At SeaWorld’s Water Park, An Autism-Friendly Approach Takes Root
ORLANDO, Fla. — Past the colorful playground where children splash at Aquatica Orlando, a new quiet room tries to mute the laughter and the music from the loudspeaker when everything becomes too overwhelming.
A few feet away, one of several expanded map signs breaks down the rides, rating them by the five senses, to give parents a warning if a ride may not be the right fit for their child.
These recent changes at the water park are meant to send a welcoming message to people with autism. The revamped quiet space, more detailed signs and new employee training have helped Aquatica become the first water park with a certified autism center.
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In Orlando, theme parks and some attractions offer accommodations to make people with autism have a better experience, but it doesn’t alleviate all the obstacles, advocates have said. Disney is facing lawsuits after the theme park revamped its disability program for guests waiting at attractions.
Autism is a developmental disorder that can affect people’s communication and social interactions. But it affects people in different ways, stressed Sandra Worth, executive director of the Fort Myers-based nonprofit My Autism Connection.
“Families want to know they can bring their children to a place where they’re understood,” Worth said. “For so many years, we’ve been shunned. We’ve been criticized because our children don’t behave a certain way.”
Aquatica vice president David Heaton called the new steps “the right thing to do to elevate our guest service level in the park.”
Heaton declined to say how much the efforts cost other than, “We saw this financial investment as well-worth it.”
The sensory information, which ranks the loudest rides and brightly colored attractions, is displayed prominently on the park’s website, posted on large maps at the park and also available at guest services. Eventually, new signs that could go up by spring break will also appear at ride entrances, Heaton said.
“It’s a great idea,” said Michelle Martin, a passholder from St. Cloud who has a teenage son with autism. “It gives parents a heads up of what they’re walking into.”
The park already offers a program that lets people with disabilities skip the lines for free on some attractions.
Those who need a break from what can be a loud park can retreat to the quiet room near the first aid station that’s been recently renovated.
Previously, the private space with a locked door was exclusively used as a room for nursing mothers. Now, it will be a dual-purpose room after Aquatica upgraded it and added several sensory-friendly toys.
On a busy day, the health services building also offers private spaces if the quiet room is in high demand, Heaton said.
For the certification, 80 percent of Aquatica’s employees who work with the public must undergo the 30-minute training — which will be ongoing as employees turn over, Heaton said. Managers at the park are educated in a full-day training session.
The training is designed to teach Aquatica employees how people with autism may react and to be more empathetic, said Meredith Tekin, president of the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, which works with organizations in the tourism, hospitality and other industries to become certified in autism and special needs.
IBCCES developed its evidence-based training through its advisory board, which has at least 10 members and is represented by people on the autism spectrum, neurologists, behavior therapists and others, Tekin said.
“This is above and beyond the regular training,” Tekin said of Aquatica. “They’re really leading the industry. We don’t use that term lightly.”
The training has already paid off, said Tina Guarnieri, 25, of Winter Garden, who works as an Aquatica guest arrival ambassador.
Recently, Guarnieri showed the sensory guide and where the quiet room was to a family with a child who has autism.
“It opens all of our eyes up how we can be more helpful,” she said.
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