Wondering if your ASD (autism spectrum disorder) child can visit and enjoy Knott's Berry Farm? Spending a day at any theme park can be challenging with autism. Loud sounds, crowds, long lines, a favorite attraction being out of service, are just a few of the causes that can trigger a major meltdown. Our family has been visiting Knott’s Berry Farm for almost 5 years now and I am pleased to share that it does work for our daughter with autism, and it might work for other families too. Knott's Berry Farm offers so many things to do from entertaining shows, rides for all ages, character meet and greets along with an arcade and carnival games all to enjoy at your own pace.
Let me start off by saying that I am not a professional in the child development world by any stretch. I am a mom to a beautiful girl who happens to have autism and who found myself, like many others, worried about how my child would fair at our local amusement parks. I needed to know what accommodations were available to make our experience equal to others. I took what I learned during ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) and started applying it during our visits to local theme parks when my girl was just 5-years-old. At that point, she almost finished her ABA program and I felt she had the basics to withstand a day at a busy theme park. Giving your child the tools they need is a big step in preparing them for a successful experience at any theme park. It’s the unknown that makes visiting places for the first time difficult for many families with children on the spectrum.
How do we enjoy Knott’s despite ASD challenges? Every park has some sort of system in place to help those with disabilities enjoy their day. Knott’s recently introduced a system specifically for those with ASD called Plan A Day. Guests can inquire about this program by visiting guest services (near Ghostrider). In order to understand the nature of your family’s needs, they may have some follow up questions for you. There are limitations to how many additional non-ASD guests can be added to your pass. Guest Relations will detail that for you.
How it works: Ride Boarding pass with the Plan A Day option for those with Autism.
- Depending on the day’s average wait times, attractions are grouped into two sections (Big thrill/small thrill) Times are averaged and that will be your base time for choosing a ride from either group for the rest of the day.
- You are free to board your first choice right away. Depending on what "thrill level" that ride is, determines the next ride’s boarding time. Example: say you pick a ride in the first group and it's a 30 minute wait time, you are free to board another ride of your choosing within those 30 minutes.
- After waiting that time, you are free to choose another ride from either level, no pre-reserving of ride required. You are allowed one “ride reserve time” at a time.
This option is a stress-free way to enjoy the parks with our ASD kids without the complications of having to go to a ride, get a return time and then have to go back to that ride when your time is up. It also avoids the issue of your child potentially changing their minds during the time they are waiting to board a ride. We have used this system during our last visits and it's nothing short of brilliant! Between ride times, we can take a break, take pics with characters or grab a snack. You are also welcome to hop on an attraction while waiting for your next time to come up, check the app to find a ride with a short wait time.
Tips on visiting Knott’s for the first time:
- Check the website for any scheduled closures/refurbishments.
- Download the official Knott’s app for wait times, park map, restroom locations, and for a selection of eateries.
- Buy and print your tickets before you arrive to save time and money at the gates.
- Pack light, bring sensory items to calm your child.
- Bring noise canceling headphones for those with auditory issues- remember, it’s still a theme park, and there are some unexpected loud noises.
- If your child still able to ride in a stroller, by all means, bring it.
- Remember to keep your child hydrated and fed, their excitement may mask their need for the basics.
- While dining, ask about special dietary options for your child’s individual needs. Many restaurants have special gluten-free or vegan menus or options that may not be on the menu.
I do realize that not every child will fare well even with the Plan A Day system. Some are afraid of rides altogether, and may even find the crowds too much to deal with or just won’t do well with all the stimulation and sounds. This is why I highly suggest priming and preparing your child before a visit to any park and accept his or her limitations.
- Never force a child to ride an attraction they are afraid of, it might take several attempts for even the simplest of rides. Youtube is a great tool to familiarize your child with the park, attractions and to help them in deciding what they are excited to ride or see. It will also give you an idea of what rides they are nervous about and what you may want to avoid.
- Try to plan a visit during the offseason/weekdays when the weather is cooler and crowds are less.
- Stop for breaks, walking, and standing can be stressful in large crowds, the processing it takes can be physically exhausting and can add up.
- Have an exit plan and prime ahead of time. Have a pair of last rides near the exit or make a plan to buy a souvenir on the way out at one of the several stores outside the park.
- Praise for trying new rides outside the comfort zone, or for transiting calmly.
Always advocate! Park employees don’t know your specific situation so using a calm demeanor can go a long way. This can be the case when a child wants to sit in a specific seat, wants to ride again immediately (as is the case for so many children with autism) or boards and then changes their minds. Another great resource Knott’s has is the Guest Assistance Guide It gives you info on every ride with a rating system. It lists ride height requirements, thrill level of ride and even seating layouts (single rider per car and so on), making it a great resource for your visit! It takes time for some of our kids to enjoy the parks but don't let that keep you from taking them. Always remain calm, ask for help if you need it and advocate, you know your child and their limitations best!
Theme parks have been a HUGE tool in my girl’s progression. Learning to wait in ride queues, taking turns, practice coping strategies, all while using the park as a reward. It has also aided in practicing Premack's principles (first this- then that), calmly transitioning and compromising. It was not always easy, we experienced many full-blown meltdowns, bought tons of toys to reward her for leaving calmly and other times we exited gracefully despite the kicking, screaming and crying. We now enjoy our visits all year round, and now my daughter is a huge Snoopy fan and loves interacting with the town folks of Ghost Town. We haven't quite graduated up to the big thrill rides but we are okay with that. What we really enjoy is playing around with the characters, as it has helped my daughter develop her own communication skills.
If it’s an option for your family, becoming a Passholder makes learning and working through the challenges, a little easier, knowing you don’t have to do it all in one day. Also having that reward ready to aid in following through with goals at home and school is a bonus! A season pass is also great for those days when you can only handle a few hours out of the house. At the end of the day, we just want our kids to experience the joys of being a kid and gain more tolerance for things they can’t control.
With all that said, I recognize that not every child on the spectrum will do as great as others with the Plan a Day pass, or at a theme park in general. Every child with autism is at a different cognitive stage of their development, and may still be learning their own level of comfort, coping and understanding. What Knott’s does offer is a great tool, one of the best in the industry, in my opinion, that can be a great equalizer for families. Just know it is not intended as a front of the line pass but a way to equally enjoy the park as a family.
For more information about visiting Knott's Berry Farm with special needs please visit https://www.knotts.com/help/accessibility