Beyond Disneyland: California Destinations My Autistic Son Loves
"We love it when our guests are happy!" That's what the red-coated Monterey Bay Aquarium official told me, as she and I stood next to my son Leo, who was blissfully sprawled out on the the floor looking up at a tank full of sparkling anchovies. I had just explained to her that Leo was enraptured rather than upset or injured, and I hoped it was OK for him to be on the floor since his sisters and I were ringing him and he wasn't in anyone's way. Autism acceptance as guest relations policy. What a wonder. What a gift.
Enthusiastic acceptance used to be our experience at another California attraction, Disneyland. Leo considers it The Happiest Place on Earth, and even though our last visit was 18 months ago, he asks to "Go to Disneyland in two weeks?" every other day.
But there's a good reason we stay away: Recent changes in Disability Pass options have made Disney visits extremely complicated for kids like Leo. More complicated than my sweet autistic son and his anything-different-is-bad anxieties need to deal with at the moment. So, we keep exploring other destination options in our home state—some with formal accommodation policies, some without.
In every case, we find it critical to go during slower attendance times. That choice makes the difference between The Best Time Ever and Undiluted Hell. Without exception. And, for families who are local and can take advantage of memberships, most pay for themselves by the second visit.
What attractions do I recommend for families like ours who are looking for options? We've had great recent visits to Legoland in San Diego, Rockin' Jump trampoline emporiums (multiple Bay Area locations), the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And here's what I think families like ours should know, to maximize successful visit possibilities.
Legoland was, in our experience, everything Disneyland used to be, accessibility-wise. When we asked the ticketing folks about accommodations for autistic kids, they sent us to the very thoughtful guest services people—who handed us an Assisted Access Pass, told us we could use it to access alternate entrances (though we'd have to wait in alternate entrance lines), and told us to have a great time.
The pass worked as advertised. Leo had zero line-induced panic episodes, and he and his little sister Mali and I had too much fun. We rode all the boats (yay boats!), roller coasters, spinny rides, and swinging pirate boats—though only one go at a time. Not repeating rides instantly was not a problem because Legoland is a manageable size, scale-wise, and it only took a short while for us to circle back through the entire park and re-hit requested rides. We enjoyed all the Lego sculptures and landscapes. We found plenty of Leo-friendly food options, even.
We went in February in the middle of the week, when Leo's school was on holiday for President's Week/Ski Week. The park was bustling, but not overwhelmingly crowded. I don't think we'd try to go during Spring Break, Winter Break, or Summer or during any more-crowded-than-that time.
Even though we visited in February, it was warm (in the 80s), and there wasn't much shade. I don't think we'd want to visit during warmer times. Our crew doesn't do well in unshaded heat.
There's a water play area in the main park (besides the dedicated water park). I did not realize this, did not bring proper gear for the kids, and had to talk them both down when they realized they weren't going to get to frolic in the fountains.
Overall, Legoland is not Disneyland, but it doesn't try to be, and it made Leo very happy .
Trampoline emporiums like Rockin' Jump have become ubiquitous in our area. Unfortunately, we've had some less-than-ideal experiences at them, as when staff chastised Leo for not staying on his own trampoline square when he wants nothing more to run and be free on a huge, glorious field of trampolines. Thankfully, at Rockin' Jump, Leo was not required to stay on his own trampoline:
Honestly, I would not have returned to a trampoline emporium with Leo on my own, but his twin friends recently held their birthday party at our local Rockin' Jump. So we went. Along with many other families from our community, many of whose kids share Leo's disdain for individualized trampoline boundaries.
It was, like our visit to Legoland, a delight. We were there late on a weekday afternoon, and attendance was reasonable but not crowded. Leo's home aide graciously came along because of my nervousness, but our family (Leo's sisters were invited, too) would have been fine on our own. When Leo wasn't galloping across the trampolines, he was jumping into the foam cubes pit. When he or his friends forgot to wait in lines, the Rockin' Jump worker and even the other kids were all patient and accepting—and in case I didn't make it clear, this was not a private party. We had so much fun that I'm considering having Leo's own birthday party there in a few months.
Rockin' Jump Caveats:
Trampoline emporiums get very crowded on the weekends; as a result people get less patient with kids who struggle with standing in lines and with personal trampoline space. We will probably only visit during weekday afternoons. And that's fine.
CALIFORNIA ACADEMY of SCIENCES
We live near the California Academy of Sciences (CalAcademy) and visit frequently; in fact Leo asks to go "to space" (see the movies in the immersive digital planetarium) whenever we start driving in a San Francisco direction. He also enjoys visiting the Aquarium with its walk-through Amazon rainforest fishies arch, and is game to check out the latest exhibits, like the current Skulls, where he and his sisters all got to touch, watch flesh-eating beetles gnaw on, and draw various animals' skulls. (Side note: Leo's dad made a behind-the-scenes video of the CalAcademy skull collection for KQED Science.)
CalAcademy has also has many spaces that tend to be less crowded if Leo is feeling overwhelmed and needs time to decompress—the living roof, two outside patios, a quiet reading room with a luscious polar bear pelt on the wall. We've used them all. CalAcademy also has a well-stocked café with enough food options to please Leo, his picky little sister, and anyone else we drag along. And the CalAcademy staff is always courteous and helpful, sometimes extraordinarily so. During our last visit we spent fifteen minutes talking with a docent about fish who breathe air.
It is also a mostly autism-friendly destination for full-family outings with relatives, friends, or out-of-towners. We drag everyone who comes to town to CalAcademy, because we know we'll all have a great time—including Leo.
I wrote about how CalAcade my could become even more autism-friendly in April 2013, and their guest services department even left a comment saying they'd pass on my feedback. As far as I can tell, however, nothing has changed in the Academy space itself, and their accessibility guide still does not mention accommodating autistic visitors.
It would be nice if they could offer options like sensory friendly Planetarium showings. It would be such a relief to not spend the entire screening anxiously wondering if Leo's boundless joy in the wonders of space, time, and science was going to turn into audible joy, and lead to us needing to leave early—which could then lead to a meltdown and a premature end to our day's adventures. We won't stop going, but for now our visits—which must include a Planetarium viewing; again, anything different is bad—will always have an anxiety undercurrent.
MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of my favorite places; I am so glad it remains one of Leo's favorite places, too. He loves to visit his anchovy friends and his jellyfish friends and his shark friends and his sunfish friends. And he really enjoys all the tactile and sensory experiences—the molded jellyfish on some exhibit walls, the wave tunnel, the flashing mackerels schooling inches from his eyes, swimming faster than you'd think possible.
Leo knows the aquarium well (I blogged about tips for visiting the MBAQ with autistic kids in 2009), so as long as we arrive early Leo gets to roam, and we can following him through the exhibits that catch his attention. He was drawn in to the current Tentacles and Jellies Experience exhibits, with their full range of sensory-immersive and easy-to-navigate interactive experiences, such as the cephalopod color and camoflauge video experimentation stations. Leo was able to control the entire video experience himself—it was that well-designed, that intuitive. We'll be back soon, because Leo will ask to go back soon.
Um, it's far away if you don't live in Monterey? And my goodness, does it get crowded. Go early!
As Leo gets older (he's 13), he's starting to want more thrills from his attractions -- more roller coasters, more of the big spinny rides. There are several coaster parks in our area, and we might be reporting on them soon. But I'd also appreciate hearing about the theme parks and other destinations that work for your family, and why. I hope that, like us, folks are finding ways to have successful outings whether your destinations are accessible by design, or because of your strategizing.
P.S. Articles about kids with disabilities needing accommodation at theme parks and other attractions can provoke hurricane-strength swarms of horrifying comment trolls. I don't and can't understand the mindset of such people, but apologies in advance if they descend here.
Shannon Des Roches Rosa writes about the Adventure Land that is her life at ThinkingAutismGuide.com, BlogHer.com, and Squidalicious.com. She is personally neither affiliated with nor sponsored by any of the above-mentioned attractions.
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