Going on rides and chomping on cotton candy might seem like the perfect fit for summer fun, but for families with kids on the autism-spectrum, it can be overwhelming to navigate a big park. While many places offer special nights or events catering to kids on the spectrum, the following big amusement parks have taken the extra step to make a permanently inclusive environment for all. Read on for the scoop.
Aquatica Orlando—Orlando, Florida
Aquatica Orlando is the world's first autism-certified water park! Even though the Florida attraction itself isn't exactly new, it's recent certification from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) is.As a Certified Autism Center (CAC), Aquatica Orlando's staff (or as the park calls them, Ambassadors) gets specialized training that allows them to completely cater to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Along with learning about autism, the Ambassadors' training includes info on sensory awareness, motor skills, program development, environment, communication and emotional awareness. The park's new additions include a Quiet Room (with adjustable lighting and plenty of privacy) and a Low Sensory Area.
Sesame Place—Philadelphia, PA
Sesame Street introduced their first character with autism, Julia, in 2015. And now, the theme park based on the award-winning show has gone the extra mile when it comes to being all-inclusive. It is now officially the first theme park in the world to be designated as a Certified Autism Center (CAC) as distinguished by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). That means there's been a staff-wide autism sensitivity and awareness training and, as a Certified Autism Center, staff must engage in ongoing training to assure that all employees have the knowledge, skills, temperament, and expertise to interact with kids with special needs—and specifically with autism. A sensory guide is available on the website for parents to help plan activities ahead of time to work with their child's specific needs—it will include insight into sensory experiences for each ride or attraction. There will be two quiet rooms on Sesame Island with adjustable lighting and comfortable seating for the entire family, noise canceling headphones available, rides that are low sensory, a low sensory parade viewing area and even quieter dining options. The park reopens to the public for the season April 28.
LEGOLAND Florida Resort—Winter Haven, Florida
In early 2017 the park announced an initiative to create sensory-friendly experiences for all children and their families with provisions in place for guests on the autism spectrum. This includes a no-cost "Hero Pass" that allows groups to bypass the standby line at popular attractions (check in at Guest Services), quiet rooms equipped with noise-cancelling headphones, weighted blankets, squishy toys and tables where kids can build with LEGO bricks as well as illustrated, step-by-step walkthroughs of rides and shows to give kids and caregivers an advance warning about loud noises, periods of darkness, bright lights or other overwhelming or potentially frightening aspects. All new hires to the park receive special training to learn how to interact with guests on the spectrum. Read more here.
Thomas Land at Edaville Family Theme Park—Carver, Massachusetts
This year Thomas Land's opening day welcomed families around the world, and it included autism-spectrum friendly experiences as part of that re-opening. Permanent additions to Thomas Land include a quiet car on the Thomas train that includes bench seating, table and chairs, soft toys and a safe space for kids to decompress; sensory-friendly bathroom in Thomas Land with a manual flush toilet (parents with kids on the spectrum know exactly why this is such a big deal!)l fidget toys and stress balls for longer waits in line (grab them at Guest Services); weighted blankets; fenced in areas and train tables set aside for quiet play.
Morgan's Wonderland—San Antonio, TX
If you haven't heard about Morgan's Wonderland, it's the world's first amusement park that was built specifically to be all-inclusive for children (and adults) of all abilities and ages. Named after the founder's own daughter, who has severe cognitive delays and physical disabilities, Maggie and Gordon Hartman wanted a place where families could be together on vacation, no matter their abilities. The park features a carousel that allows people in wheelchairs to float up and down and off-road adventures where they can sit in the same car with family members, wheelchair accessible sandboxes and more. For kids on the autism spectrum, there's an entire Sensory Village: it's free of bright lights and loud noises. There are tons of imagination stations, a Saddle-Up Stable with an (electronic) horse ride, places to paint, make movies and build, a Village Market grocery store, a Fix-It Shop and so much more. They even have an entire water park, open in the summer.
Dollywood—Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
In 2016 Dollywood announced the park's addition of a Calming Room: a quiet place designed for kids with sensory overload. The park's employees noticed an increase in children with autism attending and that parents were using bathrooms to try and calm overstimulated kids. That's when they realized it was important to create a haven for families to take that needed break. Dollywood consulted with Autism Speaks to outfit the room with gentle lighting, a cozy teepee, soft toys, and more. Hooray for Dollywood!
Autism-Friendly Day at Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari—Jackson, New Jersey
Six Flags Adventure is teaming up with the Gersh Academy to create the second-annual autism-friendly day this year on May 8, 2019. From 10:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. the park will make adjustments including: lowering lights and music levels, shorter lines and accommodations for children who are unable to stand in line, decompression areas stocked with sensory-friendly items, rides ratings based on sensory and thrill levels, and more than 100 trained Gersh Academy staff to assist children and families. The Gersh Academy is an educational foundation and K-12 school for children on the autism spectrum. Regular park admission applies ($39.99) and tickets can be purchased in advance. Learn more here.