9 ways to manage sensory overload at theme parks

For some kids and adults, a trip to a theme park can be a setup for sensory overload. But there are things you can do to make it easier and less stressful. Here are some tips to manage sensory challenges at theme parks.

1. Research crowd calendars.

Many theme parks — and the fan sites devoted to them — publish information about when parks are likely to be most crowded. If possible, try to schedule your trip for “low-attendance” days. The less crowded it is, the less likely it is you’ll get bumped into or touched by other people.

2. Practice ahead of time.

There may be more people around than you’re used to — even on low-attendance days. Prepare by doing some “theme park practice.” Visit the mall on a busy weekend to practice walking in and navigating crowds. You could even spend time at an arcade or a place like Chuck E. Cheese to get used to the sounds and flashing lights.

3. Look for ride detail guides.

Some theme parks give sensory information about each of their attractions. For example, Disney World has a detailed disability guide you can download from its website. It breaks down everything from flashing lights and smells to how long you’ll be in the dark.

If the theme park you’re going to doesn’t have a guide online, call or email the disability services office to get details.

4. Prepare for each ride.

Research what to expect from the rides at the park, from waiting in line to where you’ll sit and what you’ll see and do during the rides. Watch videos that take you through each ride. (If the park doesn’t have official videos, you can probably find fan-made ones on YouTube.) That way you can make a list ahead of time of rides to try — and know what to expect.

5. Bring ear protection and sunglasses.

Large groups of people and loud ride noises can be difficult. Keep a pair of ear buds or earplugs in your park bag. Noise-canceling headphones can help, too. Bright sunshine or flashing lights can be hard, so have a pair of sunglasses handy to manage visual sensitivity.

6. Ask about guest assistance.

Check with the guest services office on your way into the park. Many have programs in place to help guests who need extra assistance. Even if there’s not an official program, there are ways to make the park a little less stressful. For example, there might be a quieter space to wait in line or special areas where you can go to manage sensory overload.

7. Talk to the characters’ handlers.

A friendly hug or handshake from a favorite character may not be fun for everyone. While you’re waiting to meet and greet, talk with the staff accompanying the character. Explain the specific sensitivities and suggest ways to interact, like a wave or a high five. The handler can pass that along to the character when it’s your turn.

8. Ask where to view parades and shows.

The crowds, smells, and sounds of fireworks and other special events can be overwhelming. Before you skip these events altogether, explain your concerns to the staff. They may be able to suggest “secret” spots that have a great view but that are away from the commotion.

9. Don’t be a park warrior.

It can be tempting to try to get to all the rides and all the shows. But that might be too much stimulation. Have each family member make a list of top three “must-dos.” Once you’ve done all of them, anything else will be a nice bonus.


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