Guest post by Denise Klipsic Ochsendorf
As mentioned in my previous post, a visit to the Great Mall of America can offer your kids with autism a fun filled day trip when carefully planned.
Here are my tips for shopping, entertainment, dining and quiet areas if your kid gets overwhelmed.
Shopping in the Mall of America
Now, I don’t know too many children with autism or not that make this their primary reason for the visit to the mall, but I do know plenty of parents who do!
So, if shopping is on your agenda, I recommend one of two options: Planned Map or Spontaneous Circle.
The Planned Map Option is for those visitors who have specific stores they want to visit.
This option will minimize stress and let your kids know where you are going ahead of time.
Print out the current mall map from their website and highlight the stores you want to visit.
Have the map with you during your visits and travel to each store in order of their location.
Be sure to mark the elevators you want to use, so you do not have to spend time looking for ways to get up and down.
The Spontaneous Circle Option is for those visitors who don’t have specific stores they HAVE to visit but are here to shop in general.In this option, shoppers just start out on the main level going in one direction and go up one floor each time you complete the circle. This option is one we use a lot.
It is more casual and allows for deviations if our children become anxious or irritated.
Each shop is uniquely designed and pose different obstacles for families with kids with autism.
We find just maneuvering the stroller around difficult, let alone those hands that like to touch everything.The good news, if you are not shopping alone, the mall has plenty of benches in the main corridors that kids can wait with others while you check out a shop or two.
Our Kids’ Favorite Shops: Discovery Store, Lindor’s Truffle shop (Ask for a free sample), the Disney Store and the Lego Store.
Entertainment options for your kid with autism in the Mall
There are plenty of things to entertain your kids at the mall!
There is the American Girl Experience, the movie theater, Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium (formerly Underwater World), exhibit center, theater mirror maze, mini-golf, Build-a-Bear Workshop, theater, Lego store and the big one: Nickelodeon Universe.
There are also other small events, like Santa’s workshop during holidays.
Tips for Nickelodeon Universe
- My recommendation for Nickelodeon Universe is to go early if you can, but if you can’t, get comfortable with the park layout and leave the park if your child becomes agitated.
- There is no fee to enter the park, so this makes it easy to come and go as needed, as Nickelodeon Universe is full of lights, sounds, smells and people.
- The park itself is not big and is located in the center of the mall.
It is lit up by the huge skylights during the day and gets pretty dark at night with blinking ride and carnival lights.
- There is a central walkway around the park with walkways through the center.The walking paths in the center, however, are confusing around the rides and can often lead you back where you started, so avoid them if you can.
There are areas with benches in the park for waiting for riders or resting, but there is no quiet area in the park.In fact, the park is the best and worst place for an autism meltdown.
The noise level is so high that my daughter’s screams are muffled by those on rides, however, the noise does nothing to calm the situation, so often we leave the ride area for the quiet in comparison mall corridors.
- You have different options for tickets which include wristbands or a point pass.Unless you children with autism are going to go on all the rides, good with lines and are fearless in their adventures, the point pass is the best option.We like the point pass because it can be used anytime during your visit (multiple days), and it is transferable (if your child goes on one ride and is done or has a meltdown, you can always gift the pass to someone else). Make sure before you buy you know your point values on the rides your child wants to go on.The more points, the better deal the pass, but if you are only going on a few rides, the smaller point passes are better options.
- Though the rides in Nickelodeon Universe are geared for all ages, those geared for older children take up the bulk of the park.
Though the rides in Nickelodeon Universe are geared for all ages, those geared for older children take up the majority of the park.So finding the rides for younger children can be hard.If your kids are younger, be sure to ask for a list of those rides when you purchase your tickets.
There is no special access for people with disabilities or parent swap for rides.
If your child is not good at waiting in lines, I recommend having another parent or person with you wait in the bulk of the line and then jump in the line when they get the closer to the front of the line. This will work on some of the smaller rides, but not all of them.
Scope the line to see if this in option for your family)
- Nickelodeon Universe does have character meet and greets (Sponge Bob, etc.).Posted times are available at the location daily.Let the workers at the meet and greet know your child has autism before meeting the character.This will give them time to let the character know and possibly give your child more time to them.
Other attractions at the mall are in much smaller venues and much more autism-friendly environments.
- The Sea Life Aquarium is busy, but is much more relaxed in its attractions and allows for some hands-on experiences. It is a good place to visit to let your children (and you) a little time to unwind and relax.It is located on the bottom floor and is open daily.
- The Lego Store has an area outside its store where kids can build different Lego Creations at no cost. The Legos are to be played with, in that area only, while sets are available in the store for purchase. It is good place to relax and let the kids play. (Note: If your child like mine likes to taste or put things in his mouth, skip this area. Too many hands on too many Legos makes this a busy one for germs.)
- The American Girl Experience includes a variety of events from, scavenger hunts, meet and greets to a Doll Hair Salon.
Let the staff know your child has autism, they can cater your experience if it is not too busy.
- Build-A- Bear involves your Bear purchase. If you do not intend to buy a bear, I would recommend you skip it.
Otherwise, it is quite fun. Again, let the staff know your child has autism, they can cater your experience if it is not too busy.
- The mirror maze & mini-golf are located close to each other on the third level/Northside. They are fun to do together as a family. Although my daughter got frustrated with mirror maze, when we could not get out.
Our Kids’ Favorite Entertainment Options: Sea Life Aquarium and the Carousel at Nickelodeon Universe.
Autism Friendly Dining Options:
There are a lot of dining options at the mall that include Sit-Down and Fast-Food. Packing snacks is the easiest way to curb your child’s cravings, otherwise there are snack and dinner options at every turn.
Fast Food and Food Courts:
There are two food courts in the Mall, both on the third level.
There are a variety of options to choose (Gluten or Dairy Free are few and far between, though.)I recommend if you want to stay on a budget and need to visit the food court to visit the food court on the North side (Stay away from the Southside court).The difference is the layout, noise, lighting, varying floor levels and entrances and exits!
The Northside food court which is all on one level makes it easy for parents with children with autism to maneuver get to and find seating and each other with its skylights and wide-open floor plan.
It does not have as many options as the south side food court, but this makes it often less busy as a result.
Sit-down dining can be an experience for the whole family, but you may have to wait.
Rain Forest Café and Bubba Gump are unique restaurant choices.
If you opt for a sit-down restaurant, be sure to get on their reservation list if they have one.If they do not, ask about the best time to dine and explain your unique situation.
We dine at Bubba Gump when we visit the mall, and they usually try to find us a place away from the busy seating areas.)Be sure to check out the décor, as fun as the Rain Forest Café is, it is dark and can be scary.
Ask if you can walk your child through the restaurant to see what and how they cope to see if it is worth the wait.
If you are looking for quiet options, your best options are going to be those familiar restaurants live Famous Dave’s and Ruby Tuesday.These restaurants are not the go dining in the mall, which make them quieter and less busy.
Gluten and Dairy Free Options:
Each Sit-down restaurant in the mall offers different Gluten/Dairy Free options.There is not one restaurant I can recommend over another on your choices.Check out the menu before you sit down and ask the hostess for those unique menu items.
Our Kids’ Favorite Dining Options: Bubba Gump, Famous Dave’ and Twin City Grill
Denise Klipsic Ochsendorf is an autism mom of two active kids and happy owner of a Twin Cities Kids Consignment Sale (Just Between Friends) as well as an avid Autistic Globetrotter who loves to travel the backroads of America and hopes someday to make it Europe with her family