More Fun At Amusement Parks For Kids With Special Needs

As summer heads down the home stretch (waaaah!), we’re trying to squeeze as much out of it as we can: BBQs, playing outside till dusk, trips to amusement parks. We couldn’t take Max to them when he was younger—the noise and stimulation were too much for him. But as he’s matured, and we’ve discovered ways to make the experience more enjoyable for him, we’ve all had a good time. Recently, we were hosted by the very awesome Hersheypark. The tactics that made this amusement park outing, and other ones, great:

1. Look up accommodations info for kids with special needs before you go. Most parks have a section or downloadable PDF about accessibility (here’s the one for Hersheypark). I also call in advance, usually to ask about any loud events as they tend to freak Max out; we once went to a park that had a loud band right at the entrance on the day we came, and Max literally ran screaming right back out. Once we were at the park, we visited Hospitality Services, where we quickly got a boarding pass for Max that meant he could bypass lines (because of his cerebral palsy, he can’t stand for long periods of time).

We rented a stroller for Max but inevitably, his little sis, Sabrina, commandeered it—and Max pushed her around.

2. Bring a comfort object. For Max, that meant traveling with his pillow and Cars 2 pillowcase (although we put our foot down at bringing it to the park).

At The Hotel Hershey’s luxe Cottages, where we stayed and let Max BYOB (Bring Your Own Bedding)

Our room, before the kids had their way with it. Oh, and yes, you do get chocolate bars when you check in.

Happiness is hanging with Daddy in a rocking chair

3. Plan…but be flex. I looked up the park map  ahead of time and plotted out potential rides to check out, knowing full well Max might resist. I’d hoped could hit the beautiful Hershey Gardens at the hotel. But, nope, neither kid wanted to. I was also hoping to squeeze in a Chocolate Sugar Scrub at The Spa; another mommy fantasy, kaput.

What we missed

4. Find quiet spots. To keep Max from getting overstimulated (and cranky), we took quiet breaks throughout the day. At the hospitality area, I asked about busy times at restaurants so we could avoid them (12 to 2: steer clear), and which parts of the park tend to be more calm. The 11-acre ZooAmerica was serene and not crowded. We saw everything from vampire bats to mountain lions. Staffers were all around, holding snakes and owls so you can see them up close.

Max wanted to take a prairie dog home, but I said no because I’m mean that way.

We were lucky to get a cabana one day in The Boardwalk section, which really helped Max ease into things. It overlooked the Intercoastal Waterway, aka the lazy river. At first, Max kept shaking his head no. And then…

He told us he wanted to go—and he loved it!

The Boardwalk area also has The Shore, a shallow wave pool Max enjoyed.

Max chilled by pushing his stroller up and down the cabana ramp.

5. Know when to (gently) push your child. I know how much Max loves a good lift, like the Skyview and the park’s monorail. Sometimes, though, Max initially resists and we literally drag him onto a ride. That may sound awful, the opposite of fun, but I know Max’s m.o. Sure enough, every time we got him to push past his fears—including on the Kissing Tower, a ride that slowly takes you up 250 feet and gives you an incredible view of the park—he enjoyed them so much he wanted to go back at least three times.


Now, I’d never make him go on a ride that moved fast or involved darkness; those things seriously freak him out. But getting him to stretch his comfort zone: I think that’s a Good Thing.

6. Give up your photo fantasies, too. I would have loved a shot of both kids with the Hershey’s kiss (hello, holiday card!), but Max wasn’t having any.

He did, however, take a liking to Mr. Peanut Butter Cup.

7. Conquer and divide. Max loves cars, trains and planes. So anytime we go to an amusement park, we know that we will be spending a whole lot of time on rides involving them. While I love doing things as a family, my husband and I usually split up for a few hours to make sure his little sis gets to go on rides she enjoys, too—the park has amazing roller coasters. Here’s Max and Sabrina on the train. Not pictured: me subsequently riding the train with Max five times in a row (thank you, iPhone app gods, for Words with Friends). Dave and Max went on the Classic Cars Speedway in Minetown a good 10 times.

8. Don’t leave home without the noise-blocking headphones. Max’s have really given him confidence and comfort in public places, especially when we unexpectedly come upon cool dudes beating drum (aka The Cocoa Rhythm Factory). Max’s are the 3M Peltor Junior Earmuff.

9. Pray for good coffee. ‘Nuf said.
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  1. by Lisa

    On August 17, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    I’ve never been to Hershey Park but I’ve been wanting to go. It looks really pretty and so much fun. Maybe in the fall, we’ll take the drive.