Sensory overload? Not at this theme park. What Sesame Place San Diego aims to do differently.

·7 min read
Guests can see how big Big Bird really is at Sesame Place San Diego.
Guests can see how big Big Bird really is at Sesame Place San Diego.

On a sunny day in Chula Vista, California, visitors were swept away to the avenue of their childhood imaginations: Sesame Street.

Sesame Place San Diego brings the familiar faces and spaces of the beloved TV series to life for kids of all ages, but the newly opened park was designed with specific guests in mind.

Like the original Sesame Place near Philadelphia, the theme park is a Certified Autism Center, and autistic guests aren't the only ones who benefit from its accessible accommodations.

"We've really made a special effort to make sure that everybody understands what type of experience each of our attractions offers so that regardless of who you are, you can determine whether or not it's the right experience for you," said Sesame Place San Diego and SeaWorld San Diego park President Jim Lake.

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Angelo and Alena take a spin on Elmo’s Rockin’ Rockets.
Angelo and Alena take a spin on Elmo’s Rockin’ Rockets.

Sensory guides

Elysha Cruz did her research before visiting with her 10-year-old son Angelo, who is autistic and nonspeaking, and 17-year-old daughter Alena.

"My son brought me here; it's his favorite (show)," Cruz said of "Sesame Street." "That's the only (kid's show) he watches." Even so, Cruz wasn't sure how Angelo would do on his first ride, Elmo's Rockin' Rockets, which spins while riders control if their car moves up or down.

Every attraction at the park has a sensory guide, as well as an accessibility guide for guests with impaired mobility.

On a scale of 1 to 10 – with 1 being low sensory stimulation and 10 being high – Elmo's Rockin' Rockets scores 3 for touch, 1 for taste, 4 for sound, 3 for smell and 1 for sight.

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Sensory guides at every attraction indicate the level of stimuli guests can expect. The information is also available online to help visitors prepare.
Sensory guides at every attraction indicate the level of stimuli guests can expect. The information is also available online to help visitors prepare.

"Because every individual is different, specific with sensory sensitivities or maybe even they might be sensory seeking, certain rides or attractions might be a better fit for them," said Meredith Tekin, president of IBCCES, the credentialing organization behind the park's autism center certification. "What we want to do is empower the visitors to not only feel comfortable going to that location because they know what to expect, but we also want them to be able to choose their own adventure."

Wearing a Super Cookie Monster cape that gently flapped in the wind, Angelo's smile spoke volumes.

"He’s doing really good," his mom said.

Character encounters

Guests with sensory sensitivities may see themselves reflected in Julia, a Sesame Street character who is autistic and often paired with other characters like Rosita for meet and greets. Julia didn't touch fans but instead held tight to her stuffed toy and sometimes turned away from crowds.

Zoe Gross, director of advocacy for Autism Self Advocacy Network, a nonprofit by and for autistic people which worked with Sesame Street to develop Julia's character in 2017 before breaking ties with the company, stresses the importance of understanding "the diversity of the autism spectrum, in terms of both how it presents and who is and isn't autistic."

"Autism looks different in different people," she said. "Someone may be behaving in a way that you don't associate with autism, but they could still need the same accommodations."

All of the characters at the park are trained to pick up on whether guests are good with hugs or prefer a wave or just to be in their presence, without bold gestures.

One young visitor wearing noise-canceling headphones, which are available through guest services, was able to remain in his comfort zone while posing for a photo with Elmo and Cookie Monster. Elmo offered a joyful greeting, keeping a distance and his hands folded.

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Guests can meet beloved 'Sesame Street' characters like Julia and Rosita while staying within their own comfort zones.
Guests can meet beloved 'Sesame Street' characters like Julia and Rosita while staying within their own comfort zones.

"The training of our frontline employees has been really important and additionally the training for our leadership, which is even more extensive," Lake said.

At least 80% of guest-facing staff must complete specialized training to qualify as a Certified Autism Center.

"That's really just to help them do their jobs better because what we typically find is a lot of individuals want to be helpful, they want to be friendly, but they're unsure of what to do and so they hesitate to engage," Tekin said. "What we want to do is just break down those barriers and make it comfortable for those theme park workers to do their job, which is just to help the visitors have fun."

Autistic self-advocates are involved with trainings and serve on IBCCES' advisory board, along with other experts in fields ranging from neurology to special education.

"The idea is to kind of fill in knowledge gaps, provide the autistic individuals' perspective and provide tips on ways they can have a better experience," Tekin said.

Designated spaces

Additional accommodations include special parade viewing areas away from crowds.

Gross notes that theme parks are inherently intense sensory experiences with crowds, noise, bright colors, sometimes flashing lights and the potential for multiple points of interaction with strangers, so accommodations can "make it possible for many people to attend a theme park who couldn't otherwise do so."

Guests who need a bigger break from the blare can unplug in quiet rooms.

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"They're really comfortable," Lake said. "There's beanbag chairs; there's games to play. ... You can really have kind of a decompression moment to relax and then you can go back out and have fun again."

Ana Karina Suarez, an occupational therapist who is autistic and whose kids are autistic, says she could have used those kinds of spaces when her teens were little and still can today.

Quiet rooms around the park offer guests a place to decompress.
Quiet rooms around the park offer guests a place to decompress.

"As an autistic parent or caregiver, I benefit specifically from quiet rooms, low sensory areas and low sensory parade viewing," she said. "These accessibility features would make it possible for me to take my 5-year-old neurotypical niece. I love spending time with my niece and taking her on special outings, but not all fun places are accessible to me because I'm easily overwhelmed by sensory overload. ... Having these accessibility features would free up my energy so I can devote more time and energy to make sure my neurotypical niece has a great experience and so I can be fully present afterward as well."

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Curb effect

"It's essential that theme parks make experiences available to autistic guests of all ages," Suarez added.

Marc Swanson, CEO of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, still remembers hearing from a father after the original Sesame Place became a Certified Autism Center in 2018.

"This was the first time he could take his teenage son to a theme park and really felt like he could have a good time," Swanson said.

By making the park more accessible to autistic guests, other guests with sensory needs or neurodiversity can also benefit.

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"Sensory sensitivities are a big part of autism, but they're also part of a wide range of differences and disabilities," Tekin said. "For example, individuals who have Down syndrome, they might have sensory sensitivities, PTSD, anxiety. ... If you include all the sensory needs, about 1 in 6 people have a sensory need or sensitivity."

The cascade of benefits is called the curb effect.

"It's named after like curb cuts and sidewalks, which are legally required because of access for wheelchair users but are also helpful to people with strollers and people using walkers and people in many different kinds of situations," Gross explained.

Swanson said Sesame Place San Diego's goal is to accommodate all guests.

Familiar places like 123 Sesame Street spring from the screen to life at Sesame Place San Diego.
Familiar places like 123 Sesame Street spring from the screen to life at Sesame Place San Diego.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sesame Place San Diego is a Certified Autism Center: What that means