Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism

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Originally opened at 6000 Universal Boulevard, Orlando, Florida as a single theme park in June of 1990, the famous Universal Studios Orlando still flourishes. Islands of Adventure was added later, and together these movie-inspired theme parks draw almost 30 million visitors per year.For visitors who have autism, visiting a theme park can be fun but also quite challenging. To help families plan their visit here are our tips and suggestions.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism fire

What You Will See

Rides

The rides in the park range from mild to extreme and may present some sensory challenges for visitors with autism.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism ride

Children on the autism spectrum can range anywhere from thrill seekers that crave G-forces, and sharp roller coaster turns to being sensitive to even the slightest of motion. Many rides include moderate to high movement while others are tame. Furthermore, many of the rides are digitally simulated which involves being rocked in a seat.
Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism roller

 

The park’s most extreme rides include Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Revenge of the Mummy, and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. All of these rides feature sudden stops, spins, and turns. Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is a simulated coaster but still features extreme movements in all directions except upside down.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism river

 

More moderate rides include Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Transformers 3D, Pteranodon Flyers, and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. In Despicable Me Mayhem, guests can choose immovable chairs for a more surefooted experience.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism boat
The feet of guests dangle on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which can prove a problem to some kids.  While Pteranodon Flyers is a smooth ride, it does suspend riders in flight over the Jurassic Park and is therefore not for those afraid of heights.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism red

 

The milder rides include Men in Black Alien Attack, Hogwarts Express, and The Simpsons Ride. The Simpsons Ride is another simulated roller coaster that’s mostly a mini Simpsons cartoon with a few ups and downs. The Hogwarts Express features mild train movement and can, in fact, be relaxing. For visitors who wish to experience very mild rides the Suess Landing area in Islands of Adventures is recommended.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism seuss

Effects

Many of the attractions at Universal feature loud noises. Some especially stand out with loud explosions, gunfire, and screams.  For example, Diagon Alley’s giant dragon often growls and spews real fire, while the train to Hogsmeade features whistles and screams.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism train

Though several rides at Universal are virtual they employ special lighting, darkness, and 3D glasses for their effects. The 3D glasses are not a requirement, so those sensitive to 3D effects can choose not the wear them during the ride or attraction. Those scared of the dark can wear a glow in the dark armband in attractions such as Revenge of the Mummy, Knockturn Alley, and Poseidon’s Fury.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism show

 

Other attractions involve water sprays, winds, and smoke effects, which can prove a challenge to some kids. Water based rides include Jurassic Park River Adventure, Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, and Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges.
Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism bob

Most rides have riders wear a helmet or seat belts which again might bother some kids.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism claws

Shows

Macy’s Holiday Parade, the Mardi-Gras parade, and the Superstar Parade all run outdoors in the afternoon with spectators lined along the parade route. People can sit on the sidewalk or stand during the half hour ceremony. Parents of kids who can’t sit through the entire show can leave at any time.

 

 

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism car

Families can also visit the Character Party Zone where they can find dancers from the parade performing and gsigning autographs in front of Mel’s Drive-In.

 

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism mel

Throughout the parks, there are also mini performances where spectators can stand and attend like the Blues Brothers concert stage in front of Rip Ride Rockit, and Hogwarts Frog Choir where performers sing songs from Harry Potter movies.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism parade

There are plenty of character Meet and Greet opportunities in the parks. Though there are no accommodations for them, the lines are usually short.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism potter

Finally, there’s Shrek 4D, a 3D movie with extra sensory effects like smells and water sprays. This show is an unusual attraction but can be scary or challenging for viewers with sensory issues.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism train

 

Playgrounds

Universal boasts several playgrounds like Curious George ,If I Ran the Zoo and The Olive where antsy kids can let out steam. Many of these places feature water spray areas.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism park

For kids that are temperature-sensitive, the Camp Jurassic and Jurassic Park Discovery Center are recommended.
The former is a shady playground where children can explore secret caves, climb through nets, run across bridges and slide down slides. The latter features an air-conditioned educational area focusing on the prehistoric past.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism hat

Food

Restaurants inside the parks as well as Universal City Walk feature several vegan, kosher, halal, dairy-free, gluten-free, or nut-free options for those with special diets.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism restaurant

Guests can make reservations at most sit-down restaurants on the property. However, except during very busy times of the year, one can usually just walk into most restaurants. Diners can ask about the dietary options when they book online or by phone.
Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism hall

 

Souvenirs

Like a so many other theme parks, Universal is a souvenir heaven.
Each area has unique merchandise so guests can get items ranging from favorites like Dr. Seuss, Despicable Me, Shrek, Marvel heroes like Spiderman and Hulk to Terminator, Transformers, and The Simpsons.

 

 

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism potions
But none can compare to the memento explosion of Harry Potter items to choose from: T-shirts, school uniforms, and even owl cages. Of course, most people want to get the new interactive wands. These devices interact with various locations in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Guests can purchase these wands in several spots in the two parks, but by far the most popular place is Olivander’s Wand Shop.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism wand

Location, Hours, and Admission

Families can buy tickets online or when they get to the park. Multiple day passes are the best deal. However, the park does offer three great options for children with autism.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism duff

Universal Express Pass

The Universal Express Pass, or UEP, is a paper pass with a printed bar code that can be used around most areas of the park (excluding some Harry Potter rides). Parents can get one for everyone in the family at no additional charge when staying at any USO properties (excluding Cabana Bay).

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism coaster

They can also purchase the pass separately when arriving at the park. The UEP itself features two kinds of express passes. One offers a limit of one entry a day for each attraction. The other offers unlimited entries. Parents of children with autism who like to go on the same rides over and over again should get the unlimited pass.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism betty

 

Attraction Assistance Pass

There is also Universal’s Attraction Assistance Pass or AAP. This feature is a free pass given to accommodate guests who can’t wait in regular standby lines. One can use this pass for any ride or attraction, even one without a Universal Express Entrance. Parents can get their AAP card upon arriving at Guest Services and present identification while describing the accommodation needed. A doctor’s note explaining limitations can be useful but is not legally necessary.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism seat

The card can accommodate up to six people. It also remains valid at both parks for the entire length of one’s stay. Families just need to show a cast member their card. If a ride’s wait time is less than half an hour, they will get in immediately through the express lane. Otherwise, the cast member will write on the AAP card the attraction name, time of day, wait time, and a return time.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism street

Guest Assistance Pass

Finally, there’s the Guest Assistance Pass or GAP. These passes are identical to a one day/two park unlimited UEP. They provide immediate entry to any attraction’s Universal Express queue, regardless of the standby wait. Guests can only get these on a strictly limited basis.

Navigating Universal Studios Orlando with Autism rock

 

Autism Travel Tips:

  • While the park features monthly events, summer and Christmas time are the most crowded times of the year.
  • The best way to dress is in layers since conditions vary from attraction to attraction and throughout the day.
  • Non-slip shoes are a must.
  • Parents should pack a change of clothes if anyone wants to do any water rides. The park does offer blow dryers for rent for five minutes at a time.
  • We recommend bringing a poncho to protect family members from getting soaking wet on some water rides along with flip flops.
  • The park can get crowded. Parents should snap a photo of their child to show authorities if they wander or get lost.
  • In addition, parents should get temporary tattoos or patches with their child’s name and the parent’s phone number in case they get lost.
  • Families should prepare children ahead of time that there are height restrictions on some rides.
  • Guests that can’t climb the two flights of stairs at Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade can ask staff to use the elevator to take them straight to the train platform.
  • There are no accommodations for attending parades.
  • At night, some parades may have fireworks.
  • Parents can use available lockers for shoes, socks, and small backpacks.
  • While the pathways are all paved and accessible, there might be slippery or muddy areas due to water attractions.
  • Orlando can get hot during the summer. This fact can make it uncomfortable for those waiting in outdoor lines for extended periods of time. Thankfully, many attractions at Universal are indoors and have air conditioning.
  • Those who don’t want to go on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride can go through the queue line and experience all the Harry Potter items and scenes from the films. Interested guests just need to tell the attendant they are not riding. The attendant will then show them the exit.
  • Though the park allows guests to wear noise canceling headphones, some roller coasters like Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket and other motion intense rides won’t allow it.

 

Networking and Fun Times at the DSMMC 2016

 

At the DSMMC 2016, there was a thread of empowerment alongside exciting news. From Disney’s Moana to social media tips, there was a plethora of great information with quality Disney entertainment to follow.

Last month I had the unique opportunity to attend the DSMMC 2016 (Disney Social Media Moms Celebration) and enjoy a day in the Anaheim parks.

Networking and Fun Times at the DSMMC 2016

The event took place at Disneyland Resort Paradise Pier Hotel. It gave me the opportunity to experience the Resort’s 60th Anniversary Diamond Celebrations, which were ending in less than two weeks while catching up with Travelingmom.com bloggers and networking with fellow influencers.

Though this was a mini half day event (compared to the larger one that takes place in WDW), it was jammed packed with plenty of useful information, inspiration and of course, the typical Disney pixie dust welcome and swag.

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The magic started from the moment the invitees arrived. We were each gifted a goodie bag filled with the 60th celebration items and park hopper tickets for the day. The surprises continued as we moved onto the large ballroom. There were a dozen or so tables each decorated with a pair of light up ears and a “paintbrush” for each attendee, perfect to use during the “Paint The Night” parade. The paintbrush next to the ears is a wand that lets users change the Mickey ears of anyone nearby by choosing a color and pressing a button. Needless to say, all of us had fun switching the colors of each other’s ears!

 

Networking and Fun Times at the DSMMC 2016

But let’s get to the Exciting Disney News!

Michele Himmelberg, Director of Public Relations at the Disneyland Resort, who had recently attended Disney’s Shanghai park opening and Leanne O’Regan, Director of Content Relations for Disney Parks, started our day by sharing details of all the upcoming changes in the Parks.

Networking and Fun Times at the DSMMC 2016

The Disneyland Resort

 

The not to be missed rides in the parks this season are ‘Frozen’ at the Hyperion theater and ‘Soaring Over the World’ which replaced Soarin’ Over California.

Both Anaheim parks are ready to celebrate another spooktacular Halloween season with the Haunted Mansion turning into a ghoulish attraction with a Nightmare Before Christmas theme starting September 9th.

Be on the lookout for Elena of Avalor, Disney’s first Latin princess who is an elegant warrior.
Networking and Fun Times at the DSMMC 2016 dolls

Also, this will be the final season for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, as it is closing in January to become Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission Breakout. Apparently, the Tower’s free fall drop will transform into an intergalactic experience featuring characters from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films.

Walt Disney World

The Orlando parks just got four new attractions: The Tree of Life Awakening at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Epcot’s Soaring Over the World and Frozen rides, and the ‘Frozen Ever After’ show at the Hollywood Studios. Last April, I got to check them out first hand during Disney’s Awaken Summer event for the media.

We also saw BIG changes to Disney Springs, formerly known as Downtown Disney. The new area is revamped and is worth spending an afternoon or evening in after spending the day in the parks.

However, the BIGGEST thing to hit WDW is going to be Pandora – the new world of Avatar in the Animal Kingdom slotted to open in 2017.

Networking and Fun Times at the DSMMC 2016

The Disney Cruise Line

According to the PR team, the cruise line will be adding new itineraries and ports of call from San Diego and Galveston by next year. They will also be adding two new cruise ships by 2021 and 2023. If you still haven’t sailed with Disney, you should seriously consider doing so if possible. The experience is unparalleled when it comes to entertaining families. Did I mention the Disney Wonder will get a Frozen show, too?

Moana

We were shown a preview by Amy Smeed, first female co-head of animation on a Disney feature film. Moana, scheduled for release November 23rd of 2016, promises to be a huge success. Set in the islands of the South Pacific it has all the markings of a quality Disney franchise – a beautiful, strong-willed princess, an angry demi-god, Maui, and two quirky pet characters, Pua the pig and Hei-Hei the rooster.

Moana, played by Auli’i Cravalho, is the movie’s adventurous and tenacious teen heroine. She sails off on a daring mission in an attempt to restore her people’s past as explorers. The themes of female empowerment, culture, and heritage are thought provoking and inspiring.

Amy shared with us through the copious amount of research her studio staff put into recreating the customs and cultures presented in her slideshow. These included details like the culturally significant tattoos of the men.

Watch the Moana trailer here:

 

Tapping into Disney’s bag of tricks on social media

Erin Glover (Editorial Content Director for the Disneyland Resort) and Victoria Lim (Managing Editor of Content at Walt Disney World) shared their secrets to success in the constantly evolving world of blogging and social media platforms.

 

Erin discussed running the Disney Parks Blog and described the challenges associated with organizing content and editorial calendars. She reminded us of the importance of syndication and promotion of content on multiple social platforms.

Victoria shared her favorite digital apps that help her create short professional looking videos on the go. The apps, which include Magisto, Videolicious, Quik, and WeVideo, sounded useful and user-friendly for anyone with a social media presence. All of the apps allow users to create personal collages with pictures and short clips along with music and graphics. I will try them all out and see which one I prefer.

Networking and Fun Times at the DSMMC 2016

Our surprise guests

Leave it to Disney to make our day more special by bringing two hard working celebrity moms to share their personal stories of balancing demanding jobs and family life.

Our surprise guests were Tiffani Thiessen (aka Kelly Kapowski from Saved by the Bell) and Ginger Zee (ABC News & Good Morning America meteorologist).

Networking and Fun Times at the DSMMC 2016

In their speeches, both women emphasized that though it wasn’t easy, women can have it all if they stay focused on goals and ‘just do it’ instead of being paralyzed by criticism or obsessed with perfection.

Tiffani spoke of her life as a mother, wife, and host of her own cooking show, Dinner at Tiffani’s, while running her blog. Ginger Zee relayed how she struggled to balance everything with her busy travel schedule and how she is frequently scrutinized on social media for ‘neglecting’ family.

Networking and Fun Times at the DSMMC 2016

After listening and taking selfies with these two hard-working women, we were more than ready to head on to the parks and try out the new attractions for ourselves!

Mini tour of the Parks

After the conference had ended at noon, I headed into the Parks to check out all the exciting changes since I had last visited.

Disneyland

Networking and Fun Times at the DSMMC 2016

Walking around the Magic Kingdom filled me with nostalgia and memories of the times I had visited the park with my kids over the past two decades.

However, what caught my eye were two specialized shopping spots that are sure to be a huge hit with kids, particularly for holiday gifts and birthday celebrations – the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and the Star Wars store.

The boutique sells princess outfits complete with accessories. It houses a mini beauty salon perfect for young children. Here, they can get a mani, pedi, hair and makeup done and then get a souvenir photo of the experience.

In the Star Wars store guests can construct and personalize a light saber with different saber colors, hilts and even with dual blades. The sabers light up and can be folded in like any of the light sabers you can buy at the park. Perfect for fans of all ages!

California Adventure

Though I craved my usual Dole Whip at the Tiki room, the line was rather long. Instead, I headed to the New Orleans section instead and enjoyed a refreshing mint julep before moving on to Disney’s California Adventure Park.

Since it opened back in 2001, this park has been our favorite with its thrill rides and boardwalk atmosphere. I was sad to hear that Soarin’ Over California was gone but the new Soarin’ Around the World is even better! This ride takes guests over the iconic landmarks like the Taj Mahal and Eiffel Tower, ending right over Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

Networking and Fun Times at the DSMMC 2016

Attendees to the event had to select either ‘Soaring’ or ‘Frozen’ for their fast pass.Blogger friends that saw the show raved about it so I will be sure to go next time I’m in the park. For both attractions, I highly recommend a fast-pass! Even with a fast pass, there’s still a wait since the rides are currently insanely popular.

 

 

As I was heading out, I did stop to gawk at some of the eateries and stores in Downtown Disney. Here, my top picks for entertaining the kids are Build-a-Bear (currently offering unique 60th-anniversary accessories), the Lego store, and Ridemakerz, where you can build your own RC car from scratch. These are all fun options but are somewhat pricey; make sure you discuss a budget with your kids before entering.

Networking and Fun Times at the DSMMC 2016

Though my one day in Disneyland was short, it was well worth the two-hour drive for the networking, information, inspiration and fun memories.

 

 

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Disclosure:

I was invited as a guest of Disney Parks to attend this conference and given a free park hopper for the day as well as a bag of souvenirs. Rest assured that all opinions are my own!

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