If your kid’s idea of a good time includes hurtling toward concrete at 81 miles per hour, slurping frozen lemonade, and the occasional long line, skip the local playground and schlep the family out to one of these eight nearby theme parks, each featuring accessibility accommodations able to meet most guests needs. Whether your little has a soft spot for Big Bird, a sweet tooth, or a need for speed, we’ve rounded up a list of amusement wonderlands that will close out summer with screams of delight. Read on to find out about eight great local amusement parks and their accessibility programs.
The 411 on Accessibility Programs
Many parks have wonderful accessibility programs so that children with disabilities and special needs can have a great time also. To obtain an accessibility pass most parks require a visit to guest services to answer some questions to receive a disability pass. The wait for a pass can be long at times but it is usually worth the hassle to create a better experience the rest of the day. Not all disability passes allow riders to get on a ride without waiting in line. For example, an autistic child who has a hard time waiting may be given this accommodation while a child in a wheelchair may be given a different type of accommodation that allows them to use an accessible entrance but requires a wait time similar to others waiting in line.
Also, keep in mind that a "no wait" pass does not necessarily mean that a child will be permitted to board a ride right away. If a ride just finished seating or is already in progress when you arrive, you will be required to wait until the ride in progress is over to board. Most amusement parks want their guests with disabilities and special needs to have a fantastic time so speak up about your child's needs.
Moreover, not all rides (especially rides in water parks) may be accessible to all guests. While this is disappointing, the nature of some rides makes them inaccessible to some guests. In order to have the best time possible at an amusement park, it may be a good idea to prepare your child ahead of time for the reality that there will be some waiting and that they may not be able to ride every ride. For tips and tricks on how to navigate accessibility programs, check out our Tips & Tricks guide at the end of this article.
If you’re on the hunt for the perfect first amusement park for young children, look no further. The park is tailored for children age 7 and younger, and at least seven of the rides are specifically geared toward 1-3 year-olds. Though the park is mostly flat and accommodating to strollers, it is relatively small—which means tiny legs (and short attention spans) can handle it. The Duke’s Lagoon splash area is just enough water excitement for the preschool set, and even the live entertainment strikes the not-too-loud and not-too-scary balance well. Rent a cabana for the day so your tribe has its own private spot in the shade to take a breather!
Accessibility: Since Dutch Wonderland is a smaller theme park geared towards the younger set it a great choice for children who get overwhelmed easily - as long as they won't miss thrill rides. Eligible guests will receive an accessibility pass based on height that includes information about the intensity of each ride. This can really help families figure out which rides are most appropriate for different needs. Dutch Wonderland has several low-intensity, low-stimuli rides including Duke's Lagoon and a boat ride that are great choices for kids who need to decompress without the need to take a complete break from riding the rides. There is also a lake that runs along the edge of the park that is often quiet and can be used as a calm-down spot. Dutch Wonderland's accessibility guide can be found here.
We’re not gonna lie: nostalgia is half the draw for parents at Sesame Place. Enjoy a buffet meal with Elmo and friends, watch a show or parade, or take a spin on one of the 16 kid-friendly rides (or nine water rides) for a full day of fun with all your favorite neighborhood characters. There’s a soft play room for wee ones, a kid-powered railroad, a carousel, and for thrill seekers, Oscar’s Wacky Taxi Roller Coaster. We love and appreciate that Sesame Place has become the first theme park in the world designated as a Certified Autism Center—and, since it’ll require a trek to Philly, you can plan to enjoy the weekend there, too!
Accessibility: As a Certified Autism Center, Sesame Place ambassadors receive specialized training on sensory awareness, motor skills, autism overview, program development, social skills, communication, environment, and emotional awareness. Sesame Place also offers a Sensory Guide to show guests how a ride or attraction may impact a child with sensory processing issues. Sesame Place also has a Ride Accessibility Program that ensures that everyone can enjoy the rides safely, including the ability to ride without waiting. Other services include: quiet rooms, noise-cancelling headphones, low sensory areas and oversized changing tables. Find more information on Sesame Place's accessibility page.
The beautiful landscaping and music playing throughout the park set the tone: this amusement park checks all the boxes. Roller coasters, a virtual reality adventure, bumper cars, kid-friendly rides (plus the Sesame Street Forest of Fun), a skyride, a train, and a huge range of music, animal, and theatrical live shows are just the beginning. Visit Wolf Valley, Lorikeet Glen, Highland Stables, or Eagle Ridge for some up close and personal animal encounters. And bring your appetite—there are restaurants throughout the park and 15 snack locations. You had us at churros!
Accessibility: Busch Gardens offers a Ride Accessibility Program that allows guests with special needs to avoid waiting line but does not necessarily decrease wait time. Guests enrolled in this program are given a return time similar to the wait time for guests who are waiting in line. Visitors to Busch Gardens can complete this questionnaire in advance to save time at guest services when they visit the park. This park does not have any designated quiet spaces but a visit to the horse barn or a ride on the train may be a good option for children who need a break. More information about Busch Garden's accessibility program can be found here.
Six Flags America
Boasting more than 100 rides, shows, and the largest water park in the DMV (included in the main park ticket price, no less!), Six Flags America does not disappoint. The park’s tallest attraction was added last year: Wonder Woman Lasso of Truth. This year, the Wahoo River debuted at Hurricane Harbor Water Park—and it still has an awesome wave pool, water slides, an inner tube flume, and a splash pool. Other roller coasters include Wild One, Joker’s Jinx, and Superman Ride of Steel—but you can always ride Pepe Le Pew’s Tea Party for a low-key thrill. Younger kids will also enjoy the classic Looney Tunes Prop Warehouse, a totally enclosed soft play space where they can climb, slide, and meet Bugs Bunny.
Accessibility: Six Flags America guests requiring accommodations should register in advance at AccessibilityCard.org. Guests will be asked a series of questions and are required to upload documentation of a disability, such as a doctor's note stating that accommodations are needed or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Once approved, guests need to bring their digital accessibility card to guest services to be activated for the day each time they visit. Six Flags America allows guests with disabilities to ride some attractions twice to avoid having to get on and off rides. Six Flags has also been designated as a Certified Autism Center. Although there are not currently any designated quiet spots, there is a lake near the center of the park that may be calming. The Six Flags Safety & Accessibility Guide can be found here.
With 400 acres jam-packed with more than 60 rides, 15 roller coasters, live family entertainment—including fun performances by the Peanuts gang and a host of live music shows—AND a 20-acre water park, it just might be worth looking into one of the season pass options at King’s Dominion. The 43 life-size animatronic dinosaurs (including several you can control yourself) at the Dinosaurs Alive! Exhibit is alone worth the visit. Plus, new in 2018 is Twisted Timbers, a hybrid roller coaster that is the first of its kind in the mid-Atlantic and uses the latest technology to combine wood supports and steel track. Plummet down a 109-foot-tall barrel roll drop, loop through two more inversions, and soar over 20 airtime hills at speeds of 54 miles per hour. Gulp.
Accessibility: King's Dominion uses a different accessibility model than most other parks. Instead of allowing near-instant access to rides King's Dominion issues a Boarding Pass to eligible guests. When a disabled guest would like to ride an attraction they proceed to the ride's exit and ask for a return time. The return time is similar to the time the guest would have spent waiting in line if they had been able to do so. This way, guests who cannot wait in line can do something else then return to the ride at their appointed time. If a child is using the Boarding Pass they do not need to be present when a return time is issued but they do need to be present in order for anyone in the party to board the ride. King's Dominion offers a KidTrack program that offers wrist bands to help quickly reunite a child with their party should they become separated. While King's Dominion does not have designated sensory-friendly areas the park recommends utilizing one of their numerous air-conditioned restaurants for a child who needs a break from the crowds. More information about King's Dominion's accessibility program can be found here.
More than “just” chocolate, the city of Hershey, Pennsylvania also draws visitors for its famed amusement park with more than 70 rides and attractions, including roller coasters, the largest water-play structure in the world, live entertainment, games, food, shops, and even a simulated tropical rainforest where visitors learn how cocoa beans grow and are harvested. Ticket purchases include admission to ZooAmerica North American Wildlife Park, an 11-acre walk-through zoo that includes more than 200 animals from five regions of North America. Located about two hours north of the Washington, D.C. area, the park has three resorts to choose from if you want to make a weekend of it!
Accessibility: Hersheypark partnered with Parent to Parent of Pennsylvania, an organization devoted to parents helping other parents navigate life with a child with special needs to develop their ‘Rider Safety & Accessibility Guide’. Hersheypark offers three quiet areas throughout the park for guests with sensory needs. Guests with special needs and disabilities answer a series of questions and Hersheypark comes up with an accessibility plan based on their needs. Many guests are permitted to enter rides through the Fast Track lane to avoid waiting in line. Depending on the guest's needs, riders may be able to go on the next ride that boards or may need to wait several cycles. Find out more about Hersheypark's accessibility here.
Adventure Park USA
Saddle up, pardner, for this Western-themed park near Frederick, MD—about 40 miles outside of DC. Open year-round, rain or shine, you don’t have to pay admission to enter the park itself. Instead, you purchase a Fun Pass with credits that works like a debit card (you can even add credits to your account online for return visits). With roller coasters, midway games, miniature golf, a classic tilt-a-whirl, go-karts, and a hands-on “mining” experience, you’ll be lucky if your kiddos have enough energy for all of the indoor fun. Yes, there’s more: a virtual reality game, soft playroom, ropes course, laser tag, arcade, bumper cars, and rock wall. We’re tired just typing that.
Accessibility: Adventure Park does not have an official accessibility program but they are committed to making a visit to the park fun for everyone. The park recommends contacting them in advance to discuss accessibility needs.
Slowly evolving from its initial roots as a miniature golf course in 1964, this 35-acre park combines the best of nostalgic rides and modern attractions—including Cyclone, the world’s first cart coaster! Tiny tots under three feet tall can venture on 17 of the rides with an adult. A circus performs twice each day in the park, complete with acrobats, jugglers, and The Wheel of Death (not as scary as it sounds!). And the Fun Slide, Mardi Gras fun house, Tea Cups, and Jungle Golf are also perennial favorites.
Accessibility: Jolly Roger does not have any official accessibility program. As with other parks, guests who need accommodations should visit guest services when they arrive. Management will advise visitors with disabilities about which rides are suitable.
Tips& Tricks to Navigate Accessibility Programs
Accessibility programs vary from park to park, so it is a good idea to brush up on how they work before you go. Here are some things to be aware of that apply to most parks.
Guest Services. Although specific programs vary, all of the parks we review here require guests to visit Guest Services to receive an accessibility pass so that should always be your first stop. You can also call or email the park you are planning on visiting in advance to discuss your child's specific needs.
Party Limits. Some programs limit the number of guests that can accompany a disabled rider to three. This means that if your party includes more than four people your party may not be able to ride together. Also be aware that accessibility passes can only be used by the person to whom they were issued. This means that if the person with a disability does not ride a ride no one else in the party can use the pass.
Child Swap. If your child cannot ride some rides but others in your party want to ride be sure to ask about "Child Swap," which nearly every amusement park allows. Using this program, a family can approach a ride together then one parent can ride with a child while another parent stays back with a child who cannot ride. Then, the parents can switch and the parent who stayed back can ride with the child who is able to do so without waiting in line again. This way everyone who wants to ride a ride can - and some lucky kids can ride twice in a row.
Quiet Spaces. If your child is on the verge of a meltdown and you need some where quiet fast ask if you are able to sit in Guest Services or the first aid station if the park does not have a designated quiet space. Parks are usually able to accommodate this request if needed.
Limitations to the Pass. Bear in mind that most parks make a determination about what type of accommodations someone needs on an individual basis. Guests may not be able to rides some attractions if they have certain medical conditions, such as cardiac issues or missing limbs, or if they are unable to follow directions or hold onto safety bars. Some guests with disabilities need accommodations for mobility issues while others have sensory needs. For this reason, it is impossible to predict which specific accommodations any one person may receive.
—Jamie Davis Smith and Katie Brown
featured photo: Pixabay