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Great California Attractions for Special Needs Families

Great California Attractions for Special Needs Families

These theme parks, museums and playgrounds offer perks and creature comforts for a wide range of abilities

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Taking your crew on a family holiday can feel a little daunting under any circumstances, but when a member of your family has special needs you already know that having a fun trip calls for a little extra planning. Happily, family-friendly attractions in California cater well for guests with disabilities, from playgrounds that feature plenty of wheelchair ramps to theme parks that accommodate visitors with cognitive disabilities who might be affected by loud noises or long queues.

Before a trip, it’s always wise to check the accessibility section of an attraction’s website, which will detail any available facilities such as wheelchair hire, listening devices and special events, or policies regarding assistance animals. Sometimes you can even find deals: California state parks, for instance, offer a 50 percent discount for visitors with disabilities.

Many attractions now also offer 'social narratives' that help visitors with Autism Spectrum Disorder know what to expect on a visit such as the guide offered by The Broad, a crowd-pleasing contemporary art museum located in central Los Angeles, or the app made by Santa Barbara’s science-oriented MOXI Wolf Museum of Exploration & Innovation. 'From the beginning, we have tried hard to make sure our museum is inclusive and reflective of our community,' says MOXI’s director of education Ron Skinner. The app, he says, 'helps families better understand what a visit to MOXI might be like, so that they can make informed decisions about their visit.'

Here are 20-plus more attractions including theme parks, playgrounds, and museums that are especially proactive in welcoming families with special needs.

THEME PARKS

Sesame Place San Diego, Chula Vista

The Sesame Street–themed park in San Diego County offers a mix of all-ages water park fun, classic rides, and live entertainment. Start at the Guest Services Center to enroll in the Rider Accessibility Program, so that special needs guests and five family members can enjoy priority access to select rides. The Chula Vista attraction—located seven miles from downtown San Diego—is also a Certified Autism Center (CAC), meaning that staffers have completed autism sensitivity and awareness training. The park offers amenities such as a sensory guide, noise cancelling headphones, and designated quiet rooms. Download the Sesame Place Mobile App to further streamline your day: see the rides’ height requirements, purchase upgrades, and check schedules for shows and character meet-and-greets.

SeaWorld San Diego

Enroll in the Guest Accessibility program, at Guest Services by the main SeaWorld entrance, and you'll be given a 'RAP Sheet' (Ride Accessibility Program) that lets visitors book a specific time for rides and attractions, accompanied by up to five named people in their party. The online guide gives the physical minimum requirements for each ride for instance, that one must be able to grip a railing with at least one hand, etc. If you’d like an American sign language interpreter for shows and tours, contact Guest Services two weeks before the visit.

LEGOLAND California, Carlsbad

Playing with LEGO bricks has long been considered a good way for children on the spectrum (or those dealing with other issues) to develop social and communication skills and the LEGO celebrating park accommodates such visitors too. Ask for an Assisted Access Pass at Guest Services to get on rides (no documentation is needed): the pass allows the guest to board his or her first-choice ride with no wait, and then schedule times for other rides during the day. The park also has designated quiet areas and a downloadable guide for wheelchair access. Ask for a tag to use your pushchair as a wheelchair or you can hire wheelchairs and pushchairs near the main entrance. Send an email to experience@legoland.com at least two weeks ahead of your visit and the Carlsbad park can also arrange for American sign language interpreters for shows.

Disneyland Resort, Anaheim

The Orange County theme park mecca has a wide range of services for guests with mobility, vision, and cognitive disabilities. Start your visit at the Guest Relations Center where you can discuss any needs you might have during your stay. For instance, the resort’s Disability Access Service offers options such as setting up 'return times' for rides, scheduled one at a time using the park’s app or checking in with a Guest Relations kiosk. Before you go, download the Attraction Details for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities and the Special Dietary Requests Guide.

Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park

Gilroy Gardens, Gilroy

California’s Great America, Santa Clara

These three parks—Knott’s in Buena Park, Gilroy Gardens in the Central Coast's garlic capital, and California’s Great America in Santa Clara—are all part of the Cedar Fair chain and offer the same programs. Guests with mobility issues or ASD can request a Ride Boarding Pass at the Guest Services office near the front gates. Use your pass (obtained after answering just a few questions) to get scheduled boarding times from the attendant at any ride’s alternate entrance (usually the exit); the pass works for the guest and up to four companions. The Guest Assistance guides for Knott’sGilroy Gardens and Great America each list specific features of all rides and attractions, and detail which rides feature strobes or other lights that might affect anyone with photosensitivity.

Universal Studios Hollywood

The movie-themed park in Los Angeles makes a variety of accommodations for different situations: its Family Center has a quiet room helpful for ASD guests who are ready for some peace and quiet while the Guest Relations office can lend visitors assistive listening devices or Braille or large-font scripts; call a week ahead of your visit to arrange interpretation services. Check out the Rider’s Guide for a preview of the speed, sensations or special effects of the rides and attractions, and the Dietary Food Guide for dining options that are compatible with gluten-free, peanut-free or dairy-free diets.

Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Vallejo

Request an Attraction Access Pass at Guest Services at either of the two Six Flags theme parks in California, located in Los Angeles County’s Valencia and in Vallejo, east of San Francisco. The pass lets the guest and up to three companions board their chosen rides on a fairly set schedule, with set time intervals in between (at each ride, the attendant marks the time once the ride has been completed). You will need a doctor’s note attesting that there is some kind of disability, to receive an Attraction Access Pass, but once you have received a pass at any Six Flags park, you won’t need to present a note again—your information will be stored in the parks’ overall system.

Ask at Guest Relations about assisted listening devices for any shows; American Sign Language Interpreters are available if requested at least seven days in advance. Licensed Personal Assistants, meanwhile, can accompany their disabled visitor for free.

MUSEUMS

Balboa Park Museums, San Diego

Seven museums around Balboa Park, including the Museum of Us, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the Museum of Photographic Arts, offer Social Stories that you can download ahead of time; these visual previews to the museums were created by high-functioning young adults with ASD.

Two of the San Diego park’s most child-friendly museums also have special days for ASD families. The Fleet Science Center offers Autism Accessibility Mornings on the third Saturday of each month. On such days, the museum opens early for quieter explorations; has a designated cooling-off space; and features a special, lowered-volume (and lights-on) IMAX screening. Nearby, The San Diego Natural History Museum offers ASD mornings every second Saturday of every month. Admission on those days includes a private, sensory-friendly showing of 'Ocean Oasis' in the giant IMAX theatre, and access to a quiet room from 9 am to noon. Every day at the two museums you can request assistive listening devices for use with the museum’s IMAX films, or closed-captioning devices for the Fleet’s Dome Theater.

San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum, Escondido

This museum in San Diego’s North County town offers Sensory-Friendly Museum Mornings on the first Sunday of the month, from 9 am to 10 am, and then every Monday from 8.30 am to 9.30 am. Visitors on the spectrum or with sensory sensitivities can make use of quiet places and a designated break space. On any day, ask at the front desk for noise-cancelling headphones.

Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach

Every few months, this huge aquarium in Long Beach hosts an Autism Night when most of the aquarium is open for special needs families, offering a quieter atmosphere (and a nicely discounted admission price). Year-round, ask at the front desk for audio tours for the sight-impaired or listening devices for the hearing-impaired, or check the calendar for other special needs evenings such as Abilities Night.

MOXI Wolf Museum of Exploration & Innovation, Santa Barbara

This museum in Santa Barbara is lined with hands-on, STEAM-related exhibits (science, tech, engineering, arts and math). It also offers a free, sensory-friendly app, Access MOXI, created so that visitors with autism and sensory-processing disorders can preview the museum. Or, borrow a sensory backpack kit from the front desk which includes noise-reduction headphones, fidget toys, sunglasses and 'if lost please call' wristbands.

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose

This children's museum in Silicon Valley hosts Afternoons for All Abilities on the second Tuesday of the month, featuring a special story time and sensory activity. Check the calendar for autism-friendly Saturday sessions called Play Your Way for ages 2–15. Every day, check out the museum’s Social Story, ask for sound-reducing headsets at Admissions and take note of the Quiet Room on the first floor.

The Tech, San Jose

The San Jose museum offers Sensory Friendly Hours on specific evenings every few months. That means a lower capacity for admissions, resulting in fewer crowds; quiet rooms; and well-lit (and lowered volume) exhibitions and IMAX screenings. The Tech also offers a variety of other themed days, too, such as Girls Days for girls aged 7–14.

Tulare County Museum, Visalia

This state-of-the-art museum in Mooney Grove Park serves to highlight the county’s agricultural and farm-labor past. As a partner of Visit Visalia, the first organization of its kind to earn the distinction of Certified Autism Center, at least 80 percent of the public-facing staff at the museum is trained to serve visitors with autism or sensory needs. The same is true of a number of Visalia hotels, attractions, and visitors’ services.

PLAYGROUNDS

Universally Accessible Playgrounds, Los Angeles

Los Angeles County has 38 special-needs-friendly playgrounds, which were either created or adapted to accommodate children of all abilities. Some notable ones include Shane’s Inspiration in Griffith Park, designed to welcome children with Autism, Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy, and Aidan’s Place at Westwood Recreation Center and offers adaptations including an elevated sand-castle-building station.

Fairmount Carousel Playground, Riverside

Set inside Riverside’s 250-acre Fairmount Park, this merry-go-round-themed playground has musical equipment, a splash pad, a carousel and special noise-making panels.

Tatum’s Garden, Salinas

Stop at the 6,000-square-foot play space in the Central Coast town of Salinas that was inspired by a young resident with spina bifida. It’s lined with wheelchair-friendly ramps, dotted with adapted swings and covered with cushioning rubber.

Helen Diller Playground, San Francisco

Open since 2012, this playground in San Francisco’s Mission Dolores Park has accessible pathways that lead to a 45-foot-long slide and two wheelchair-friendly play boats.

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