LEGOLAND Florida Prohibits Boy With Limb Differences From Going on Rides

Will Hawkins was celebrating his 5th birthday at LEGOLAND Florida with his mom and dad, Kristen Gere and James Hawkins, when an employee prohibited Hawkins, who was born without fingers, from riding an attraction.

The family flew from Michigan to Florida for a limb difference sports camp hosted by NubAbility Athletics — an organization centered around the belief that children are able to do anything they put their minds to. Hawkins’ family arrived a few days early so he could spend his birthday at LEGOLAND.

They arrived at LEGOLAND Thursday morning and had no issues at the park until they attempted to get on their fourth ride of the day. An attendant told Hawkins’ dad the boy couldn’t ride because he couldn’t hold on. Hawkins’ father replied that his son was capable of riding and holding on.

The attendant called a manager, who escorted the family to guest services. Guest services offered to refund the family’s tickets since the park was prohibiting Hawkins from going on its rides. Later, guest services told Gere if Hawkins demonstrated his ability to hold on, he could ride the rides. According to Gere, Hawkins, “already feeling insecure,” did not want to do that.

“I’m sorry, but my son doesn’t need to prove to anyone what his abilities are. I’m his parent and if I tell you he can hold on, he can.” Gere wrote in a Facebook post about the family’s experience.

The family took the refund and gift shop credit and left. “I will never step foot in Legoland again,” Gere wrote, adding, “My son is embarrassed, hurt, and confused as to why he can’t spend his birthday the way we’ve talked about for months. Shame on you LEGOLAND Florida.”

People from the disability community and other parents commented on and shared Gere’s post, offering words of support as well as their disappointment with LEGOLAND Florida’s decision.

I’ve made this post public and I’m asking you to share. We have a son, born without fingers who turned 5 today. Will is…

Posted by Kristen Gere on Thursday, February 1, 2018

LEGOLAND responded to Gere’s Facebook post:

We are heartbroken to hear you had a disappointing experience and we would like to speak to you privately about this situation so that we may better educate our Model Citizens (employees) on how to address a similar situation in the future. Safety will always be our No. 1 priority for our guests but we also want to do everything we can to ensure that every child has an awesome day at our park.

We are heartbroken to hear you had a disappointing experience and we would like to speak to you privately about this situation so that we may better educate our Model Citizens (employees) on how to address a similar situation in the future. Safety will always be our No. 1 priority for our guests but we also want to do everything we can to ensure that every child has an awesome day at our park.

Several parents responded to LEGOLAND’s comment, expressing outrage and disappointment over their discrimination.

Sounds like this isn’t an isolated incident. Thorough disability training for your whole company could go a long way in supporting all kids and families, instead of shaming and discriminating. Everyone is capable in their own way, and these situations are being handled horribly.

Should have had managers to correct this problem at the time. Too little too late. A horrible thing was done to this little boy!

LEGOLAND responded to commenters stating it strives to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for kids of all abilities, claiming their top priority is the safety of their guests. LEGOLAND follows the policies of its ride manufacturers, posted on its website so that guests can plan their visit.

Again we are very sorry about the disappointment Will felt today. We strive to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for kids of all abilities. Our top priority is the safety of our guests. We follow the policies of our ride manufacturers and we realize that these policies vary from park to park. These policies are posted on our website along with other resources to help our guests plan their visit.

People were not satisfied with LEGOLAND’s response.  LEGOLAND Florida Your parks complete lack of empathy and inclusion is what speaks volumes, not your “policies”. Story after story about families being treated so poorly for their differences. That’s the problem here, your park CULTURE. Nothing to do with the disability. Clearly you’re missing the mark and also the point.

At the very least there needs to be some basic instruction on how to handle these situations with families and the children in the future. There is no reason a child should ever be humiliated in front of the public and made to feel less than due to not appearing “normal”. I appreciate that you have taken the time to reply here but this situation touched at least two levels if not more within the parks ladder of command. It wasn’t handled well from the customer perspective and that’s a shame. Perhaps you should hold off on calling your employees model citizens until they can truly act accordingly.

Gere said she doesn’t want other children to face this kind of discrimination at LEGOLAND Florida. “I think it’s just important for people to understand that you should never make assumptions about someone’s abilities because of how they look and that all children deserve equal access to things like LEGOLAND,” she told The Mighty.

In response to the family’s experience at its park, LEGOLAND told The Mighty:

We’ve reached out to Will’s mother to talk directly and find out more about this incident and how we can better help families like hers in the future. We are devastated to hear Will had a disappointing experience when it was supposed to be a joyful celebration of his fifth birthday. We strive to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for everyone. We follow the safety guidelines of our ride manufacturers and realize they might vary from park to park. We have lots of ride safety information on our website and we encourage families to communicate with our guest services team pre-arrival to address any concerns or questions they may have so they can make the most of their visit with us. We also recognize that our attempt to explain our safety protocols upset Will’s mother even further, and we never want to appear unempathetic or inflexible in meeting the individual needs of families that visit our park. We are committed to providing a safe and enjoyable visit for kids of all abilities and welcome a dialog with experts and parents to improve the experience for future guests.

LEGOLAND followed its original statement, saying it spoke to NubAbility and will work to make its parks more accessible to those with limb differences. Last year, LEGOLAND implemented several sensory-friendly initiatives for parkgoers on the autism spectrum, which The Mighty covered.

[A]s a result of Thursday’s incident we are in the process of reviewing our policies and guidelines to make sure that we are as inclusive as possible while maintaining safe conditions. The policies and guidelines are not just designed for situations where an attraction functions within normal operating parameters; they also consider the safety concerns that might arise in an unusual event, malfunction or emergency situation.

Meanwhile, the NubAbility organization reached out to us today and we responded. We hope to benefit from their wisdom and insights as we begin a dialogue about better serving the needs of limb-different families. We’re sincere in our efforts to learn from this incident to ensure another family doesn’t have a similarly heartbreaking experience at our resort. As The Mighty has chronicled over the past couple years, LEGOLAND Florida Resort has devoted significant efforts to make our theme park and water park more inclusive for guests on the autism spectrum. We made those changes in consultation with advocates for those families and we welcome the opportunity to listen to limb-different families and their advocates in this instance as well.

After leaving LEGOLAND Florida, Hawkins’ parents took him to the beach for his birthday. The family is still in Florida, and Hawkins is currently enjoying sports camp, his mom said.

Will Hawkins at baseball field, he is wearing a blue shirt that reads "Game Changer" and has his arms spread apart.

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