dollywood sensory room
Mayukh Saha
Mayukh Saha
October 23, 2019 ·  3 min read

Dollywood Theme Park in Tennessee Has a Calming Room to Entertain Autistic Kids Dealing with Sensory Overloads

For kids with autism, the world can be perceived as a scary and overwhelming place. A fun-filled park with various attractions could be a bit too much for a kid who suffers from sensory overload as a result of autism. Flashing lights, loud sounds, sudden outbursts, extreme colors, funny smells, and certain rides can make them very uncomfortable. This reaction can result in high levels of stress and anxiety and will usually culminate in a meltdown. Society has not fully evolved to the point where special-needs children (or adults) are always considered when public spaces or certain businesses are being designed.

In 2016, the Dollywood Theme Park in Pigeon Forge, East Tennessee added a “calming room” where autistic children can hang out and take breaks when their families visit the park [1]. Founded in 1985, the park has been a bustling center of excitement for children over the decades. A day at Dollywood is a day to remember forever. However, like all other amusement parks, special needs children may feel overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and rides. 

Dollywood incorporated a calming room, the first of its kind in the world to give these children a suitable place to get away for a while and recuperate.

A state-of-the-art soothing space designed with Autism Speaks

Team leader, Judy Toth came up with the idea when she noticed parents using the restrooms and first-aid station to help their kids with ASD recover from meltdowns [2]. What would have been planned as a happy day at the park would turn to a stressful experience for the child. In collaboration with Autism Speaks, Toth came up with the design of a small soothing room with low lights and minimal noise to accommodate children who need tranquility. 

“I discovered while I was there how many children came in that had autism to some varying degree,” she said to WBIR Channel 10 [3]. “They can just come in for up to thirty minutes to just take that break. We’ve had many crying moments at the center while listening to the families, thanking us that we would consider or were thinking about the awareness, about what their child was going through.  If not for the new room, many recent visitors probably never would’ve gotten to experience coming to a theme park.”

Review from thankful parents

The calming room has been well-received by its target visitors and their parents.  They are grateful to know that there are people out there willing to blaze the trail toward better welfare for their kids in society.

Jamie Pacton wrote on

 “Normally, when my son gets overwhelmed, we seek out refuges in public spaces—be it some shade under a tree in a quiet corner of a park or a corner booth in a restaurant— but the idea of having a dedicated space for kids to work through sensory issues is so appealing. I would love to see more of these in many public spaces, and I applaud Dollywood for its vision and recognition of the need for such a space.”

One parent wrote on Facebook: “On my son’s first trip to Dollywood, he became overstimulated and had a terrible meltdown… If we had a room like that to escape to, things may have been different.”

While Dollywood is the first theme park to come up with the calming room, other parks are gradually taking up the innovative idea, notably Legoland, Holiday World, Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom. It would be an amazing advancement in special childcare if more public places around the world would incorporate these soothing spaces for children who may need to get away from an overwhelming scene. 

  1. Jamie Pacton. Dollywood Is the First Theme Park in the World with a Calming Room for Kids with Autism. Retrieved 21-10-19
  2. Guest Author. Dollywood: First Theme Park in the World to Open Calming Room for Kids with Special Needs. Parenting Special Needs. c
  3. WBIR Channel 10. Facebook. Retrieved 21-10-19
  4. Jamie Pacton. Sensory Processing Disorder and “Out-of-Sync” Kids. Retrieved 21-10-19