The Ultimate Guide to Enjoying Hersheypark with a Child with Special Needs

For most of my oldest's son's childhood, I resisted going to Hersheypark. My son has an Autism Spectrum Disorder and I (mistakenly) believed the crowds would be overwhelming, it would be too hot for a child with special needs and my most biased thought of all that Hersheypark was "no Disney."

After a colleague told me about the Hersheypark Ride Accessibility Program for individuals with disabilities, I finally changed my mind. So last August, on literally the hottest day of the summer, I drove my 12 year-old and 16 year-old boys to the sweetest place on earth - Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Like many familes affected by autism, it was difficult to leave our house and we arrived at Hersheypark around 11:00 AM. Please note this is the worst time you can EVER arrive at a theme park in the summer. This is not Hersey's fault.

Here are my tips (including my family's unique challenges) for navigating a day at Hersheypark in the summer with a child with special needs:

1. PARKING

Hersheypark offers parking areas for ADA/handicap accessible vehicles. Follow signs when entering the parking area or ask a parking lot attendant. After you park, ADA/handicap accessible trams are also available. However, if you don't have a handicap sticker, we recommend you pay the extra $25 for preferred parking. $25 is a small price to pay for your child's health, your sanity and to keep the whining from starting early. 

2. TICKETS

Make sure you get your tickets online. Tickets online are less expensive plus the entrance line is long, especially if you struggle to get your family out of the house like I did and arrive at 11:00. (Did I mention 11:00 am is the worst possible time to arrive at a theme park?)

There are only a few benches to sit on while you are waiting so your whole crew is likely to be standing in the hot sun. The line moves fast but on a hot summer day in August, there is only so much Hershey can do. Get your tickets online, in advance and avoid all of that.

3. RIDE ACCESSIBILITY PASS

Go STRAIGHT to Hospitality Services on the right as soon as you enter the Front Gate. Trust us on this, do not get a soda or a map, go directly to HOSPITALITY SERVICES which is to the right after you go through the Entrance to enroll in their Ride Accessibility Program and get a Boarding Pass. The line is long but it goes quickly (about 15 minutes for us).

Once there (you will see a big arrow that says "Accessiblity" to the right) you will be asked to fill out a "Ride Accessibility Questionaire" which asks questions about your child's disability and mobility. You can download the form HERE and fill it out in advance or simply fill it out when you get to Hospitality Services, it is only one page.

Questions include "Can you hold your head up?"  "Can you grasp the bars of a ride?" or "Do you have one natural arm with at least three fingers?"

Fill out the form as honestly and as accurately as possible. Hersheypark truly wants to help you and your child with a disability have as great a day as possible but they need to understand your child's special needs. 

A Greeter will review your form and make an assessment about the type of pass your child will receive. I was worried about the "type of pass" we would get but I didn't want to lie or exaggerate so I simply told the greeter "My child has autism" and she did not ask any other questions. She seemed to have a complete understanding of what autism means for families and gave us the full mobility pass which means your child and your entire party enter each of the rides listed on your Pass through the Exit gate. Our list included almost every ride, including the rides in the Water Park. They took my son's picture, gave us our Pass and sent us on our way.

NOTE: Once you receive your Boarding Pass, it is good for 30 DAYS. If you are going to Hersheypark 2 or 3 days in a row you do not need to stop at the Hospitality Booth again. You can return at anytime within 30 days and your Boarding Pass will still be good. 

IS THE RIDE ACCESSIBILITY PASS WORTH THE TROUBLE?

Yes! The Ride Accessiblity Pass is amazing! Every ride operator is fully trained and there is a standard procedure they follow when you and your group arrive at the Exit gate. We found this to be consistent on EVERY RIDE. The Operators are incredibly respectful of you and your child and ensure everyone in your party is able to access the ride as quickly and smoothly as possible.  Hersheypark has obviously put a lot of thought and effort into their Ride Accessiblity Program and it shows.

4. NAVIGATING THE PARKS

Do NOT do more than one park in one day if you can avoid it. Hershey Park is separated into three parks - Hersheypark, Hersheypark! The Boardwalk (Splash Park), and Hersheypark Zoo Park. (Note: A fourth is opening in 2020, Hershey's ChocolateTown.) We skipped Zoo Park altogether.

While Hersheypark and Splash Park aren't large (as theme parks go) they are still two separate entities and navigating both in one day was extremely overwhelming for ALL of us including me, my son with an ASD and my typically developing son.

Ideally, you would spend the morning riding the rides at Hersheypark then mosey over to Splash Park, put your things in a locker, change in a changing room and proceed to the water rides. However, the day that we went (the hottest, most crowded day of the year) all of the lockers were sold out. It was a total horror show with families standing around locker areas waiting for other families to give up their lockers (which almost no one did at 3PM), holding their towels and bathing suits, arguing with eachother and just generally lots of hot, upset people unsure of what to do next (me and my boys included).

For us, this meant that while the boys enjoyed the water rides, I waited at the entrance of each ride holding our stuff and looking annoyed. I kept debating if I should risk it and just stash our stuff under a bench but I didn't want to add a trip to Security to our already semi-stressful day. I did finally enjoy the lazy river with the boys but only after a nice kid told me that my Android was water proof for submersion up to 5 feet for 30 minutes, but it was a LOT of schlepping in the hot sun. Not. fun.

All of this can be avoided if you stay at a hotel (on the property would be best) and experience Hersheypark and Splashpark on two (or three) separate days. Another option is to simply skip Splashpark altogether. You will experience another water park with your children at some point in their lifetime, I promise.

5. SAFETY

Bayside Pier "Spray area"  is very safe for children with special needs because it is completely enclosed. With only one entrance through a turnstile monitored by two Hershey Staffers, the area is easily shutdown if (god forbid) your child eloped or wandered off. {Disclaimer: I do not know Hershey's procedure on elopement or missing children. However, considering the level of professionalism of their staff, I am assuming they have a rigid procedure in place. Please check their website for more info.]

Ride Operators are fully trained on Accessibility procedures. Overall, I felt very safe in the park with plenty of trained and accommodating staff around to help us.

6. DINING

I thought I was really on top of things and purchased the Dining Pass in advance online. This falls under the category of Not. Worth. It. DO NOT do this! It isn't a significant savings plus not every restaurant accepts the Dining Pass. We waited in line at one restaurant for 45 minutes only to find out they did not, in fact (even though I had asked a cashier before we got in line) accept the Dining Pass. I wanted to strangle the poor cashier. I ended up forking over $54 for our lunch since my son was melting down and I was about to faint. 

I was later issued a refund by Customer Service for our unused Dining Passes but still, I suffered through an hour of meltdowns and whining that could have been avoided if we had just gone to the first restaurant that looked good to us.

7. QUIET AREAS.

We did not take advantage of these but I wish we had. There are several quiet locations available to guests throughout Hersheypark that provide both privacy and relief from sensory stimulation. These spaces are located at Pioneer Frontier area Guest Services inside the Family Health & Services Center and Kissing Tower Hill area Guest Services.

Overall we highly recommend Hersheypark for children with special needs because the staff is very well trained and the Ride Accessiblity Program is exceptional. Check the weather beforehand and believe it or not, try to go on a day that predicts a few rainstorms. Summer storms usually only last a few minutes on a hot summer day but it will scare away the crowds lol.

After you've confirmed your local weather shows "Afternoon storms" - grab your kids and head down to Hershey, Pennsylvania for an accessibility friendly, accommodating and fun-filled summer experience.

 

 

 

 

 

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