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The Central Florida Zoo And Botanical Gardens Earns Sensory Inclusive Certification

One of the designated "Quiet Areas" at the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
Jordyn Markhoff
The Florida Channel
One of the designated "Quiet Areas" at the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

The Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens is now a certified sensory inclusive facility. Zoo staff has been trained to help visitors who may suffer from sensory overload, such as people on the autism spectrum, giving these “invisible” disabilities accommodations they’ve always needed. 

The sounds, smells, and sights at the zoo can be a challenge for people with sensory sensitivities.

Individuals on the autism spectrum have a neurological difference that causes them to perceive sensory input differently. “In other words, loud or startling sounds can actually cause physical pain or just be extremely disrupting to a person on the spectrum,” said Amy Fritz-Ocock, an autism disorders specialist.

She compares a day at the zoo for a person with sensory integration problems to a rechargeable battery.

“Their battery is sort of slowly over time becoming depleted because it takes a lot of effort to keep all of the behavioral expectations of the zoo in place while they have all this new stimulus coming in,” said Fritz-Ocock.

Sanford’s Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens worked with KultureCity, a non-profit organization that provides accessibility solutions for people with sensory disorders.

The zoo has designated specific areas as “Quiet Areas”. These spots now have signs at the front to inform anyone who just needs a break.

“Having these quiet areas are important where they can maybe take things out of their bag such as a snack, or it’s a good place to have a break to relax in the shade,” said Sara Costner, a marketing and community engagement intern for the zoo.

KultureCity supplied the zoo with sensory bags that include noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, and cue cards.

The cue cards list a range of feelings on one side and needs on the other. “It’s kind of a non-verbal communication mechanism where they’re able to point if they didn’t want to speak how exactly they’re feeling or they’re struggling to find the words,” said Costner.

Zoo visitor Tabitha Bruinsma is a mom to a child with ADHD who is high on the spectrum for autism. She said going on family outings isn’t always easy.

“Sometimes you have to remove them from their family in order to experience it separately and I think this is one step closer to allowing families to be able to experience something like the zoo and family activities together as a family rather than separated.”

Finding the right partnership with KultureCity was an important step toward gaining the certification, said Zoo Director Stephanie Williams. KultureCity has an app that shows users sensory friendly places in their area.

“Each location has a social story and so it helps walk families through what a day at the zoo would be like from start to finish,” said Willaims. The zoo is also putting up signs that say “headphone zone” in louder areas, such as the Wayne M. Densch Discovery Center.

“Knowing that I can support them in having a positive experience here at the zoo rather than somebody saying ‘I’m not gonna go in there because it’s just too loud’ now we can offer an opportunity for them to go into that building and experience the same things that everybody else is.”

According to KultureCity, of the 650 million people that live with a disability, only 20 percent of them have visible disabilities.

The Central Florida Zoo’s efforts are only a start in paving the way to a more inclusive future.