Thinking of trying out an amusement park with your autistic child?
Consider Holiday World in southern Indiana. It’s the perfect family getaway, even for special needs families. Discover the accommodations available in this autism guide to Holiday World.
Some of the best things are in the middle of nowhere…literally.
Rising out of the hills of southern Indiana in the small village of Santa Claus (yes, THAT “Santa Claus”) stand gravity-defying giant steel and wooden structures.
Roller coasters, to be exact.
Like the Griswold family making a pilgrimage to their beloved Wally World in the movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, many residents of the surrounding Midwest states make the annual journey to Holiday World.
But it’s not just the roller coasters that draw them. Holiday World is family-owned and designed specifically for the whole family in mind, including very small children.
Its whimsical holiday-themed lands celebrate Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Fourth of July. It’s probably the only place in the world that kids can greet Santa Claus outside of the Christmas season. It’s a mix of old-fashioned carnival rides, world-renowned roller coasters, and one big water park—Splashin’ Safari.
We usually come to Holiday World in May before Memorial Day, so even on a Saturday the lines for the rides were not too long. For this reason, we never considered getting a “Ride Boarding Pass” before. But I wanted to conduct a bit of research into how it was used and whether it was truly helpful for those on the autism spectrum.
Holiday World is an “autism friendly” amusement park. By my experience, hopefully you can gain some valuable insight into planning your own visit to Holiday World with your autism family.
Your Autism Guide to Holiday World Accommodations
Before I even left the house, I made sure to dig into their accommodations policy. Considering that they have a “Calming Room” and a “Ride Boarding Pass” for those who cannot wait in long lines, I would personally designate this park as “autism friendly”. I wanted to test that out when I arrived.
We got there early considering we live in Eastern Standard Time and Holiday World is in Central Standard Time. They allow people into the parks 30 minutes before they “rope drop” the area to the main attractions. The kiddie rides near the entrance were actually running before official opening.
Past the ticket takers to the left is “Holiday World Services” where you can ask for the “ride boarding pass” and any other accommodation needed. We did not have to present any evidence of diagnosis. They were very eager to accommodate and explained how it was used.
The purpose of the “ride boarding pass” is to assist guests in wheelchairs who cannot move through the queue or those who cannot wait in a typical line. No more than 4 people in the party can use this accommodation. Guests must use the exit to access the attraction. You can only get one return-time at any given time. We were told we would either (a) be let on the ride immediately or (b) be given a return time.
For our first ride we were neither allowed immediate access nor given a return time. It took about 5 minutes for staff to acknowledge us and then another 20 minutes—standing in the hot sun—before we were permitted to ride. My autistic teens were upset with this arrangement. My son was embarrassed that we were not walking through the standard queue. Fortunately, they gave us our first choice of seating after they apologized profusely.
I got the sense that the “boarding pass” was mostly originally designed for those with physical disabilities whose wheelchairs cannot move through the queues. I don’t know if they really accommodate those with strictly sensory-cognitive issues. I would have been happy to have been promptly acknowledged and then given a return time to come back later.
After that ride my kids were adamant that we stand in a regular line like everyone else. It turned out to be a 45-minute wait. Oh well…at least we were in the shade.
Unfortunately, Holiday World does not have signs indicating how long wait times are for each attraction. It also does not have signs indicating which rides accommodate those with autism or other disabilities and where to go (like Disney parks do). With the “ride boarding pass” handy, however, you know exactly which attractions allow return-times.
Your autism guide to a fun-filled family adventure
1. Know your child’s time-limit for waiting.
If your child can wait up to 30 minutes or more then you will be fine without needing to use the “ride boarding pass”. If it’s less, be sure to grab it from Services.
2. Ask for a return time right away.
When you use the boarding pass, be sure to ask the ride attendant immediately and politely whether you can go right away or need a return time. Just standing there hoping they see you may not work in your favor. Flag them down if necessary.
3. Assess the wait time by observing the pace of lines.
When you get to the ride, take a few minutes to observe the speed of the queue. See how many ride operators are attending guests. The Scarecrow Scrambler did not seem to have a long queue, but it was moving very slowly with only one attendant. Many rides seem to only have one attendant, in fact. Be sure to ask for a return time for attractions with slow moving or long queues and with only one attendant.
4. Take advantage of conveyor-type attractions.
Rides that are on conveyor systems and/or hold more people in the vehicle (roller/water coasters, water rides, dark rides, etc.) tend to have faster queues than those that can only get a small group of people on at one time. You may not need to use the “ride boarding pass”. On the other hand, be aware that lines for certain seats on the roller coasters will be extra-long. If your autistic child is dead-set on riding at the very front or very back, warn him or her that it will take longer. Time the wait for middle-seat lines, then multiply by 3, if you need to use a visual timer while waiting in line.
5. On hot afternoons, head to the shady area attractions with little or no waits.
On particularly hot days most people head to the water-park. This leaves the rest of the park with little or no wait for their attractions. Head to the areas that have more shade, such as 4th of July, Halloween, and Holidog’s Funtown (for younger kids). Wait times were 20 minutes or less; for most rides we got on the next time around.
6. Take advantage of their “calming room”.
Holiday World has a “Calming Room” at the First Aid Station located at the entrance to Splashin’ Safari. If you anticipate needing a place for your child to relax after intense sensory stimulation—or gets upset if his or her favorite ride is down at the moment—this is a great amenity for families needing a break.
It is first-come, first-served but you may not be waiting at all for the space. This large room has sound-proof panels, a padded floor mat, couches, bean bags, rocking chairs, dimmed lighting, and a tent.
The only way you would know it’s here, however, is by asking Services where it’s located or finding that information on their website beforehand. There is no sign pointing out that a “Calming Room” is available there. It’s not even in the Park Map & Information guide. Most autism families most likely don’t know it’s even available.
7. Bring your own sensory tools.
You will need to bring personal sensory tools such as noise-cancelling headphones, fidgets, or music. Holiday World does NOT provide these items for you to borrow, so don’t leave home without them! The Calming Room does have a port for you to plug in for special music that soothes your child and allows them to hear it through the room speakers.
8. Take a break to see the shows or meet-and-greet some characters.
Grab a Show Guide at the entrance to what and when they are playing. Santa’s Storytime Theater and Hoosier Celebration Theater are well-shaded areas if you want to beat the heat.
9. Go to the park on less-crowded weekdays.
For fewer crowds, I recommend going during the middle of the week during the summer as well as before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Many seasonal passholders come during the weekend, so if you can, try to come on those less expensive “off-days”.
10. Check out the gluten-free meal options.
If you have someone on a gluten-free diet, you can visit “George’s Gluten-free Pizza and Snacks” at the 4th of July area. Check out the list of allergen-free and gluten-free options here at this link. Consider eating before 11am and between 2pm-5pm for less wait for special orders.
11. Before you go, download the Accessibility Guide to get a sense of what each attraction is like.
To see if your child can handle the roller coasters and other ride-based attractions at Holiday World, I highly recommend you watch the Point-of-View videos on YouTube. (Click on the links below to watch a few.).
Here are my two favorite coasters at Holiday World…which also happen to be the most intense:
1. The Voyage
The Voyage is the #3 top-rated wooden roller coaster in the world (TripSavvy). Aptly named, it is designed to make you feel like a pilgrim crossing the Atlantic in a hurricane, complete with the ability to make even the most die-hard roller coaster enthusiasts a bit motion-sick. (The back rows may enhance that likelihood of throwing up over the side.).
I consider myself a roller-coaster aficionado, and the Voyage is the most intense roller coaster I have ever experienced. I go on it every time I visit! Love it!
Sensory Experience: extremely intense—body-jarring/bumpy; very loud sounds from the coaster on the track; very high heights; very fast; “windy” sensation; few brief dark tunnels; may or will induce motion sickness. Anything not tied down will be lost, including noise-blocking headphones! Terrific for those sensory-seekers that get a thrill from roller coasters.
2. The Thunderbird
The Thunderbird is the first steel launch-winged coaster in the world. It explodes out of the gate to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, immediately going into an inverted vertical loop (aka…upside-down).
To say this is “thrilling” is an understatement. With feet dangling in mid-air you feel like you are flying like a devil-bird. Unlike the wooden roller coasters, this one is a smooth ride.
My daughter would not go on the Voyage after experiencing the Raven (another wooden coaster) but this one she really liked. I can handle the left side better than the right side of the coaster with the slow inverted turn at the end (get queasy on the right side).
Sensory Experience: moderately intense—very fast launch; smooth ride; high heights; several upside-down turns; may induce motion sickness. Terrific for sensory seekers not afraid of upside-down roller coasters and heights.
3. Splashin’ Safari
There are plenty of play areas for little ones at this water park as well as a giant wave pool and some terrific water coasters like the Wildebeest and Mammoth (for which you can use the “ride boarding pass”). If your autistic child just absolutely loves waterparks, then he or she will have a blast here.
Life-jackets are available on a first- come, first-served basis at the wave pool for children and adults (with chest sizes up to 52”). If you have an autistic adult with you and he or she is too big for their sizes, bring your own if necessary.
Unfortunately, we have always skipped Splashin’ Safari. My kids prefer the land-rides and sometimes weather has not always cooperated for being in water.
Sensory Experience: Sadly, I cannot review it from a sensory point-of-view. If you have ever been to a large waterpark like Great Wolf Lodge, then you have a sense of what it’s like…only outdoors, more to do, and in an even bigger area. Many people stay all day here and skip the land-rides. Be sure to watch point-of-view videos out there of their water-based attractions (see previous links).
For the most part…YES.
Holiday World does offer some nice amenities to those who can’t wait in long lines, need a sensory break, or have a special diet. They were eager to accommodate when they could.
On the other hand…NO.
We needed to advocate a little more using our “ride boarding pass”. In addition, their accommodations are not always apparent to the first-time guest or even those who have been coming a while like myself.
I highly recommend you check out their website for more information before you go. Hopefully, this autism guide to Holiday World has alleviated some of your concerns in that regard as well.
Why I love Holiday World
The amusement park is unique in that it provides several FREE items: free drinks, free sunscreen, free parking, and free WiFi. It’s wonderful that they use preventative measures against sunburn and dehydration and make having fun affordable.
The price of admission depends on day of the week and month, ranging from $29.99 to $49.99 on summer weekends.
I love Holiday World! I dearly appreciate this park for trying to accommodate different needs and for the variety of attractions that will surely please everyone.
I know you will, too!