While strolling around a ship, it’s unlikely that most guests give a thought to why the corridors are the width they are, or why some of the gaming tables in the casino are lower than others. They may not notice that entrances to all public rooms are on a gentle slope.
And they may simply not know that an exciting, stimulating vacation can be too much of both for people with autism.
“People with disabilities are incredibly brand loyal,” says Ron Pettit, RCL senior manager for disability inclusion and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. “Once they find a company that works for them, they’re loyal. They’re loyal to Royal.”
Royal Caribbean takes care of guests with disabilities and, Pettit says, it gets the same in return.
“Some of the data we have show that it’s really worth going after this market. It’s not just the right thing to do, but it is good business. And that’s what we do.”
The Chicago-based advocacy group Open Doors Organization found in a 2015 market study that adults with disabilities spend $17.3 billion annually on their own travel, up from $13.6 billion in 2002. Since they typically travel with one or more other adults, the economic impact is actually double, the study found, or $34.6 billion.
Within the cruise sector, other studies have found that 12 percent of Americans with disabilities have taken a cruise in the last five years – two percent more than the general population.
In 2014, Autism on the Seas, a national organization that has worked with Royal Caribbean International since 2007 developing cruise services for adults and children with developmental disabilities, certified Royal Caribbean as its first Autism Friendly Cruise Line. Celebrity Cruises was certified in 2015. And this year, Autism on the Seas and Royal Caribbean were together named Business of the Year by the Autism Society of America.
Recently, when RCL saw that one movie theater chain voluntarily offered “sensory-friendly” showings for those with autism, the cruiseline decided to do the same in its shipboard theaters.
“The traditional movie experience is not always autistic-friendly because the theaters are dark, the sound is so loud, people are expected to sit quietly in their seats,” Pettit says. “It doesn’t bode very well for individuals with autism. The movie itself is not the issue. The issue is the environment.”
So when Royal Caribbean’s ships host an autism-friendly movie showing, the lights are dim, but it’s not dark. The sound is on, but not very loud. And guests are encouraged to get up and walk around.
Pettit says RCL also hosts advisory boards dealing with a wide variety of disabilities “to help us stay close to our target audiences, and for the travel agents.”
In its collaboration with RCI, Autism on the Seas says other special needs that are accommodated include Down syndrome, Tourette syndrome, cerebral palsy and all cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities.
In a sense, besides onboard amenities, when it comes to developmental and physical disabilities they cover the waterfront.