USA TODAY International Edition
Theme parks accommodate autistic guests
In the Academy Award- nominated documentary, Life Animated, a family is able to communicate with its autistic son by mimicking characters from Disney animated movies. Children with autism spectrum disorders often develop a special affinity for the films. Like most kids, they also enjoy going to Disney theme parks to meet the characters in person and to enjoy the rides and other activities.
A theme park visit can pose unique challenges for families with autistic members, however. With the prevalence of autism on the rise ( according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 children have the condition), parks are making special accommodations available.
Kids on the autistic spectrum don’t just want to meet Snow White, Mickey Mouse, and other characters from the Disney dossier. “My son is fascinated by Thomas,” says Cherie Daly. That would be Thomas the Tank Engine, the plucky steam locomotive featured in books, the Thomas & Friends television show, and his own Thomas Land at Edaville Family Theme Park in Carver, Mass.
Now in her third season as an employee at the park, Daly has been in a unique position to advocate for her son and other families. When she started, Daly approached Edaville’s general manager and had conversations with her about what it’s like to have an autistic child. As a result, the park has made a number of changes to make visits easier for families.
For example, there is a dedicated quiet room stocked with books, puzzles, and a weighted blanket. Daly explains that many children on the spectrum can experience sensory overload and act out in a way that others might misinterpret as a tantrum. With large crowds, loud mechanical rides, and screams from roller coaster passengers, theme parks typically present lots of stimulation. The quiet room allows families to get away from the noise, people and other distractions. “The weighted blanket is perfect to help ( autistic children) get back to balance,” says Daly.
Edaville built a specially designed bathroom with Daly’s input. People unfamiliar with the disorder might be surprised to learn that loud noises from automatic toilets, faucets, paper towel dispensers, and hand dryers in public bathrooms can scare children and trigger meltdowns. “In my experience, one of these things would set ( my son) off, and it would take me an hour to calm him down,” Daly says. The sensory- friendly bathroom at Edaville has manual controls and is paint- ed a calming shade of blue.
There also is a quiet car on the Thomas train and fidget toys available for children to play with while they wait in line for rides ( waiting is another challenge for people on the spectrum). “Everything I suggested, our general manager said, ‘ We’ll do it,’ ” notes Daly.
This year, Legoland Florida introduced quiet rooms for visitors with autism spectrum disorders. The rooms include weighted blankets, squishy toys, noise- canceling headphones, and tables with Lego building blocks. The park offers a complimentary Blue Hero Pass that allows families to skip the lines at some of the more popular attractions. It also has simple, illustrated guides that help prepare people with autism for the loud noises, bright lights, and other potentially upsetting elements they might encounter on some of the rides.
Dollywood established a dedicated calming room at its Tennessee park last season. Visitors can play with toys that have gently glowing lights, enter a darkened teepee tent, or rest on an oversized beanbag chair. Disney World has designated break areas for families in first aid stations and other locations at its parks. For visitors who have difficulty waiting in lines, the Disney parks offer a Disability Access Service.
While planning modifications at Edaville, Daly relied heavily on her experiences with her son, Jakob. She often brings him to work and had him test all of the initiatives. “Jakob thinks he works here,” Daly says with a laugh.
As Edaville’s special needs rep, she fields calls from parents and interacts with them when they visit. The response has been wonderful, Daly says. “I look at my son, and I see every other child out there. Now people are able to come, relax, and enjoy the park as a family. It’s such a great feeling.”