by Janet Jonus
This article has been updated on 5/12/2019.
Kennywood Park recently announced they were a Certified Autism Center. The certification is from the IBCCES (International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards). IBCCES states, “The Certified Autism Center (CAC) certification recognizes organizations that have a highly trained staff and are fully equipped to serve the fastest growing population of developmental disorders.” ( https://ibcces.org/certified-autism-center/)
Kennywood’s CAC website page states there are six areas where Kennywood has made special accommodations to get their CAC. These are: Certified Staff, IBCCES Sensory Guide, Quiet Rooms, Sensory Bags, Noise Cancelling Headphones, and Changing Tables.
FamilyFunPittsburgh is an autism and special needs family. We visit Kennywood weekly and truly love the place. It is with heavy hearts we must report that Kennywood’s CAC is little more than a nice-sounding name. FamilyFunPittsburgh has been to Kennywood, we have tested the CAC claims and, much to our dismay, we found little substance to the claims.* (FamilyFunPittsburgh has been trying to catch Kennywood’s attention about our concerns. We have actually made a difference as you will see below. Changes are in italics. We will continue to contact Kennywood until the autism community’s concerns are addressed.)
First, the good news. The staff at the Rider Safety Center were professional, courteous, and helpful as they always are. The Rider Safety Center is located outside of the main gates, before the ticket windows. It is the small building to the right of the ticket windows, where they measure kids. There is a door around the right side of the building. This is the Rider Safety Center. Stop at the Center to get information about rides, accommodations, and more.
FamilyFunPittsburgh asked every employee we encountered about their autism training. The good news is almost all of the staff had received a minimal amount of training about autism which consisted of a brief, online course and a multiple-choice test. The staff felt the training was helpful and informative. However, the staff did not know what to do with the training. When faced with specific autism-related situations, the staff did not have any idea what to do. There were significant gaps in their knowledge. Some examples included: staff did not know Sensory Processing Disorder affected all of the senses. When asked, staff thought SPD meant individuals didn’t like loud noises. They were surprised that smells, sights, tastes, and touch were affected as well. (In our FamilyFunFamily, sensitivity to touch is the big problem.) The staff did not know anything about elopement. They could not articulate any plan to deal with elopement. (FamilyFunPittsburgh has experienced elopement at Kennywood. There is no plan in place.) While the staff was aware of autism, they had no idea what they were supposed to do to assist those on the Spectrum.
The IBCCES toured Kennywood on April 28th. They will develop a Sensory Guide. FamilyFunPittsburgh has had CAC Sensory Guides for other places. We found them to be partially helpful. However the format is overly-complicated and the information is minimal. Kennywood’s website notes the guide will be “available soon” but there is no set date.
As a CAC, Kennywood is supposed to have indoor, air conditioned Quiet Rooms for those on the spectrum or with Sensory Processing Disorder. Kennywood does not have any quiet rooms. Their website suggests Dancing Waters, across from the Gran Prix, as a quiet spot. FamilyFunPittsburgh reports this is NOT a good quiet spot.
Dancing Waters is directly adjacent to a designated smoking area. The stench from the smokers is overwhelming. Update: FamilyFunPittburgh is happy to announce the smoking area has been removed! There is a large speaker behind the small pond. It plays the Kennywood soundtrack which includes pop, rock, and light rap. The music is very, very loud. As of this past weekend, the loudspeaker was still there blasting away. The area itself is one of the quieter parts of Kennywood, if there wasn’t a loud speaker blasting music. FamilyFunPittsburgh used to go to Dancing Waters years ago for a break but the smoking area and the loudspeaker made it a poor choice.
FamilyFun Pittsburgh recommends the picnic groves behind Garfield’s Nightmare. During the week, these pavilions are usually quiet and largely empty. On certain picnic days and on weekends, these pavilions may be in use, negating the quiet emptiness, so it always best to check when planning your day at Kennywood. We have used the pavilions hundreds of times for a calm respite from the chaos of the park. (The picnic pavilions near Kiddieland were a little noisier but still a good place to get away but they are off-limits right now due to the Steeler’s Country construction.) The walkways near the water fountains in Lost Kennywood are also a bit quieter. The calming effect of the Fountains, and the fact that these areas are usually deserted, make them a good alternative for a quiet(ish) break.
Kennywood’s website claims they have “Sensory Bags” available at four locations. The good news is these bags actually exist. However they are only available at Guest Relations (on the left hand side near the ticket booths before the tunnel) and at the Service Center (near Noah’s Ark, next to the Slush Factory). The bags contain a coloring book and crayons, a fidget spinner, a set of foam earplugs with an attached plastic string, and a fidget ball.
There are two distinct negatives with the Sensory Bags. First, the quality and size of the items in the bags is extremely poor. (See picture – Note: the quarter in the picture is there to show the size of the items in the Sensory Bag.) The coloring book is a three page pamphlet with three pictures of cars.
The fidget spinner is 1.5 inches. Our fidget spinner did not work. You cannot spin it. It gets stuck. Update: The fidget spinner is now a regular-sized fidget spinner. The fidget ball is 1 inch in diameter. It is covered in a black mesh. There is a small twist tie on the ball. Our mesh broke and the twist tie fell off the first time we used it, rendering the ball useless. Update: FamilyFunPittsburgh urged Kennywood to remove the small fidget ball as it is dangerous. It has mostly 1-Star reviews on Amazon.com. As of 5/11/2019, we were told it would be removed. We will update when we have confirmation of this.
FamilyFunPittsburgh checked the manufacturer’s information. Both the fidget spinner and the fidget ball are NOT FOR CHILDREN UNDER 3. The ear plugs are of compressible foam. To use them, you have to roll them to compress them, and then shove them into the ear. The ear plugs are also choking hazards. FamilyFunPittsburgh would NOT be able to use these on our autistic family member as there is no way we would be able to get them into their ear. On a positive note, the crayons are really nice! The items seem to be geared towards a 4-6 year olds. Kennywood apparently thinks older autistic individuals will not have a need for sensory items. The quality and size make them dangerous for children.
Update: Kennywood has a larger, sand-filled stress ball in the bags now. The ball is made of rubber and filled with micro-bead sand. FamilyFunPittsburgh is trying to encourage Kennywood to get foam squeeze balls as they are durable and safe.
The real problem with the Sensory Bags is they are NOT available upon request. We were under the impression the bags would be given to any autistic guest who asked for one. The policy is much different. The family can request the bags but the STAFF at Kennywood will decide if one is warranted. The autistic child must “be in visible distress” when the bag is requested. The staff then has sole discretion to decide if a bag should be distributed based on their own opinion and the limited training they have received.
Update: The bags are now available on request. Kennywood is rethinking the bag concept in its entirety. FamilyFunPittsburgh keeps pointing out every autistic person is different and will need different calming items plus there is a large age-range. We are stressing the importance of age-appropriate fidgets. We are also stressing that there different sensory items for different needs. We are trying to get them to have a variety of items that the individual can choose from.
Kennywood has a limited number of Noise Cancelling Headphones available. Their website states they are available at the Rider Safety Center, Guest Relations, First Aid, and the Service Center. This is not true. The headphones are only available at Guest Relations and the Service Center. The headphones are adjustable and would work for ages 4 and up. The headphones do mute the background noises. They create a white noise effect. What Kennywood does not tell you is there is a
$10 $20 deposit required to get a set of headphones. The $10 $20 can be paid in cash or with a debit or credit card. The $10 $20 will be refunded when the headphones are returned. (If a debit or credit card is used, it may take a few days for your financial institution to process the refund.) The headphones can be returned to either location but the headphones are not in Kennywood’s computer system, and there was some confusion as to how the refund would be issued if returned to a different location but FamilyFunPittsburgh was assured Kennywood would “work it out”.
Kennywood is required to have Changing Tables for all ages as part of their CAC. As of right now, Kennywood only has the standard infant and toddler changing tables. The Changing Tables are available in all bathrooms except the bathrooms next to the Gran Prix. There are Family Bathrooms in Kiddieland with infant changing tables. The only other Family Bathroom in Kennywood (and listed on the Kennywood CAC page as an option) is located in the bathrooms next to the Star Refreshment stand. However this bathroom is currently closed and off limits as it is in the Steeler’s Country construction zone. So the only Family Bathrooms available in Kennywood at this time are the bathrooms in Kiddieland. (There are ADA stalls in the other bathrooms in Kennywood). The Adult Changing Table is supposed to be installed in the Family Bathroom in the Star facility. Hopefully it will be installed while the bathroom is closed and be available later this summer when Steeler’s Country opens.
FamilyFunPittsburgh is heartbroken to report Kennywood’s CAC designation is NOT in place as Kennywood claims on their website. While FamilyFunPittsburgh believes autistic individuals can enjoy the Park with a lot of preparation and planning, Kennywood’s CAC claims are not accurate. We will update this article if we encounter changes at Kennywood on our weekly visits.
*FamilyFunPittsburgh is dedicated to providing detailed, accurate information to our readers. We regularly go to the places we write about so we can provide a real-life family experience to our readers. When possible we let the organization or event know we will be attending. We pay for our own entry (with the exception of some tickets to shows and events which are available to all members of the press). If we have a negative experience, we give the organization an opportunity to address the issues. If the organization refuses, we usually do not publish an article and we remove all recommendations of the organization or event from FamilyFunPittsburgh. This is the first “negative” article we have ever published but the subject is too important to let go. We made the editorial decision to publish this article because Autism Families deserve to know the hype about Kennywood’s CAC is not accurate. We informed Kennywood of the issues we have had in the past as a special needs family. Our concerns were acknowledged but ignored. We will update this article if Kennywood improves the CAC experience.