Inclusion makes significant gains throughout amusement industry attractions

Autism and other special needs are being addressed

AT: Tim Baldwin

Amusement parks, water parks and various attractions have always been cognizant of the needs of the public. In past decades parks have evolved in terms of accessibility to rides, no smoking policies throughout the park and more. A recent advancement is that of inclusion when it comes to autism disorders.

The number of children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder has increased 123 percent in the last decade. 

Last year, Sesame Place was the world’s first theme park designated as a certified autism center. 

Since then, more parks have come on line such as Discovery Cove and Aqautica in Orlando. On April 2 (World Autism Awareness Day), SeaWorld Orlando announced that it has been designated as a certified autism center creating the first family of parks, in the world’s leading theme park destination, to be certified.   

“We are incredibly proud to be the first family of Orlando theme parks to achieve these certifications,” said Mark Pauls, SeaWorld Orlando park president. “We want to create lasting memories for all our guests. As families start planning their summer travel, the resources and tools that our parks now offer can provide peace of mind for families with members that have autism and other special needs. Our parks and staff are now equipped to offer families inclusive activities, helping to ensure meaningful experiences for everyone.” 

As Kennywood opened the 2019 season, it was beaming of its new certification. “When we looked at ways to improve guest service over the offseason, becoming a certified autism center was at the top of our to-do list,” said General Manager Jerome Gibas. “Our mission is to provide the finest in family entertainment, and ensuring we’re on the front lines of understanding and serving our guests who are on the autism spectrum is critical to achieving that mission.”

Other facilities host Autism Days such as Six Flags Great Adventure this month.

The rise in providing autism-related services has been welcome. Such amenities can include quiet rooms where weighted blankets, fidget toys and puzzles, and themed safe spaces can benefit families with children who have specific needs. Many parks offer sensory guides that provide parents information on each ride and attraction that might offer challenges for those with autism.

Cedar Point is one of the latest parks to offer quiet rooms.

“Our team strives to keep Cedar Point a place where all guests are welcome, and we’ll continue to evolve to ensure a visit is nothing but fun for families,” said Tony Clark, director of communications. “Our Sensory Room, introduced in 2018, provides a great resource for our guests on the autism spectrum with its quiet areas, calming color palettes and sensory packs that are available for check out daily.”

Rides and attractions have also taken a step up. 

“I don’t claim to be an expert in inclusive play; I’m an advocate for inclusive play,” said Mark Williams, president and CEO of Rain Drop Products. “Parks and recreation departments in cities have been extolling the virtues of dry play inclusivity for years. In regard to water play, minor enhancements made to existing water features can make them fundamentally more inclusive without spending a lot of money.”

Surveys conducted by Signet Research Inc. for Recreation Management have determined that splash play areas have been the No. 1 requested amenity six of the last seven years.

“It’s not just kids who have fun at a splash pad,” said Williams. “Moms have fun having playdates with their friends. They become places that the whole community gathers. Because of reduced liability, it also becomes a place where people meet their neighbors and say hello and do things you don’t usually do because you are keeping your eyes on the kids at the pool.”

Williams feels splash areas have inherent advantages to dry play. They typically tend to be wheelchair friendly as compared to dry play with sand and fall zones.

Rain Drop Products, in its effort to become a leader in inclusive sprayground products, have various components in their approach. Auditory (engaging the sense of sound), proprioceptive (engaging the sense of movement), vestibular (sense of balance), tactile (sense of touch) and visual (sense of sight) culminate in function to be accessible to everyone, going beyond simple ADA compliance.

“12.6 percent of the population has some form of disability,” said Williams, referring to an annual report on disability statistics. “They are a statistically significant portion of the population. It’s the right thing to do. We have these children who are faced with an additional challenge in their lives and we have the means to provide a play value to them. Why not?”

Any discussion of inclusivity could not be complete without the groundbreaking theme park Morgan’s Wonderland. The San Antonio park opened in March 2010 and was designed not only to be accessible to all but to encourage children of all abilities to interact together.

“We are delighted the amusement industry has become aware of the need for inclusion,” said Bob McCullough, communications director, Morgan’s Wonderland. “We’re thrilled so many other parks are adapting their facilities to accommodate those with special needs. This was one of the objectives Morgan’s Wonderland sought to achieve from the start.”

In 2017 Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a completely accessible water park, opened adjacent to Morgan’s Wonderland. Following suit, the park garnered worldwide attention once again.

The water park, which featured highly themed attractions were made accessible to all guests, regardless of ability. The product was supplied by WhiteWater West.

“We hear from grateful parents that there is a place like Morgan’s Wonderland where children don’t have to deal with any kind of barriers — whether physical, economic or any other kind of barrier. We take those has high compliments,” said McCullough. “We’ve invited other facilities and welcomed visitors from around the world. Other [parks] have come and taken mental notes and written down ideas to take back with them to their home locations and implemented them for individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities.” 

“Parks and attractions are constantly evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of their guests and providing safe, fun experiences for guests of all ages and abilities,” said Susan Storey, director of communications IAAPA. “In addition to quiet rooms and areas for guests with autism and other spectrum disorders, making updates to accessibility guides and using technology to help guests reserve their space in queue rather than standing for long periods of time, even adding more shared sitting areas so older guests can comfortably watch their grandchildren are simple, yet important ways parks are taking the time to understand their guests and provide solutions to some issues they may face during a visit.”

Williams finds being conscious of inclusivity as a win-win for business. “Rain Drop Products, like any company, tries to grow its business,” he said. “This is a niche that is underserved. While we might sell more products, in trying to be a leader we also know it is the right thing to do.”

Furthermore, as parks work toward this goal, they in turn have the opportunity to sell more tickets.

An advantage of water play is that it has a computer and electricity — two things not found on “dry play” equipment. In addition to doing its regular job, computers can do more to bring in sounds and vibrations. Williams feels first steps can be taken in the design phase, keeping in mind things that are tactile and being mindful of activities that will suit children who are hyperactive as well as those who are hypoactive (high stimulation vs. calmer areas).

“Having calm areas, bringing in sound and vibration as well as active play — now you have the full spectrum. Just being ADA accessible is the ‘floor.’ That’s the law, what you have to do. To go beyond that, to be inclusive you need to think of many other things. If we create an environment that only attracts people with special needs, we have not achieved our goal,” Williams told Amusement Today. “We want to do something that all children can play together.”

This article appears in the MAY 2019 issue of Amusement Today.
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