‘Open to everybody’: Inside Six Flags’ efforts to make its parks more accessible
Dallas — Six Flags America has taken two big steps to make its parks more accessible to people with physical disabilities and autism, concluding years of effort by the amusement park chain and mirroring a broader movement toward accessibility in the entertainment industry.
“I believe everybody has the same philosophy that we do, that we want to be open to everybody that wants to come and enjoy our properties,” said Jason Freeman, vice president of public safety and risk management.
Six Flags outfitted its rides at U.S. parks with specialized harnesses that allow people with physical disabilities to access them, the company announced last month.
It also had its parks in the U.S. and Mexico accredited as certified autism centers, a designation overseen by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards that means the amusement park chain has taken steps to better accommodate people with autism. The company’s Canadian location is in the process of becoming certified.
It took about five years and cost over $1 million to develop the harness and install it at all parks, Freeman said. The device will make it possible for people missing limbs or fingers and those who can’t fit in a traditional harness or brace themselves in the same way as others to be safely strapped in for rides.
“There are some restrictions, but 98% of the general public can ride all of our rides,” he said.
Six Flags parks began working to become certified autism centers in 2019, but delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic meant it took three years for all of them to earn the distinction.
For parks to become certified, 80% of Six Flags’ public-facing staff had to be trained in accommodating visitors with autism. The company also added low-sensory areas to its parks, allowing people with sensory sensitivities to take a break when they need to, and created sensory guides for attractions.
Without those kinds of accommodations, someone with autism might have to spend hours planning for a theme-park trip, credentialing board president Meredith Tekin said.
“We’re all human beings. We all want to be understood and welcomed,” she said. “And if we take a few small steps, in this case in an entertainment space, we can welcome so many more individuals and families.”
A broader trend
The credentialing board has provided its certified autism center designation since 2016. Although Six Flags is the first theme park chain to ensure that all of its parks have the designation, companies like SeaWorld and LegoLand have worked with the board to earn the status at some of their locations.
It’s not just theme parks. Sporting venues have added sensory-friendly spaces. Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute held its first sensory-friendly concert in 2019.
“Organizations are finally realizing, ‘We need to do more to make sure we can welcome these visitors and attract more people to us, but also improve that guest experience,’” Tekin said.
Some other theme parks, like SeaWorld and Cedar Point, have used specialized harnesses to expand access for people with physical disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act does not require amusement park operators to create specialized technology like Six Flags’ harnesses to make rides accessible. In general, it allows for safety restrictions that sometimes exclude disabled people.
Some people have sued amusement parks, including Six Flags, after being barred from rides because of physical disabilities. Freeman wrote in an email that Six Flags doesn’t comment on litigation related to the theme park industry or itself but that the harness was “developed for the sole purpose of allowing as many as guests as possible to ride our rides safely.”
The steps Six Flags has taken go above and beyond the company’s legal obligations to make parks accessible, he said.
In a 2019 paper in the University of Mississippi’s law review, William Moorer argued that theme parks are likely within their rights to implement some safety restrictions barring people from rides, but he called for more companies to make rides accessible in a safe way, pointing to the example of SeaWorld and Cedar Point.
In an interview, he praised Six Flags’ decision as well.
“As long as it can be done safely, I think anything in that regard is a step in the right direction,” said Moorer, now a practicing attorney.
Freeman noted that it’s in Six Flags’ financial interest to make sure as many people as possible can visit its parks. But it’s not about the money, he said.
“Our goal as a company is not to restrict anybody from coming to our parks,” he said.