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Inclusivity & Universal Accessibility: Sensory-Friendly Days & Spaces Fast Growing Industry Trend
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Fairs welcome all community members and in 2023, many welcomed members who often were unable to enjoy the fair, until now. Children on the Autism spectrum as well as those with social anxiety disorders or other conditions were usually kept from fairs due to being overwhelmed by the loud sounds, flashing lights and other forms of excitement that are part and parcel of the fair, and especially midway, experience. This year, more fairs than ever before introduced a Sensory Friendly Day or days – an exclusive event for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), enabling those with sensory processing differences to have a fun, enjoyable and interactive fair experience.

Sensory Friendly Days consist of a midway where the rides are operated, but with the sounds and lights minimized and a Calming Room, where individuals who are feeling upset or disturbed can take a break from the fair in a quiet space. Amusement Parks, sports venues and other facilities are offering similar accommodations and while fairs may be following their lead, they are doing so in greater numbers. This industry trend may be too new to be adequately tracked. More fairs, including some of the largest in the industry, held both Sensory Friendly Days and Calming Spaces in 2023 than ever before.

The International Association of Fairs & Expositions (IAFE) has not been tracking the Sensory Friendly trend, but has encouraged it, with a well-attended workshop on the topic at its 2022 convention, a 2023, online “Let's Talk” session, and “numerous workshops” at the 2023 Convention, according to Marla J. Calico, President & CEO, IAFE “ I notice [Sensory-Friendly Days] a lot in fair reports or even in news reports about fairs. I also notice it on Facebook posts from fairs I follow. From what I have heard, they're extremely well received by the population most impacted by the sensory overload of a fair. Yes, it is a growing trend.”

This trend encompasses both the midway host as well as provider. Strates Shows is one of the handful of carnival companies offering the service to its clients. The company produces Sensory Friendly Mornings for the Erie County Fair, perhaps its most high-profile midway, but according to Marty Biniasz, Director of Marketing & Community Relations, many fairs have either expressed interest or already hosted their second sensory friendly event in 2023. He said that while these days existed prior to 2021, the trend noticeably picked up post-lockdown. “Fairs and carnivals took a new look at their product and a new look at their audiences and decided to re-invent certain promotions,” he said. “They took a deeper dive into who are the individuals not enjoying the fair and found they were overlooking children, and adults, who are affected by the sensory issues. It's really about how much better fairs now understand their audience.”

Enabling this trend has been collaborations between fairs, their midway providers, and community organizations. “The key to success with Sensory Friendly Morning is our partners,” said Jessica West , Public Relations Officer of the Ohio State Fair We are fortunate to learn from their expertise. They are instrumental in the planning and execution process. We are fortunate to work with the Ohio Center for Autism & Low Incidence (OCALI), the Autism Society of Central Ohio, Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities, and other partners who help us promote the day to their audiences. Talley Amusements has been our midway provider since beginning Sensory Friendly Morning in 2019. For the past few years, Talley's team has graciously agreed to open the midway one hour early, as well as keep the sounds and lights of the rides off during the sensory-friendly hours.”

Informing Fairs

In 2021 the Kentucky State Fair held its first Sensory Friendly Morning courtesy of Kissel Entertainment, who offered more than 1,000 complimentary tickets and midway wristbands that were distributed to fairgoers with sensory processing differences. The youngsters were treated to a special area with muted rides and games –plus complimentary teddy bears prizes – and a quiet tent. Such an event within the event was new for the fair but not for its new midway provider.

“The Kentucky State Fair strives to bring all Kentuckians together in a safe and meaningful way” said David S. Beck, president and CEO of Kentucky Venues at the time. “Our partners at Kissel Entertainment have held similar events in the past and helped us create our first Sensory Friendly Morning to welcome fairgoers who may be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of a typical Fair.

Madison Kissel-Jonker, a 4th generation midway professional, states that accommodating those with special needs has been integral to the company's midway philosophy. “I remember as a child being on the midway and helping our crew with kids who had special needs ride the carousel, I was maybe six or seven. There wasn't the awareness of autism when I was a kid, but we were also making accommodations for those with disabilities and this is an extension of what we've always done.”

She added, “ My father originally started sensory friendly mornings, and it's something I'm extremely passionate about. But it really has grown in the last few years. There's more awareness, acceptance and understanding of sensory processing disorders. We started taking cues from zoos and aquariums we visited who had special days. A carnival can be overwhelming, it's a wild and hectic environment, and as my sister and I now have younger children, we've become much more aware of how we can improve.”

Kissel-Jonker guesses about seven years ago the company held its first “official” sensory mornings, and noticed that the Kentucky State Fair – now one of the largest sensory friendly mornings on the Kissel Entertainment route – followed a familiar pattern. Upon hearing the proposal, fairs are both eager to hold the event and already have the community network in place to implement an effective plan. “We brought it to the attention of the Kentucky State Fair. We had a deep discussion about sensory friendly days, we're extremely passionate and said we are happy to donate our time for community. They loved the idea. They jumped on board in reaching out to the local community, getting the word out, arranging buses. They opened up their agricultural buildings and their 4-H exhibits for special needs and the sensory friendly. Once fairs learn about the days they jump on board. It's truly great PR.”

Typically, Kissel Entertainment charges no admission or ride fee – they also distribute free popcorn and teddy-bears – and limits the games to “Duck Pond & Fishing Games.” Prior to the days, she meets with numerous fair staff and also emphasizes in community outreach that the entire family is invited. “We make sure that it's not just the child for Sensory-Friendly days. It's for the whole family, the mom and dad and sisters and brothers. Their togetherness creates the experience of the midway, having the whole family involved.”

Kissel-Jonker not only emphasizes that training midway staff is key, but has included more and more sensory friendly days and related content as a National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials (NAARSO) instructor. “There is a growing interest, and we've been hearing about more and more carnivals doing sensory friendly days. They have a lot of questions about how to do it financially, and operationally. We are willing and happy to share information. Ride training and employment engagement are essential.”

Award Winning Sunflower Hours

Tasha Hyder, Executive Director of the Clay County Fair, instituted Sunflower Hours – the Sunflower Project is a nonprofit foundation and globally-recognized symbol for non-visibility disabilities that can be physical, mental or neurological such as autism, Asperger syndrome and cognitive impairments – in 2021. The Florida Festivals and Events Association's annual convention awarded Hyder its Community Impact Award for the project, which includes not only lowered midway sounds and music, but also noise-isolating headphones, and the fair provided trained volunteers, sign language interpreters and several sensory tents – Pods – furnished with fidgets, stress balls, rocking chairs, weighted blankets and other calming devices. The fair also distributes colorful lanyards and stickers with the Sunflower logo to further identify their special guests.

“My thought process was that fairs are meant for everyone to enjoy,” said Hyder. “ As a fair manager, if you take a step back and ask your self, are you truly inviting everyone to your fair. The answer to that question is no, because those with severe autism or those on the spectrum, cannot go to the fair, so we have to change the environment for them. We want to be inviting to all, even those who can be overwhelmed.”

Hyder said that fairs have contacted her, both in and out of state, and workshops on hosting sensory friendly hours at fairs held at last year's IAFE convention “were standing room only. “We are actually seeing the momentum of fair managers bringing it to the fairs. It's great that it's a trend. I know a lot of big fairs started their sensory friendly hours.”

Hyder credits the relationship with Deggeller Attractions as a key to the effectiveness of the Sun Flower Hours at Clay County Fair. “I called them up when we were planning and they were on board about turning off the lights and turning down the sound,” she said. “It's huge having a partner in our midway, we're very lucky, not all midway operators are as enthusiastic.”
Another essential aspect has been the signage, alerting that the Sunflower hours are in-effect and denoting where the quieting pods are located. “Signage is very important. Sunflower posters cut down on the confusion, because you don't want anything that undermines the experience. We're adjusting the hours, but it can get as crowded as non-sunflower hours.”

Beyond The ADA | 2023 was the second year of Sensory Friendly Hours for the Erie County Fair. Arenas, stadiums and even theaters had been offering patrons quiet spaces for several years, especially for children's programming. Inclusivity has been a mission priority for the vast majority of fairs since their inceptions and now that means all children and families.

“We started them in an effort to be an entertainment and educational venue that is more inclusive,” said Jessica Underberg, CEO, Erie County Fair. “ We know that there are families that can't attend the fair at all or as a complete family unit because the fair can be a bit much to take in. Really there was only one “big concern” as a Fair Manager in holding Sensory Hours, and that was to get it right. We wanted to make sure that what we were offering was true to their needs and challenges. The last thing any of us wanted is to say that we had taken the proper steps to accommodate and then miss the mark. Other than that, I had zero concerns. We were welcoming a growing portion of our community that hadn't joined us before and that is great!”

Awareness of autism may be new, but for Underberg it is merely the latest extension of fair managers going above and beyond ADA compliance. Underberg has enlisted the help of David V. Whalen, a Disability Awareness Training instructor, lecturer and consultant, to be the fair's Disability Awareness “coach” and ADA coordinator for more than a decade. She recalled their first collaboration 15 years ago, inspecting the entire fairgrounds together when she became conscious of the vast array of details, which at the time dealt mainly with physical accessibility issues, including massive restroom modifications.

“I will never forget that day because I learned so much. Our facility is a million times more accessible than it used to be, and I would say probably one of the most accessible Fairgrounds I have been on. I'm very proud of the work we have done to be more inclusive of not just folks who use wheelchairs or who are on the autistic spectrum, but also for the aging population who still like to enjoy time at the Fair.”

Inclusion means everybody. ADA is so 20th century. 21st Century inclusion is about universal accessibility, and sensory-friendly programming is the latest initiative being adapted by fairs. Whalen, who has consulted with a range of venues and organizations and has spoken about ADA topics at the IAFE, noted that in addition to insisting on having the complete package – sensory-friendly day & separate rooms, Underberg ensured that department heads and staff go through Disability Awareness Training. More than 1,700 utilized Erie County's Sensory Room in 2023. “This room is a model for not just fairs, but all other entities,” said Whalen. “ADA Compliance is the base, you don't deserve recognition for that. Universal Accessibility is what we applaud.”

Key Community Partners

The Iowa State Fair, perhaps the most iconic annual outdoor event in North America, also jumped on board the sensory friendly bandwagon in 2022. The fair holds a Sensory Morning on Wednesday from 8:00am-noon as well as two calming rooms, one open every day of the fair, and the other space – a larger room & with more equipment is only opened on Sensory Morning. Both are staffed by Occupational and Speech Therapists.

“We saw a need in 2022 and initiated the program along with two key community partners- Drake University and Child Serve,” said Mindy Williamson, Marketing Director, Iowa State Fair. “They had the expertise to help us with messaging and programming.”

Now two years later, the program continues to be tweaked. Williamson: “It is greatly successful. We expanded it with more activities in 2023 and we also gave options for a sensory friendly day at the fair if you wanted to come on a different day and be self-guided. We have had great success with communicating the day and working to keep lights and sounds low for the morning. We have actually witnessed a slight attendance increase because families who were overwhelmed with the fair before are now more comfortable with attending.”

She also cautions that the entire fair has to be involved, not just the midway. “We have to have grounds-wide participation because we have quiet activities, lower lights and no loud noises as much as possible and that goes from maintenance to entertainment and thrill rides. It is an all- staff endeavor.”

Also vital to sensory-friendly success at the Iowa State has been collaboration and communication. She advises other fair managers to “Work with professionals who are able to help with programming, messaging, and reaching people.”

Taking Great Care

The Minnesota State Fair also joined the sensory friendly wave in 2021 with sensory friendly mornings on its Mighty Midway & Kid-Way and opening the Fraser Sensory Building, which their website explained: “This take-a-break oasis is specially created for fair guests of all ages with sensory-processing challenges who may find the sights, sounds, smells and crowds of the fair overwhelming.”

Fraser is a Minnesota healthcare nonprofit devoted to treating early childhood autism and providing “wellness programs for those who have intellectual or developmental disabilities with co-occurring autism or mental health issues.” The sensory space at the Minnesota State Fair was staffed by Fraser-trained sensory support volunteers.

Christine Noonan, Marketing Director, Minnesota State Fair, oversees guest services which includes accessibility, said it was Fraser who “expressed an introduction” to the fair after having created Sensory Spaces in other Twin City venues, most notably Viking Stadium. “They helped us with staff training, raising awareness about people with sensory sensitivities, what we put on our website, our social narrative. We are still becoming aware of new programs, so we are building on what we are doing.”

The ride and game companies and other vendors that make up one of the largest independent midways in the Northern Midwest embraced the idea from the get-go. “Our game and ride operators were extremely supportive. The more we thought about, the more we wanted it to succeed on our midway and kid-way. They were all in step with us, there was a real synergy between us.”

A benefit of working with Fraser, one of the leading autism resources in the country, was knowing what to look for to host a sensory midway. “By nature, fairs are chaotic. So it's a lot of going over everything with a fine tooth comb to find more opportunities to experience the fullness of the fair.”

It came down to knowing what to turn down, and what to turn off. No blinking lights, loud music from booths, and no parade, a daily showcase of the Great Get Together. “A lot of the smells of the barns can be overwhelming, or lines that are too long, so there is a lot to check. You have to take great care, because the fair is never completely silent, it has inherent noise. Some of the games are basically shut down.”

But the meticulous makeover was worth it, for new fair fans were made. “From the first year on, we heard great anecdotal stories from people who never considered coming to the fair, coming those mornings. I had a parent tell me that it was the first time my son came to the fair, because it was too much for him, and the parent had grown up going to the fair. It was the first time they could go to the fair together.”
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