Megan Mullsteff

For families living with autism and other disabilities, fun is imperative. Waterparks can play a vital role in this aspect of their lives.

These facilities present an environment where children on the autism spectrum can learn valuable social skills and overcome their greatest threat — drowning, which is among the leading causes of death for this group. From 2009 to 2011, accidental drowning accounted for approximately 90 percent of deaths among children under 14 who have autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, according to the National Autism Association. Experts attribute this to wandering and a need to escape to isolated spots.

“Getting them exposed to water, teaching them to swim, and showing them the proper way to act in a pool literally can be lifesaving for these children,” says Gary Weitzen, executive director of Parents of Autistic Children, a Brick, N.J.-based nonprofit providing recreational opportunities for young ones diagnosed with ASD.

That’s why many families insist on giving their children the exposure they need, even though it may involve a certain amount of trauma or embarrassment.

“Unless they go to these places, they won’t have the skills to lead a productive life,” Weitzen says.

There are ways to help make such outings as smooth as possible for these visitors. One strategy in particular has become increasingly common. Some with ASD suffer severe emotional distress while waiting in line, resulting in what the autism community commonly refers to as a “meltdown.” To help prevent these involuntary and, at times, explosive outbursts, some parks provide passes allowing special-needs guests to bypass queues.

But this service holds the possibility of making other patrons wait disproportionately long. Here, experts discuss how to offer this important service in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, without imposing on other visitors.

Can't hardly wait?

Special passes are becoming more common as water-based attractions grow ever more elaborate, rivaling their theme park counterparts in thrills and wait times. Now waterpark operators must grapple with the very thing that has long been the burden of their amusement park peers: mitigating those exceedingly long lines for guests who don’t have the mental capacity, or physical stamina, to wait.

Most waterparks are happy to meet these needs, but offer line-skipping privileges with certain restrictions. Rather than carte blanche access to all rides, these operators will allow such guests to immediately board certain attractions at scheduled times. This reservation system was developed in the interest of fairness to all visitors, helping to ensure that certain guests wouldn’t get more trips down a water slide than anyone else in the park.

That seems to fall in line with the ADA. The federal law doesn’t provide any hard and fast rules concerning immediate on-board access at waterparks or amusement parks. It only states that places of public accommodation must provide people who have disabilities with a “like experience” to that of nondisabled guests.

“They’re not entitled to whatever they want,” says Erik Beard, an attorney with Hartford, Conn.-based law firm Wiggin and Dana, who specializes in the amusement park industry. “They’re entitled to what is reasonable.”

So … what’s reasonable?

That’s up for debate.

The disabled vs. Disney

A recent lawsuit against Walt Disney Parks and Resorts suggests that even the most hospitable properties can find themselves defending their accessibility policies in court. Certainly, some important takeaways can be found in accusations that the theme park giant discriminated against people with disabilities.

First, a little background: At one time, Disneyland and Disney World had one of the most liberal accessibility programs in the industry. Individuals who received a Guest Assistance Card, or GAC, could board attractions through the “Fastpass” lines, where wait times were minimal. If a Fastpass line wasn’t available, the GAC would allow the guest and his or her party to enter through the ride’s exit for immediate boarding.

But visitors soon began exploiting the well-intended program. Reports ran rampant that people were requesting the accommodation when they didn’t need it. Even more shocking were accounts of disabled people selling their GACs or offering their services as unauthorized guides who could usher tourists past all those pesky lines.

Disney chose to tighten up the system and in October 2013 rolled out a new program called Disability Access Service. This program wasn’t as open-ended as its predecessor. Users would have to report to an attraction, where they would receive a time frame in which to return so they could avoid the line.

Guests accustomed to the old system balked. More than balked, they sued.

Critics of the DAS say it’s too restrictive and that it discriminates in favor of high-functioning autistic individuals with the mental ability to schedule and wait for rides. Disney currently faces dozens of lawsuits from families claiming that the DAS violates the ADA.

Many in the waterpark industry have nervously followed the proceedings because some properties pattern their policies on Disney’s. But a recent development in what may prove a long legal battle for the House of Mouse might offer some relief.

Last April, an Orlando federal judge dismissed one of the cases before it went trial.

The case involved a severely autistic man whose visits to Orlando’s Magic Kingdom were very regimented. His impairment required him to “travel in one direction, stopping only at some places, in the same order, every time,” according to the complaint. His guardians felt the appointment-based DAS forced him to deviate from his routine. Judge Anne Conway, however, ruled that Disney’s accommodations were sufficient. Not only was the plaintiff afforded the DAS, he and members of his party were each given multiple readmission passes. She determined that using a combination of these services would have allowed him access to all the attractions on his list.

An appeal has since been filed.

What worked in Disney’s favor was the fact that the DAS system included multiple passes for non-reservation rides. Doing this makes a structured program more flexible, thus more accommodating to varying needs, says Beard, who does not represent Disney.

Waterpark operators who are still fine-tuning their disability services should keep that in mind. “Yes, you can have an appointment-based system, probably, but what other types of flex should you be considering as part of that system?” Beard asks.

For example, you may want to offer unlimited access to at least one feature in the park while the remaining attractions are by appointment only. This would give the guest something to do between scheduled rides.

Or you could take Legoland California Resort’s approach. Its Carlsbad, Calif., park offers visitors with disabilities an assisted access pass, which allows them to choose one attraction to get on right away. Upon boarding, a card is stamped with the time the guest can board the next ride of his or her choice. And so on. Generally, the wait between attractions amounts to only 20 or 30 minutes, says Mike Pastor, the resort’s training manager. While on standby, they can explore the park and play with Legos.

This allows routine-dependent guests to schedule their rides with minimal downtime between, creating a more consistent experience on return visits.

“If we mess up that routine or don’t allow them to have that routine in the resort, it’s really going to change their day completely,” Pastor says. “So, we need to be aware of that.”

While developed primarily to cut wait times in the dry side of the resort, the assisted access pass also is utilized in Legoland’s separate-admission waterpark, which boasts several popular attractions. Pass holders don’t have to endure long lines for the Pirate Reef water ride — also accessible from the theme park — or the lazy river, where guests can build rafts with buoyant Lego bricks. Otherwise, queues for water-based attractions seldom stretch beyond 15 minutes. Many children with autism are capable of waiting at least that long, Pastor says.

A lingering concern

Still, there’s always the possibility that able-bodied opportunists will game the system. For the time being, waterparks can’t do much about that.

It’s generally not recommended to ask a patron for proof of their disability. Park operators should only ask what his or her particular situation is and accommodate accordingly.

“If someone approaches and says, ‘I have high-spectrum autism and I can’t wait in line,’ you really have to take them at their word — unless there is an objectionable reason for you to think they’re lying to you,” Beard says.

Even Legoland experiences the occasional crafty customer. “We hate to admit it, but it does cause some abuse,” Pastor says.

To keep schemers at bay, many waterparks keep the details of their accessibility policies under wraps. Maybe you’ll find them buried deep within the FAQs on their websites, but most do not disclose them on public-facing materials. This is perfectly legal, Beard says.

The good news is that the vast majority of people with autism and their guardians understand that disabilities do not entitle them to more. Many even feel that some of these complaints and lawsuits undermine their cause, Beard says.

Pastor concurs: “In all honesty, a lot of them are very realistic about it. Parents want their children to acclimate to their surroundings.”

In most cases, these visitors are willing to wait a few minutes for a trip down Orange Rush or Twin Chasers.

Grateful for accommodations

For his part, Weitzen is thankful that waterparks are stepping up to make visits more accessible for people with special needs. Trips to waterparks have tremendously benefited his own son, Christopher, who has autism.

“Just the happiness of watching your son not worrying about therapies or doctors or anything else, it allows you to have those moments other families take for granted,” he says.