Theme parks are a great place for families to share a fun day together and create lifelong memories. However, if you have a young child with autism you may think theme parks are not an option. Crowded, long lines, bright lights, loud noises, and lots of smells, a theme park can be a sensory overload even for someone not on the autism spectrum.
But, with the right preparation, a day at a theme park can be an enjoyable experience for the entire family.
Preparing Your Child for the Theme Park
It’s essential to begin preparing your child for a day at a theme park well before the day actually arrives. In preparation for the big day, you should:
- Use visuals: A theme park can be an overwhelming new experience for any child. It is important that you help them prepare for what the park will look like before they arrive. Consider getting your child a map of the park to look at. You can also watch videos and look at pictures of the theme park with your child in the days and weeks leading up to the visit.
- Have a plan: Many children with autism prefer a routine. Although their regular routine may be impacted by a visit to a theme park, you can help ease anxiety by preparing a schedule for the day and going over it with your child beforehand. It’s also a great idea to get your child involved. Talk about the different activities available at the park that you think your child may enjoy and let your child decide what sorts of things they want to see and do.
- Practice waiting in line: Whether visiting during peak season or the off-season (usually a better choice) lines are unavoidable at theme parks. In the days and weeks leading up to the visit start practicing standing in lines with your child.
As a parent, you’ll also want to make sure you are fully educated on all the attractions at the park. You know your child best and you’ll want to have a complete understanding of what the park has to offer. The more you research you do the better prepared you’ll be for any potential triggers the park may have in store for your child. Take some time and research:
- Rides: Even rides designed for young kids can spin, swing, and have sudden unexpected drops. Lots of rides depend on thematic elements like loud sounds and bright lights. You know your child’s sensory sensitivities best. Do your best to find out what the different rides at the park are like to get a better idea of which ones your child may enjoy and which ones should probably be skipped.
- Shows: Just like the rides, even if a show is designed for little ones, the show may include loud sounds and bright lights. They may use fire, explosions and smoke, strobe lights, and other special effects! Make sure you research each show well to make sure your child isn’t caught off guard by unexpected elements.
- Other attractions: Most theme parks offer more than just rides and shows. Research the park and find out what other activities your child may enjoy. Does the theme park have characters for the child to meet? Are there any special interactive activities to try out? Are there any fun displays, shops, or other exhibits to explore?
- Accommodations: Parks are required to offer at least some accommodations for visitors with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Parks must have accommodations for wheelchairs and many offer special access points for those with disabilities. Many parks today even offer quiet rooms for special needs families to escape to. Find out what accommodations the park of your choice offers and how to access those accommodations.
Spending the Day at the Theme Park
What to Bring
Theme parks are filled with a lot of sights and smells and sounds that can be overwhelming for any child. These elements can be especially problematic for children with autism. In order to help make your child feel more comfortable throughout the day make sure you pack things like –
- Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones
- Your child’s favorite devices
- Your child’s favorite snacks (be sure to keep reading to learn more about food)
- A sensory toy
- A playlist filled with calming music and headphones
Whether it is leaving the theme park entirely, finding a quiet spot in the park, or choosing a less stimulating activity, like a train ride, downtime will be vital for a successful theme park visit. With the combination of crowds, sounds, sights, and smells, at some point your child may start to feel overstimulated.
To help ease this you will want to work some downtime into your plan for the day in order to give your child a chance to get away from it all.
Many kids with autism have specific dietary restrictions or will only eat certain foods. Explore the different dining options in and around the park to find the best options for you and your family.
As a backup, even if you do find food that appears to meet your child’s dietary needs and preferences, bring food from home that you know your child will eat. That way if a restaurant’s menu has changed, is sold out of what your child can eat, or when the food arrives your child still won’t touch it, you have food ready to go for them.
When to Visit
If possible try to plan your theme park visit during the off-season or on slower days. Most theme parks get extra crowded during the summer, spring break time, and around the holidays. If you can try to avoid those times of the year. Also, the weekends are usually busier than a weekday, so consider planning your visit sometime midweek if you can.
By choosing less busy days and times of the year you’re more likely to avoid extreme crowds and super long lines. This can make navigating the park easier and reduce the chances of overstimulation for your child.
Parents should also check to see if any nearby theme parks offer sensory-friendly days.
What to Look for in a Theme Park
Many theme parks across the country are taking steps to make their parks more accessible to neurodivergent people. Parents with children on the autism spectrum should look for theme parks that are IBBCES-certified, also known as CAC or a Certified Autism Center. Theme parks that are IBBCES-certified must:
- Have a minimum of 80% of staff trained and certified in the field of autism
- Maintain compliance with National Healthcare/Education Accreditation standards
- Commit to ongoing training in autism
- Comply with HIPAA and ADA requirements
California Theme Parks for Kids with Autism
With the right preparation, parents can visit most theme parks with a child on the autism spectrum. However, certain parks here in California are taking extra steps to make their parks an autism friendlier destination.
- Disneyland: Deemed the Happiest Place on Earth the size of Disneyland can seem overwhelming to parents, especially when they have a child with autism. But Disney is there for you. Disneyland’s visual guide can help parents learn everything they need to know about an attraction. The guide highlights all the different sensory effects you’ll experience on the ride, like loud noises, flashing lights, and smells, as well as any surprise elements, types of restraint, and length of the ride. When it comes to rides Disneyland offers a Disability Access Service. Parents need to enroll their child in this service in advance, but it allows kids with disabilities to skip the long lines on rides and schedule a time instead to ride. They also have a Rider Switch program that allows groups of three or more to split up and swap spots on attractions, rather than having to wait in line twice if some in the party can’t (or don’t want to) ride the attraction.
- Sesame Place: Sesame Place was the world’s first CAC theme park! Visitors with autism can get Special Access Passes which allow them and up to three companions quick access to several rides in the park. They also have low sensory areas and quiet rooms available to visitors. Parents can download their Sensory Guide for more information on the park, tips for planning their visit, and all the information they need about services and attractions in the park.
- Legoland: Legoland is also a CAC theme park. The Lego-themed park has quiet spaces throughout the park and their maps even highlight high and low-traffic areas. Their access guide highlights all the park has to offer and breaks down vital information for each of the park’s attractions.
If you’ll be traveling for your theme park vacation, you can also check out the Autism Travel Website for more information about CAC destinations and lodging accommodations around the country.