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Special Needs Family Fun Guide: Philly & the 'Burbs

The Delaware Valley has many cultural institutions and family attractions that make extra efforts to be inclusive to visitors of all abilities. From accommodations that go beyond ADA requirements to events just for those with special needs, there are ample ways for families to make the most of their day out. Here are some of the best for families in Philadelphia and the western suburbs.

AQUARIUMS & ZOOS

Elmwood Park Zoo, Norristown
The world’s first zoo to be designated as a Certified Autism Center offers multiple resources for visitors with autism or other sensory needs. Sign up for early-morning access events, take advantage of the dedicated quiet space near the prairie dog and bison exhibits, and view an online sensory guide with ratings for each exhibit.

Philadelphia Zoo, Phila.
KidZooU, an exhibit designed with input from autism experts, provides a multisensory approach in an effort to create an inclusive, comfortable experience. Preplanning tools such as social stories and visual schedules are available.

Dorney Park

AMUSEMENT PARKS & PLAY CENTERS

BounceU, Exton
Sensory Bounce, offered on the last Wednesday of each month, encourages children with autism-spectrum and sensory-processing disorders to exercise and socialize.

Dorney Park, Allentown
Those with special needs can sign up for the Boarding Pass program, which allows visitors to access rides via the exit ramp at specified times, avoiding lines. The park also offers a KidTrack wristband equipped with a security code that pinpoints a child’s location if she’s separated from the group.

Doylestown Rock Gym, Doylestown 
Adaptive climbing activities include the “Flying Squirrel,” where climbers are pulled into the air, up onto a wall; a challenge course; wall climbing; and a “Mini-Zip,” where they ride in seated or harnessed apparatus to develop upright balance. Special equipment for those with limited mobility or partial paralysis is available.

LEGOLAND Discovery Center, Plymouth Meeting
The venue teams up with the Ruttenberg Autism Center and MusicWorks during Special Sensory Days, complete with music-therapy sessions, specially trained staff, reduction of sound and lighting, quiet spaces, fewer crowds and social stories. Mark your calendar: The next one’s coming up Nov. 20.

Sesame Place, Langhorne
The park, the first theme park to earn the Certified Autism Center label, uses two programs to put kids with special needs at ease. The Ride Accessibility program matches abilities with rider requirements on an individual basis, and the Special Access program allows guests to bypass lines. You’ll also find an online sensory guide, designated quiet spaces and low-sensory areas.

 

The Franklin Institute

MUSEUMS

Academy of Natural Sciences, Phila.
Multisensory displays primed for kids with mental and physical disabilities include the Big Dig, where they search for dinosaur bones, and Outside In, a discovery center that lets visitors touch specimens and live animals. Access to Science events reserve the museum just for families with kids on the autism spectrum; join the fun Dec. 28.

Brandywine River Museum of Art, Chadds Ford
Explore the museum before it opens to the public on Sensory-friendly Saturdays. This free program, coming up next on March 30, features pre-visit social stories, indoor and outdoor activities, sensory break areas, fidgets, noise-canceling headphones and support from occupational therapists.

The Franklin Institute, Phila.
The venue offers closed captioning during select planetarium shows, as well as assistive listening devices for each of its theaters. Both kids and adults on the autism spectrum can enjoy Sensory-friendly Sundays, where exhibits are modified and quiet spaces are implemented. Plus, pre-registered guests and those who arrive between 9-9:30am get free admission. Clear your schedule for the next event on Dec. 2.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Phila.
The museum offers a trio of guided experiences for those with special needs, including specially adapted tours, which are tailored to the needs of each group; sign-language interpreted tours; and touch tours for visitors who are visually impaired. Return for the Sensory-friendly Morning program Jan. 13.

Penn Museum, Phila.
Archaeology in the AM events on select Saturdays cater to teens and young adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities. Expect multisensory gallery tours, craft stations and art workshops, plus a space for parents and family friends to interact. Quiet spaces with dimmed lighting and fidget toys are available.

Please Touch Museum, Phila.
Play Without Boundaries events on select Sunday mornings offer tools to ensure a smooth visit for kids with learning and developmental disabilities and those on the autism spectrum. Guests can seek out the “quiet space of the day” and sensory toys, all while enjoying full access to exhibits and programming.

 

Kimmel Center

THEATERS

Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Phila.
The center’s resident companies present family-friendly favorites with lowered house lights, adjusted sound and a designated quiet space. Don’t miss A Philly Pops Christmas, Dec. 5 at Verizon Hall; How the Grinch Stole Christmas performed by Broadway Philadelphia, Dec. 22, at the Merriam Theater; and George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, by the Pennsylvania Ballet Dec. 27 at the Academy of Music.

People’s Light, Malvern
Feel free to bring noise-canceling headphones, fidgets and sensory toys to relaxed performances where speaking and movement are welcome, staff are trained to accommodate families’ needs and pre-show prep materials are available online.

Walnut Street Theatre, Phila.
No need to stay silent during sensory-friendly productions here. In addition to the absence of loud noises and dramatic lighting shifts, you’ll notice quiet areas and partitioned vacancies around groups in the audience to prevent claustrophobia.

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