Theme parks are places of wonder, delight and magical memories. But they’re also places of bright lights, new smells, loud noises, long lines and many other elements that can trigger anxiety, stress and meltdowns in kids with special needs. That doesn’t mean you have to skip theme parks altogether, but it does mean you should take steps to make sure your whole family—including your kids with special needs—have a great time.
Make a Plan
My temptation at theme parks is to wander, take in the sights, ride rollercoasters and generally do everything. But my kids—one who has autism and is non-verbal and the other who has other sensory issues—need a clear plan for places like a theme park. We check out theme park activities in advance, see which ones will best suit them, talk about those activities and stick to the plan. We might deviate for ice cream or an in-park splash pad, but for the most part, our success lies in how closely we stay on plan.
Don’t try to do everything at once. If the kids look tired, take a break. Even if you’ve made it to the front of line or if you just want to squeeze in one more activity before lunch, play smarter not harder. It’s better to walk away from the front of a line than to have your child get overwhelmed and have a meltdown.
Have a Daily Goal
Along with pacing yourself and having a plan, it’s important to make a reasonable goal for each day. Don’t try to see all of Epcot in one day, for example—just visit a few countries. Or set a small goal like, “We’ll have lunch together and then ride three rides.” Set an attainable goal and celebrate when you accomplish it.
Lots of theme parks have special passes, which are intended to help families of kids with special needs more easily navigate the park. Disney has a Disability Access Service Card that lets guests with special needs come back to lines when they’re shorter; Six Flags has a similar program, as do many other parks. Research these before you go and take advantage of them. They’re there to help your family have a better, easier time.
Look for Calming Spaces
Dollywood in Tennessee recently opened up the world’s first calming room for kids with autism and other sensory needs. It’s got low-level lights, comfy seats and many parents report that it really helps their kids enjoy the park. Other theme parks are following Dollywood’s lead, so be sure to ask if the park you’re visiting has a calming room. Otherwise, look for calming spaces of your own. My family likes shady, quiet spots by water features for restoring our calm. Figure out what works best for your family, then find that calming space.
Don’t forget to bring all the things your kids need each day. In our case this means snacks, chewies, Elmo videos for breaks and extra clothes. No matter how old your kids are, preparation will go a long way.
Have Fun—Just Being Together
Being together as a family—whether it’s at Disneyland or a neighborhood park—is the most important part of any excursion. Remember this when you’re at a theme park—focus on small moments, big laughs and having fun together. Even if you don’t get to every ride or attraction, you’re still making memories as a family. Happy travels!
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Jamie Pacton blogs for a national parenting magazine and writes young adult and middle grade fiction. Learn more at www.jamiepacton.com.