Safety & Security - Communications - November 2017

1711_SS1_1Communication is Key

Being accessible is only half the battle—informing guests of services is the other

by Heather Larson

Currently, about 15 percent of the world’s population live with some form of disability, reports World Bank. The United States Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was created to make life a bit more convenient for these guests, and attractions often exceed the requirements for accessibility laid out in the act. Communicating that these services are available is almost as important as having them in the first place. When a guest with a disability arrives at your entrance, you want them to be able to find the accessible facilities as quickly and as easily as possible, says Candy Harrington, editor of, an accessible travel newsletter, and author of 12 accessible travel titles. She has been providing detailed information about access for the past 22 years.

“That’s just good customer service,” says Harrington, “You also don’t want [guests with disabilities] accidentally wandering into an inaccessible area (like a pathway with a very steep slope) as that could be dangerous for them and other guests.”

Here are a few ways the attractions industry communicates accessible services to promote a safe and inclusive experience for all guests.

Accessible Parking and Entrances

At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, designated accessible parking is located about 300 yards from the Member/Accessible entrance to the attraction. Having an accessible entrance separate from where other guests come in solves two issues. They don’t have to wait in long lines where they may become uncomfortable, says Will Greene, guest services manager for the aquarium, and they’ve also identified themselves as having a disability. Employees don’t want to be intrusive, and often, regulations prevent staff from asking guests if they have a disability. “Once inside, we can offer them our accessibility guide,” Greene says.

Accessible parking with tram service to the front gate is available at Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The combined weight limit for a guest and an assistive device cannot exceed 500 pounds to ride the tram, so there is a designated drop-off area for guests who use wheelchairs or electric convenience vehicles near the front entrance, notes Harrington in her Emerging Horizons newsletter.

THE DOLLYWOOD COMPANYInside the Attraction

Dollywood opened a Calming Room—equipped with headsets, weighted blankets, and more—to help guests who may have a sensory overload while visiting the park. (Credit The Dollywood Company)

At Dollywood, signs posted by the ticket windows direct guests to the Ride Accessibility Center (RAC), which houses two private screening areas inside a private room.

“Here, once we’ve verified the guest wants to go on the rides and what their individual limitations are, we determine which rides will work for them,” says Judy Toth, access senior team lead at Dollywood. “Then we issue them a boarding pass listing the rides they can go on.”

Readily available access information can be dispensed via a guide, a map, or even directional signs that let visitors know where the accessible services are located, says Harrington. Signage is often overlooked, she says, but is also very important: “You can have the most accessible features in the world, but if your guests don’t know about them, they will go unused.” 

“You can have the most accessible features in the world, but if your guests don’t know about them, they will go unused.” — Candy Harrington,

When a guest with a disability aims to enter a ride without a boarding pass at Dollywood, the finely oiled mechanism of the RAC goes to work.

“We often get calls from the ride operator saying they have someone there without a boarding pass,” says Toth. “One of us goes out there and conducts the same screening process we go through in the RAC and issues them a correctly marked boarding pass that determines what they can ride. We don’t want them feeling the negative of being turned away from rides.”

Last year, Dollywood also opened a Calming Room—a quiet, relaxing environment where guests who may have sensory overload can take a break with their families. Many users, especially parents, say they would have had to leave the park early had it not been for the availability of the Calming Room, which is filled with soft, calming blues and greens, weighted blankets, a teepee, headsets, and rocking chairs. Information about the room and a photo of it appear on the Dollywood website so guests are aware of its availability.

The National Aquarium has a similar place called the Guest Relations Room, a calm, quiet space where someone who needs a respite from the crowd can go. Detailed information about sensory elements, like lighting and noise levels, in the aquarium’s various galleries is also available on its website so guests can plan their visits most effectively.


The National Aquarium opens 30 minutes early on the first Saturday and Sunday of each month for guests with disabilities to enjoy a leisurely, crowd-free visit (Credit: The National Aquarium)

An Enjoyable Experience Starts Online, an online guide created by The Opening Door Inc. nonprofit organization and the Virginia Tourism Corporation, lists accessible attractions, along with resources for people with disabilities who are living in or visiting the state. Listings for attractions include detailed information about parking, lighting, restrooms, aisle widths, and more.

Visitors often find out about the accessibility features at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia, from, and on the garden’s website, they’ll find information about wheelchairs, service animals, and the accessibility of its restaurants, tree house, and grounds.

“We are a garden for all people, and we want everyone to explore and enjoy the garden,” says Beth Monroe, public relations and marketing director for the garden. “As the garden has developed, so has the accessibility.”

The garden offers a tactile plastic map of the grounds to guests who have visual impairment, and some exhibits are marked in Braille.

Find Community Partners

Harrington says posting access information on your website is ideal, as people can look at it before visiting and map out their days. Plus, you can easily update a website when the access changes, she says.

The National Aquarium puts any information that involves access, including express entry, elevators, requesting tour guides, and the availability of assistive listening devices, under the “Visit Us” section of the website. 

Winter Park Resort in Winter Park, Colorado, relies on a single reference on its website to the resort’s affiliation with the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) to draw visitors with disabilities.

“We work with NSCD to get the word out,” says Steve Hurlbert, director of public relations and communications for the resort. “Hospitals in Denver and other places also let people know we exist.”

Just about everything at the resort is accessible, Hurlbert says, including a putting course, climbing wall, inflatable slide, human maze, skiing, assisted mountain biking, ziplining, and, of course, hotel rooms. If a guest would like a guide, the resort provides one free of charge, he says. And guests don’t have to be an NSCD participant to take advantage of the resort’s accommodations and activities.

Going Over and Above

Accessibility can be woven into the very experience of visiting an attraction and communicated through interaction with even the small details. 

Special days for those with a variety of disabilities are held at the National Aquarium. For example, on the first Saturday and Sunday of each month, Greene says the aquarium opens 30 minutes early so guests with disabilities can enjoy a leisurely, crowd-free experience for the first part of their visit. This attraction also hosts Deaf Awareness Days for the deaf community, where sign language interpreters are available for every presentation.

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden installed ADA-certified mulch in the garden to allow people in wheelchairs to navigate easily, says Monroe.

“The Garden is about connecting people and plants, but people first,” Monroe says. “Our staff goes above and beyond to make guests feel welcome and comfortable. We consider accessibility with all that we do.”

Heather Larson is a freelance writer in Tacoma, Washington, who frequently writes about small-business issues.