it, and it’s great to have a back pack and towel as a souvenir (plus, the snorkeling gear is nothing like what you’d find outside of Florida).

As for lodging …I have a lovely uncle who is a New York snowbird. He spends half of the year in Clearwater, and he graciously gave us his home for the week for free, because he was going to be in New York for the summer. That said, if you’re on a tight budget, you might call around to Realtors in Clearwater who handle rental beach properties or even home owners’ associations where snowbirds live, to see if any rent out their homes when they go North.

Because we stayed at my uncle’s home, I was able to save further on meals. This allowed me to have extra cash on hand for souvenir shopping and anything touristy that we wanted to do.

There are plenty of things to do in and around Clearwater as well, but as I’m on such a tight budget right now, I convinced Neil to stick with beach time. The day after our last day of Winter Camp, we drove across Florida to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where for $80, both of us had admission to two days’ worth of out-of-this-world fun.

Rather than fly down, I also chose to take a two day road trip. My AAA membership helped save with lodging. All told, I just spent money for two nights in budget hotels during our 14-hour drive, one night at Kennedy Space Center, gasoline and meals … and the Dolphin Camp admission.

I planned this trip about eight months in advance (starting in October 2011) and saved up a little each month so that I could just pay it without a credit card.

Great fun!

If you want budget saving tips for your trip, let me know.

If I as a single mom can do it, I promise that you can, too!




Did We Mention New Friends?

One of the side benefits of attending dolphin camp of course was the opportunity to meet very cool people.

On our last day, I did some antiquing in nearby Dunedin with two new friends while our kiddos went snorkeling. Afterwards, we went to this great “indoor wave” attraction near Clearwater’s Pier 60! It’s really worth it if you make the trip!

Here’s Neil with his little friend and some shots of him catching a wave or two. 😀

We had a blast!

Tune in for some concluding thoughts about dolphin camp and why this memory will stay with us for years to come.

Stingray Therapy

When you have a child on the autistic “spectrum,” any moment of peace is a moment to be cherished.

One thing that really amazed me about Neil’s time at the aquarium was its calming effects on him. To look at the place, it’s not at all like a Disney World or Sea World experience. There isn’t any glitz or glamor, flash or fanfare. The paint is chipping. The passageways have puddles. The stairwells are crumbling. The physical surroundings are that of a place struggling to make it, despite all of the hype and crowds that the movie has generated.

But there is soothing music constantly playing from the movie soundtrack.

And despite the numbers of people, you have the one-on-one contact with the sea creatures.

Neil would stand at these tanks and just stare. Most children would stick their hand in a tank and scurry off. But Neil concentrated on the animals’ graceful gliding through the water. He’d gently touch the edge of a stingray’s “wing” and then wait patiently for it to circle around again. He’d speak quietly, coaxing, whispering, whistling. And the sea creatures always responded.

I took to calling it, “Stingray Therapy.”

I didn’t rush him. As hot and uncomfortable as it was, this communing, as it were, was a time belonging to Neil, one upon which I did not want to impose.

After the horrible bullying he experienced in our public school this past spring, these peaceful encounters were like nourishing cold water after a lengthy trudge through the Sahara.

Here are some photos from one encounter with stingrays. They’re a little hazy, but I was snapping the camera non-stop, to try to capture the give-and-take between Neil and his new friends:

Asperger’s Syndrome Meets a Photo Shoot

Neil has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.

As a result, when it comes to something as magnanimous as getting your photo taken with a dolphin who starred in a major motion picture, you can see there would be a lot of dynamics at work. For a regular kid, the excitement is enough to send them through the roof. For a kid like Neil, who is extremely meticulous with detail and who expects plans to match his expectations, this is more excruciating than exciting.

Nonetheless, I endeavored to make arrangements for a photo shoot with Winter, which according to the Web site, would cost $40. I had a long conversation with a reservations clerk the Wednesday before we left on our trip. She told me that Neil would have his photo made with Winter on the 4th of July.

“I’ll bet this will make this 4th of July memorable for him!” she said. I couldn’t have agreed more.

The only problem was, unbeknownst to us, the aquarium no longer allows photos to be made with Winter, because of her health issues. And the directions from the reservation clerk about what to do on the day of the appointment were nil.

So two days before this occurred, I stopped in to the guest services office to find out exactly where we were supposed to go. The aquarium is packed with so many people that I didn’t want us to get lost in the crowd.

To make a very long story short, we stood by this pole, waiting for someone to get us, for 45 minutes, surrounded by people, in intense heat, and with no clue whether we were forgotten. Having Asperger’s, Neil is very insistent, so he proceeded to ask different trainers and staff members when his photo shoot would take place. Everyone pointed to the same pole in the middle of the tanks and said, “Stand there.”

We stood.

And stood.

And stood some more.

Finally, Neil approached a couple of trainers, who told him with much exasperation that his photo wasn’t even going to be with Winter. It would be with another dolphin named Hope.

Are you a parent of a child with Asperger’s? If you are, you will completely understand the eruption that ensued.

To the rest of the world, it would have looked like a badly spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum and a laissez-faire mother with absolutely no discipline in her parenting repertoire. But if you have an autistic kid, you already get that this was practically a death knell.

We were instructed to go back to Guest Services, and the polite grandmotherly ladies there explained why Winter couldn’t be photographed with Neil. Neil is one of those kids who, if provided rational and respectful discussion, will immediately grasp the information and decompress and accept it. We were fortunate in this instance that the Guest Services ladies knew how to communicate. The dolphin trainers, on the other hand? Given the volatility of the situation and my obvious bias, I’ll leave out my opinion on that one.

In the end, we did get the photo opportunity, and here is Neil with Hope. I guess I decided to blog this one negative experience out of the entire positive series because I do want people to hear and understand that kids with Asperger’s just need a little extra TLC. They’re very smart, but in our case, this could have turned out much worse than it did. So many thanks go out to the Guest Services department at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Here are the photos …. you’ll see that all ended well:






A Dash of Hollywood

Expect movie props galore at Clearwater Marine Aquarium when you visit. This shark head was kinda cool ….

And if you’ve watched “Dolphin Tale” a million times like we have since the DVD came out in December, you’ll see lots of signs of places you recognize in the film … like this one. It shows you the scene where the two kids hung out in sleeping bags with Harry Connick Jr. while they “babysat” Winter for her recovery:

Then you step back and gain your perspective and see exactly where those dudes were sitting:

And throughout the place, there are occasionally video scenes that play and replay, so you can get the full picture that Hollywood actually sprinkled its pixie dust here:

But of course the best part of all is the interaction with the movie’s real star:

Check back for part 5 of our tale, when we’ll share exactly how this wonderful dolphin made a personal impact on Neil.

We Made It!

Well here we are in Clearwater, FL, at the home of Winter the Dolphin, star of “Dolphin Tale.”

To learn more about how and why we got here, click on “Why We Traveled from KY to Winter’s Home” at the top of the page.

I’m Heidi, and my child is Neil. We’ve been planning our visit with Winter since October 2011. This week, Neil has been participating in “Winter Camp,” a special week-long day camp for kiddos who want to learn more about this very amazing dolphin who lost her tail and lived to tell the tale.

Here at our blog, we’ll share photos from our week, plus tips on navigating your way around the aquarium and getting the most out of your visit, too!

Thanks for joining us, and tune in for more!