Over spring break our family visited Disney World. The Happiest Place on Earth is a go-to vacation because of their wonderful disability policy. Between reserved Fastpasses and the Disability Access Service (DAS), we had our best experience in Orlando yet. While not having to wait for over two hours to get onto Slinky Dog Dash in Hollywood Studios would be awesome for anyone, for us it is a necessity. Disney’s understanding of how autism affects people and creating policies from that understanding is a game changer.
The prevalence rate for autism in the United States is 1 in 59, so when a venue, restaurant or vacation destination employs accommodations for people with autism or other disabilities, it’s just good business. There is so much to do in DC and surrounding areas in the summer, and while we don’t have Space Mountain, we have a lot of fabulous organizations who help make summer fun for everyone.
Six Flags America in Upper Marlboro offers an Attraction Access Pass, which allows guests and up to three other members of their party to access the ride through another entrance and avoid long lines. The first time requesting the pass, the family first go to Guest Services and present a note from a doctor that includes the practice address and the physician’s medical ID number. It’s not necessary for the letter to state the exact nature of the disability; in fact, it is illegal for any establishment to ask. The letter only needs to indicate that “the guest has a disability or other qualifying impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or applicable state law that prevents the guest from waiting in a standard queue.” Guests then present the pass at the desired ride, and staff will give the party a return time at which point, the group will be able to board immediately.
Hershey Park also has an Accessibility Program, but it works differently. Upon arrival, guests should go to Hospitality Services to complete the Ride Accessibility Questionnaire. (You can also download and complete the form before you arrive in Hershey.) According to hersheypark.com, “the responses to that Questionnaire will generate a Boarding Pass with a list of rides that guests can enjoy during their visit. The Boarding Pass will be linked to the enrolled guest with a photo taken the day of the visit.” The enrolled guest is given a yellow wristband that signifies fast track entry to park personnel.
Another popular trend in this area are sensory-friendly events. Many children and adults with autism have accompanying sensory aversions to large crowds, dark rooms and loud sounds that make enjoying a performance, movie or museum under typical circumstances very difficult. Smithsonian hosts monthly “Morning at the Museum” events as part of their accessibility program, which provides opportunities for guests to enjoy a particular museum before it opens to the public. The Kennedy Center also offers sensory friendly performances.
Whitney Ellenby, a Montgomery County autism mom and author of the book, “Autism Uncensored: Pulling Back the Curtain,” organizes special monthly events for families who have a child with autism. Autism Ambassadors arose from Ellenby’s personal mission to give families in the autism community “a room of our own where our kids of all ages could play on their own terms without concern for public reaction or judgment, equally important for siblings and parents to remember we’re not alone.” Ellenby remembers when her son Zack was young, she often felt “isolated and judged” for her son’s behaviors. The program, which Ellenby runs on her own, has been going strong for 10 years and includes events at movie theaters, trampoline parks, indoor and outdoor pools, and splash parks. Each event costs only $10 per child to participate and admission is free for parents and aides.
Several years ago, Walt Disney World had to rework their disability policy after they discovered that unethical travel agencies were arranging for disabled people to pose as family members in order for vacationers to bypass long queues. It took some time for Disney World to figure out the nuances of accommodating families who need support and minimize opportunities for abuse, but the DAS worked wonderfully for us. (Guests with a DAS pass are given return times for rides, allowing families to enjoy other parts of the parks instead of standing in line.) It’s important to understand that Disney World not only makes the rides, the shows and the restaurants accessible for families like ours, but it makes our vacation as close to typical as possible. Our two daughters have different needs. Grace loves the beach. Rory hates the beach. It’s hot, the sand is unpleasant, the ocean roar is too loud and the Wi-Fi stinks. Disney World is something that we can enjoy as a family of four. At Disney World, and at other places that understand autism, we don’t have to divide and conquer. Each parent doesn’t have to take one kid and spend the days differently. We have fun and make memories together as a foursome. Next time you are out, and you see someone getting some extra pixie dust, remember that for that family without the help from Tinkerbell, that experience wouldn’t even be possible.