Kids with Special Needs have a great time at Sea World!
Kids with Autism get more out of Sea World than "one fun day"!
Having a child with a developmental disability can make going on trips to places like amusement parks and museums, zoos and other crowded attractions very intimidating to the parents. Children with developmental disabilities are often easily overwhelmed which can trigger behavioral problems, they may not be communicative at all making the thought of them becoming separated from you even more terrifying and they tend to wander more than neurotypical kids.
My son has autism- I have been afraid to go certain places because of those fears- he has gotten lost before. We have felt the glaring eyes of business owners wanting us to leave, and we have heard the comments about Cutie's behavior. If you are debating whether or not to take the leap and try a day at Sea World with your child who has special needs- read on! I hope that this will help you make your decision!
Those of you who have read my other articles are aware that I use the name " Cutie " for my son online and avoid showing clear images of his face to protect his privacy as he is not mature enough to make an informed decision regarding use of his images or name- also, the intenet is not exactly a safe place!
I am in no way affiliated with Sea World, they do not endorse this article or any of my other work.
This article was simply intended to help parents of children with Autism be aware that Sea World San Antonio is a VERY friendly place for all kids and that some of the activities provide the types of sensory inputs that are usually absent during family outings. Also it was intended to show you a different point of view on the perks of visiting while helping you prepare for the trip.
Sea World makes no claims that any of their attractions are therapeutic, or that they can treat or cure any disease or disorder- nor do I.
The therapeutic aspects of the attractions outlined below are to help you better understand why your child perseverates on one individual activity- not a suggestion that the activity is actually therapy. I also have included simple things that you can do to get more benefit from the activities.
There are a few things that you could focus on while there to get the most out of the trip using techniques that you are probably already familiar with. If not- please ask your child's ST, OT and behavioral therapists to demonstrate or describe them!
Our Family visits Sea World San Antonio regularly! - My favorite aspect of the park is the sensory input!
I have no affiliation with Sea World so I do not know what kinds of extra steps they have taken for people with Special Needs other than those that are obvious when you visit! I know that they follow the standard accessibility laws. A few years ago they had a special "point of contact" woman in the PR department who would (on a case by case basis) allow families of children with special needs who were annual pass holders to purchase a special annual pass for a guest to allow therapists and additional supervisory adults to accompany the family- there have been a lot of changes so I will have to keep checking to see if she is still there or if that is still an option (we had to move far away for 18 months and only recently came back). I know that the staff appears to know more about special needs than staff at other parks- not sure if this is training, experience or just luck!
The sensory input at "Bay of Play" and "Lost Lagoon" are amazing! The children get lots of proprioceptive and vestibular input! At "Bay of Play" (activity area near the center of the main park) the kids can goof around in an area filled with fountains- some are a constant stream of water providing constant proprioceptive input and others are buckets that fill and spill on the child providing regular momentary bursts of proprioceptive input. "Lost Lagoon" (the Water Park within Sea World) has similar sensory features within each attraction. I don't know if sensory needs were taken into account during the planning and construction but the end result is incredible!
The Bay of Play - A sensory Paradise!
Rides also offer excellent sensory input!
There are plenty of rides that offer loads of sensory input as well! The roller coasters do provide exceptional stimuli, however they may be too scary for your child. There is a small roller coaster- "Shamu's Happy Harbour" that the smaller kids can ride that just goes in an oval with a few small ups and downs- it still offers some great sensory input and is not too scary! Cutie tried it first when he was 3 years old and is now 7 years old and that is still one of his favorites!
The water rides can provide a great sensory experience as well! We usually go on Rio Locco - a rafting ride with small ups and downs. You get pretty wet and it is bumpy but not scary! Rio Locco provides ample vestibular input as the circular raft spins and bobs down the white water river- Proprioceptive input occurs in bursts throughout the ride as the raft hits the side of a wave, and as the water splashes and sprays at you! We still have not worked up to "Journey to Atlantis" though, but it looks like fun and Cutie loves to stand in the viewing area and get soaked.
They also included Tactile stimulation!
The kids can see ocean animals! - They can interact with some too!
"Dolphin Cove" is my son's favorite animal attraction at Sea World. He is one of the kids on the spectrum that seems to melt (in a good way!) when ever he interacts with any animal. He loves to feed them and any thing that had been bothering him instantly disappears when he touches the dolphins!
There are penguins and an aquarium, beluga whales, sea lions, killer whales, flamingos and more! Personally I have used every single one of the exhibits as a "topic of the day" to supplement speech therapy. We stand near the exhibit and every attempt at an utterance earns Cutie a better viewing position, the opportunity to take a picture with my camera or to be the model and pose by the exhibit (he absolutely LOVES having his picture taken!). We learn from the signs as well as the staff (private conversation and educational lecture/ performance). We explore the rest of the park, discussing the animal as we walk and play fact games about it. If we have some money that day we stop on the gift shop on the way out of the park (waiting until the end of the day softens the blow of having to leave and also prevents the child from losing the item) and we get something that corresponds to our topic of the day.
The shows are wonderful, we have not been going as much as we used to as we have seen them so many times that we have been able to act them out at home with our dogs- the staff do try to throw in a few ad lib things here and there to keep the regulars happy! There is a new baby killer whale in the Shamu show here in San Antonio- we have been going to see that show more often as the Baby learns! We had been seeing the same Shamu show for years .... "Believe" it was wonderful, but as things often do, it is changing. The new show beings in just a few days and we will be there with bells on!
Lots of kids with developmental disabilities have a special connection to animals and at Sea World you can get pretty close to them!
Aquatic Animals!Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Staff - Not your average amusement park staff
I really don't know if the staff have any sort of training in working with kids who have special needs but the majority of them have seemed to intuitively know that he requires extra delicacy in their interactions with him.
The woman who we see near "Dolphin Cove" doing the educational lectures over the loudspeaker approached us (this was the first time we met her) she squatted down and talked with Cutie- she asked if he wanted to feed the dolphins. This was his first time and he was terrified to touch the fish- the feel of the fish was very offensive to his tactile aversion. She took his hand and helped him do it (using the hand over hand technique as if she had years of experience with kids with special needs)- the dolphin took the fish and he was SO happy! She speaks to him in a way that he can understand yet is never condescending! I say she "speaks" to him rather than "spoke" because we do still see her pretty often and without ever having explained his challenges, she guides us to the best viewing area for his sensory needs -away from speakers, not too tightly surrounded by adults in the crowd (he is ok being between kids) and where he is not in shadow if the sun is beginning to set as shadows really bug him.
We have NEVER, not once had a staff member at Sea World be rude- in fact, they are not only polite but genuine! They do not appear to be faking their delight to speak to the children at all. They really do appear to enjoy working there! It is impressive that we have NEVER run in to a rude staff member because for 2 1/2 years we went every weekend they were open and a few week days as well- also since we have moved back we have started going every other week again! So our total time in visiting the park is over 3 years regularly! There have been plenty of opportunities for them to be rude, yet they have not!
When a child is separated from their parents the staff treat the situation as if he/she were their own children!
Cutie got separated from us once, he got upset, twisted his hand out of mine while he dropped to the ground and then darted through a huge crowd at the lost lagoon. He then hid. They got on their radios, one guy took my digital camera down to show the staff pictures of Cutie, they hunted for him and crawled through anything that looked like a place where a child would hide. Within 20 minutes they found him! They were fast and compassionate, they were careful but firm when they approached him (back then he had violent tantrums and we warned the staff) and they helped calm him down!
The poor Shamu Mascot! They are very good at making sure these guys get their breaks but one insanely hot Texas day... Cutie wanted to hug Shamu. The visiting Shamu time had just ended and Shamu and his escorts were heading off to cool down. Cutie saw them and screamed "Shamu!!!!" very excitedly- then realized that he would not be getting a turn. His prizes fell to the ground and he stood there silently with a single tear rolling down his cheek. One of the escorts turned around and noticed. You could tell that they were exhausted and not feeling so great from the heat. She signaled for Cutie to come to them! He hugged Shamu and was invited to help escort him part way to the building to cool off (that was a very special thing- it never happens).
is often a challenging subject to teach kids with developmental disabilities
Many kids with disorders like Autism have difficulty understanding things that are not tangible. It can be very hard to teach a child about conservation because there is nothing for them to touch- Sea World has done an incredible job in making conservation education more understandable for kids with these challenges. They are also constantly trying to improve and add to their conservation programs.
A large part of why their conservation education is more effective than other methods of teaching it to kids with special needs is because once they fall in love with Sea World- they accept these tips as "rules". Since most kids on the spectrum thrive on routine, structure and need firm rules, whether they understand the details or not, conservation then becomes a part of their lives simply because they associate happy memories with the place that taught them the rule!
Speech Prompts - Everything there can be used to model and prompt speech!
Looking at pictures of the animals during Speech therapy is great- looking at the real thing may inspire more of a desire to speak! There are opportunities to practice speech on virtually any topic at Sea World!
Don't be surprised if your child is too preoccupied to participate and speak the first time they go, but keep modeling speech for them throughout the trip. You may be surprised at how much sticks. Even non-verbal children benefit as they will expand their understanding of words. Exposure to real, living marine life will drastically reinforce the marine life vocabulary and possibly become something to build on to.
Carnival Style Games with prizes
There are a few that I highly recommend!
I strongly recommend going to a few specific games during quieter periods- these are two or more player games that you can use to help boost the confidence of a child who may be feeling overwhelmed! Of course, I recommend going at a quieter time otherwise the other kids might win! We use two specific games for Cutie- one is a bit like mini skee ball, when you roll the ball up the ramp you must aim for the red holes in the back- if you get it in a different color that's ok, but the red holes are better. Instead of earning points, Shamu is on the rear wall, when the ball goes in the red hole Shamu swims faster, when you get the ball in a green hole he does move but his progress is slower. Whoever gets to the other side first wins! We usually compete against him ourselves (again during quiet times- you can't just hog the whole 8 player games if there is a line) and for some reason, my husband and I both struggle to get the ball up the ramp at all! (wink wink). After winning a prize Cutie is usually so preoccupied and proud that we can safely walk through crowds again without him becoming overwhelmed!
The other game we usually play is the same concept as the one above, but instead of throwing balls, you spray water into a hole!
Is YOUR responsibility.
Sea World has done their part- you must do yours as well!
You should be sure that you have enough competent adults in your group to handle the children.
Watch your child and speak up if they are breaking any rules.
Do not let them run around wildly!
If you need a backpack harness with a leash... then you need one.
Strollers with restraints are great! They can not go everywhere in the park though unless you need it to accommodate a disability.
Safety - Is always a concern with small children- even more if they have special needs
A few DAILY safety tips!
Before you go to any public events or amusement parks, do a social story with your child about getting lost and what to do. Try to find some images on the company's website of their staff in uniform- show the child what uniforms to look for! I recommend getting a medic alert bracelet WITHOUT cute graphics etc (so that it can easily be identified as an alert rather than an accessory). Waterproof ones are not too expensive ($20-$40).
Also write your child's name, diagnosis, allergies and YOUR cell phone number with permanent laundry markers inside their clothes.
When you get to Sea World- there is an ID tag vending machine near Bay of play- they are not that expensive and the child may really enjoy them! There are numerous designs to select from and they are engraved with your info on the spot- ours took about 6 minutes (probably would have been faster if we hadn't gone back and forth on which cool design to get!).
If you have a child with Autism, it can be terrifying to visit a place with a lot of water- children with Autism are at much higher risk for drowning than neurotypical kids. Well, to address that issue...
The bay of play has fountains- so, if you believe your child is high risk for dry drowning, play with them and monitor how often they are holding their mouth open while being sprayed. If they are really pushing it- redirect them to another area- there are tons of fun activities right there!!
Dolphin Cove is monitored- you MUST lay on your belly on the wall to touch the water and there is a large lip inside the pool so even if the child somehow managed to fall in- they would be sitting in a couple inches of water- they would have to actually try to get into the pool! To minimize the risk of them jumping in, just hold onto them as they lay on the wall- Cutie gets angry about me holding his shirt, but his alternative is to leave the area! It did take LOTS of practice though with many terrifying moments! The staff is VERY attentive and although I have never seen anyone fall or jump in, I am positive they have a plan in place! The staff is within the viewing area every time we go!
Sea lions and otters are in areas that you can view, but NOT touch- you can peek over the glass wall to see them, the walls are pretty high so the child can't simply "fall in". Please do not allow your child to climb the wall- they will try, so make sure that you are nearby! This is the type of rule the child should be taught anyway!
Penguins, fish and sharks are fully enclosed and the walls look thick- You would need to have done something horribly illegal for them or their habitat to be a risk! *** the aquarium and penguin house may be challenging for people with neurological or visual issues or anything that makes balancing difficult! The rooms are dark and the lighting in the tanks may cause some kids with severe SID to experience some strange physical sensations. When you first get in there, check that the child is ok, a few minutes to adjust is all that is usually required. The floor seems to slope and tilt a bit- I think it does, but it may simply be my SID causing the sensation! My SID would be classified as moderate, Cutie's is severe, mine effects my balance pretty badly though, I have only come close to falling (oh, that would be SO embarrassing) in the aquarium twice, Cutie has fallen once, but it was likely because he tried to run!
Lost lagoon is intimidating when it is crowded if you have a child who is at greater risk of drowning. Sea World has lifeguards strategically placed throughout, and plenty of other staff as well.
Life vests are available to borrow- please do it if your child does not swim well no matter how big they are- this is NOT the appropriate setting to try teaching them to swim without one!
If you can not find your child... look around enough to be sure that they are not right behind you etc , but report it to the staff immediately! The faster they know, the faster they can hunt! They have radios and can check if the child has already been found, and get more people to help look. They know the area best- you should have at least one adult from your party stay exactly where the child saw you last in case they return unless otherwise directed by the staff. If you brought a camera, show them a clear picture of your child from today.
My Favorite addition in the past few years!
Even kids with Oral Aversions are more willing to try something!
OK, the food MAY seem expensive at first glance BUT... the ticket prices are so low and you don't have to pay anything to get into the water park or to ride rides.... so it really works out in the long run- Besides, think how much it must cost to operate that park! Pricing it the way they have has allowed us to still enter the park (we are annual pass holders so we pay for tickets ONCE a year) even at times when we are completely broke! There are drinking fountains (free) and the drink and popcorn refills are REALLY cheap- especially with the annual pass discount!
I do recommend trying the food- somehow kids with oral aversions are more likely to eat the food there! You can get Shamu shaped Ice cream bowls and keep the bowl to encourage your child to eat at home by playing on those happy memories! We also have a Sea World plate that Cutie got with his kids' meal at the BBQ building. I save the plate for those days that he is most adamant about not letting food cross his lips!
Kids with Oral aversions are often placed on high calorie, high protein diets- try the funnel cakes for a snack! They are SO good - especially with the strawberries and they are a great way to help the child knockout a significant chunk of their required intake for the day! The pizza is pretty good although I have not had it in a few years- usually I have tons of popcorn, funnel cakes, churros, cotton candy and BBQ! You will burn off a lot of those calories walking around!
Very few of the foods caused Cutie to have a strong reaction in terms of texture, he was not too keen on the pizza the first time, he tolerated it after that- he tries to eat only popcorn but usually gives in when he sees the funnel cakes and Shamu bowls with Ice cream! They do have dippin dots too!
You get one free admission for your soldier and dependents per year!
Salute to the Heroes- go to the Shamu show... stand up when they do the salute to "all past and present military members and their families"!
It really is a nice touch and very welcoming- we have made Sea World our second home!
BRING WITH YOU!
Ear muffs (we use Winchester Ear protection)- plugs would not be good as they are dangerous to the animals if they get thrown or fall into a tank.
Chewy Tubes, Belt loop fidgets, Wilbarger Brush
Backpack leash thing or wrist type if your child is a serious elopement risk
PECS Travel system or other visual cues
Any special foods that are prescribed should have a doctor's note or otherwise indicate that it is for a medical condition- outside food is NOT allowed in!