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Visiting a Theme Park This Summer? Read These Tips from an Autism Dad

This guest post was written by Jeremey Hunsicker, the founder of Origami Brain, a website dedicated to helping parents and caregivers discover and nurture their autistic child’s unique strengths and abilities. He is also a freelance copywriter and the father of two young boys on the autism spectrum. Read more about his family here and on Facebook.

It’s an annual rite of summer, but for families with kids on the autism spectrum, visiting a theme park such as Disney, Busch Gardens, or Six Flags requires some extra considerations…

Long lines, loud noises, inclement weather, and myriad other issues can be a recipe for extra-sensory overload for kids on the spectrum – but the good news is, if you do your homework and plan ahead, parks are more accommodating than ever.

This weekend we took our two boys to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, and I wanted to share our experience in hopes it may make things a little easier for you during this season as well.

It goes without saying that every child on the autism spectrum has their own unique challenges – understand that your family’s experience will be unique and different in so many ways. But we also share some common ground, and we may be able to offer some insight.

Here’s a few takeaways from our weekend, as well as some resources for other parks as well (at the end of this post).

Ride Accessibility Program 

Busch Gardens offers a Ride Accessibility Program, with Special Access for individuals with special needs such as ASD.

Families are provided with an “RAP” sheet that is to be presented at the “Quick Queue” or Disabled Access point of the ride (click here for Tampa and Williamsburg Accessibility Guides).

Like the Disney parks, the ride operator will then write in a prescheduled time to return and bypass the line (what they call a “Virtual Queue”).

The times should coincide with the average wait time to get on the ride – you may still have to wait 20-30 minutes, but at least you can keep kids away from the sensory chaos of waiting in a long queue with hundreds of other people.

For us, we had no problems with wait times, but this weekend the park attendance was relatively light – although we may have had to wait several turns with others in the “Quick Queue,” there was never a situation when we were asked to return at a pre-appointed time.

I’m sure that when the park is at higher capacity the “Virtual Queue” times are enforced.

To participate in the Ride Accessibility Program at Busch Gardens, be sure to visit the Guest Services station INSIDE the park for a much shorter wait time.

The staff was incredibly helpful – they measured our boys’ height and gave them each color-coded wrist bands and info sheets that listed which attractions they could ride.

We were also given a Ride Accessibility Program wrist band for each boy – and here’s where things got a little complicated.

The “Disability” Issue

The RAP wristbands at Busch Gardens do display the universal “Handicap” wheelchair logo. There are other parks that may handle ASD differently than those with physical disabilities (see below) but at Busch Gardens we were required to wear a Handicap wrist band to participate in the RAP program.

In our family, we have never given either of our boys any indication that they are “disabled” in any way, and my wife and I were pretty certain that putting the bands on our sons (especially for our high functioning Asperger’s 7 year old) would create some difficult questions.

So I was impressed that the park allowed my wife and I to wear our boys’ wristbands and avoid these questions …

But internally I was conflicted about the label as well.

And while I realize that may be a politically loaded discussion for another time, I had some real conflict about this “Disabled” label as it applied to my kids …

Is that hypocritical?

I decided to conduct a little test myself by taking 7 year old into an actual full-blown line. Our first stop was the standard queue for a popular attraction where the wait time was estimated to be 45 minutes.

We lasted about 5 minutes before he became very restless and agitated.

Not to get into details, but within 10 minutes the situation escalated, and was too much for him and he told me he couldn’t take it anymore. 

The people around us were understanding and we made our way back out of the queue … and for me it resolved any conflict, knowing that for even my high functioning son, there was no way he could tolerate the overload and burden of being packed into a tight confined place with hundreds of people.

Make no mistake – a day at the park would have been impossible for our kids without the RAP program.

And I encourage you to clear your own mind of any conflict or guilt and give your kids the support they need to enjoy themselves, regardless of how the program is labeled or presented.

Sure – there were a few times when we may have had some stares from other people waiting in line, but that’s not my child’s issue to worry about … and the staff was very helpful and understanding when we asked that both my wife and I wore the “handicap” bracelets instead of putting them on our sons.

Map Out Your Routine Ahead of Time

Be sure to familiarize everyone with the map of the park and a PLAN ahead of time – most autistic kids require a routine, so don’t forget to grab a map once you settle in and let your kids know what the plan is for the day.

Identify the attractions and performance schedules ahead of time… it’s even helpful to go online and grab a copy of the map before your trip if possible.

Familiarize kids with the layout of the park, and the different routes to take between attractions.

We were particular about finding the shortest routes between attractions, and identifying the easiest way to navigate the park to keep things moving quickly.

Plan lunches, meals, and shows around your child’s tolerance for chaos as well. We knew that after a certain amount of time the kids need to wind down, and we were careful to schedule “sensory breaks” throughout the day to let them depressurize.

Locate some quiet areas of the park ahead of time – in fact, my wife noted that it would be helpful if parks had special areas (like they do for nursing stations) where kids could have quiet time without having to go back out to the car if things get too overwhelming.

We also came prepared with a well-stocked backpack and some cash to stow the backpack in a locker for certain attractions.

Things like water bottles, sunscreen, and a change of clothes are a given, but for autistic kids be sure to think about noise-cancelling headphones, picture books, or even their favorite games or apps for a little downtime later in the day.

One thing we realized very early on was that our two kids have a different set of tolerances and needs.

The way we dealt with this was to split up for some of the day … Mom and little brother went on their own adventure for a few hours and I took big brother to the things he was most interested in.

On the surface this may sound like it defeats the purpose of a “family” outing – but for us it definitely made things more accommodating for our kids, which was the whole reason why we were there.

Little brother was able to enjoy what worked for HIM, and big brother was able to enjoy what worked for HIM, and everyone was the better for it.

Expect The Unexpected

There will ALWAYS be unplanned complications that arise, but these little deviations from the routine can be especially distressful for those with ASD.

It’s important to consider things like inclement weather, illness, ride closures, or even little hiccups that throw a big wrench into your plans.

We experienced ALL of these this weekend.

Even with a very small (20% chance) of rain, there was a pretty solid rainstorm that moved into the area in late afternoon. If you’re traveling to a park in Florida such as Disney or Busch Gardens, you are virtually guaranteed that there will be some sort of weather during your stay.

Talk out these scenarios with your child ahead of time, and make contingency plans for when they occur. Role playing about bad weather is helpful – prepare everyone for what you’ll do and where you’ll go when weather hits.

And be prepared for the possibility that ride closures or a park shutdown may be inevitable if weather doesn’t cooperate.

Find an Urgent Care center close to the park before your trip if possible – if that virus that’s been percolating beneath the surface for the past few days suddenly decides to make an appearance in the middle of your trip, you want to know where to go and what to do as quickly and painlessly as possible.

We carry scanned copies of insurance cards and vital records with us in Evernote on our mobile devices and they came in handy this weekend. At the very least, be sure to have easy access to IDs, social security numbers, and insurance info if an unexpected illness strikes.

Quick Resources

If you’re planning a trip this summer, here are a few park resources that can help make your trip a little easier and stress free…

Busch Gardens Accessibility Info

Tampa, Florida

Williamsburg, Virginia

Disney World Accessibility Info

Six Flags Accessibility Info (All Locations)

Cedar Point Guests With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Carowinds Guests With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Kings Dominion Guests With Autism Spectrum Disorder

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.