Creating Inclusive Attractions
For most visitors, one of the most impressive and popular rides at Water World Ocean Park Hong Kong is the indoor Vortex, a 25-meter higher ProSlide Tornado 60, where twirling riders enjoy moments of zero gravity.
For guests on the autistic spectrum, though, any number of factors could be off-putting or downright terrifying, from the slide’s bright colors to the echoing sounds of other guests. Perceptions of each person with autism is unique. For some, a particular sense may be magnified exponentially, while for others it can hardly register.
To address this issue, and to make the park as welcoming as possible to people on the spectrum, Ocean Park Hong Kong has joined a growing number of attractions that conducted and began publicizing sensory audits of every ride, detailing how the attraction affects each of the five senses.
The Vortex, for example, ranks low on smell and taste—though there is a chance a rider could notice the smell of chlorine or that water spray could enter their mouth; it’s middle-of-the-road when it comes to touch and sound; and it ranks relatively high, a 7 out of 10, for sight, as there is fast movement and quick transitions from darkness to light.
Sensory rankings are posted outside each attraction, as well as on the park’s website, so that visitors can plan before arriving at the park.
The sensory audit is just one part of becoming a Certified Autism Center. Training plays a large role as well. At least 80% of front-line staff are expected to be certified to recognize autistic traits to ensure the safety of every guest, to know what to do in the event of an incident, and how to communicate with the families of guests on the spectrum. Many attractions also set up quiet, low-sensory areas where guests can retreat.
The Business Case
Becoming an inclusive attraction can be good business.
“A lot of times people think that accessibility is an extra expense, but there’s a lot research that accessibility, especially for autism, is one of the fastest growing areas of travel and entertainment,” says Myron Pincomb, the chief executive and chairman of IBCCES, a company that provides autism certification.
Pincomb joined Water World Ocean Park Executive Director Bryan Fish, Attractions Academy Founder CEO Shaun McKeogh, and Vana Nava Cluster Operations Director Lois Robbins for a discussion about autism, inclusivity and attractions in a packed education on the first day of IAAPA Expo Asia 2023.
Approximately 1% of all children have autism, according to the World Health Organization.
Families with an autistic member are a very loyal market, Pincomb notes. “Put yourself in their mindset. If they find a place where they are comfortable, they will go back to that facility time after time,” he says.
Attractions have to be careful, though, not to treat inclusivity simply as a box to check. “Authenticity is huge in this market. Families know the moment they walk on your property. If you do it right, it can be huge,” Pincomb says. Similarly, parks should strive to be inclusive all year round, not simply for tailored events.
The Right Thing to Do
“Accessibility for all—it’s not just good for business, it’s not just good for guests—we should and we must,” exclaims Shaun McKeogh, the founder and CEO of Attractions Academy, who advises attractions to start on this journey by contacting community organizations. “Reach out to users that could potentially use your facility, invite them in and ask, ‘How can we improve?’” Start those conversations. You'll get lots of ideas and easy-to-implement tips for your standard operating procedures.”
The impact of adopting and communicating inclusive policies and practices will be felt at many levels, but perhaps none more so than with the families who benefit.
Bryan Fish, the executive director of Water World Ocean Park Hong Kong, recalls one such family, with a 5-year-old autistic son, who loved playing with the water jets in one of the park’s pools. “The family never felt they’d be able to go to a place like Water World,” Fish recalls. “But seeing and being educated on what we had available gave the mom like peace of mind.”