Autism and Changes to Water Park Inclusion
by Megan Padilla
In April 2018, Sesame Place became the first theme park in the world to be designated a Certified Autism Center (CAC). By the end of its first year, the autism page on the park’s website had received 6 billion hits. Yes, billion, with a “b.” Clearly, the Pennsylvania park was providing a service for a largely underserved population.
According to the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), which provides the CAC certification, autism and special needs are one of the fastest growing segments in the travel industry. Yet, according to a survey they conducted with 1,000 parents with kids on the spectrum, 87% said they do not take vacations and 87% said they would be inclined to take vacations if certified autism options were available.
On hand to discuss “Autism and Changes to Water Park Inclusion” were Erik Beard, general counsel and managing member of International Ride Training; Myron Pincomb, board chairman of IBCCES; and David Heaton, vice president of Aquatica Orlando. Together, the trio covered the legal aspect of compliance, the CAC training and certification process, and how it all comes together at the world’s first water park to become a CAC.
Beard kicked off the session by discussing the legal aspects of meeting the minimal floor of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “There’s a difference between ADA compliance and guest service,” he said. “Nothing prevents you from doing more to serve your guests and maximize inclusion.”
Attractions can do more by becoming a CAC. Pincomb outlined the benefits:
- Improved ability to accommodate guests with cognitive disabilities.
- Employees that understand autism and sensory disorders, enabling them to provide better service.
- Informed guests making decisions that ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.
- Increased overall guest satisfaction.
- Cooperative marketing and communications through IBCCES partnership.
- Promotes a culture of inclusivity within your organization.
“We saw becoming a CAC as a great opportunity to provide a better level of service to our guests,” said Aquatica’s Heaton. The process begins with a comprehensive evaluation of park attractions: all rides, shows, and animal encounters. “The initial audit told us how we were doing.” The resulting report details training goals for customer-facing employees, communication with guests, and recommended guest accommodations. For instance, “Aquatica issues a special access wristband to access a quicker queue option,” said Heaton.
Becoming a CAC did not require any major investment in infrastructure, said Heaton, who pointed out how low-traffic areas within the park were repurposed to provide a quiet space for guests with autism and sensory disorders.
“IBCCES helps you communicate what you already have,” said Heaton, “So you can map out the experiences for guests to best use the time they have.”