How To Experience The Cincinnati Zoo With A Special Needs Guest!

The Zoo is a magical place full of beautiful animals and where memories are created. For an average family, it can be an amazing experience! But experiencing the Zoo with loved ones of special needs, well that can be emotionally and physically challenging.

This past week, the Cincinnati Zoo initiated new programs for accessibility by kicking of a Access for All day. As the #1 family attraction in Cincinnati, I was eager to experience their accessibility for guest’s with mental and/or physical disabilities. My goal for this article is to encourage and inform you what the Cincinnati Zoo has done and continues to do to make guests with special needs feel welcomed and valued. After all, I understand how important the little details in accessibility matter. I am thankful to know organizations like the Cincinnati Zoo honestly care for ALL of their guests!

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Tips to Plan Your Trip

  1. The Zoo is 74 acres large so it is very beneficial to plan your day out. Luckily, the Zoo has created a Adventure Planning Map and a Sensory Map fitted for a guest with developmental disabilities. You can find these maps at the Zoo or online! The sensory map is color-coded with sensory areas including loud, smelly, dark, interactive, and crowded locations. These locations are also listed on the side of the map with a better description. You can locate sensory friendly restrooms as well but I’ll talk more about these restrooms in a sec!
  2. The Zoo provides social narratives online that you can share with your companion. These narrate the Blakely’s Barnyard Bonanza, the Cheetah Encounter, and Going to the Zoo activities so you and your companion can anticipate what to expect!
  3. You can prepare your trip by using the Zoo visual supports and rules handout. You can find this online or at the Information Office. These help guide your companion through the do’s and don’ts of the Zoo!
  4. A small note you can add to your route are the hills. Yes, you will run into some regardless of where you go but in my opinion, the steepest hill is by the polar bears! So, to avoid going uphill, follow the path from the Wings of the World, pass the polar bears, and toward the arctic fox or rhinos. Regardless, you will face a hill but if you follow that path then you will avoid pushing uphill on the steepest section. These inclines are also identified on the Zoo map! Look for the green triangles.
  5. Need to rent a wheelchair? Maybe your having some mobility issues and need a boost, you can rent a power chair for $30-$40. You can also rent a stroller and manual wheelchair. These are located at the Information Office by Vine Street Village.

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When You Get There

Check out the Information Office. The Zoo provides sensory bags for guests with developmental disabilities. I personally love this idea! In the bag are sound reducing headphones, chewy tubes, atom ball fidgets, sunglasses, pinwheels, and scratch and sniff stickers. So if your companion has trouble with loud environments, needs calming, or encounter unpleasant smells, this bag will have helpful tools for you! All you have to do is swap your ID in for a bag and it’s yours! Just make sure you return it when you leave!

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*If you are in a wheelchair, some rails may be difficult to see over. If the exhibit isn’t crowded, I noticed if you are farther away from the rail, you have more clearance to see over. Luckily, it shouldn’t be a problem for the giraffes because they reach their heads over the rail. 🙂 Oh! Also, some animal exhibits have clear walls like the lions! As long as people share the view, you should no trouble seeing animals through those walls.

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(Example photo. In the background are elephants!)

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The safari exhibit is my personal favorite!

Ride Access Pass

We started off the day with our priorities in line. The first thing my niece wanted to do was ride the train! I was told it was accessible but I wasn’t sure “how” accessible it was for wheelchairs. Nonetheless, I needed to try it out! I had to get cool aunt points somehow!

Both the carousel and train are wheelchair adapted and have access passes. What’s an access pass? If a guest has disabilities and is unable to wait in long lines and a family member is also unable to wait, you can be given an access pass that indicates a time you can come back to ride but gives you the opportunity to wait elsewhere. There are many reasons this is helpful! To a person in my situation, this would be helpful to prevent autonomic dysreflexia because the line sits in the sun. Since it’s hard to regulate blood temperature, you can sit in the shade or indoors to prevent overheating and dehydration.


If you are in a wheelchair there is a separate boarding line that connects you to the train. This section of the train has a fold down ramp for access. I was worried my chair would be too wide in order to clear the turn but with a little perseverance and navigation we were able to make it! The train fits two wheelchairs at a time (if needed). Once you are  in place the employees use tie-downs to secure the chair. I was anticipating the ride to be a bit bumpy because the train is very old but it exceeded my expectations and was quite actually a very smooth ride.

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Adapted Restrooms and Sensory Rooms

The Zoo’s family restrooms have recently been converted to sensory friendly restrooms. There are two by the Information Office (the Vine Street Village), 1 at LaRosa’s and 1 at the 4-D theatre.

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If your companion is sensitive to noises, these restrooms are without automatic hand dryers and automatic toilets. Instead, you can use paper towels! Even younger children without disabilities will appreciate the sensory restrooms.  My 4-year-old niece does not like loud noises and was very apprehensive about going to the restroom with the very loud automatic flushing system and loud automatic hand dryers. When we went into the sensory bathroom, she was visibly relieved (no pun intended)! Two of these sensory friendly restrooms have two adult-sized changing tables and are located at the Vine Street Village, adjacent to the Information Office. When I heard they had adult changing tables, I was anxious to see their size. I was expecting to see padded table mat, similar to what they use in physical therapy, but what it looked like was a large, fold down table. Basically a small version of what you would change a baby on. This might work for some, but my immediate thought was that I wouldn’t feel safe using it.  It was very narrow, high, and if I was to change on it, my legs could easily fall off and the situation could become dangerous. It also has a hard counter. If someone has pressure wounds, this might not be the best counter to change on. I can feel my anxiety build just thinking about a wound pressed and rubbing against it causing more damage. If you need to use this changing table, be cautious.

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Taking a Caregiver?

Are you taking a caregiver? If you need a caregiver to assist during your visit at the Zoo, you can have one FREE admission ticket. However if you have additional caregivers they will need to purchase an admission ticket to enter the Zoo.

Bringing a Service Animal?

Typically, a service animal is allowed to go wherever the owner is traveling. However, it is legal for the Zoo to deny specific working animals on entry. Your service animal must comply with the ADA title III regulations regarding service animals. The Zoos website states, “when you arrive at the Zoo, you and your service animal will be greeted by a Visitor Experience Supervisor to be checked in with two legal  ADA questions regarding the service animal. “ Therapy or emotional support animals are not permitted in the Zoo if your animal does not meet ADA requirements for entry.

Guess What? There’s More.

In addition to the accessibility and accommodations to guest with disabilities, the zoo has over 400 employees who have been trained by Children’s Hospital to properly assist the disabled guests. If you need assistance just look for an Access for All sticker or blue strips on their badges!

Last reminder for my wheelchair readers- Be cautious of changing tables and bumpy pavements. There areas, like he safari, that have animal prints and other textures added to the pavement. For my power chair, it’s not big concern. It’s mainly just bumpy. However, if I used my manual wheelchair, it would add more difficulty pushing and adddifficult traction to my smart drive power assist.

What You can Expect in 2019

The Zoo will be adding a calming room and another family restroom that is sensory friendly! Woohoo!

If you have additional questions you can always call the zoo at  513-281-4700 or visit their website.

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