Tips on Enjoying Amusement Parks with Kids with Autism

Some theme parks, like Cedar Point, Kings Island and Michigan's Adventure, offer programs to help families of kids with autism. Learn about them and discover tips on how to prepare for your child's day.

For families with children with autism spectrum disorders, or ASD, places like amusement parks can be a difficult zone, but luckily many parks offer programs to help ease some of the challenges.

Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, which runs  Cedar Point and Kings Island, both in Ohio, and Michigan’s Adventure in Muskegon, offers a Boarding Pass Program to help families of kids with autism avoid the long lines.

The policy requires riders with special needs to obtain a “ride boarding pass,” which they then take up the exit of the ride that they wish to board. The ride attendant will then give the family a time, approximate to the current wait time, for them to return and ride.

While they wait for that time, these guests may enjoy other rides with shorter wait times, shows, games and other entertainment.

But not all parents are thrilled with these programs. A 2013 USA Today article, which originally appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer, notes that the policy was not always enforced, and parents used to be able to take their child up and ride immediately. Some parents fear that making a child with autism wait, could cause the child unneeded stress.

“Children with autism … thrive on routine and order and have difficulty waiting, in or out of line,” the article explains. In other words, some moms and dads worry that taking their child to a ride to get a pass – only to have to leave and return later – could trigger a meltdown or other upset reaction.

 Getting your child ready

Still, if you want to take a trip to the amusement park with your special needs child, there are some things to keep in mind so the experience can be fun.

“Advance planning is a requirement for any successful amusement park visit with a person with ASD,” Cedar Point’s website notes, adding that a trip to the theme park will “include a plethora of sensory stimulation including crowds, dark and loud theaters, coasters traveling overhead, lights and noises (and) waiting in line, to mention a few.”

These tips from the Autism Society’s “Enjoying the Amusement Park” pamphlet can help you and your special needs child enjoy the trip to the park:

  • With all the sights and sounds at the park, be sure to bring gear to block out the craziness, like earplugs to help your child calm down if she becomes overwhelmed. Noise-canceling headphones may also be an option.
  • Prepare ahead of time by printing a map and pictures of the park, the Autism Society suggests. Since this is a drastic change in routine, try using a calendar to count down the days to your trip, too.
  • It might be helpful to try role playing situations you may encounter at the park that may be upsetting to the child, like waiting in line or bad weather, the group notes.
  • Many people with autism crave routine. Pack a picture book or toys to help keep kids grounded if they get overwhelmed. A handheld game, like one of the apps from Friendship Circle, may also help.
  • It will be easy to lose track in a crowded place. Prep your family members or friends to assist with problems that may arise.

You also may want to consider a theme park specifically designed to cater to people with disabilities — like Morgan’s Wonderland in Texas — as a safe and fun option for your child.

This post was originally published in 2013 and is updated regularly. 

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