At Firefly, we know how difficult it can be for some Special Needs families to have a care-free family fun day.
Fortunately, across America, some theme parks are adapting to become more inclusive for all families, ensuring every child can have a fun day out, and not be excluded.
Earlier this year Six Flags Great Adventure, in New Jersey, held a, "Sensory-Friendly Autism Day".
Designated decompression areas included iPads and the lights and music were adjusted to create a friendlier environment.
Resources and presentations were given throughout the day and, in addition, specially-trained staff were on hand.
The event was ticket-only – even season pass holders had to pay in!
But the purpose of the special day was to educate, fund-raise and introduce families to highly-trained special education staff from the Gersh Academy.
Since 2016, Legoland Florida Resort in Winter Haven, FL has been quietly adapting to become more accessible to families of all shapes and sizes.
One such example is the ‘Hero Pass’.
Guests on the spectrum can get a ‘Blue Hero Pass’, at no additional cost, ensuring the child’s entire group can get accelerated access to some of the site’s most popular attractions.
Those with mobility difficulties can also obtain a ‘Hero Pass’ and everyone can access the extremely helpful guide online to inform them of the most suitable rides.
There are also guides to let parents and carers know what to expect, in terms of noise and lighting, for each ride.
The park even has quiet rooms with sensory toys, noise-cancelling headphones and, unsurprisingly, Lego building tables.
All newly-hired staff, or “Model Citizens” as they are called, are trained to be able to effectively interact with guests on the autistic spectrum and their families.
Throughout April (World Autism Month), Legoland even contribute a percentage of ticket sales to Autism Speaks, and light up certain areas of the resort in blue.
An April 2007 study from the National Autistic Society found that children with autism associate with, "Thomas the Tank Engine", more than any other children’s character.
The study posited that the reason was the simplistic emotions on the faces of the characters.
In years since it’s been theorised that the crashing and smashing of the trains proves engaging, as well as the appeal of the organisational structure of trains.
No wonder parents of children with autism flock to the Edaville Family Theme Park which includes, "Thomas Land", as well as, "Dino Land".
The Park teams up with local non-profits, schools and programs that help kids with autism to educate and encourage inclusivity.
The site also has a huge Autism weekend for families as well as a permanent quiet cart on one of their trains, as well as quiet rooms and areas for kids to, “run their wiggles out”.
There was huge excitement in the autism community when Julia, the first Sesame Street resident with autism, arrived on the scene.
Perhaps even more exciting for families with children on the autism spectrum was that Sesame Place in Pennsylvania became the first theme park, worldwide, to be designated as a Certified Autism Centre.
Staff receive training in sensory awareness, motor skills, autism overview, program development, social skills, communication, environment, and emotional awareness.
Sesame Place has a Ride Accessibility Program, matching each guest to the requirements of each ride.
This can also include priority boarding and queuing, ‘virtually’, so they can enjoy other activities as they wait.
The park also provides noise-cancelling headphones as well as access to their quiet rooms.
Low sensory areas can be found around the park in addition to low sensory parade viewing areas and special meet and greets with Julia herself!
Dolly Parton has a long history of philanthropy, with her Imagination Library recently donating its 100 millionth book.
Dollywood, proudly claim their Calming Room, to be the first of its kind in the world.
The room, opened in the Pigeon Forge, TN park in 2016, includes weighted blankets, sensory toys used in therapy programs and softly glowing lights.
The website also includes a “walkthrough guide” helping guests to know what will happen on their visit.
Another location with a calming room is Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana.
The room includes beanbag and rocking chairs, a tent and adjustable lighting.
The room can be reserved for 30-minute sessions, ensuring families are left to themselves during their scheduled time.
Furthermore, Holiday World also hosts ‘Play Day’, an annual and exclusive occasion that lets children with difficulties, including those who are wheelchair-bound, enjoy the rides.
Proceeds from the event are donated to Easterseals.
Each of the eleven parks owned by the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company include Ride Boarding Passes for those with issues with mobility or are on the Autism spectrum.
These parks include California’s Great America, Carowinds in Charlotte NC, Kings Island, Mason OH and, the original, Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH.
The parks can also arrange for their shows to provide ASL interpretation, if informed a week in advance.
Alternate entrances can also be provided.
Disneyland and Disney World provide a Disability Access Service Card. The DAS card allows those who are unable to queue to receive return times for rides.
Once the guest’s party finish a ride they can obtain another card, similar to how the FastPass service works.
Disney Parks have responded to criticism that abuse of the system was becoming difficult to control and readjusted the system.
Additional resources and information packs can also be provided.
While all the parks mentioned above have made leaps and bounds to become more inclusive, Morgan’s Wonderland is the only theme park specifically designed for children with special needs from the ground up.
In 2005, Gordon Hartman sold his businesses in order for him and his wife, Maggie to focus their time and efforts into The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation.
In 2010 they opened Morgan’s Wonderland, named for their daughter.
It offers free admission to guests with special needs and is entirely wheelchair-accessible.
Even the water park extension, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, offers heated water and waterproof wheelchairs and wristbands.
Next to the park you’ll find The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland, a school for students with special needs that the Hartmans opened in August 2011 which helps students from 12 to 24 to reach their full individual potential.
*Whilst all parks listed are accessible or autism-friendly, we advise calling beforehand to make sure the park will be able to cater for your family’s individual needs.