Creating Sensory-Friendly Experiences
As attractions work to accommodate guests of all abilities and benefit from the goodwill of their efforts, serving guests with sensory impairments can require a unique approach. This category includes those who are deaf or hearing impaired, blind, or have a visual impairment. Sensory impairments also include guests with conditions such as autism and Down syndrome—many of whom process sensory information differently than others.
Beginning the Process
When looking to make modifications that will empower a guest with a sensory impairment to enjoy their day, facilities can start by partnering with a trained specialist.
Daniela Ferdico, Psy.D., is a neuropsychologist and the director of Sensory Access, an organization that works to make events and experiences more accessible to those with sensory processing difficulties. She encourages attractions and suppliers to consider accessibility during the design of a new ride or other venue, rather than later incurring the cost of upgrading.
In addition, while setting aside a special period of time each day for sensory-impaired guests is welcomed, Ferdico offers suggestion. “One option besides a sensory‑friendly hour or day is to make the entire park or venue ‘sensory accessible’ all the time by documenting which rides/areas have more sensory impact and providing tools to overcome that.”
Many attractions have started to post sensory ratings of their rides on signage at an attraction’s entrance. The notification gives parents and potential riders an idea of what to expect before waiting in line or boarding a ride.
The Peppa Pig Theme Park adjacent to Legoland Florida in Winter Haven worked in partnership with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), which certified the park as a Certified Autism Center. The venue created and posts a dedicated Accessibility and Sensory Guide on its website that grades every ride and attraction in the park on a scale of 1 to 5 for touch, taste, sound, sight, and smell.
“Its purpose is to help prepare families for what experiences exist in every attraction at the park so they can decide which is best suited for their families,” says Nick Miller, the park’s director of operations and guest excellence. “We also have sensory signs at entrances of each attraction.”
For guests with no vision, creating a tactile map and a ride model can be invaluable in helping them relate to attractions.
Ferdico also asks attractions take into consideration that guests’ impairments can vary. For example, many who are classified as legally blind have some vision, therefore, providing seating closer to a stage show and high-resolution, downloadable maps where a guest can zoom in on a smart phone are important.
She urges attractions not only assist children with autism, but guests of all ages. “What about the adults?” she asks. “Please remember there are many adults with autism as well.”
Updating Operational Standards
Beyond complying with current disability laws, attractions—especially independent ones—have the challenge of determining what changes they can afford to make, and whether those changes will benefit enough guests.
Ferdico, whose son has autism, understands that there is an initial cost to providing staff training or pursuing a sensory audit, but says, “We have found that the increased visitor count, the super-positive social media, and the costs of getting it wrong far outweigh the initial cost of being inclusive.”
There’s also the matter of impacting other guests with sensory-friendly changes to attractions. “Empower your staff to make it possible … without making it unfair to other guests,” says Ferdico. “For example, maybe [impaired guests] get a return time so they don’t have to physically stand in line for an hour, but they don’t get to just skip the line.”
She acknowledges that during the hours or days set aside for sensory-friendly experiences, it’s important to let all guests know that the environments are altered for a special event allowing guests with sensory impairments to participate in the fun.
“It’s all about offering information, but never apologizing about any guests. We can provide information about what changes have been made to the environment, or why it is important to be inclusive to all, without specifically asking people to accommodate sensory‑impaired guests.”
As for how attractions can stay ahead of the curve in accommodating sensory-impaired guests, Ferdico says reading informational pieces, conducting facility reviews, and attending conventions will “help everyone stay current, as long as conventions/publications include ability information as an important part of park operations. You don’t have to change what you offer for those with accessibility challenges, just make them accessible.”
Three Ways To Start
Neuropsychologist Daniela Ferdico, Psy.D., has a son with autism and provides Funworld with the three most important accommodations attractions can make for the sensory impaired.
1. Early Planning
It’s important to provide guests with what they can expect before arriving at the front door, according to Ferdico. Many times, visitors with sensory impairments will want to research an attraction before buying a ticket. This starts online. “Have disability information about your attraction easy to find on your attraction’s website,” Ferdico recommends.
2. Training Staff
Ferdico says has found some staff members are afraid to say the wrong thing or assist in the wrong way. “If the staff can’t accommodate guests when they’re there, it won’t be a successful visit,” she says. Therefore, Ferdico recommends attractions create training exercises that can educate and put team members at ease. “Give them the tools to make all guests feel welcome and included.”
3. Signage as a Guide
Ferdico believes if a guest knows what to expect from an experience or ride, they get the benefit from making an informed choice. “Ideally, that information is gathered by trained sensory‑impaired individuals. Most neurotypical individuals would rate environments as not having sensory impact unless they’re really intense,” she says. Signage posted at the entrance to rides and shows—especially those with loud sound effects or strobe lighting—will educate visitors with sensory impairments before they reach a boarding platform or take a seat in a theater.
Ride Manufacturer Champions Accessibility
Ride manufacturer Antonio Zamperla S.p.A of Vicenza, Italy, has made it a priority to create accessible amusement rides. The company has donated some of these attractions to Give Kids The World in Kissimmee, Florida, a nonprofit resort hosting children with critical illnesses and their families. Valerio Ferrari, the company’s chief sales officer, says many of the 200 rides it has sold in North America over the past decade are ADA compliant, along with rides sold around the world sporting accessible features.
“Since 2012, thanks for the foresight of Mr. Zamperla, we started a detail study to improve the accessibility—not only for people in wheelchairs but also with all kinds of special needs—such as vision- or audio-impaired and autism,” he says. “It’s becoming part of what we do every day, and therefore is getting easier and easier to think about designing and manufacturing rides as the most accessible possible.”
Ferrari believes that accessibility is developing into a “precise science,” therefore he says Zamperla Rides is making accessibility an integral part of each new ride development.