As of next month, all Legoland resorts in North America — from Central Florida to Southern California and over to upstate New York — will be certified autism centers.
It’s an expansion bolstered last year with the opening of Peppa Pig Theme Park, which debuted last February as part of the Legoland Florida Resort in Winter Haven. At that point, in addition to Peppa Pig park, the Legoland park, its water park and its three on-property hotels were official autism centers, too.
“We want to make sure that there is a place where everyone feels welcome. And that fun matters,” said Scott O’Neil, who became CEO of Merlin Entertainments, operator of Legoland theme parks around the world, in November.
In the past year, the Legoland in Carlsbad, California, has been awarded the designation, as has the Legoland in Goshen, New York, which reopens for the season in March.
The certified center designation is achieved through staff training provided by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, which also conducts an on-site review of the location.
“There are additional recommendations and resources and tools that we’ve provided to that location, so that can also enhance the visitor experience,” said Meredith Tekin, president of IBCCES.
“The goal is to make visitors who might be autistic or have sensory needs, feel more comfortable trying new things and go in new places, and know that they’re going to have some options and have some empathy and understanding from trained staff when they go to those locations,” she said.
Legoland parks are active places and geared toward the 2- to 12-year-old demographic. It’s a colorful setting, some might say cacophonous.
“When you walked in this park, you saw it and felt it,” O’Neil said. “When you walk into our hotels, you’ll feel there’s an over-sensory experience that we have to be extremely sensitive to because that’s not for everyone.”
A key element of gaining and maintaining certification is employee training. At certified autism centers, 80 percent of the staff must be certified at all times. Merlin has built that education into its new-employee orientation.
“The training looks different based on your position,” said Kelly Hornick, head of marketing and communications. “You’ll see front line leadership, as well as security, will go through higher levels of training that might be upwards to eight hours or so,” she said. “Some back-of-house positions or support-staff positions have smaller levels of needs where they be interacting face-to-face with guests.”
Autism presents a range of behaviors from people in reaction to various interactions.
“That’s really what the training is about, to try to give our employees the confidence to approach those families, when there might be a situation that’s starting to bubble up versus having to respond to an episodic crisis that a family might be going through, which is really tough to recover from on your vacation,” Hornick said. “The idea is to be more confident to be able to help before it gets to that.”
Legoland Florida also has sensory guides posted at rides and attractions to help visitors gauge the intensity — sorted by touch, taste, sight, sound and smell — that they might experience. That information also is available through preplanning guides online.
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Legoland New York and Legoland Florida have quiet room where weighted blankets, dim lighting and other items can decompress. At Lego Ferrari Build & Race, a new attraction at Legoland California, sound effects are turned off for an hour each afternoon.
An on-site visit for certification by IBCCES guides some practices.
“We’ll go to that location and actually go through the guest experience, make notes and really look at the processes and procedures,” Tekin said. “For example, are there ways that accommodations can be made during the ticketing process or during the check-in process at the hotel? Are there things that you can offer visitors to make their experience more comfortable, because everybody is a little different?”
Certification is good for two years, and then it’s time for renewal and refreshing, she said.
SeaWorld Orlando theme park, as well as sister attractions Discovery Cove and Aquatica, became certified autism centers last year.
“Within the last few years, there’s definitely been an increase in awareness that parks and theme parks attractions need to be focusing on accommodations and being welcoming to visitors with all kinds of needs,” Tekin said. “I think we’ve gone beyond awareness, but now we’re moving toward ‘How do we take action in a meaningful way?’”
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