Your Guide to Visiting Amusement Parks With a Child With Autism
Amusement parks are a great place to visit for thrills, laughs, and fun for many families. Amusement parks also tend to be accessible and accommodating of different support needs, making them a great choice for all families.
But for a child with autism, parks can be overwhelming.
If you have a child with autism, should you avoid amusement parks? Absolutely not! With some advanced planning, amusement parks can not only be fun but may even become a favorite destination.
As the parent of three children with autism spectrum disorder, my family was initially reluctant to tackle amusement parks. Now, we visit at least a few every year. Some of our favorite family memories are from these visits. Learn more about the autism-friendly amusement park tips I’ve picked up along the way that can make amusement parts a memorable experience for your child with autism and the whole family.
Find Out About Disability Access Passes
If someone with a disability needs help accessing rides, amusement parks must provide reasonable accommodations. This includes providing a way for a child with sensory processing issues to avoid waiting in crowded lines.
The first step to take before visiting an amusement park with someone with autism, or any other type of disability, is to find out what type of accommodations the park provides.
Different amusement parks offer different types of accommodations. Some parks allow a child with autism to go on a ride almost immediately, while others will give the family a specific time to return to the ride without waiting in line. The return time is usually roughly equivalent to how long other guests need to wait in line, but this system allows the person with autism to wait in a quiet area before their turn.
Some parks have limitations on their accessibility programs. For example, some parks allow anyone visiting with the person with autism to ride with them, while other parks may limit the number of people who can ride together to four or six. Be sure to ask about any limitations ahead of time, especially if you have a big family or will be visiting with a group.
The criteria parks use for their disability programs varies as well. Some require a note from a doctor stating that someone is entitled to accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Other parks have policies that prohibit them from asking for a diagnosis at all. It’s always a good idea to be prepared to explain the specific accommodations your child needs. This includes explaining that they will become overwhelmed by waiting in a noisy line and will not be able to ride or that they will have a meltdown if they see their favorite ride and can’t go on.
Different parks call their disability access programs different things. For example, Universal Studios has an Attraction Access Pass while Disney World has a Disability Access Service pass. If you are not sure what the park you are visiting calls their disability access program, don’t worry. Just let customer relations know that you need accommodations for a disability, and they will point you in the right direction.
Importantly, if the amusement park’s accommodations are not working for your child, don’t hesitate to ask for something else. If you can explain why the accommodations the park initially offered are not working and what your child needs instead, the park may be open to making changes.
Plan Your Rides
Nearly every park has a list of rides and a description of each online. Look at all of them and figure out which ones your family wants to ride. Pay attention to any restrictions, such as height requirements, to avoid disappointment at the park if your child isn’t tall enough to ride. Some parks have “kiddie areas” with rides with maximum height requirements.
Go over the list and come up with a plan. While flexibility may be needed, it can be helpful to create a list of rides you intend to ride, in order, and check them off as you go along.
It is helpful to have “plan B” in case something goes wrong. For instance, if your child gets in line and changes their mind and there are people in your party who still want to ride, ask about a waiting area and the possibility of swapping waiting with a child who does not want to or can’t ride. Many parks call this “child swap” and allow one parent to ride with other children while one parent waits with another child. Then, once the first ride is over, parents can swap who rides and who waits to give everyone the chance to ride without putting pressure on anyone who prefers to sit one out.
There is always the possibility that a ride will be delayed or closed. It may be helpful to go through a couple of scenarios where the order of rides is changed or one must be skipped entirely.
Do as Much Preparation as Possible
Seek out any “extras” the park you visit has in advance for additional support.
For example, Hershey Park has point-of-view videos for most of its rides. Videos of many rides in other parks can be found on YouTube. This can help give visitors a good idea of what to expect before riding.
Also, think about what helps your child in other situations. If fidget toys, gum, chewy toys, music, headphones, or another tool helps your child stay regulated, plan on bringing those items to the park.
It’s also helpful to ask park staff if they have any tips. You may find out that the first couple of hours a park is open tend to be lighter crowds, so you can plan accordingly. They may share other insider tips to make your visit run more smoothly if you ask. My family has found great, quiet viewing spots for fireworks we never would have known about otherwise. We have also gotten tips about when characters will appear so we could get photos before crowds formed and insider information weeks to avoid visits because of high crowd predictions due to special events.
If your child is receiving ABA therapy, their registered behavior technician (RBT) can review social stories with your child ahead of the visit. They can also help craft and practice responses to situations your child may encounter at an amusement park, such as needing to wait for a ride or dealing with crowds.
Get Information Essential to Your Family
Every child with autism is a little different. Think about what your child needs to be comfortable and stay regulated. Then, ask about those specific needs.
For example, if your child needs to wear headphones, ask which attractions your child can go on while wearing them. If your child can’t tolerate loud sounds or flashing lights, ask which rides they should avoid. The more detailed you can get, the better. Some parks have guides detailing this information, but even those that don’t should be able to find this information for you.
Set Your Priorities
Go into your trip with a couple of key goals. This could be riding a certain roller coaster or taking a photo with a princess. Do this early in the day to ensure you have a successful trip in at least some respects, even if you must leave earlier than expected.
When we visited Disney World, we headed straight to see Elsa and Anna since getting a photo with these princesses was my daughter’s dream.
Seek Out Quiet Spots
Even typically developing kids can have a hard time at amusement parks and become overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and crowds. It’s essential to seek out quiet spots for when your child needs to regroup and take a break.
Some amusement parks have sensory or quiet rooms available for children with autism, but they may not be marked. Be sure to ask whether the park you are visiting has a quiet room if needed. If not, some parks will allow a child who needs a sensory break to spend some time in the health suite.
It’s also a good idea to ask about where you can find quiet places throughout the park so you can find one quickly if needed. Park staff should be able to tell you where you can find quieter, less-traveled places.
Many parks incorporate lakes and other natural elements. My daughter loves taking sensory breaks near water. Although it is technically a ride, some parks have big trains that travel around the entire park. These tend to be quiet and low-key rides making them a great place to take a sensory break as well.
Ask about low-sensory spots for viewing parades and meeting characters. Not all parks have these, but many do, so it’s worth asking!
Before getting on a ride, ask all the questions you need to for your child to feel comfortable. Ride operators should know how long each ride lasts down to the second and how many times a ride goes around the track before stopping. They should also be able to tell you details like how many drops a roller coaster has and whether music plays during the ride. Knowing all of this before the lap bar drops down can be very reassuring.
Know Food Options
Enjoying amusement park food is a big part of the experience for some. For others, nothing in the park looks appetizing. Look at menus before you go.
Some parks allow you to bring in food, but be aware of restrictions, such as prohibitions on glass containers. If the park you are visiting does not normally allow guests to bring their own food, there are usually exceptions for those with a special need. Pack some of your child’s favorite snacks from home, which can also help to ease any discomforts of a new environment.
With some advance planning, children with autism may find that they love visiting amusement parks and this can become a much-anticipated family tradition.