LEGOLAND parks are becoming more autism-friendly. Here's how and what guests can expect.
"The LEGO Movie" anthem "Everything Is AWESOME!!!" hasn't always rung true for everyone, but LEGOLAND Resorts revealed new efforts Thursday to help ensure "awesome is for everyone," including autistic guests.
By the end of next month, all three U.S. LEGOLAND Resorts will officially be Certified Autism Centers, joining a growing number of theme parks working to improve accessibility for guests who are neurodiverse or have sensory issues.
At least one in 44 children is autistic according to the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network.
"One of our core values is around belonging," Scott M. O’Neil, CEO of LEGOLAND's parent company Merlin Entertainments, told USA TODAY. "What, to me, is most exciting is creating a space for children on the spectrum to know that they can come with their families and friends and have a fun and safe and enriching experience and hopefully create memories that last a lifetime."
Here's how they hope to do that.
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What guests can expect
LEGOLAND Florida, neighboring Peppa Pig Theme Park and LEGOLAND California are already Certified Autism Centers. LEGOLAND New York will be one when it reopens for the season on March 31.
Every attraction at each resort has been rated for its level of stimulation on each of the five senses: hearing, sight, smell, touch and taste. Guests can find sensory guides with these ratings online, printed in the parks and posted outside attractions.
"That allows the parents to really think about their unique child. Every child who (is autistic) is a little bit different, and different triggers may change an entire vacation," said Kelly Hornick, head of marketing & communications for LEGOLAND Florida Resort. "We kind of take the guesswork out."
All resorts offer low sensory areas where guests can rest and reset. LEGOLAND Florida and New York have designated quiet rooms. LEGOLAND California will also turn off all sound effects on its newest ride, Ferrari Build & Race, from 1 to 2 p.m. for guests concerned about overstimulation. There are also earplugs available upon request at First Aid to help reduce noise.
Assisted Access Passes are available at all three resorts for guests who can't stand in line for long periods of time due to physical or cognitive disabilities or other medical conditions.
Guests can also expect park employees to be trained in interacting with autistic guests.
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What is a Certified Autism Center?
To qualify for certification, at least 80% of staff must by trained and certified by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), which is guided by both autistic self-advocates and other experts.
"That's really just to help them do their jobs better because what we typically find is a lot of individuals want to be helpful, they want to be friendly, but they're unsure of what to do and so they hesitate to engage," IBCCES President Meredith Tekin previously explained to USA TODAY. "What we want to do is just break down those barriers ... to help the visitors have fun."
O'Neill said there's nothing like seeing the awe and joy on kids' faces in the parks, "For us to extend that belonging out to all children in America is what gives us purpose and happiness."
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Accessibility at other theme parks
Sesame Place Philadelphia was the first theme park ever to become a Certified Autism Center in 2018. Sesame Place San Diego opened as one last year.
"For us to have the training ... to really kind of be aware of how to best help families, depending on what level of need there is for each of those individuals, it's been great to see all of our employees embrace that," Sesame Place San Diego President Jim Lake told USA TODAY. The park offers sensory guides, low sensory parade viewing areas, quiet rooms and noise-reducing headphones, among its accommodations.
This summer, the Southern California park will open The Count's Splash Castle, a multi-level water play area. (LEGOLAND New York is also opening a new water playground this summer.)
"We're really excited about this one because it's got a significant amount of new ground level areas, so it's really accessible to everyone," Lake said, noting there are 111 different interactive features. "There are three water slides. There's a bunch of valves, levers, bridges, hydro blasters, a bunch of interactive kind of props that will provide a real tactile experience for those that want (it)."
Families worried about overstimulation can rent cabanas nearby or retreat to two quiet rooms further away in the park. The attraction's sensory guide can also help set expectations before guests even arrive.
"You can make a decision on whether, A, it's a the right attraction for you, and then B, how you want to actually experience the attraction," Lake said.
Other theme parks that have earned IBCCES certification include Discovery Cove in Orlando, Knoebels Amusement Resort in Pennsylvania, Nickelodeon Universe in Minnesota's Mall of America and Six Flags parks, which in 2020 announced becoming the first family of theme parks to have every park certified.
Other destinations like Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort have their own accessibility programs in place.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is LEGOLAND autism-friendly? How parks are increasing accessibility