Business Resources - Guest Services - October 2018

Every element at Morgan’s Inspiration Island is wheelchair-accessible, and the park provides three types of waterproof wheelchairs that fit guests of a variety of heights and sizes. (Credit: Robin Jerstad/Jerstad Photographics)

How facilities are making accessibility and inclusivity a priority

by James Careless

What do Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country, Sandcastle Waterpark, and Morgan’s Wonderland have in common? 

Answer: All three go above and beyond accommodating guests with disabilities.

“Making it possible for people with disabilities to enjoy Dollywood, alongside their able-bodied families and friends, is just the right thing to do,” says Judy Toth, safety manager at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. “We’re trying to bring people of all abilities together at Dollywood. We don’t want to separate anyone from the group.”

According to the Return on Disability Group (ROD), which reports on the economic power of people with disabilities (1.3 billion worldwide) and their able-bodied caregivers, families, and friends control more than $8 trillion in annual disposable income.

Collectively, people with disabilities are a customer group who actively seek out entertainment. 

“At our indoor water park, it is common to see a person with disabilities in a family group up to 18 people in size,” says John Child, managing director at Sandcastle Waterpark in Blackpool, England, United Kingdom. “This is a big market with a big budget—and they are looking for fun things to do together!”


At Morgan’s Wonderland, guests can enjoy more than 30 traditional or adaptive swings, including wheelchair swings. (Credit: Morgan’s Wonderland)

Providing Meaningful Accessibility to Fun

Creating a truly accessible experience for people with disabilities is not just a matter of providing wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and pathways. Guests come to theme and water parks for fun, so the entire facility should be analyzed in all aspects to maximize the number of activities and attractions guests with disabilities can enjoy.

At Dollywood, the team is committed to providing a safe and enjoyable environment for all guests by providing a clear outline of ride experiences, accommodations at each attraction, and a listing of physical requirements needed for entering and exiting ride vehicles. This takes the guesswork out for guests with disabilities and their families and friends.

All of this information is included in the Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country Rider Safety & Accessibility Guide brochures, which are available online and at the parks. The guides also specify the attractions in which guests can remain in their standard wheelchairs or electric convenience vehicles (ECVs) and the rides in which guests must transfer to a manual wheelchair or ride vehicles to participate. They also explain any restrictions that may apply to individuals who may have a loss of limb and/or are wearing prosthesis.

“We have a Ride Accessibility Center just inside the ­Dollywood entrance, where someone who may have a loss of limb/prosthesis or a disability can find out the rider requirements for our rides in a private and convenient setting,” says Toth. “This helps our guests plan their day and also provides information for those guests who may need to use the wheelchair entrance to the rides.” Dollywood’s Splash Country also provides accessible tubes for guests with limited mobility.

Sandcastle Waterpark prides itself on serving a full range of guests with disabilities. 

In fact, Sandcastle’s slogan is “Access for All.” This translates into level, barrier/step-free access throughout the entire complex; large print, Braille and audio-enabled signage for the visually impaired; subtitled video screens, hearing assistive devices, and staff trained in voice-to-text equipment for the hearing-impaired; and flotation aids, waterproof wheelchairs, and “water ambassadors” to help guests with disabilities in the pool.


Sandcastle Waterpark offers an adult changing room equipped with a lifting hoist and adult changing tables. (Credit: Sandcastle Waterpark)

“I have a passion for inclusivity,” says Child, who volunteers with a number of people-with-disabilities charities in his free time. “Anything we can do to make Sandcastle more accessible to everyone, we do.”

In addition, Dollywood and Sandcastle provide adult changing tables (Sandcastle’s restrooms also have hoists to lift guests); plus showers and fully accessible washrooms. “In the past, some caregivers would have to change their companions by lying them on the bathroom floor,” says Toth. “That’s not how you treat your valued guests.”

Meanwhile, to aid guests with autism and their companions, both facilities offer “quiet rooms” and “calming areas” where these guests can take a break from potential overstimulation. Decorated in muted colors and decorated with soft furniture and toys, quiet rooms allow people with autism to regain their sense of calm and control.

Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island in San Antonio, Texas, mirror Dollywood and Sandcastle in their commitment to accessible attractions and amenities. But since the two San Antonio parks are nonprofits specifically designed for children and adults with special needs, they go all-out in tailoring their attractions to these groups’ requirements.

For instance, “our carousel is equipped with special ‘chariots’ that allow guests in wheelchairs to roll on and ride like anybody else,” says Morgan’s Wonderland General Manager Ron Morander. Guests can ride together on Morgan’s Wonderland’s new five-and-a-half-story “Whirling Wonder” Ferris wheel, share an all-terrain vehicle on the “Off-Road Adventure Ride,” or take an almost mile-long trek on the “Wonderland Express” train. 

Over at tropically themed Morgan’s Inspiration Island, these guests can also share a multiperson watercraft (with roll-on wheelchair access) on the “River Boat Adventure Ride,” or play together on a number of splash pads using revolutionary waterproof wheelchairs. One of the colorful splash pads offers warm water for guests who are sensitive to cooler water.

“Our goal is to allow guests with physical disabilities to retain the same independence they had when they arrived here in their wheelchairs,” says Morander. “This way, they can focus on having fun with their families and friends—which is what going to the amusement park is all about.” 

To achieve that goal, the design processes for both parks included bringing together doctors, special-education teachers, therapists, caregivers, parents of special-needs children, and other passionate people to brainstorm what completely accessible parks would encompass.  

Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island are not only devoid of physical barriers but economic barriers, as well. All guests with disabilities are admitted free of charge, and guests also may bring their own food to the parks because many families with special-needs members may have special dietary considerations.