We believe everyone has the right to experience the Zoo and the great outdoors, regardless of their ability. That’s why we’re thrilled to announce a number of new programs, most offered at no cost, to address the unique needs of community members with special needs and their families.
The Exceptional Nature Space (ENS), completed last year, is a 4,700-square-foot behind-the-scenes play area designed to provide its users with an unstructured, authentic outdoor experience. Amenities include fort-building materials, “mud paint” and a water play table. The ENS was made possible by Alstom Foundation, the John and Carol Craig family, Doug and Joni Norton, the Peggie and Martin Avalos family, the Nelson and Gretchen Cover family and attendees of 2016’s Safari Under the Stars event. There is no charge to use this space during scheduled free play dates, though advance registration is required.
“We find that due to mobility or sensory-processing challenges, many children with special needs don’t spend as much time outside as their peers,” said special needs coordinator Lindsay Mathisen. “The ENS is a safe, natural area designed to accommodate individuals’ differing needs.”
Late last year, we became the first zoo in Florida to receive sensory-inclusive certification from KultureCity. Experts trained staff in all departments how to welcome and accommodate guests with autism, post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions. We established “quiet zones” in low-traffic areas like the wetlands overlook in Wild Florida and Sea Turtle Beach in Paws On.
KultureCity also donated several “sensory bags” for guests to use while at the Zoo. Each bag contains headphones, a weighted lap pad, “fidget toys” and other items individuals with sensory-processing disorders sometimes use to cope with crowds and loud noises. Visit the guest services office to check out a bag during your next trip to the Zoo (available on a first-come, first-serve basis).
A free-to-attend “Sensory Night” is scheduled for Friday, March 23 from 5 to 7 p.m. Explore Dinosaurs Are Back! with sounds and movement turned off, explore the ENS and interact with representatives from organizations offering services to individuals with special needs. Advance registration is required.
Finally, our first-ever camps designed to accommodate the unique needs of this audience will be rolled out this summer: a three-day immersion in music, dance, visual art and wildlife appreciation, and a two-day nature adventure for the whole family.
Our hope is that these programs will constantly evolve and improve with input from our community. Feel free to send questions and feedback about these programs to Mathisen at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re excited to be taking these bold steps forward on our accessibility journey!