By Joan Leotta
Royal Caribbean International, one of the brands of Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., has recently revealed a sweeping new program to make family vacations that meet the needs of all family members, including those on the autism spectrum, a reality. The cruise line has the certification of being “Autism Friendly.” Royal Caribbean has been working toward this goal for many years, wanting to go beyond compliance with the law to truly serve passengers with disabilities of all types.
Ron Pettit, Manager of Access Compliance says, “As a brand we have learned to offer modifications of many activities to make the cruise experience fun for the entire family. Since 2007 we have worked to develop products and services for guests with autism. We were certified as the first Autism Friendly cruise line in February 2014. We now have many products and services to meet the needs of guests with autism and other disabilities – developmental and physical. We are a family cruise brand, known for multi-generational cruises. Even before we focused on autism we already had many programs offering accommodations for passengers with visual, hearing and mobility needs. For example, there are “relief areas” for people with service dogs, large print menus, amplified phones and sign language interpreters. We have boarding assistance, accessible staterooms with wider doors and grab bars. Every one of the 22 ships in our line, Royal Caribbean International, has designated accessible rooms, a total of 487 in all ships combined. Our largest, Oasis of the Seas, has 46.”
The February 2014 certification was awarded by Autism on the Seas (AotS), a Connecticut–based organization that is a Developmental Disability Service Supplier to the Cruise Industry as a whole. Awarding certification status to the entire line of Royal Caribbean International ships is based on their meeting seven criteria, including training for staff, offering programs and dining area options that meet the needs of families with an autism spectrum member and more.
Mike Sobbell, Founder and President of Autism on the Seas, has stated that awarding the certification to Royal Caribbean marked a “turning point” in the travel and cruise industry toward the effective accommodation of families impacted by autism.
Doing Good Makes Good Business Sense
“Accessibility is about accommodating all disabilities,” says Pettit who adds many of the company’s executives were very supportive of the program and helped with the development of the special programs for passengers with autism.” We received increased input in our reports to our contact centers for activities to support people with autism and other developmental disabilities. As a result, we began to pay extra attention and the program plans began,” says Pettit. He adds, “When the idea first came up, it was a very simple concept. We saw several land based hotels and theaters that made their products and services autism friendly and we wanted to replicate that same kind of success and awareness to the Royal Caribbean International brand.”
Some of the most supportive executives were Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Executive Vice President of Operations, Royal Caribbean International, Vicki Freed, Senior Vice President of Sales, Trade Support and Service, Royal Caribbean International and Carlos Leyva, Vice President of Trade Support and Services, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
Pettit notes, “The entire company is behind this. Many autism communities have tweeted and posted their support for this effort.” He adds, “This is a growing market. According to our data, one of every 68 children in the United States alone has been diagnosed with autism, which translates to approximately two million people. When you add the family members that brings the total up to about ten million people, a very large market. And much of it may be new business. Many families with children with autism might not even have taken vacations or thought about cruising, as a family, before our program came to their attention. On our cruises parents can choose from a list of tailored activities designed to make the cruise experience appealing for the whole family.”
Specific Types of Activities Offered
Pettit says, “We offer many elements like priority boarding, gluten free meals (and meals that are dairy free), and accommodations in the Adventure Ocean Programs.” The company’s Adventure Ocean and Teen Program caters to guests under 18 years old. There are six tiers of programming for these younger guests, with all programs being led by college-accredited counselors. The activities are offered from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., which provides parents with a great break to enjoy their holiday. The activities are grouped by ability, and not strictly age. Examples of one of the specific program refinements, which may appeal to families, are films are presented in an environment with low lighting and volume. Guests are also able to freely talk and walk around during the films. Movies are offered on all autism group cruises and cruises when there are at least five children with a disability onboard. Pettit noted that the movie sessions were beta tested on Oasis of the Seas in 2013 and got great results.
The full range of activities offered can be found at www.RoyalCaribbena.com/AutismFriendly. The dates and times of these activities will be highlighted in the Cruise Compass Program.
“The young passengers with autism are not in a separate section. They are integrated into the programs we have, and our staff has been trained to provide a wonderful experience for the child, and his/her family. We have already been very successful accommodating passengers with disabilities. The Autism Friendly certification builds on our success. We recognize that a family with a child with a disability is on duty 24/7 so it is extra nice for the parents to be able to participate in activities with their child, but also be able to have a dinner by themselves.
Pettit says, “Many of the things we do every day are all complimentary, with no additional charge for families and their loved ones who have disabilities. The one thing we do not have is additional staff to serve guests with autism who are over the age of 18. There are group cruises that often offer additional staff that may be right for these families to use.” Pettit says these companies who offer group cruises with extra staff often work with the cruise line (see below).
Training and Planning are Key
Royal Caribbean is one of the first cruise lines to offer training for travel agents. “Over eighty percent of our cruises are booked with travel agents and we tell our agents about the accessible options through a series of webinars called the University of WOW including a course on their autism-friendly program in their on-line training program/.. We developed this program and are making an effort to communicate to the public to let them know that this option is here. We already are doing many of the things that the certification required and so we wanted to get recognition for our efforts,” says Pettit.
He adds, “We continue to progress. Right now we are at the bronze level of certification and that means we have it all in place and the next level, the silver level, includes training of our Adventure Ocean staff in awareness. We plan to finish that by the end of this year. Adventure Ocean staff will have advanced training, next year and the last training is a hands-on for youth staff and a few other select groups. Training will be very specific.”
When Pettit was asked if the company was finished with its over-the-top accessibility features, the answer was a resounding ‘NO.” With the next tier of certification to accomplish, and additional training for staff, the company aimed to have this all completed by end of 2014. He added, “As we launched our initiative, we saw all the wonderful and positive feedback from our guests and the autism community. One in particular stood out to me:
“I just want to thank you for your efforts to become an expert in dealing with autistic children. My wife and I have adopted several children with special needs, most on the Autism spectrum and this is truly an amazing thing. Thank you so much for this as a dad.” – James D.
For more information about the program, prospective guests can contact Royal Caribbean’s Access Department at (866) 592-7225 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about Royal Caribbean’s committment to accessibility at www.RoyalCaribbean.com/AccessibleSeas.
A sampling of travel services that work with RCL: