Parents are taking to Facebook and online support groups to express frustration with what they say is a policy change at Kings Island that doesn’t accommodate the special needs of autistic children.
Sherry and Kendall Yuskewich at Kings Island in 2012. The Blue Ash family makes several trips each year to the amusement park, where they say Kendall, who has autism, has always been permitted to ride rides with little wait times. That changed this summer when the park changed its policy. Provided
In recent years, the Mason amusement park permitted riders with disabilities to enter a ride area with a companion through an alternate entrance and ride after just a brief wait, parents say.
That changed this summer when the park began requiring disabled riders to request a boarding time – equal to a ride’s anticipated wait time for all guests in line – and return at the designated time.
The policy change presents problems for children with autism, who thrive on routine and order and have difficulty waiting, in or out of line, parents say.
Officials from Kings Island’s parent company, Cedar Fair Entertainment Co., say the boarding pass policy has always been in effect but may have been inconsistently enforced at the 11 amusement parks it owns nationwide.
The only change this year is that all parks must abide by the policy, said spokeswoman Stacy Frole.
Bill Shepherd of Mason makes up to 15 excursions to Kings Island each summer with his autistic son, Gage, 20, who struggles with crippling anxiety and impulse and aggression issues. Shepherd says the boarding pass policy doesn’t work for people with autism spectrum disorders.
“Once Gage discovered he couldn’t get on, he was biting his hand, angry and lashing out,’’ he said. “He mostly hurts himself, but he scares everyone around him.”
Chad Yuskewich said his family spent nearly $300 on season passes only to find them virtually unusable under the changes. The Blue Ash dad said he found out about the policy at the family’s first visit to the park this year.
“When I told her, ‘No, we’re not getting on right now, we have to wait,’ we had a meltdown,” said Yuskewich, of his autistic daughter, Kendall, 10, who began kicking, screaming and pushing.
Frole said Cedar Fair worked with the Autism Society, a Bethesda, Md.-based advocacy organization, to develop information for parents in planning visits to Cedar Fair parks. Those tips are published online on each park’s website.
“We review our policies on a regular basis and when we see inconsistencies, we implement best practices policies,” she said. “We do our best to accommodate our guests, and that’s why we have this equal access policy in place.”
Jennifer Repella, vice president of programs with the Autism Society, said her group supports the boarding pass policy, but had no role in its implementation.
“There’s no question that many people with autism can’t wait in line, but there’s no question that a kid with AD/HD or a person with a back problem can’t wait in line. Where do you draw the line?
“We don’t want preferential treatment, we want equal access.”
The endorsement isn’t shared by all Autism Society chapters. Patty Proctor, executive director of the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati, said her chapter has received dozens of complaints from parents since Kings Island opened April 27.
That prompted the organization to issue a statement to parents on its Facebook page on May 13:
“The procedure that was used in the past regarding avoiding lines was dropped by (Kings Island). In anticipation of making a policy change, The Autism Society of America was contacted to serve in a consulting role to help the park develop new procedures to assist our families. ASA and the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati did not suggest the park system drop the previous policy and there continues to be ongoing discussion with the parks as to how to best meet the needs of all guests, including those with autism.”
Local parents aren’t the only ones upset with the policy.
A North Carolina woman launched an online petition on change.org this summer appealing the policy at Carowinds, a Cedar Fair park in Charlotte, N.C. She accused the amusement park operator of making its parks “inaccessible to children with autism.”
A California mother posted a video on YouTube in March of her autistic son’s reaction to being told he had to wait 1½ hours to ride a ride at Knott’s Berry Farm, another Cedar Fair-owned property.
The family had to leave the park after she was unable to calm down the boy.
Parents say they’re not looking for special treatment for their autistic children, but accommodation so their children can enjoy the park.
“I’m not asking for free admission to the park or everybody stop the world for him to get on,” said Marcy Mullins, a Harrison mom of an 11-year-old autistic boy. “I would like to just see him happy and if he can ride a ride a few times, it would mean the world to me.”
About 1 in 88 American children has some form of autism spectrum disorder, a 78 percent increase compared to a decade ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The brains of people with autism spectrum disorder are not wired to filter sensory stimuli, said Dr. Stephen Strakowski, chairman of the department of psychiatry at University of Cincinnati Health.
Seemingly simple ordeals such as waiting in a line can leave autistic children, especially those who are unable to communicate or verbalize their emotions, feeling anxious, uncomfortable and prone to acting out, he said.
Cedar Fair’s boarding pass policy doesn’t appear to take into consideration the needs of children with autism, he said.
“Aimless waiting around the park is not any different than waiting in line,” Strakowski said.
“Kudos to these parents for helping their kids have normal life experiences as other children and shame on this company for not helping them do that.”
Frole said guests who have experienced issues at Cedar Fair parks should contact the park directly.
Mullins said she and at least 15 other local parents tried appealing the policy to both Kings Island and Cedar Fair, but phone messages weren’t returned and they received only form letter email responses.
Shepherd said Kings Island’s roller coasters provided more than a momentary thrill for son Gage.
Visits to the park eased his anxiety and offered a respite from the day-to-day challenges of living with autism.
“I don’t think they really understand autism or the implications of what their change does to kids with autism,” he said.
“This has taken away one of those really good outings that’s helped him.”
Kings Island offers boarding passes to guests with mobility impairments and autism spectrum disorders at its Guest Services office near the front gate. For rides with lines, the rider or a member of their party presents the boarding pass to a ride employee, who records a boarding time equivalent to the length of the ride line. Riders can only request one boarding time at a time. For information on accommodations for people with disabilities, download the park’s Guest Assistance Guide at www.visitkingsisland.com or call 513-754-5500.
ABOUT CEDAR FAIR
Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. is a publicly traded partnership headquartered in Sandusky, Ohio. It is one of the largest regional amusement park operators in the world and owns these 11 amusement parks: • Kings Island, Mason • Cedar Point, Sandusky • Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, Calif. • California’s Great America, Santa Clara, Calif. • Valleyfair, Shakopee, Minn. • Worlds of Fun/Oceans of Fun, Kansas City, Mo. • Michigan’s Adventure, Muskegon • Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom, Allentown, Pa. • Kings Dominion, Doswell, Va. • Carowinds, Charlotte, N.C. • Canada’s Wonderland, Vaughan, Ontario