Travelling to Florida's theme parks with autism
Many families dream of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Florida, but parents of children with autism may be reluctant to visit the theme parks due to the noise and crowds. With April being Autism Awareness month, we thought it would be a good time to inform you of what the theme parks offer to guests with cognitive disabilities.
There is so much more awareness now than ever before, you will find something to comfort and assist a family member with autism at each and every one of the parks in Florida.
Prior to leaving home, it’s important to make sure that you’re prepared and work out what your child/family member might need. Once at the park you can take a visit to guest relations, who are very accommodating and will help determine the best option for your party. They understand that cognitive disabilities are different for each person and have several options to suit everyone.
Many of the parks also offer special passes to guests who have difficulty waiting in line for attractions. If it’s the first time in a theme park for a family member with autism, these passes are great and can help reduce this stress.
Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World will always make sure that each and every one of their guests has a magical experience. Most information can be found at guest relations, such as applying for a DAS Pass, Rider Switch, dietary accommodations and lots more.
As you would imagine, the Disney theme parks have many sources of sensory stimulation including crowds, dark and loud theatres and attractions, lights and noises, as well as waiting in line, so it is best to plan your rides and attractions before you arrive.
Disability Access Service Pass (DAS)
Guest relations locations: Near the entrance at any of the four Disney theme parks.
The DAS passes can be obtained from guest relations and is for those who have difficulty waiting in the regular queue for reasons other than mobility. They are designed to shorten the amount of time the guest is required to stand and wait in line.
Once at the ride or attraction, your party will be added to a virtual queue and will be give a return time (similar to FastPass, where you are given a time to ride). When you return to the ride you can use the FastPass entrance.
Once you obtain your DAS Pass, it can be used at all of the Disney parks, apart from the water parks. It is also valid for up to 14 days depending on your ticket entitlement.
The Disney water parks do not offer DAS Passes. The best thing is to avoid peak summer season, go very early in the day or later in the afternoon to avoid the more crowded times.
If your family member becomes over-stimulated or needs a break, there are many quiet areas around the Disney parks. A Cast Member will be able to assist you in finding a quiet location nearby.
Tip: You might find that you don’t use the DAS pass as much if you end up booking FastPasses.
Universal Orlando Resort
Attraction Assistance Pass (AAP)
Guest relations locations: At the entrance of Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure immediately after you pass through the turnstiles, on the right-hand side. There is also a guest relations before you enter the parks but this location is usually much more crowded than the one inside the park.
The Universal AAP Pass works very similarly to the Disney DAS Pass. It is intended for guests with a cognitive or physical disability, that makes it difficult for them to wait in a typical queue. The pass allows them and their party (up to six guests) to wait in an alternative queue, when times allow it.
Tip: Keep your Assistance Pass in a separate zipped-up plastic bag. Universal still give away paper passes, so you won’t want it getting ruined on the wet rides.
At the ride, present your AAP Pass to a Universal staff member. If the rides wait time is 30 minutes or less, you will be directed to a separate queue, which is usually the Express Lane. If the line is longer, you will receive a return time. You can only have one future attraction listed on your AAP at a time.
The Attraction Assistance Pass is valid at both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure for the entire length of your stay.
SeaWorld Orlando (Certified Autism Center)
SeaWorld Orlando is committed to providing equal access to guests with disabilities and will make every effort to accommodate you. They have recently partnered up with The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), a global leader in online training and certification programs, to become designated as a Certified Autism Center (CAC) and are proud to offer specialised services to guests with autism and other special needs.
Throughout the park certified staff will be available to assist you. These staff receive specialised training to ensure they have the requisite knowledge, skills, temperament, and expertise to cater to all children, including those with special needs.
Guests in need of some quiet time and relief from sensory stimulation can utilise the quiet rooms around SeaWorld. These rooms have features and comfortable seating for guests needing a break.
Ride Accessibility Program (RAP)
Guest relations location: After you enter the park, turn the corner to the right, and guest relations is in the row of buildings on the left-hand side.
RAP allows guests to fully participate and enjoy the park without having to worry about waiting in line. One pass is provided in the name of the person with a disability and also allows up to five additional guests for the rides and attractions listed on the front of the Ride Accessibility Pass. The other attractions require a return time in order to avoid waiting in the regular queue.
Once at the rides a SeaWorld staff member will need to see your pass. If the current wait time is less than fifteen minutes, you will be directed to get on the ride. If the queue is longer, the staff member will give you a return time.
Discovery Cove and Aquatica (Certified Autism Centers)
Both Discovery Cove and Aquatica are also Certified Autism Centers (CAC), so you can relax knowing there is support here for your child or family member with autism. At these parks you will find certified staff, an IBCCES Sensory Guide and quiet spaces.
With its open spaces, and serene and relaxing atmosphere, Discovery Cove is a park that is a lot more suited to those with cognitive conditions, as it reduces “sensory overload”. A new quiet space has recently been added to the park near the first aid unit, if needed by guests.
Aquatica unfortunately doesn’t provide a RAP Pass like SeaWorld, but there are staff on hand if you need them, along with a quiet room and a low sensory area behind Loggerhead Lane. The new quiet room is located near Kata's Kookaburra Cove. This room has adjustable lighting and a comfortable seating area for guests to take a break.
Earlier this month Busch Gardens welcomed a new Sesame Street friend to the park in honour of Autism Awareness Month. Julia is an autistic four-year-old girl who loves playing with her friends Elmo and Abby Cadabby. On 13th and 14th April, the park hosted a sensory-friendly showing of “Let’s Play Together”, followed by a meet-and-greet with Julia after the show. Keep an eye out for more special events like these in the future.
Ride Accessibility Program (RAP)
Guest relations location: Located at Adventure Outpost
Busch Gardens has the same special access pass as SeaWorld, allowing guests with disabilities to enjoy the attractions without waiting in the queue lines. Guests will be placed in a virtual queue which equates to the estimated wait time at that respective location (for instance, if you arrived at 11am for an attraction that has a 45-minute wait, you will normally be given a return time of 11:45). Guests have the ability to enjoy other attractions throughout the park during this time and then proceed to the specific attraction at the estimated time.
Over the last three years LEGOLAND Florida has also been expanding their services to assist guests with autism spectrum disorders and their caregivers. All LEGOLAND staff have been specially-trained as well to equip them with skills to more effectively interact with these guests.
There are a number of specially-equipped quiet areas for guests to take a break. These areas are equipped with noise-cancelling headphones, weighted blankets, squishy toys and LEGO building tables. Ask a Model Citizen (LEGOLAND staff) for the closest one.
The LEGOLAND training and development team have also created “social stories” that offer an illustrated, step-by-step walkthrough of every theme park ride and show, so guests won’t be surprised by periods of darkness, loud noises, bright lights or other elements that often can be frightening or overwhelming. They’re available for review at guest relations.
Blue HERO Pass
Guest relations location: Located in The Beginning
Guests with disabilities have the option to obtain the HERO Pass when they arrive. Like the park passes mentioned above, it assists guests who have difficulty waiting in line. The ‘Blue HERO Pass’ is given to those on the autism spectrum and gives the pass holder, and their group, expedited access via the HERO Pass entrance.
- If your family member needs to remain in a pushchair whilst in the attraction queues, let the staff know at guest relations, as some of the parks give you a tag for the pushchair/wheelchair as well for easy identification.
- Watch videos of the rides and attractions. This will help you plan what you want to do when you get to the parks.
- The airports are a lot more autism aware too. When you arrive ask for a hidden disabilities lanyard. This will allow you to be fast tracked through check in and security and either board the plane first or last (whatever suits your child’s needs).
- If your family member is sensitive to noises and uses noise-cancelling headphones, they can wear them on the majority of rides.
- Bring a bracelet or name tag with your family member’s name, a contact number for you and any other important things to know. Emergency Contact Bands are available within guest relations.
We hope this information will be helpful towards your Orlando holiday. Further information can be found on each of the theme parks’ websites or at guest relations when you arrive. We recommend doing as much research as you can before you go. If you’ve already been to Florida and have some more tips for travelling with autism, we would love to hear them.