A view of Pixar Pier Lagoon and California Adventure outside of Disneyland in Anaheim. Photo credit: gruntzooki, via Wikimedia Commons
I have always loved going to theme parks. I worked at SeaWorld in college and thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of it. But as a parent, my theme park experience slightly changed. Let’s be honest here. Planning a day at a theme park can feel like a whole other job. You must look at schedules, ride height requirements and FAQs to know what kind of snacks, bottled waters and strollers you can bring.
The preparation work was taken to another level when we learned of my child’s accessibility challenges. However, because of my time working at SeaWorld, I was fully aware of the accessibility options theme parks have. In my effort to make #momlife slightly more manageable for you, here’s a breakdown of what I learned about accessibility access at SeaWorld, Sesame Place, Legoland and Disneyland.
First, be sure to read accessibility guides on each theme park’s website. If you need to, call the customer service number as well because the less waiting you can do in-person, the better! (Especially during those hot summer days).
SeaWorld: SeaWorld San Diego offers a thorough Accessibility Guide online where the public can view a breakdown of accessibility at all the rides and shows. There’s also information on the restrooms, restaurants, first aid locations and gift shops. If you think your child may have difficulty waiting in long lines (more so than the “average” child), you can get a ride accessibility pass. The form to fill out can be printed from the website, which you then submit to Guest Relations near the park’s entrance. The pass will detail which rides you can go on and where to enter the ride.
My experience? We visit SeaWorld at least once a month. The line at Guest Relations can sometimes take up to 30 minutes. However, the ride accessibility pass is good for a month, making future trips easier. When going on rides, the experience depends on the operator. The pass says the operator will give you a return time equal to the current waiting time. You and your party can then go on the ride at the return time. We’ve gone on rides where the operator immediately let us on. Other times, operators had us wait a good 30 minutes even after a return time.
Also, don’t bother calling the 800 number listed on the SeaWorld website. I’ve never had luck getting through to anyone. Try the local number, (619) 222-4SEA, instead.
Sesame Place: Sesame Place San Diego, which opened earlier this year, is the first theme park in the region to be named a Certified Autism Center by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. With that designation, the theme park has committed to an all-employee training. The theme park was also reviewed by IBCCES, which provided recommendations to enhance accessibility, including creating sensory guides for rides and attractions.
Sesame Place said it’s committed to ongoing training that focuses on sensory awareness, environment, communication, motor and social skills, program development, emotional awareness, and a comprehensive autism competency exam. The autism training must be taken every two years to maintain the certification.
With that designation, Sesame Place has a thorough online guide detailing ride accessibility for all guests. Like SeaWorld, guests can also access a ride accessibility pass that allows them to return for the ride at a specific time. It’s also nice that the pass doesn’t expire for a month allowing regulars to avoid having to wait at Guest Relations for a new pass.
We’ve also done a few character visits and I got the sense that the employees were much more patient with the kids than a typical theme park. When I say patient, I mean understanding of any touching, grabbing and over-hugging. It was heartwarming to see this, especially because my kids are big fans of the Sesame Street crew.
A pre-planning tip for parents is to bring a ziplock bag or a waterproof bag that you can put the accessibility pass in. There are plenty of fun water rides that you will want to try, but the pass is printed on regular paper — meaning if it gets soaked, it will be difficult to use again.
Also, keep in mind the park has two quiet rooms with adjustable lighting and a comfortable seating area for guests to take a break. Guests who want to enjoy the daily Sesame Street Party Parade without direct character interaction, such as hugs and high fives, can stand in the designated “low sensory parade viewing” area.
Finally, there is an airport nearby and the flying planes can be loud. I warned my child about the loud airplanes beforehand, but you may want to bring headphones if this may be an issue.
Sesame Place San Diego, SeaWorld’s newest local attraction. Photo credit: Courtesy, Sesame Place San Diego
Legoland: Legoland is a favorite in our household. In our experience, it also has the smoothest guest relations experience. Aside from having a webpage with popular FAQs, the theme park has a guest relations team that works quickly to help guests. It’s nice that the guest relations office is indoors, with AC and legos to entertain the little ones while you wait for your turn to speak to an employee.
The park provides special accommodations for guests with disabilities, such as a sign language interpreter but asks that guests contact Legoland at least two weeks in advance to set up any accommodations.
As with other theme parks, Legoland offers an Assisted Access pass where riders can skip long lines by getting a return time to access the ride. In our experience, some operators will allow you to access the ride immediately, while others will ask you to come back.
Wheelchairs (available for rent), mobility scooters and service animals are also welcomed at the park, with plenty of access and space to move on wheels.
Finally, the theme park is quick to respond to emails. Guests with questions can email [email protected] for more information.
Disneyland: Finally, there is Disneyland — the happiest place on Earth, at least if things go as planned. Before I go into the details of our experience, I will say, as the “happiest place on Earth,” you should prepare your child for lots of noise, waiting and people regardless of how much planning you put into your visit.
With that said, Disneyland details its services to guests with disabilities on its website. The theme park offers standard accommodations, including wheelchair rentals, quiet rooms, companion rooms and an assortment of eateries that can cater to different diets.
One thing the park is doing differently this year is how they distribute the Disability Access Service pass. Before this year, the theme park allowed guests to sign up for an access pass in-person, where you can get a return time to a ride to avoid waiting in line. Now, it’s encouraged for you to do a virtual call in advance with a Disneyland operator to sign up for the DAS pass. When you call in advance, the person needing the special access must be on the call where the operator will take a photo. After answering an assortment of questions, you will be given a chance to choose arrival times for two rides on a selected list before arriving at Disneyland (or California Adventure). Once you arrive at the park, you choose one ride at a time on the Disneyland app under “DAS,” where you will then be given a ride time that is equivalent to the current wait time.
Our experience? It’s Disneyland, so I expected some hiccups and waiting along the way. First, when we called an operator, we spent 35 minutes waiting to speak to someone. After we got online with an operator, the process took about 25 minutes. After talking to the operator, I saw that my reservations for the two rides were made. However, after arriving at the park, the reservations were removed from my app. When I spoke to an employee, he suggested I go to Guest Relations to resolve the issue. We decided the Guest Relations line was too long (after all, we could have just waited in a ride line), so we gave up that fight to reserve a new ride via the DAS pass on the app. The employee I spoke to also told me to screenshot the reservations moving forward because the Disneyland app does have its problems. After learning the tip of doing screenshots of the DAS reservations moving forward, all went smoothly for the rest of the day.
Finally, I will say for parents who may not have a child with a disability or sensory or adaptive challenges — to recognize that needs come in all shapes and sizes. And, there’s room for everyone at the theme parks — especially at the happiest place on Earth!
Have a question about access at one of the parks or whether a particular ride or experience may be good for you? Email me at [email protected], and I will share what I know or find the answer for you.
San Diego Moms is published every Saturday. Have a story idea? Email [email protected] and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.