For most travelers, amusement park visits are a fun way to bond with family and friends. They understand that waiting in lines or being turned away from shows when full is part of life. But the situation is different for families with autism. Crowds, long lines, loud noises are stressors that parents with autism desperately want to avoid.
In recent years, some venues have started to make the needs of families with autism a priority, and strive to accommodate them. Many have special programs to help kids with autism. Some have gone as far as creating unique calming rooms. Here are our some of the best amusement parks for families with autism.
Morgan’s Wonderland San Antonio
Morgan’s Wonderland is a one-of-a-kind amusement park. The brainchild of Gordon Hartman, the 25-acre park owas specifically created for individuals with special needs, opening in spring 2010.
Autism Travel Tips: Admission for persons with disabilities is free; while the entry fees for accompanying family members, friends or caregivers are nominal. The park has wheelchair swings, carousels and even a Water Works play area. Best of all, offers GPS trackers to track kids when they get lost.
SeaWorld – Orlando
SeaWorld is a chain of marine theme parks owned by SeaWorld Entertainment. The parks feature whales, sea lions and dolphin shows, as well as multiple thrill rides. Some stations allow visitors feed the fish and mammals while others offer hands-on activities for like the stingray area, where guests can touch and feel the rays. In 2007, SeaWorld Orlando added the Aquatica water park to its park family.
Autism Travel Tips: SeaWorld has a program called RAP (Ride Accessibility Program), which lets guests skip lines just like the Universal’s and Disney’s passes. Using the RAP allows visitors to schedule return times at attractions without standing in line. What is different about this program is that guests can schedule several return times.
Walt Disney World – Orlando and Disneyland – Anaheim, California
Walt Disney World features four theme parks and two water parks in the Lake Buena Vista area of Florida, while Disneyland features two theme parks in Orange County, California. Today, Disney World is the most-visited vacation destination in the world, with over 55 million annual visitors.
Autism Travel Tips: Walt Disney World offers the DAS (disabilities access service) Pass to help families with autism. The concept involves parents going to a selected ride and asking for a return time to skip the line. The main complaint of parents has been that one can only get one DAS pass at a time hence limiting the number of rides guests can go on per day.
In tandem with the DAS, pass guests can also book a Fast Pass for an additional ride, which helps with the scheduling. Last month, the park added a new concept called the Max Pass. For ten dollars per ticket, visitors can book Fast Passes through a phone app instead to get it. Furthermore, with the Max Pass guests, also get unlimited photo pass downloads for the day.
Universal Studios – Orlando
Universal Orlando, owned by NBC Universal consists of Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay. In addition to the three parks, it has a City Walk area filled with restaurants and entertainment venues.
Autism Travel Tips: Similar to the Disney, Universal has their Attraction Assistance Pass system. Parents can ask for it at Guest Relations. Like the other parks, this one only lets visitors book one ride at a time too.
California’s Great America – Santa Clara, California
The 100-acre amusement venue features over 40 rides and attractions and is currently owned by Cedar Fair. The park caters to visitors of all ages with attractions ranging from carousels to wooden roller coasters.
Autism Travel Tips: Before guests head to the Great American Park, they should check out their comprehensive website. They have a downloadable brochure available that allows visitors to check everything from height requirements to ride safety. Similar to the others, this park accommodates guests with autism by letting them bypass lines. In fact, the system allows families in through the exit area when the line isn’t too long. When the lines are long, park staff give the guests a written return time.
Knots Berry Farm – Buena Park, California
This amusement park, also owned by Cedar Fair, is the California Great America counterpart in the Los Angeles area. What started back in the 1930s as a way to amuse customers waiting in line to buy Mrs. Knott’s fried chicken ballooned into a 160-acre park with 39 rides. But what makes this park different is the fact it exposes its guests to some American history, too. Knott’s has a version of the Calico ghost town as well as a replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall complete with a Liberty Bell.
Autism Travel Tips: Unlike its neighboring parks, Knott’s is smaller and easier to navigate with autism. Usually, the crowds are smaller, so there are shorter wait times for rides. This park like all the others will give parents a return time if the ride wait is over 30 minutes.
Hersey Park – Hershey, Pennsylvania
One of the earlier theme parks in the country is Hershey Park in Hershey, Pennsylvania. In 1906, chocolate mogul by Milton S. Hershey opened the park to entertain his factory employees. The park got its first coaster by 1923 and went through an extensive remodel in the 70s. As of 2016, the park features over 110 acres with 70 rides and a small wildlife zoo.
Autism Travel Tips: The park has partnered with a local Pennsylvania parent group and trained its staff on how to accommodate families with autism. Guests start the process by filling a questionnaire and describing what accommodations their child needs. Then, the park staff issues them a “‘boarding pass” advising them which rides they can go on. The pass (they all have candy based names) gives the visitors exclusive access to those specific rides.
LEGOLAND – Winter Haven, Florida
Opened in 2011, LEGOLAND Florida is a 45-acre theme park in Winter Haven, Florida. Located on the site of an older park, LEGOLAND is suitable for younger kids ages 2 to 12. The venue boasts 45 rides attractions, shows, and even a water park all themed around the Lego products.
Autism Travel Tips: Over the past year, Florida’s LEGOLAND has made significant strides in becoming autism friendly. After working with local autism chapters, the park created a Blue Hero Pass that allows its holders to bypass the lines. They also have designated quiet rooms where overstimulated kids can relax and decompress. The rooms have noise-canceling headphones, weighted blankets, sensory toys and Lego toys. The park even created exclusive social stories that offer a step by step description of each ride and show to help prepare kids for their visit.
Dollywood – Pigeon Forge Tennessee
Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is a joint venture by singer Dolly Parton and the Herschend Family Entertainment. What is unique about the park is its featuring of local artisans and as well as the hosting of musical events. The theme park is part of a sprawling resort that includes a water park, hotel and dinner attraction.
Autism Travel Tips: Dollywood was the first park to offer a sensory room for families with autism. The room full of sensory items like a weighted blanket and fiberoptic strand provides kids on the spectrum with a place to regroup. For rides, the park provides guests with a “Boarding Pass” that helps them skip the lines for rides.
Margalit Sturm Francus has lived in five different countries on three continents, where she exposed and educated her own children about the world. In 2009, she established a nonprofit website, Autistic Globetrotting, to inspire and encourage autistic families to explore the world. By communicating with both the autistic and travel communities, she aims to raise autism awareness and facilitate the implementation of much-needed accommodations for special needs travelers.