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.
What You Will See
The rides in the park range from mild to extreme and may present some sensory challenges for visitors with autism.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most rides have riders wear a helmet or seat belts which again might bother some kids.
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.
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.
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.
There are plenty of character Meet and Greet opportunities in the parks. Though there are no accommodations for them, the lines are usually short.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.