Visiting a theme park with your children can create wonderful family memories filled with exhilarating rides, musical shows, dazzling fireworks and colorful parades. But for kids on the autism spectrum, all of this excitement can pose some challenges ─ from sensory overload to feeling overwhelmed by crowds to full-out meltdowns.
What’s a parent to do? As a mother of a child on the spectrum, first know that theme park adventures are possible for all people of differing abilities! To make your family trip enjoyable one, consider these autism-friendly tips:
Know Before You Go
Go to the attraction’s website to get a feel for what you’re likely to encounter during your theme park visit. Besides crowds and long queue lines, you might find rides that spin, swing, turn upside down or soar overhead on cables and tracks. You might discover that shows include loud noises, smells, water, fire, smoke or explosives. Some rides and entertainment take place in dark theaters or enclosures, while others have strobe lights and other special effects. Many parks, like Sesame Place, offer a comprehensive sensory guide that rates the intensity of the five senses you can expect to experience at each ride, show and attraction. The more you (and your child) know what to expect, the better you can plan ahead for a more sensory-friendly experience.
Photo courtesy of Sesame Place.
Make a Plan
Many kids on the autism spectrum thrive with routines and might struggle with a change in their regular schedule—even if it’s a fun trip to a theme park. To help your child enjoy your visit, include him/her in your planning phase.
- Look at the park’s website together and ask him what rides, shows and events he’d like to see while visiting.
- Some parks put videos of their offerings or “what to expect” social stories right on their website for review. If not, search for park videos on YouTube to watch with your child.
- Have him make a “must-see” checklist so he knows what to expect throughout the day.
- Ask his input on when he’d like to eat lunch or take a snack break.
- Aim for a target arrival and departure time, just to give him a sense of what’s happening when.
- Have a back-up plan in case something (i.e., bad weather, ride down for maintenance) doesn’t go according to your carefully laid plans
As a camp counselor and caretaker for three years, Zoë Hannah of Washington, D.C., often traveled to theme parks with a group of 10-12 teens with varying special needs, including autism spectrum disorder. She recommends identifying a few calmer or less overstimulating spots to go to. “A lazy river, train ride or anything that doesn’t require waiting in line and is generally slower paced is a good bet,” suggests Hannah.
Coordinate Accessible Accommodations
Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, amusement parks are required to comply with regulations that make their facilities accessible to people with disabilities. In addition, more attractions aim to be inclusive of people of differing abilities, including individuals with autism and/or sensory disorders. For example, Walt Disney World offers services for guests with cognitive disabilities to help ensure they have a magical experience at the park. [You can download Guide for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities to learn about available accommodations to better plan your trip.] And Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park offers a “sensory pack” for guests to check out for the day that includes fidget toys, headphones, weighted lap blankets and non-verbal communication cards.
Recently, several parks have even earned the designation of Certified Autism Center (CAC) from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, which also provides a superb autism travel resource. The CAC designation means team members have received rigorous training in sensory awareness, motor skills, autism sensitivity and awareness, program development, social skills, communication, environment and emotional awareness.
The bottom line: Before you go, research the park’s disability-related offerings, and know what is required from guests to access these services. For instance, you might need to bring medical paperwork, a doctor’s note or disability documentation.
Photo courtesy of Legoland.
Prepare for Triggers
If you know what sets off your child, perhaps you can avoid (or plan for) these triggers. For instance, if loud noises make him anxious, bring earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones to keep him calm. If he’s afraid of bright lights, avoid an indoor show that features strobe lights and simulated lightning. If he’s overly fidgety and impatient waiting in ride queue lines, get some fast-passes to secure your spot and skip the long lines.
Also, Hannah points out to be aware of the water misting spouts throughout many parks. While they aim to cool off guests on a hot day, sudden bursts of water might startle some guests or unexpectedly dampen clothes, which could also lead to discomfort.
Jennifer Arnold of Redding, CA, went to Universal Studios last year with her 11-year-old daughter (who is on the spectrum) and her three boys. “I learned the most important thing we can do is research the heck out of the park for any potential triggers,” says Arnold. “Hers was (and is) not winning at games.” Because Arnold didn’t research the park prior to their trip, she didn’t realize the park had carnival games. “It did not end well,” she says, “But the next day we planned out exactly where we would go in the park, and I made her a checklist so she could know what to expect. It worked great!”
Include Some Down Time
Because I live in Central Florida, aka the Theme Park Capital of the World, my family has visited theme parks dozens (if not hundreds) of times over the years with our two boys, the oldest of whom is on the autism spectrum. Although he’s now 22, when he was younger, he used to tell my husband and me that he was “peopled out” after a few hours in the park. That was our cue to find a quieter spot in the park to take a break and enjoy a snack. In Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort, for example, we used to stroll along the shady, less-traveled walkway adjacent to the train that travels between Fantasy Land and TomorrowLand.
Nowadays, you can take advantage of designated “quiet rooms” that are becoming more readily available at theme parks, such as those found at Cedar Point and Knott’s Berry Farm. These spaces feature comfortable seating, calming color tones, sensory tools and games, and dim lighting to provide respite from sensory overload.
Keep Track of Your Child
To make it easier to spot your child in a crowd, choose to wear brightly colored matching T-shirts. Take a photo of your child in the shirt as soon as you get to the park so you have an up-to-the-minute picture to share with park staff if he gets lost. Do you have a child who wanders or has limited communication? If so, put a note in his pocket with your name and cellphone number so if he does get separated from your family, this pertinent contact information will allow for your reunion to happen much quicker.
Go with the Flow
Worried about your child’s self-stimulatory behavior (“stims”), especially if you’re waiting in line for a while? Turn it into a bonding experience or a chance to make new friends, as Hannah does.
“When kids with autism are loud, that’s an awesome opportunity (as a camp counselor) for some team bonding and inside jokes. We focused on us and what we were experiencing,” notes Hannah, describing, “For example, one camper loved repeatedly jumping up and down, so we all joined in with him while waiting in line. Suddenly we were all laughing, along with the people in line around us.”
Autism-Friendly Theme Parks
Pack your bags and let the fun begin! Armed with pre-planning advice and practical tips, you and your family can enjoy a truly magical day together at a theme park.
- Sesame Place, Langhorne, PA: This was the first theme park in the world to be designated as a Certified Autism Center (CAC). The park’s rides, shows and entertainment mirror the beloved Sesame Street show, including the recent addition of the character Julia, a four-year-old with autism.
- Walt Disney World, Orlando, FL: Among other accommodations mentioned above, all four of Disney’s theme parks in Central Florida offer a special Disability Access Service pass which allows guests to avoid long waiting lines.
- Disneyland, Anaheim, CA: Like its Florida “counterpark,” the west coast Disney parks provide similar, inclusive accommodations for guests with special needs. Talk with Guest Relations to discuss your accessibility needs.
- Morgan’s Wonderland, San Antonio, TX: This non-profit park bills itself as “the world’s first theme park designed with special-needs individuals in mind.” The completely wheelchair-accessible park sits on 25 acres and provides free entrance to anyone with special needs. Notable features include a sensory village, wheelchair swings, sand circle and music garden. Its sister park, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, offers an accessible splash park, including waterproof wheelchairs.
- Legoland, Winter Haven, FL: To assist guests who have difficulty waiting in line, the park offers a BlueHero Pass for guests on the autism spectrum, which allows the guest’s entire group quicker access to popular attractions. The park also created “social stories” that provide an illustrated, step-by-step walk through of every theme park ride and show, available at Guest Services.
- Dollywood, Pigeon Forge, TN: Through its Ride Accessibility Center, the park provides a Boarding Pass tailored specifically for guests to include rides they’ll be most comfortable with. The park also offers “what to expect at the park” social stories and a calming room.
- Also check out options at Aquatica (Orlando, FL), Cedar Point (Sandusky, OH), Discovery Cove (Orlando, FL), Knott’s Berry Farm (Buena Park, CA), Michigan’s Adventure (Muskegon, MI), Nickelodeon Universe (Bloomington, MN), SeaWorld (Orlando, FL), Six Flags Great Adventure (Jackson, NJ), Valleyfair (Shakopee, MN) and Worlds of Fun (Kansas City, MO). Which is your favorite theme park? Share with us on Facebook and Twitter.
Lisa Beach is a freelance journalist and copywriter. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Eating Well, USA Today Go Escape Florida & Caribbean, Parents and dozens more. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.
Photo courtesy of Worlds of Fun.