PHOTO: The LEGOLAND Orlando entrance. (photo via Flickr/Rain0975)
My youngest son is four. He has Sensory Processing Disorder.
Large groups of people, noisy places or just new experiences are always a roll of the dice for my family: How will he cope with new stimuli? How long before the next meltdown? Will we be able to coax him out of it? And what about all the unfamiliar (and sometimes, unforgiving) eyes around us?
I know my hesitancies and experiences are shared by many whose children have Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder and the various diagnoses that fall on the Spectrum. And as any parent or caregiver of a young child—regardless of disability or otherwise—can attest, an overloading kid is one of the hardest challenges of this gig.
So it was with great intrigue, hope and a little skepticism that I recently visited LEGOLAND with my family of five in time to sample their new ASD Initiative. What accommodations would they provide? Would it be inclusive or one of segregation? How qualified would the staff be?
Most importantly, what really was going to happen when my youngest inevitably melted down during a whole day in the Florida sun at a crowded, boisterous venue he’d never experienced before? Would my wife and other two sons (eight and six, respectively) be able to enjoy the trip nonetheless?
Not only did we navigate a textbook overload, but we made it through the entire day (from 10:00 AM open to 7:00 PM close) and thoroughly enjoyed our trip to the famous Winter Haven attraction, my youngest included!
I’m happy to say LEGOLAND’s ASD Initiative played an active role in making our experience such a success.
Senior Public Relations Manager David Brady was ecstatic to hear this when we met about halfway through my visit that day. In discussing the ASD Initiative’s inspired beginnings, as well as all the evolution yet to occur, it was clear that LEGOLAND is onto something enormously helpful.
“We didn’t want a family to look at their day here like, ‘well, we hope we can make it through the first three hours, and then we’ll probably have to leave’”, Brady said. “Because, honestly, that was your only option previously [both at LEGOLAND and other theme parks] in a lot of cases.”
Brady’s son was recently diagnosed with Autism, and we both knowingly nodded at the idea of a “ticking clock” when out in public, along with the negative peer pressure an in-crisis caregiver can face while trying to juggle the cost of tickets and the rest of his or her family's experience.
“We never want it to appear that, when a child is having a meltdown, it’s about protecting the experience of every other guest or that it’s about getting ‘those people’ out of here and off into a corner somewhere,” he continued.
“It’s about recognizing that [ASD] families have just as much a right to enjoy their day and their visit as everyone else. The families who are witnessing a meltdown may be confused and disturbed, but the family experiencing it needs a place to relax and then get back to enjoying their day.”
All that sounds good as an on-paper philosophy, of course, but how to put it in practice?
Implementing accommodations has been ongoing over the past year, but it begins with the HERO Pass—something that’s available to all children with documented disabilities.
We filled out an online application form a few weeks prior to our visit, then received a HERO Pass at Guest Services (on the left side, just inside the front entrance). This allowed us to bypass the lines at eligible rides: HERO Pass entrances are clearly marked and coincide with the Premium Play and Super Duper Pack add-on entrances at each attraction’s exit.
Though we received a few quizzical (and occasionally dirty) looks from those still waiting in line, this feature was an absolute life-saver, especially for ASD kids who may be overwhelmed by waiting in a noisy queue. It’s not about standing in one line per se, but the fact that doing so repeatedly will stack up quickly and scuttle the child’s ability to process anything more.
“We know through [our competitors] that there’s the potential for abuse,” said Brady, a theme park veteran who previously worked seven years for Disney Orlando.
“That’s not a reason to not do it, but we have to be mindful of that and make it less likely that people who don’t really need the services are taking advantage of it [and those that do]. It’s about really helping people understand that this isn’t about skipping the line or giving someone special privileges. It’s because there’s a real need that exists.”
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About a year ago, the park also opened its first ASD quiet room, which is located in the Annual Pass Building (on the right, just inside the main entrance). Using a former office space, LEGOLAND staffers created a quiet haven for overloaded children and their families to relax and reset.
“We reached out to our local chapter of Autism Speaks and entered into a partnership with them,” Brady explained. “We said, ‘we want to outfit this room, but we want to do it right. Can you give us some pointers and some suggestions on the right type of equipment?’ We didn’t just want another play area, which we have plenty of in the park. We wanted something more specific.”
I toured this moderately sized, warmly colored room as Brady highlighted the dimmed windows, sound-proofed walls, soft seating spaces, weighted blanket and noise-cancelling headphones. Of course, there was an assortment of LEGO and DUPLO blocks to play with here too.
“There’s just something about LEGOS that have proven to be very attractive to ASD kids. They’re both open-ended in that you can do anything with them, but there’s an orderliness and predictability in assembling them,” said Brady.
“We got such a positive response to this idea, and we knew that this part of the park is very quiet during the busiest time of day [as most guests are nearer the back and middle of the park],” he continued. “But this can’t be the only quiet room because no one is going to want to hike all the way back to the front of the park [if they’re in the back], so we knew we needed to add other rooms. This was the template for the others.
“We’ve slowly been decorating, furnishing and prepping these three new rooms, but this is the first month we’re really advertising and highlighting those now.”
There are three quiet rooms in the main park: at the aforementioned Annual Services building, the First Aid station and the Baby Care Center. There is also a fourth in the Water Park’s Guest Services building.
Finding such spaces can be a bit difficult in the heat of the moment, however. My son experienced his single meltdown when we decided to leave the Imagination Zone around midday. While we were able to calm and reset him outside on our own, it was a bit frustrating to later find out from David that one of these quiet rooms was in the same building where we had just been.
We had missed the Puzzle Piece label on the door during the commotion of leaving.
While David explained that our Hero Pass application would normally prompt an additional information packet and guidance at the Guest Services building—I had booked my visit through their Press portal which bypassed a few of these features—he admitted accessibility, communication and widespread implementation remain works-in-progress:
“It’s a challenge for us to work with media and advocates to help people know this stuff is available.“
Part of this may stem from the HERO Pass application being discretely displayed as a form link on the Special Situations page (itself listed at the very bottom of the main page’s lower bar). However, there are links and mentions in the Know Before You Go, Plan Your Visit and FAQ pages.
In the end, I recommend the same as David did: Proactively ask about personalized accommodations before your visit and as you first arrive.
“We can also answer questions that people have on Social Media, whether it’s our Twitter account or Facebook or Instagram,” he added.
Guest Services is your best bet once on the ground, though the brightly garbed “Model Citizens” (i.e. roving LEGOLAND park staffers) are all helpful resources as well. My wife and I frequently noticed staff of all job descriptions and roles being accessible, patient and happy to help.
Said staffers have recently begun receiving ASD-specific training thanks to LEGOLAND’s partnership with the Central Florida chapter of Autism Speaks.
“They gave us the framework for what they’d recommend, and now it’s all facilitated by one of our Health Services members...We also have a medical director who works at an Urgent Care facility a few miles from here, and he consulted as well,” Brady explained.
“It’s really about recognizing that Autism is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. It’s about understanding there are times where it’s appropriate to talk directly to the guest, but recognizing there are times they may be nonverbal, and it’s appropriate to talk directly to the caregiver. We don’t want to talk over or around the person. We want to feel out the situation.
“It’s small things, like: Do you get down on your knees to make eye-level contact with the guest? Learning to recognize a ‘regular’ theme park tantrum versus a meltdown—there are very clear distinctions. We need to use inclusive language...Overall, how do you approach [a situation] sensitively?”
Additionally, all ingredients are now documented in on-request binders (at each restaurant and food cart) for those with dietary restrictions, while the security staff has been specially equipped for those children prone to wandering or running off—something that can be common with some ASD kids. (My son, for example, used to actively sprint off nearly every chance he got when younger.)
Brady outlined how security has an “Elopement Form, which you can proactively fill out before you arrive, with the height, weight, hair color, what the child likes to be called, their sensitivities, a photograph, etc. So if they are prone to wander off, you’ve left us all that information and we can identify that child much faster.”
Of course, visiting LEGOLAND isn’t just about “surviving”. It’s about having a blast!
As a park specifically geared to the 2-12-year-old range, the venue has a lot to offer children of all preferences. The familiarity of the LEGO universe especially makes the park and its attractions and activities that much more accessible. There's something predictable and known about all of it, even as every section offers new and exciting things to see and do.
My son enjoyed the Pirate and water ski live shows, exploring all the nuances and easter eggs among the Miniland displays (especially the Star Wars sets), as well as many of the age-appropriate rides. He was expectedly a bit overwhelmed on The Dragon, a fairly tame roller coaster that we were still proud he agreed to at least try—though he understandably refused all others the rest of the day.
I was surprised how much he loved the new Ninjago 4-D attraction; I initially feared its dark setting, loud noises, bright lights and other stimuli. The familiarity of the Ninjago characters and set pieces, along with the chance to actively participate in a videogame-like experience trumped all, apparently.
Less surprising to both David and myself was my son’s affinity for simply sitting down and spending some quiet time building with LEGO pieces in the Imagination Zone building. There’s just something about playing with the bricks, technology and minifigures you don’t otherwise have at home while letting your creativity blossom.
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Currently being piloted on the new Ninjago attraction, LEGOLAND is also building out Social Story information sheets to be available (at Guest Services and on downloadable PDF) for every ride. The ability to visually explain and predict an experience ahead of time is especially invaluable for ASD kids, though many young children may appreciate it as well.
“As fun as this [Ninjago] is, you don’t necessarily see that from the outside of the building,” said Brady. “You see the building, not that there’s this car on a track and lights and sounds and exactly what’s going to happen. So this Social Story is really pulling the curtain back and letting you prep for exactly what is going to happen: You’re gonna put glasses on, interact with the screen and keep score, etc.”
Even as there’s room to grow when it comes to communicating and integrating services and accommodations, the ASD Initiative promises to be an overwhelmingly positive and ongoing process—one that actively welcomes guest feedback, Brady said.
“We know that, for as much as we’ve tried to listen to folks like Autism Speaks, it’s now when we get to see whether we’re really getting it right. Feedback from guests will help us know whether we have the right number of quiet rooms, and are they in the right places? Do they have the right amount of equipment?
“Today, it’s the weighted blanket, but tomorrow it may be a new type of tactile toy or object that we can introduce that just hasn’t been around yet. As the years go by and we listen to guests, there will be an evolution.
”This was never about increasing business. It was a service standpoint about, ‘how can we make this experience better?’”
Thanks to LEGOLAND for providing an all-day family pass and facilitating research and resources for this article.