Accessibility at Orlando Theme Parks: Interview With AutismAtTheParks.com
AutismAtTheParks.com is an award-winning blog that offers practical information and tips for theme park guests with developmental and physical disabilities. We highly recommend this site for guests who want independent information about accessibility and special needs accommodations at major Orlando theme parks like Universal Orlando, Walt Disney World, and SeaWorld Orlando.
To provide you with more information about theme park accessibility and Universal's Attraction Assistance Pass (AAP) For Guests With Disabilities, we reached out to Maureen Deal at AutismAtTheParks.com. She shared some of her firsthand knowledge of Universal's pass program along with a few really valuable tips to help you and your family have more fun at Orlando theme parks.
Can you tell us a little bit about your family and your love of theme parks?
We are a family of three, Maureen, Phillip and Zachary. Zachary is 21, non-verbal and has autism. For over ten years while we lived in Chattanooga, our family’s passion for theme parks began at a local amusement park, Lake Winnepesaukah. Zachary enjoyed the rides so much that we visited Dollywood and soon became season passholders. When our family moved to the Atlanta area, Zachary’s enjoyment of roller coasters and other rides expanded at Six Flags over Georgia. We visited Walt Disney World and SeaWorld twice before we moved to central Florida in 2007 and loved them both. In 2010 we started visiting Universal Orlando and it’s become a favorite park. We now try to visit one of Orlando’s theme parks almost every weekend. Even after nine of years living in Central Florida, we aren’t tired of the local theme parks.
What inspired you to start your website, Autism at the Parks?
I created AutismAtTheParks.com in 2012. There was a need for a comprehensive website that guests who were going to visit Orlando’s theme parks with a family member with autism or other disability could go to for detailed information they might need related to their Orlando vacation. A one-stop resource of information you could say. I wanted to provide more information than a couple of blog posts found in a general information website and cover more theme parks than just Walt Disney World.
Universal Orlando offers an Attraction Assistance Pass (AAP) for guests with disabilities. Can you tell us a little bit about how this pass works?
Guests can request an AAP at guest relations when they arrive at Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure. The AAP is presented to the ride attendant at the entrance to each attraction. If the posted wait time is less than 30 minutes, you will be directed to an alternative entrance/queue, usually the Express Pass line. If the posted wait time is 30 minutes or more, the attendant will write on the pass what time you return to ride that attraction. When you return at the designated time, you will then be directed to the alternative entrance or Express Pass line to enter the attraction. Please note: You can only have one attraction listed on your AAP at a time. You can, however, use the AAP to enter an attraction that has a posted wait time less than 30 minutes while you wait for the attraction return time that’s written on the AAP.
For Example: Forbidden Journey has a posted wait time of 45 minutes. You get a return time on the AAP for Forbidden Journey. Flight of the Hippogriff has a posted wait of 15 minutes. You can use the AAP to enter the Express Pass queue and ride Flight of the Hippogriff while waiting for your return time at Forbidden Journey.
How does the Universal Orlando AAP compare to passes and systems at the other major theme parks, like Disney World and Sea World?
Universal’s policy of giving a return time if the posted wait is 30 or more minutes is more accommodating in comparison to the other theme parks. Walt Disney World requires getting a return time if the posted wait is more than 10 minutes and SeaWorld requires a return time if the posted wait is more than 15 minutes.
Also, Universal’s AAP can be used at all attractions, including those attractions that do not have Express Pass. Walt Disney World’s DAS (Disability Access Service pass) can only be used at attractions and character meets that have a Fastpass+ option and SeaWorld’s RAP (Ride Accessibility Pass) cannot be used for shows.
Is there anything else that the parks do to accommodate guests with disabilities?
All three major theme parks in Orlando will provide a ‘stroller as wheelchair’ sticker for those guests whose special needs child must remain in their stroller during the queues and/or shows. Sometimes this is all the accommodation that many families need at the theme parks.
If a family needs additional accommodations other than the stroller as wheelchair tag or the assistance passes, then I suggest they explain their situation to the Cast Member or Team Member at guest services. At times, additional accommodations can be provided, but the additional accommodations are always on a case by case basis and up to the discretion of the CM or TM or their manager.
How could accessibility be improved at Universal Orlando and other major Florida theme parks?
One improvement is having more wheelchair accessible ride vehicles available at attractions. This increased number of accessible ride vehicles would go a long way to helping more guests enjoy the theme parks and the attractions. For example, if additional wheelchair accessible ride vehicles were added at Toy Story Mania, wait times would significantly drop for those guests requiring that type of ride vehicle.
I would also like to see guests at WDW be able to book their DAS return time using the My Disney Experience app instead of having to physically go to the attraction in order to get a return time.
Your family recently attended a sensory-friendly performance by The Blue Man Group at Universal Orlando? What did you think of the show? Would you recommend it to others?
We loved The Blue Man Group sensory-friendly performance! I highly recommend it. I wrote a blog about our experience, but the one significant point I wanted others to know was that because the majority of the audience was made up of guests who either themselves or their family member had special needs, I didn’t panic if my son became overly enthusiastic in his enjoyment of the show. I could honestly relax and enjoy the performance. The next sensory-friendly performance for Orlando’s Blue Man Group is scheduled for January 2017 and we definitely will be there.
Theme parks can lead to sensory overload for some guests. Can you suggest a few places to get away or take a break when visiting Universal Orlando Resort?
In Islands of Adventure, any area along the waterfront is a great place to take a break, especially the walking paths along the water near Me Ship, The Olive, Jurassic Park Discovery Center, Mythos restaurant in the Lost Continent and the Zax Bypass in Seuss Landing.
In Universal Studios Florida, good places to take a break away from crowds are the concert lawn next to Rip Ride Rockit, along the waterfront in the park near Sunset Boulevard, at the tables in the covered pavilion in front of the Animal Actors stadium, in the Fear Factor entrance area when a show is not going on, and at the far end of Knockturn Alley in Diagon Alley.
Do you have any other tips for guests and families who are visiting the parks for the first time?
I highly recommend that families become familiar with the layout of any theme park before they attempt to visit one. I also recommend guests have a plan for what they are going to do each day, but also be flexible if the plans must change (like a ride may be unexpectedly down for maintenance). Have a good idea how your special needs family member handles crowds and overstimulation. Watch videos of the attractions you are unsure about on YouTube to get an idea of its intensity and what to expect. Many guests on the autism spectrum bring noise-canceling headphones to help with the overwhelming noise and crowds found in theme parks and during fireworks shows. Have comfort items on hand for your special needs family member like a favorite stuff toy or iPad to use while waiting in line or for your meals. I always recommend families start a walking program at least a month prior to their trip. You will easily walk 5-7 miles a day at any Orlando theme park.
Where can theme park fans find you and connect with you online?
Our website is www.AutismAtTheParks.com
Email is firstname.lastname@example.org