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The term “special needs” doesn’t quite fit the bill to describe our family. After all, how could one consider a safe space, accessibility, and basic human rights “special?”
For the purposes of this blog post, I use the term special needs because it is a familiar term, with the caveat that these needs are basic to every human…but our family just accesses them differently 🙂
Theme parks can be difficult for our family for a couple of reasons:
- My son has Sensory Processing Disorder. Every sensory child is different — he is sensory seeking — so while he still has meltdowns it is because he’s seeking sensory stimulation versus avoiding it. Things like stomping, doing heavy work, and deep back rubs calm him just as itchy tags and too much going on causes him to meltdown. It’s often unpredictable.
- I have a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I look “normal,” but as a result of EDS I have many different comorbidities that make me pretty miserable. For example, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome makes it so that when I stand, all the blood pools to my feet and my brain then gets a signal that something is wrong so it makes me feel miserable until I sit down or lay down. I also don’t sweat, which causes me to overheat. On that same note, I lead an incredibly active lifestyle and love to workout. I just need a few accommodations.
Naturally, this causes us to need to take extra steps to enjoy going to a theme park. I’ve put together some tips for families with disabilities.
Dollywood for special needs families
Parking at Dollywood
When you’re driving up to the parking lot, stick to the far right lane. You’ll be tempted to move over to the middle lane, but don’t. The far right lane opens up to three other lanes much further down and as a result, goes significantly faster than the middle and left lanes. Also, if you pay extra for preferred parking it’s totally worth it because you will get to park a lot closer.
Getting around Dollywood with special needs
Upon entering the front gate, you will see a building to rent wheelchairs, strollers, and Electric Convenience Vehicles (ECV). I chose to rent a wheelchair instead of an ECV simply because I wanted it to be easier for us to get on rides quickly. I can stand and walk, but I just can’t do so for a long time and wait in line. Keep in mind, you’re going to need someone strong enough to push you up the many inclines within the park if you choose a regular wheelchair.
Note that the rental line was long right at park open, and since they have a limited number available you might want to reserve one online to ensure you get one.
Dollywood has accessible attractions and rides
After getting your stroller, wheelchair, or ECV, there will be a building housing the Ride Accessibility Center. Here you will get a piece of paper they’ll mark off telling you which rides can accommodate your condition. Thankfully for me, I could ride any of the rides since I have no problem standing in a little line to board a ride.
This paper you will want to keep with you because you will be able to use a special disability entrance for each ride and not have to wait in line. You’ll be asked to present this to the ride attendant before boarding.
Should you also go on a ride that someone in your party can’t because they’re too young, you can use Parent Swap. Once the disabled rider is done, the other parent can take their turn while the disabled person waits with the child who can’t ride. This made the entire park really easy to enjoy.
When your sensory child needs a break
Just three years ago, the park opened a calming room for families with sensory children. It contains sensory items such as weighted blankets, calming lights, and a teepee. Every family is allowed a thirty-minute interval in the room.
Thankfully we didn’t need to use this while there, but are grateful for the addition!
Dollywood for younger children
Wildwood Grove, the newest addition to the park, features Wildwood Creek, a water play area for younger kids. There is a small stream that runs under a bridge and into a larger body of water, blocked off by a gate. There are shaded areas for parents and visitors with fans and benches.
In Wilderness Pass, there is a small play place for children called the Firehouse Fun Yard. It has building blocks and a small splash pad with water guns- and provided great entertainment and fun for the kids.
Dollywood for thrillseekers
The Mystery Mine was our favorite ride, with two vertical inclines, twists, and even a flamethrower. The lines weren’t too long and the ride held eight people per round. The only warning I have is to be prepared for a rough ride. You might get banged around a bit, and it can be especially rough on your head. The ride is absolutely worth it, though.
The Wild Eagle was definitely the most thrilling ride. It featured multiple instances where the ride was upside down and the biggest hill is the first thing you’ll experience. If there are many people at the park, the line will be long, but the ride is a shorter one so it feeds people through pretty quickly.
Restrooms and service animal relief areas
The park has six disability accessible restrooms throughout, as well as relief areas for your service animals.
Shop my travel style
In differently abled families, change is the only constant. It’s important to plan and prepare for different scenarios, but it’s also important to have fun! Know that you’re creating memories to last a lifetime.
Thanks to Dollywood for sponsoring our visit.