All Access / Theme Park Accommodations for Special Needs

WORDS
Carrie Steingruber
PUBLISHED
March 2017 in
DFWThrive
UPDATED
February 27, 2017
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A Disney vacation is every kid’s dream — but for families navigating special needs, the theme park experience can be a logistical nightmare. Some of that anxiety (for child and parent) comes from not knowing what to expect unless, of course, your journeying to Morgan’s Wonderland, a park specifically designed for those with special needs, in San Antonio. To equip you for planning a theme park getaway elsewhere, we made the calls and got the scoop on special accommodations. You’ll need to dig deeper based on your family’s needs, but start here with an overview of the new special access programs adopted by most parks, plus the thoughtful extras and add-on experiences that make a theme park trip totally doable.

Skipping lines? Sort of.
After infamous reports of families hiring people with disabilities to score front-of-line privileges, theme parks nationwide have changed their special access programs. No longer can you go straight to the front of every line; instead, you can skip the lines, but not the wait times.

The access programs at most major theme parks now work much the same way: After you pay admission to enter the park, visit the guest services area. Be prepared to answer questions about your child’s abilities (but you don’t have to provide a doctor’s note) and describe the accommodations that might help your child, such as skipping lines. Your child’s disability doesn’t have to be physical — kids with autism and other cognitive conditions are eligible too.

You’ll be issued a free pass that grants your party special entry to rides and attractions, plus a list of attractions that your child can ride. If the line is short, you may be able to board right away through a separate entrance. If the line is long, you’ll be given a return time based on the current wait. When you come back at your reserved time, you’ll be able to board quickly.

Most parks (we list two exceptions below) only allow you to have one active return time, meaning you can’t set up return times at other rides while you wait. Thankfully, parks allow guests with disabilities to use other programs, such as the FastPass+ program at Disney parks, in tandem with their special access pass to make the most of their time.

Dining, signing and more
In addition to special access programs for rides and attractions, theme parks have a growing list of other accommodations for all types of disabilities. For example:

● Parks rent wheelchairs and strollers, or give you a tag to use your stroller as a wheelchair, meaning you don’t have to abandon the stroller to stand in line.
● If your child has dietary or feeding requirements, you can usually bring food into the parks (as long as you alert guest services), and with advance notice or a chat with the manager, park restaurants will cook up allergen-free fare.
● Those with hearing impairments can request an interpreter for shows; most parks require 1–2 weeks’ notice. Disney parks already have interpreters on their weekly schedule, which you can download at disneyparks.com.
● Service animals are welcome in parks, and some parks even allow animals on certain attractions.

We hand-picked some of the nation’s top parks that boast a special access program as described above, but the best way to guarantee that your family’s needs are met is to read the park’s accessibility information (available online) and, even better, contact the park prior to your trip.

Walt Disney World Resort, Orlando, Florida
Disneyland Resort, Anaheim, California
Best for: Those who don’t have to have thrills to have fun — there are plenty of low-key rides, shows and character encounters.
Special access program: Disability Access Service (DAS)
The scoop: DAS works for character meet and greets too. Unless the wait is 10 minutes or less, you’ll receive a return time, so to cut down on downtime, families can use FastPass+ (which works like DAS, but for all guests) in addition to DAS. The My Disney Experience app keeps track of all your DAS and FastPass+ reservations — and wait times throughout the park.
Best bet: Book a VIP tour. Your own personal guide accompanies your family around the park, allowing you to enjoy the park at the pace your child needs while letting someone else handle the logistics — your guide schedules DAS and FastPass+ reservations, gets you special seating at shows, arranges dining reservations so your table will be ready when you arrive, and more. Private tours start at $2,400 for up to 10 people (Disneyland) or $400 per hour (Disney World), plus the cost of admission.
For more info: Download the Guides for Guests with Disabilities (available for each park) at disneyparks.com and email disability.services@disneyparks.com.

SeaWorld
Orlando, Florida
San Antonio, Texas
San Diego, California
Best for: Kids who love animals more than roller coasters (though SeaWorld has those too) and parents don’t want to break the bank — guests with disabilities and one companion receive a 50% discount on regular one-day tickets.
Special access program: Ride Accessibility Program (RAP)
The scoop: RAP lets you board immediately if the wait is 15 minutes or less, and you can have multiple RAP reservations at once. Large play areas like San Diego’s Sesame Street Bay of Play allow kiddos to explore at their own pace.
Best bet: Each SeaWorld location boasts an impressive list of up-close animal encounters in smaller groups. Pet and feed a dolphin during the 10- to 15-minute Dolphin Encounter in San Diego ($65 per person), or at all three locations, take a one-hour walking tour through the penguin habitat (prices vary by park and season). To customize your whole day in Orlando or San Diego, book a private VIP tour complete with a personal guide, animal encounters, front-of-line privileges and premier seats at shows. The best bang for your buck is Orlando’s seven-hour tour (prices start at $199 per person, plus park admission), which includes dining with the sharks at Sharks Underwater Grill.
For more info: Download the accessibility guides at seaworldparks.com and contact guest relations at swc.guestrelations@seaworld.com (San Diego), 407/363-2400 (Orlando) or 210/523-3817 (San Antonio).

Universal Orlando Resort, Orlando, Florida
Best for: Harry Potter wizzes, Marvel fans and thrill-seekers of all kinds.
Special access program: Attraction Assistance Pass (AAP)
The scoop: If the wait time is 30 minutes or less, AAP-ers can enter immediately through an alternate entrance. The lines are often integral to the ride experience (like touring Hogwarts castle) so most lines at both parks allow wheelchairs.
Best bet: A stay at a premier resort property gives you extra perks, like free shuttle service, Express Passes (which let you bypass long lines — great to use while you’re waiting for an AAP return time) and a chance to explore the park sans crowds during special hours for resort guests only. If you stay off-resort, Express Passes are available a la carte too (starting at $49.99 per person per day).
For more info: Download the Rider’s Guide at universalorlando.com and call Guest Services, 407/224-4233.

LEGOLAND Resort, Orlando, Florida
Best for: Kids who like to stay busy but don’t love crowds, and those with a Minifig collection — park employees (called Model Citizens) carry Minifigs and are always ready to trade.
Special access program: Hero Pass
The scoop: The Hero Pass doesn’t limit you to one active return time, meaning you can have multiple ride reservations queued up. But if kids do get restless or overstimulated, the calm room in the Annual Pass center is stocked with weighted blankets and Lego toys for fidgety fingers.
Best bet: The Red Brick Carpet VIP tour is pricey (starting at $445 per child and $495 per adult), but it gets you a knowledgeable guide for the entire day, priority access to attractions and — for the true Lego enthusiast — a chance to tour the Model Shop and meet a master builder.
For more info: Download the Guide for Guests with Disabilities at legoland.com/florida and contact guest services at LLF.Experience@LEGOLAND.com.

Dollywood, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Best for: Kids who can handle the hilly terrain, and families who love shows as much as they love rides.
Special access program: Boarding Pass, which families obtain from the Ride Accessibility Center
The scoop: The theme park’s Calming Room is a private space (open to a single family for up to 30 minutes) with a teepee, beanbags, blocks, puzzles and other accessories to make overstimulated kiddos feel safe. If the Calming Room is occupied, families can retreat to the quiet Chasing Rainbows Museum. Unlike the other parks on our list, Dollywood doesn’t allow outside food, but the park’s restaurants have gluten- and dairy-free dishes, and Dollywood’s Backstage Restaurant specially prepares allergen-free meals on request.
Best bet: If you purchase tickets and enter the park after 3pm, your ticket will cover the next day’s admission too. Dollywood’s VIP tour includes a personal tour guide for the whole day, front-of-line access at every ride and more starting at $199.
For more info: Check out the Park Accessibility guide at dollywood.com, call 800/365-5996 and ask for Judy Toth.

Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri
Best for: Curious kids who like to see how things are made — blacksmiths, potters, candymakers and other craftsmen and women show off their skills during free daily demos.
Special access program: Disabled Access Boarding Program
The scoop: To help families maximize their time between disabled access return times, Trailblazer Passes (starting at $35) can be used up to eight times during the day to bypass lines. Mark your calendar for Deaf Awareness Day on August 12; in the past, this special day has included discounted admission for guests who are hearing impaired.
Best bet: For rustic surroundings — and plenty of privacy — stay in one of Silver Dollar City’s Wilderness cabins (Wilderness has a wheelchair accessible cabin and an accessible outdoor pool.) A shuttle takes you straight from the campground to the park’s front entrance. In the park, a VIP tour gives you another private experience, with an itinerary tailored to your needs and interests, starting at $199.
For more info: Download the Ride Guide for Silver Dollar City at silverdollarcity.com and call customer service at 800/888-7277.



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