As Autism Awareness Grows, so do Facilities & Services for ASD Community, Pt. 1

Amusement / Theme Parks

DollywoodA study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2014 showed that the prevalence of autism in the US has increased to 1 in 68 children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As awareness of autism and the needs of the ASD community grows among the general population, a number of companies and public facilities have recently established initiatives to address these needs.

As we expect this trend to grow in the future, this 3-part series highlights some of the current programs and initiatives from around the country that were created to help improve the lives of autistic children, their families, and other people with disabilities. In this first part part, we take a look at what amusement and themes are doing to accommodate their guests with special needs.

Theme Parks Add Services to Help Autistic Children Enjoy Their Visit

For children with an autism spectrum disorder, theme parks can be a daunting and difficult adventure with a wide variety of sensory input, including bright lights and strobe effects, music and sounds, aromas of popcorn, hot dogs and cotton candy, and other debilitating distractions that can cause a negative reaction.

Earlier this summer, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee opened a new calming room for autistic visitors, the first of its kind in the country. an article in The Huffington Post, park employee Judy Toth, who works in the ride accessibility center, noticed an increase in visiting families with autistic children.

Dollywood’s “calming room” has been designed, with the help of Autism Speaks, to give kids with an autism spectrum disorder a place to relax and regroup when they begin to feel overwhelmed by it all. The room is equipped with sensory items such as a weighted blanket, fiber optic strands and a teepee. To find out more information, you can call 1-800-Dollywood (1-800-365-5996) in advance of your visit to speak to an attendant at their Ride Accessibility Center. You can also download the Dollywood Park Accessibility Guide.

According to Toth, families use and appreciate the calming room. Many share their thanks for the space in a guest book. Some families write about how the room allowed them to take their kids to an amusement park for the first time.

“A big thank you to Dollywood from our family and the autism community,” one parent wrote on Dollywood’s Facebook page. “On my son’s first trip to Dollywood he became overstimulated and had a terrible meltdown… If we had a room like that to escape to, things may have been different.”

While Dollywood’s calming room may be the first of its kind in any amusement park, it certainly won’t be the last. Other Theme/Amusement Parks that provide support services for autistic children and disabled guests include:

  • In March, Legoland announced plans to add several calming spaces to its Orlando-area park. For more information, download the Legoland Guide for Guests with Disabilities.
  • While Walt Disney World has yet to create dedicated calming rooms for autistic children, they do offer a variety of services for guests with an ASD or other cognitive disability, from the ability to accommodate most food allergies, intolerances and specific dietary needs, to the attraction Rider Switch program, which enables you to experience an attraction while another member of your party waits with the Guest who does not ride, to dozens of break areas throughout the parks where a Guest can “take a break” should they become over-stimulated or need some down time. For a complete list of break area locations, as well as information about other services available, you can download their brochure, “Planning a Trip to the Walt Disney World® Resort: A Resource for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).”
  • Busch Gardens in Tampa, FL and Williamsburg, VA, have two programs in place to assist guests with disabilities. Their Ride
    Accessibility Program (RAP) matches the individual abilities of guests to the requirements of each ride. When enrolled in RAP, disabled guests will be able to participate in the Special Access Program which assists guests in enjoying attractions throughout the park as some queue lines are not accessible to mobility-impaired guests. For more information about their services for guests with an ASD or other disability, you can download the Busch Gardens Williamsburg Accessibility Guide.
  • Other theme parks across the country that welcome guests with disabilities and make special accommodations for them include:
    • Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas
    • Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, 3 hours south of Indianapolis
    • Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, just off Interstate 80 about 2.5 hours northwest of Philadelphia
    • Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, about 30 minutes northeast of Philadelphia
    • There are 18 Six Flags theme parks and water parks in North America, and all of them offer a Rider Access Pass or Equal Access Pass for guests with disabilities.  These passes allow a guest with up to 3 companions to schedule a reservation time for a ride without waiting in line. For more information, download the Six Flags Guest Safety and Accessibility Guide.
    • Cedar Fair is the parent company of eleven amusement parks, three separately gated outdoor water parks, one indoor water park and five hotels across North America.  The largest and most famous of their properties is Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. In 2013, Cedar Fair uniformly modified its policies for guests with disabilities across all of its properties.  Guests with mobility impairments or Autism Spectrum Disorder may enroll in the Ride Boarding Pass Program, which provides pre-scheduled boarding times via the exit ramp for the most popular rides.
    • Sea World San Diego provides a Special Access Pass to guests with disabilities, which places the guest in a Virtual Queue with a prescheduled boarding time for each ride. For more information about this program, download the Sea World San Diego Access Guide.