SeaWorld Orlando annual pass member Jennifer Montes said her autistic, 19-year-old son Ben gets “violent meltdowns” and waiting in ride lines at the theme park isn’t ideal, as it could trigger him.
“An autistic person has trouble not only standing in long lines but the crowd of people surrounding/pushing into them is another struggle,” she said.
Montes also has a mildly autistic son named Jacob, 10, and a 14-year-old daughter, Lita, with complex regional pain syndrome.
“The park has many wonderful things to offer families with special needs,” she said.
And it’s not just SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando and Discovery Cove. These attractions, plus Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and Legoland Florida have a variety of offerings for guests who have physical, hearing, visual and/or cognitive disabilities.
SEAWORLD, AQUATICA, DISCOVERY COVE
For SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica and Discovery Cove, the most recent focus has been improving offerings for guests with cognitive disabilities.
“After Sesame Place received the (certified autism center) designation, we really wanted to start down the path of following their lead and just better accommodating those guests,” said David Heaton, vice president of Aquatica Orlando.
With the help of the International Bureau of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, all three Orlando parks attained the certification — and trained at least 80% of their staff to be certified ambassadors.
In addition to the parks, SpringHill Suites and Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Orlando at SeaWorld recently earned certified autism center designations from IBCCES.
The biggest part of being an autism center is providing information for planning, Heaton said. Ahead of a visit, guests can find sensory ratings for sound, touch, smell, sight and taste for every attraction and show on SeaWorld’s website, and those at the park can find the same information posted on maps and signs in front of each attraction or show.
The parks also added quiet rooms and spaces for guests who become overwhelmed and need a break from the theme park craziness. Each area features seating, and most have a few interactive toys and dimmer switches to adjust the lighting. The rooms are available on a first-come, first-served basis and can be found at:
SeaWorld Orlando: to the right of guest services near the park entrance and inside the Child Care Center in Sesame Street.
Discovery Cove: near the first aid unit.
Aquatica: near Kata’s Kookaburra Cove (it also doubles as a nursing room).
Heaton said there’s always been a Ride Accessibility Program at SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando and Discovery Cove to accommodate guests with physical disabilities, and that same program now assists individuals with cognitive disabilities. Those who register for the RAP are enrolled for life and need not go to guest services every time they visit.
Montes said a few helpful services include the complimentary wheelchairs that transport guests to and from the front of the park or parking lot, accessible entries and lines throughout the park and spots at shows for wheelchairs and Electric Conveyance Vehicles, or ECVs.
SeaWorld and Aquatica also rent wheelchairs and ECVs for use throughout the parks. At SeaWorld, these can be reserved at the guest services counter. At Aquatica, ECVs and wheelchairs can be rented by Adventure Photo (just look for a sign advertising rentals). Discovery Cove’s sand-friendly wheelchairs are available at no charge and found at guest services.
A few other notable offerings:
SeaWorld Orlando has braille on restroom signs and can provide assisted listening devices, show scripts and ASL/sign language interpreters for guests with hearing disabilities upon request.
Aquatica has disabled access ramps for zero-depth entry pools at Loggerhead Lane and the two Wave Pools as well as a wheelchair transfer lift at Roa’s Rapids.
WALT DISNEY WORLD
Disney provides a variety of services and access options for guests with mobility, visual, hearing and cognitive disabilities — plus, they’ll work individually with guests to meet their needs.
“We want all of our guests to be able to create lasting and magical memories at Walt Disney World Resort, which is why we are focused on providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all and offering numerous resources for guests with disabilities,” wrote a Disney spokesperson in an email.
Jeff Snyder, a Disney annual passholder from Safety Harbor, makes use of some of Disney’s disability offerings.
Having served in the United States Army as well as in law enforcement in Broward and Orange counties, Snyder has issues with his back, hip and legs. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in crowded situations.
He utilizes the Disability Access Service Card — which is valid for 14 days, links to MagicBands and allows guests who have difficulty waiting in standard lines a return time to enjoy attractions.
“It’s a great system,” Snyder said. “It kind of bypasses Fastpass, and if you talk to the people at the rides, they can even accommodate you further.”
Snyder brings his female service dog Echo to the parks and takes advantage of the service relief areas, with kennels at some of the major rides.
Several attractions at Walt Disney World Resort are wheelchair/ECV accessible or accessible via transfer to the ride vehicle or a wheelchair.
Most transportation systems — buses, watercraft, monorail and Disney’s Magical Express — at Disney also are accessible to guests with mobility disabilities.
Those with visual disabilities have a variety of tools at their disposal, including audio descriptions available through Disney’s handheld devices; braille guidebooks; portable tactile map booklets that feature tactile representation of building boundaries, walkways and landmarks at each park; and stationary braille maps throughout all theme parks, Disney Springs and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Those with hearing disabilities can make use of assisted listening by using handheld devices that amplify sound at specific attractions; handheld captioning that displays text on-screen in select locations; and video captioning, in which select pre-show and exhibit areas have open captioning. Video captioning can also be accessed through handheld devices.
All are available at guest relations on a first-come, first-served basis, and each requires a fully refundable $25 deposit to ensure devices are returned.
In addition to these services, Disney offers sign language interpretation on a rotating basis: Tuesdays and Saturdays at Animal Kingdom, Sundays and Wednesdays at Hollywood Studios, Fridays at Epcot and Mondays and Thursdays at Magic Kingdom. Also available: written aids, text typewriters and reflective captioning.
Those with special requests for interpretation must notify Disney 14 days in advance. Just call 407-824-4321.
Disney guests with cognitive disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum, can utilize the rider switch program, companion restrooms, break areas to help decompress from theme park stimulation, a planning guide and an attractions guide — which breaks down each attraction by scents/smells, flashing lights, loud noises, periods of darkness, bumps as well as details the element of surprise, type of restraint, amount of time and if it accepts FastPass+.
Disney hotels offer wheelchair and hearing accessible rooms, door knock and phone alerts, phone amplifiers, text typewriters, bed shaker notifications, strobe light smoke detectors, complimentary valet parking and service animal accommodations.
Research indicates that Lego building blocks are popular with autistic children and can be used as a therapy tool. Legoland Florida offers a Blue Hero Pass for its visitors on the autism spectrum. This grants immediate access to rides, with the exception of those in the water park and at Imagination Zone.
“We are proud of our work with the autism community and provide a no-cost hero access pass, available at guest services inside the theme park, that allows guests on the spectrum to skip the lines to our attractions,” said Chloe Boehm, a spokeswoman for the Winter Haven park, in an email.
In addition, the park provides quiet places, including one inside the Annual Pass Processing Center that includes “hands-on, sensory-stimulating activities designed for children on the autism spectrum.”
There’s also a hero pass for visitors who have “difficulty waiting in line.” It allows parties to reserve times — as a group — for rides.
The resort’s accessibility guide online includes coping tips, such as bringing headphones or a sensory toy, creating a visual schedule and practicing “waiting in line.”
The park has “Let’s Have Fun and Be Safe” boards at the entrance of each ride with descriptions of the experience for parents to consider. Queues for all Legoland Florida rides, with the exception of Safari Trek, Coastersaurus, Dragon coaster, Aquazone Wave Racers and the Great Lego Race are wheelchair accessible, allowing all visitors to wait together.
Service animals are allowed on some of Legoland’s rides.
Universal’s attraction assistance pass allows visitors with disabilities to schedule a line return time comparable to the current wait for the desired attraction. But the visitors can only have one active return time at a time. The resort’s guest-services team works with individual guests regarding the passes.
People using manual wheelchairs have access to all of Universal’s ride queues, with the exception of Pteranadon Flyers at Islands of Adventure. Some attractions are built to allow visitors to stay in their wheelchairs during the experience. Others require transferring into a ride vehicle.
However, ECV users will find their vehicles can only go onto the Hogwarts Express ride, which runs between the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions in both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios park. Visitors may transfer from an ECV into provided manual wheelchairs where possible. Employees are not allowed to lift customers in or out of ride vehicles.
Open captioning is on 14 Universal Orlando theme park rides. American Sign Language interpreters are assigned to select shows, and five show scripts are available. Scripts in large print or in braille can also be borrowed for productions.
Service animals are allowed on some rides, while some “portable service-animal kennels” are available at others.
Universal’s “Guide for Rider Safety and Accessibility” gives a description of what to expect on each attraction.