Visiting a place like an amusement park when you have a child with special needs can be extremely challenging. (And when you add a toddler to the mix, it might sound more like work than a day a family fun). Amusement parks are full of strange sights, strange people, strange (and loud) noises, strange smells… a child with autism can easily experience sensory overload from such an unfamiliar environment. But we were determined to let our kids have the amusement park experience, so we started planning for a trip to Michigan’s Adventure.
I have two children on the spectrum, one at either end. I know many people hate labels like high and low functioning, but sometimes that’s the fastest and easiest way for me to quickly give other people a general idea of my children’s abilities and challenges. My 15-year-old son, Dustin, is “high functioning,” and I knew he’d be able to handle the amusement park just fine. (And he’s okay with me using the label “high functioning to describe him in this post, I made sure to ask him first). He’s fully verbal, can usually tell when he’s starting to get overwhelmed, and – perhaps most importantly – he and my oldest son (age 20) agreed to stick together at the park if we split up the group to go on different rides.
My 11-year-old son, however, is minimally verbal. He’s unlikely to provide his name, address, or phone number unless asked in a very specific way, and probably wouldn’t unless you thought to ask him to write it down instead of speak it. And while I was pretty sure he’d like going on the rides (he enjoys the local county fairs every summer), I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to cope with the sheer size of a full amusement park, and all the lights and noises and people that go with it.
I knew that for the day to be a success, I would have to do a lot of planning and advanced preparation. These are the tips and helpful hints that I gathered together that I thought perhaps other families might find useful. (If you have other tips and suggestions, please feel free to share them in the comments!)
1. Make a list
I’m a list-maker anyway, so this one was a given for me. As soon as we decided we were going to take the crew to Michigan’s Adventure, I started jotting down any ideas that occurred to me – things to check on, things we needed to take with us, things we needed to pick up from the store before the trip, and so forth. On the morning of the trip, I had a list of everything we needed to make sure to bring (separated by child) – swim diapers for my toddler, a cooler with pints of milk for my 11-year-old, sunblock and swimsuits and towels for everyone, things like that. And lo and behold, we didn’t forget a single thing when the big day arrived!
2. Do your research
Many parks have various accommodations for special needs visitors. Go to the park’s website and see what options they offer. Michigan’s Adventure offers both a parent swap program and a Ride Boarding Pass Program. The Boarding Pass allows you to bypass the line – you still have to wait the same amount of time to get on a ride, but instead of spending that time in line (which would be too much for my son to handle), you can spend the time waiting in a more comfortable environment. You take the pass to the ride operator (via the ride exit) and they write down a time for you to come back, equivalent to the time you would reach the front of the line if you were to queue up. So if the line is 30 minutes long, you can wander around elsewhere for half an hour and then go back when 30 minutes has elapsed.
3. Prepare your child in advance
Most of us wouldn’t like the experience of our day being disrupted, our normal routine altered, and being taken unannounced and unprepared to a strange place full of overwhelmingly loud noises and a bunch of strangers. (At least I know I wouldn’t!) Every child is going to need different types of preparation (all I had to do with my 15-year-old is say “Hey, we’re going to Michigan’s Adventure in a couple of weeks, make sure you know where your swim trunks are!”), but these are the techniques we used. Braeden is great with calendars, so when we talked about the upcoming trip, I also put it on his calendar. Social stories are also extremely useful for upcoming new experiences. We made our own since Braeden knows how to read so we didn’t need many pictures, but a Google search would probably bring up pre-made social stories for situations like this. I also showed him pictures from the Michigan’s Adventure website and videos on YouTube – the overall park, what it looks like as you’re walking around, and first-person viewpoints on some of the rides that I thought he might like to go on. And if possible, a “practice run” is a great idea (our local county fair was in town the week before our trip, so we were able to practice our social stories and rule following skills beforehand).
4. Consider any special dietary needs
Braeden doesn’t have any food allergies, but he does have special dietary needs that we had to take into consideration. For example, he’ll only drink water or white milk, and is unable to tolerate any texture or a consistency thicker than oatmeal in his food. I emailed the park asking if they sold white milk, and asked if we could bring in pre-made food for him since he has to have all of his meals blended. As it turns out, there’s no place within Michigan’s Adventure to purchase white milk (just chocolate), so we got advance permission to bring in a cooler (which needed to be tagged at Guest Services upon arrival) with milk and food. If your child has sensory issues or allergies, the Michigan’s Adventure website has a special section for special dietary needs, and includes an email address you can contact if you can’t find the information you’re looking for. They got back to me the very next morning when I wrote to them.
5. Safety Considerations
While some parents disagree with the idea of using a harness and/or leash on a child, for my family it’s pretty much a necessity. Braeden is an eloper – if he’s in the mood for running, he’ll take off the second you glance away, and he’s FAST. He also has no awareness of danger (he would walk right out in front of a moving car, or climb over a fence around a roller coaster area, for example). So when we’re in busy unfamiliar public places, we use a harness with a leash attached to make sure he can’t get lost or injured. (We also use a backpack-style harness with our toddler, Taylor, for the same reasons). We also wanted a backup safety measure in the unlikely event that Braeden or Taylor DOES get away from us, though. For this we used a product called Safety Tats – these are temporary tattoos or stickers (they have both versions) that you can put your phone number on, along with other pertinent information (food allergies, medical conditions, nonverbal autism, etc.). Michigan’s Adventure also offers wristbands that you can write your phone number inside of for your children to wear. It’s also a GREAT idea to take a picture of your child before you head into the park, just in case of accidental separation. Then you’re certain to have a current picture of your child dressed in that day’s outfit.
6. Clothing Considerations
Since we live in northern Michigan, we know that the weather can change on a dime. Michigan’s Adventure allows you re-entry to the park if you need to go back to your vehicle, so in addition to our bag full of swimsuits and towels for the water park, we made sure to have jackets and spare clothes for the younger kids in our van, just in case. We also made sure that Braeden was wearing the brightest shirt he owned (going back to safety considerations) and comfortable shoes, plus cargo shorts for anything he wanted to keep with him (see #7). What we DIDN’T think to take, but should have, were rain jackets – but it was so wet the day of our trip that I don’t think rain jackets or umbrellas would have helped anyway.
7. Comfort Objects
Braeden’s current interest is the Bubble Guppies – he has a set of toys that go everywhere with him. We allowed him to bring two of his Bubble Guppies figures into the park with us (the rest waited in the car), after explaining that Bubble Guppies don’t like going on rides so they’d have to wait in the wagon for him. He kept them in his pockets most of the time, but was glad to have them to hold when he started to feel stressed and anxious. (We also made sure that the Bubble Guppies that came into the park were ones that we had duplicates of at home – just in case). Of course the exact type of special object will differ from child to child – other objects that might come in handy are fidgets (like kush balls), cotton balls scented with lavender oil (another of Braeden’s favorite calming techniques – we keep one in an old plastic film canister), or chewy necklaces – anything that will help calm and comfort a child who’s starting to feel overwhelmed.
8. Bring a caregiver, if possible
We were fortunate that my stepfather was willing and able to accompany us to the park. Had he not been, we probably wouldn’t have been able to bring our three-year-old, Taylor, with us, since both children require full supervision and my husband is still recovering from back surgery. Grandpa’s job was to be Braeden’s partner for the day, while I was Taylor’s partner. That way no one got overwhelmed or distracted by one child while trying to attend to the other. If you take two vehicles like we did, that also allows for some family members to leave while the rest stay at the park (see #9).
9. Have a backup plan (and a backup plan for your backup plan!)
We checked out a park map ahead of time so that we’d have some familiarity with the layout. We specifically wanted to know where areas that might have less activity were located, so we could head that direction if Braeden started to feel overwhelmed with all the activity. Our backup backup plan was for Grandpa, who drove separately, to take Braeden home if Braeden decided he was done for the day (which he eventually did). The two of them headed back to our house so Braeden could relax in his own environment while the other five of us stayed at the park for a few more hours.
10. Put yourself in your child’s shoes
Ultimately, you know your child better than anyone else, so you’re the best person to predict what your child might need or have difficulty with. Try to visualize the experience as your child might see it – do loud noises upset your child? Will he be scared of the activity, or get overly excited by it? You’re your child stay near you or is there a chance he’ll try to head off and do his own thing? Are there rides that he might want to go on but be unable to? (Some rides have maximum height limits in addition to the rides with minimum height requirements – Braeden was tall enough to ride anything he wanted that I felt was safe, but too tall for some of the rides he might have wanted to go on, like the Motorcycles or Kiddie Cars, which have a 54″ maximum height. I also had to consider Braeden’s ability to follow safety rules, like keeping his hands inside the ride or not trying to get out of a safety harness if he decided he was done with the ride, when deciding which of the bigger rides he could go on). Know what you’re getting yourself into ahead of time. Of course there will be unanticipated things that come up; but you’ll be better able to handle those surprises if you’ve prepared yourself for any predictable issues.
For more information about Michigan’s Adventure, you can visit their website at https://www.miadventure.com/
Other helpful links:
- Guest Assistance Guide (downloadable, full of information about the park)
- Guests with Disabilities
- Special Dietary Needs
- “How to Enjoy the Amusement Park” from the Autism Society
- Michigan’s Adventure Park Map