For some kids with sensory processing issues, a trip to a theme park can be overwhelming. But there are things you can do to make it easier and less stressful. Here are some tips to manage some of the sensory challenges of 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 your child will get bumped into or touched by other people.
2. Practice ahead of time.
There may be more people around than your child is used to—even on low-attendance days. Prepare your child by doing some “theme park practice.” Take her to the mall on a busy weekend to practice walking in and navigating crowds. Also consider spending time at an arcade or a place like Chuck E. Cheese’s to help her get used to the sounds and flashing lights.
3. Look for ride detail guides.
Some theme parks provide sensory information about each of their attractions. For example, Walt Disney World has a detailed 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. Call or email the theme park’s disability services office to ask if it provides these kinds of ride details. Knowing them can help you anticipate challenges for your child.
4. Prepare your child for each ride.
Tell your child what to expect from the rides at the park, from waiting in line to where she’ll sit and what she’ll see and do during the rides. Show her videos that take her through each ride. (If the park doesn’t have official videos, you can probably find fan-made ones on YouTube.) That way she can make a list ahead of time of rides she’d like to try—and be prepared for what she’ll encounter.
5. Bring ear protection and sunglasses.
Large groups of people and loud ride noises may bother kids with noise sensitivities. Keep a pair of ear buds or earplugs in your park bag. Noise-canceling headphones can help, too. Also, bright sunshine or flashing lights can be hard on kids with visual sensitivities—so have a pair of sunglasses handy.
6. Ask about guest assistance.
Check with the guest services office on your way into the park. Many theme parks have programs in place to help guests who need some extra assistance. Even if there’s not an official program, there may be ways to make the park a little less stressful for your child. For example, there may be a quieter space to wait in line or special areas where you can go if your child is overwhelmed.
7. Talk to the characters’ handlers.
For some kids who are sensitive to touch, a friendly hug or handshake from a favorite character may not be fun. While you’re waiting to meet and greet, speak with the staff accompanying the character. Explain your child’s sensitivities and provide alternate ways to interact, such as 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 are upsetting to some kids with sensory processing issues. Before you skip these events altogether, explain your concerns to some of the staff. They may be able to suggest some “secret” spots that have a great view but are farther 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 for your child. Consider having each family member create a list of top three “must-dos.” Once you’ve done all of them, anything else will be a nice bonus!