A small room -- only 19 by 11 feet-- is drawing new families to Dollywood, many of which never thought they would be able to go.
The park is the first in the world to open a calming room specifically designed for children with autism. Dollywood's ride accessibility coordinator, Judy Toth, created the calming room with color schemes, blankets, and toys proven to help people with autism.
"I was just so amazed with these families. To me, the parents are heroes, bringing their children here to Dollywood knowing that they could be over stimulated by the sounds, by the sights. When I heard them [the families] say they were using our first aid station or our family restroom, why can't we do something more for them?" Toth asked herself.
Since it opened in May, Dollywood says more than 84 families have used the room. Dollywood documented at least 110 new families who visited the park, who never had before, because the room existed.
Alex Griffin, 14, has been coming to the park since he was a toddler. He can't tell you why he loves roller coasters -autism prevents him from speaking- but as soon as he hears the sounds of the theme park, he lights up.
"We would bring him when he was 2 or 3 and we would take him up here to the playground next to Thunderhead," said Alex's mother April Griffin. "And he would go to different spots on the playground and watch Thunderhead. One day he pulled away from me at the playground and ran over and got in line at Thunderhead and was trying to get on."
When he was tall enough, the Griffins gave in and let him ride Thunderhead. Now, there isn't a coaster in the park he won't try.
"He's just always had a draw to it. I don't know if it's the speed of it, or what?" April Griffin said, "He gets extremely excited when it goes by. He watches it as it runs its run."
But even in his happy place, there's no way to predict what could over stimulate Alex. Sensory overload is a common symptom of autism.
"Even certain fabrics can cause him to have a change in his demeanor," April said. "He got sun block in his eye one time at Splash Country and that was one of the worst. He wouldn't let me get it out. It was a rough little bit to get him back."
The Griffins have always appreciated that Dollywood has spacious handicap waiting areas and family restrooms. This year, even though they haven't had to use it yet, having the calming room as a back up, is comforting.
"A lot of his classmates steer away from public places like this. So hopefully with this room they'll be able to come down more often," said Chad Griffin, Alex's dad.
"It feels better to know that he has a space he can go to if he needs it. We've tried to calm him in the car before and it can be a little difficult. You really have nowhere else to go that there isn't other people. Or that you can really reach him and soothe him in a way that can get him back in a way to enjoy the park," April Griffin said.
Maybe not every child with autism will crave coasters the way Alex does, but Dollywood wants them to feel welcome.
"This changes Alex's whole world. Being able to come here, being able to stay all day," April Griffin said, "This is a huge deal to him and other family's like us."
Dollywood says other parks are now looking into adding a calming room.
If you would like to use the room on your trip to the park, call 1-800-Dollywood (1-800-365-5996) in advance or visit the Ride Accessibility Center inside the park.