Tips To Make Your Theme Park Visits Fun For Everyone
While having a child with autism is never easy, I am glad that I didn’t have to deal with this challenge even forty years ago. Years past children with disabilities were basically kept at home and almost hidden. The thought of travel was unheard of. But today things have drastically changed. Don’t get me wrong, there is still huge room for improvement and acceptance within the public, but things have moved forward. Children are staying at home with their loving families. More families are doing everyday activities with their children. And even venues are catering to the needs of such families. Family vacations and day trips are possible and even enjoyable for all.
Here in Georgia, there are many events and museums that have days and times just for those with Autism and Sensory Issues. You can see a complete list at Sensory Friendly Events (I do a listing every month). From early hours, calming rooms, sensory play areas, and even special pricing to make it more affordable.
Theme Parks And Autism
Bigger national parks are also getting on board with being Autism friendly. Here are some we’ve visited and what made them work for Lil Man.
Six Flags’ Attraction Access Program is designed to accommodate guests with disabilities or certain other qualifying impairments so they may participate in the enjoyment of our Parks. Each attraction at Six Flags has been evaluated for the criteria necessary for an individual to ride safely. We strive to make sure that Six Flags is fun and accessible for everyone and lots of guests with disabilities enjoy the park every day.
We have been numerous times to Six Flags Over Georgia and a few trips to Six Flags New England. While Six Flags is still in the new phase of accommodating such guests (new compared to some others) they are doing a good job.
For guests who can not wait in lines, they offer the Attraction Access Pass (AAP). This is not a front of the line pass so please take note. You will wait the same amount of time as other guests but they don’t have to wait in the regular ride queue. Guests will be assigned a time based on the current wait time to come back to ride. At that time, the person with the pass and up to 3 guests will enter through the exit or fast pass line to ride.
We tested the AAP a few times and the Georgia location is needed some work. Online it says you will be assigned a return time from the ride entrance but we never see an employee at the entrance to give us one. I have to go through the exit without my son and go to the front where everyone boards to get a return time from someone there. And 70% of the time they are confused. But it works that my son doesn’t expect to get right on and we return with no issues.
Another difference is the all Six Flags part require a Doctors Note. But DO NOT put the diagnoses on it. Here is what you need:
- Doctor’s name
- Address of the doctor’s practice (Printed stationery is OK as long as it includes the Doctor’s medical ID number)
- Phone number of doctor’s practice (Printed stationery is OK as long as it includes the Doctor’s medical ID number)
- Name of person requesting the Attraction Access Pass
- A statement indicating the guest has a disability or other qualifying impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or applicable state law that prevents the guest from waiting in a standard queue.
- A valid time period of disability (permanent or, if temporary, the valid time period the Pass is needed for)
- Doctor’s signature
- The note must NOT describe or indicate the nature of the disability.
Once you apply for the AAP your information is kept in the system for all US Six Flags parks and you will not need to bring the note again.
Bring your note to the Ride Information Center (Guest Services) just inside the front gate of the park. Photo identification must be presented at the time of issuance. For children under the age of 16, a student photo ID will be acceptable. If a child 12 or under does not have a photo ID, we will accept the parent’s or guardian’s ID.
I do feel employee training is further needed with some employees but they are trying. If you should have an issue, just ask to speak with a supervisor. There are several on the park grounds at all times so if told there is not one available, try again.
Edaville Family Theme Park in Carver, Mass.
Edaville is 250 acres of vintage amusement rides such as an antique carousel and an illuminated Ferris Wheel. Other attractions throughout the year include, Dino Land, character breakfasts, character meet & greets, “Not So Spooky Halloween” in October, and Christmas Festival of Lights offering train rides through brilliant displays lit with over 18 million lights during our Christmas season.
Within Edaville Family Theme Park, is Thomas Land. The theme park brings the Island of Sodor to life. Families can visit iconic destinations including Knapford Station and Tidmouth Sheds and enjoy 11 themed rides featuring favorite characters like Cranky the Crane, Harold the Helicopter, and more!
Autism Friendly Points:
- a dedicated quiet room stocked with books, puzzles, and a weighted blanket.
- specially designed bathrooms with manual controlled toilets, faucets, and paper towels vs hand dryers.
- a quiet car on the Thomas train that circles the park
- fidget toys available for children to play with while they wait in line for rides
Our visit was during a trip up north to visit family. We went at the beginning of November so it was a little chilly and crowds were low which makes for shorter lines and Lil Man was able to enjoy the freedom from too many people. The drawback was not everything is open so we didn’t really have or need to test out any of the assistance.
Last year LEGOLAND partnered with the North and Central Florida chapter of Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science, and advocacy organization, to better serve guests on the autism spectrum.
- To assist visitors who have difficulty waiting in line, a pass specifically for guests on the autism spectrum allows a group to bypass the standby line at popular attractions. The no-cost “Blue Hero Pass” is available at Guest Services inside the theme park.
- Specially equipped spaces in the resort’s Annual Pass, First Aid and Baby Care facilities now serve as designated “quiet rooms” where guests who are on the autism spectrum and their families can take a break. Noise-canceling headphones, weighted blankets, squishy toys, and LEGO® building tables are some of the complementary resources available. A similar space also is available within Guest Services at LEGOLAND Water Park.
- The LEGOLAND Training & Development team has created “social stories” that offers an illustrated, step-by-step walkthrough of every ride and show, so guests won’t be surprised by periods of darkness, loud noises, bright lights or other elements that often can be frightening or overwhelming. They’re available for review at Guest Services.
- All newly hired resort employees (called “Model Citizens”) now receive specialized training to prepare them with skills and sensitivities to more effectively interact with guests on the autism spectrum, as well as their families or caregivers. Consultations include Dr. Craig Glaser, the resort’s medical director, who also serves as medical director of Winter Haven’s Urgent Care Cypress facility.
- LEGOLAND Beach Retreat offers endless fun in the sun, plus a giant, hands-on activity station where kids can add their own creations to a giant sand castle made out of thousands of LEGO bricks.
The day of our visit was a day of scattered rain so the crowds were low. We did not even need to use the pass but we did ask for one to see how the process works. Guest Relations was very friendly and we received the pass very quickly. Characters and staff were friendly and we had a great time.
Universal Studios Florida is composed of themed areas and attractions based on the film industry and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, is a theme park composed of seven distinct “islands” that are themed to various forms of adventures. Islands of Adventure is a particularly sensory park. Each island is carefully crafted to represent a certain theme, and oversized props are the norm. Depending on your child, this may prove to be a wonderful experience or a disaster.
The web site is hard to navigate and has very limited information. But in the Rider’s Guide, you can find information about their ATTRACTION ASSISTANCE PASS. The AAP allows Guests to schedule a return time that is comparable to the current queue wait for the given attraction. Once a return time is issued, Guests are free to enjoy other theme park offerings such as meeting a character, grabbing a bite to eat, shopping, or enjoying the area entertainment. Guests can only have one active return time. When you arrive in the park, proceed to Guest Services and ask for the AAP.
FAMILY RESTROOMS are also provided.
I have not been able to confirm if a doctor’s note is needed or not. Due to HIPPA laws, I would caution to get a note but again without the diagnoses listed. We did not use the AAP on our trip as we had Express Passes and this was working for Lil Man as the wait times were short for us.
While the site is not the best for looking like Universal is autism-friendly, please know that they are. In fact, I would say they were amazing. With character meets, if Lil Man was hesitating or just need a little time to warm up, they gave it happily. We never felt rushed or as if we were a burden. Some went out of their way as when we were watching a street parade for Despicable Me and one of the dancers went to grab the kids to join on the street. When Lil Man didn’t go one girl held her hand out to ease him in. I said he has autism and without missing a beat she gave me a thumbs up and then got down on Lil Mans level (her knees) and danced with him there. Then, when the music was over and the cast was doing meet N greets; she lead our family over and we got one-on-one time with all of them. No wait and no pressure. It is still something I remember fondly to the point of tears. My best advice is to ask. Tell employees of your circumstances and they are very willing to help.
Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World resorts is a place that needs no introduction. The home of Mickey and the place where they make dreams come true. Disney prides themselves on outstanding customer service which is why you are referred to as guests and not a customer. Employees are cast members and are on show at all times. Surprise magic happens every day and you never know where. Free room upgrades, gifts in rooms, cast surprises, or in our case a huge Ice Cream sundae that Minnie had made for Mickey but he had to do a show at the Philharmonic and wanted DIVA to have it. #Priceless
Disney wants everyone to have a magical time and has made it easy for families with special needs to have fun and not worry.
- Advanced Ticket Purchase
- Stroller and Wheelchair Rental
- Strollers as Wheelchairs
- Rider Switch
- Accessing Attractions
- Break Areas
- Companion Restrooms
- Dietary Accommodations Disney FASTPASS Service and a Disability Access Service
The Disability Access Service or DAS is designed for Guests who are unable to tolerate extended waits at attractions due to a disability. This service allows Guests to schedule a return time that is comparable to the current queue wait for the given attraction. Disney does not require a doctors note nor do they ask for your condition. What you do is explain why you would need the DAS such as the inability to deal with crowds and long waits.
FASTPASS is open to everyone but if you use the FASTPASS with the DAS you can have serval rides scheduled at one time to help with wait times.
Should the Guest with a cognitive disability become over-stimulated or need some downtime, dozens of areas are available throughout the parks where a Guest can “take a break.” To locate the nearest area, please ask a Cast Member for assistance.
In addition to multiple men’s and women’s restroom facilities throughout the parks, companion restrooms are also available in select locations. Each is larger than a traditional restroom which can be helpful if a Guest needs assistance or requires that someone accompany him or her.
Another huge benefit of Disney World parks is you can bring in your own food! This helps to prevent meltdowns due to hunger, pickiness or having to wait. You can also get free water refills in any container from all drink stations, to prevent dehydration.
We have taken Lil Man twice now and hope to go again by year’s end. His DAS is on file so I just have to go to guest services and ask for his current DAS. I have rented a wheelchair/stroller in the past as he feels safer in his own space. Strollers can be tagged as a wheelchair device which allows you to take them right up to the ride instead of parking it in stroller parking.
On our last trip, we went in September right after school started and wait times were low. We didn’t use any of our FASTPASS’s and only needed the DAS for a handful of rides as most waits were less than 10 minutes. Planning can help make things smooth and again if you have any issues, concerns or requests; just ask a cast member.
What theme parks have you gone to that you found to be autism-friendly?
Share your thoughts.
UPDATE OF APRIL 2019: Be sure to check out our NEW Certified Autism Centers listing. Many theme parks and vacation destinations are now taking all the stress and worry away and making it a safe and relaxing experience for ASD families.