Tracy L. Eason

Like most facilities, Pirates Bay Waterpark is meant to serve as much of the community as possible. But when it became clear that certain populations could not easily access and use grounds, staff sought to remedy that.

That’s why, four times a year, the waterpark holds a special event for community members with physical, mental or emotional disabilities. It’s called the Special Pirate Celebration.

Responsive team

Staff had noticed the challenges for special-needs families attending the park. In addition to just the logistics of making the experience comfortable for the child, families had to deal with other visitors staring or getting impatient when they take longer to move through the line. Also, local special-education instructors pointed out that it would be nice to have something in place to accommodate their students.

Held for several years now, the Special Pirate Celebration averages more than 900 visitors each night. It has become a favorite among the staff as well. “They love it,” says Jenna Stevenson, aquatics superintendent for the City of Baytown — Pirates Bay Waterpark in Baytown, Texas.

Several measures are taken to make the waterpark as user-friendly as possible to those with a range of conditions.

Fun accommodations

For those sensitive to sensory stimulation, it is void of overhead music and whistles, which are only used in emergencies.

“Our waterpark is high sensory during the day,” Stevenson says. “There are a lot of people, noises, loud music, whistles. So we wanted to create a low-sensory environment for that community.”

Water wheelchairs are available. The surf simulator becomes more accessible, thanks to special body boards with handles, as well as a staffer trained to assist or ride along. “Once the kids get on, they have a blast,” Stevenson says. “It’s more nerve-wracking for the caregiver. The child is just excited to learn how to surf.”

Certain team members can ride along with children on the various attractions, which also include a lazy river, wave pool, four slide towers, and a Ninja Cross. Parents remain in view. This direct assistance is performed by interactors — lifeguards and guests services staffers who interact with visitors and help where they can.

Staff beefs up for the event, with 130 to 150 each night. About one quarter serve as interactors. It’s a prized position. “I don’t want to say they fight over them ... but it’s definitely a [game of] who can pick up the shifts the fastest,” Stevenson jokes.

Each Special Pirate Celebration has a cheerful theme, with decorations, staff costumes, photo booths with backdrops, and party favors. This year’s themes included luau, Disney, and glow in the dark, where guests received light-up necklaces, glow sticks and could paint themselves with glow-in-the-dark paint.

To prepare, the team undergoes training yearly so they can work with those with this special population. Before each individual event, refreshers take place. They are reminded how to use hand signals instead of whistles, which can be a difficult habit to form.

These are chosen in December or January, and marketing begins in spring, with fliers sent to nearby special education programs.

Meant exclusively for special-needs families, the events cost $5 per person. “It’s one of those where we just eat the cost of that night,” Stevenson says. “It’s a service to our community.”