12 sensory-friendly attractions and entertainment options in Toronto
From the ROM to Scotiabank Arena, here are a dozen popular spots that make sensory accommodations for those who need them.
Living in a city as someone with sensory processing differences can be difficult, and I know this from first-hand experience. I’m a neurodivergent person with these issues myself, and have lived in Toronto for many years.
In my book, Stumbling Through Space and Time: Living Life With Dyspraxia, I describe how sensory overload temporarily increases the severity of my co-occurring neurodivergence and makes it difficult to function independently. I experience anxiety, severe headaches, a lack of focus, and an inability to react to the limitations of my environment. When I am experiencing sensory overload, I am never thinking clearly, and more likely to bump into people and things.
These differences are far from unique to me — current estimates show that between five and 16 per cent of people have some form of sensory processing issues, many of whom have co-occurring neurodivergent conditions as well. Extrapolate that out over the Greater Toronto Area, and you have a large number of people who can’t enjoy the crowds and noise of many popular spots as they’re meant to be enjoyed.
Luckily, some Toronto attractions are learning to create environments that don’t trigger sensory overload. These relaxed experiences at theatres, cinemas, and museums often feature dimmer lights and quieter sounds.
We’ve pinpointed 12 of Toronto’s sensory-friendly attractions and entertainment experiences. You can find them on the map or in the list below. If you or someone you know has sensory processing issues, it’s definitely worth a browse.
Click on any item in this list for more info on sensory-friendly programming.
- Royal Ontario Museum
- Young People’s Theatre
- Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada
- Scotiabank Arena
- BMO Field
- Ontario Science Centre
- Theatre Passe Muraille
- Art Galley of Ontario
- Rogers Centre
- Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall
- Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
- Coca-Cola Coliseum
Royal Ontario Museum
In collaboration with Autism Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum created an online sensory-friendly guide. It provides an in-depth review of the museum’s sensory characteristics, since knowing what to expect from your environment can help address anxiety and uncertainty.
I worked at the ROM when I was a teenager. Back then, I knew exactly what parts of the museum were consistently the quietest, and I would always go to my favourite quiet area at the end of the day. Having some alone time with my thoughts helped me regain enough energy to walk home in the right direction.
The ROM’s quiet spaces are in the following locations:
- First floor: Follow the futalognkosaurus dinosaur tail to the corner beside the stairwell. There is also an amphitheatre at the back of the Canada First Peoples Gallery.
- Second floor: Dinosaur gallery visitors will find a room just past the doorway that leads to the washrooms.
- Third floor: From the Shreyas and Mina Ajmera Gallery of Africa, The Americas, and Asia-Pacific, turn right at the main elevators and follow the wall to the window. You will find some seats and tables.
- Fourth floor: Low lighting and ample seating are in the corner. Fourth-floor galleries may sometimes be closed during exhibition changes.
If you need to recharge in a private space, the first aid and special needs room is on the first floor. Ask the security guards to help you find it.
Young People’s Theatre
Toronto’s theatre for young audiences’ 2022-2023 season includes both accessible performances — which include audio descriptions, American Sign Language support, and seats for mobility devices and support animals — and relaxed performances. The dates for these performances are available online.
According to the Young People’s Theatre website, relaxed performances “make the theatre-going experience more sensory-friendly. This includes a relaxed attitude to our rules and adjusted sound and lighting levels. If you need a break, there’s a quiet area to watch the performance on video.”
Before the performance, patrons can check out Young People’s Theatre’s online guide, which provides a detailed review of the sights and sounds a typical performance involves. If you prefer to digest information in a video format, there is also a video version of the guide.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada is the first organization in Canada to be certified as an autism center by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES).
IBCCES trains Ripley’s staff on working with people with sensory sensitivity and processing issues. Their sensory guides have also been incorporated into exhibits, informing visitors on what to expect from the aquarium environment.
Sensory-friendly hours are also held on the first Sunday of every month from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., and offer increased lighting, music-free environments, and a quiet room for visitors who need a break.
Scotiabank Arena has been certified a Sensory Inclusive business by KultureCity, a U.S.-based non-profit advocating for the needs of people with sensory processing difficulties. That means staff receive training on how to handle and identify sensory processing differences.
Visitors can get customized sensory bags from the fan services department. Every bag can contain some or all the following items: noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys, verbal cue cards, and weighted lap pads.
Bags can be pre-arranged by emailing email@example.com or arranged during events by texting 647-694-0454.
You can also speak to the fan services department if you need a break from the high-stimulus venue. According to the MLSE website, fan service desks are located behind section 119 and section 301.
BMO Field and Scotiabank Arena offer many of the same sensory friendliness programs. All employees receive training on serving patrons with disabilities. At BMO field, you can also book a sensory bag in advance through the BMO Field’s fan service department. Customized sensory-friendly bags include fidget toys and noise-cancelling headphones.
You can also arrange access to a quiet area through the fan services desk if you need a break from noise and crowds. To book a sensory bag or access a quiet area, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the on-site fan services desk located at:
- Gate 1: Beside the ticket office
- Gate 3: Behind sections 113-114
- 500 Level: Behind section 207
Ontario Science Centre
In 2018, the Ontario Science Centre collaborated with the Geneva Centre for Autism to make the Centre accessible to neurodivergent visitors and their families. One of the programs to emerge from this collaboration is the Sensory-Friendly Saturdays program, which takes place on the first Saturday of every month.
Patrons can watch an IMAX movie with the lights turned up and the sound turned down, without an opening pre-show. Theatre doors also remain open. Visit the Ontario Science Centre website for more information.
Other sensory-friendly programs include a relaxed, drop-in planetarium experience and an accessible technology showcase.
The Science Centre also has a social story booklet, which provides a detailed overview of the centre’s sensory features.
Theatre Passe Muraille
Theatre Passe Muraille produces new work that reflects the intercultural nature of Canada. To reflect its diversity mandate, it also takes accessibility seriously. This includes relaxed performances.
According to the performance schedule: “The set-up includes a pre-show introduction to the actors. Every show has low-intensity sound and lighting and the ability for anyone to come and go. There is also a calm space outside the theatre.”
If you have to leave the theatre during the performance, there is a relaxed space in the lobby you can visit with comfortable seating, blankets, and fidget toys.
The relaxed performance times are regularly updated to reflect the current performance schedule. A relaxed performance facilitator is available for emotional support at some relaxed performances.
Art Gallery of Ontario
The Art Gallery of Ontario’s relaxed viewing program is in its pilot-program stages. The tentative long-term dates are Tuesdays from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m, and the next formally scheduled relaxed viewing day is Dec. 6.
According to the AGO website, relaxed viewing hours include the following accommodations:
- Visitors are welcome to move around and express themselves vocally.
- Visitors will have in-advance access to a visual guide. The guide details the AGO experience step by step.
- A sensory map with detailed information about navigating the AGO. Select exhibition spaces include audio and visual stimuli. The map highlights quiet zones to work around this issue.
- Access to sensory kits. The kits include noise-reducing headphones, a visual timer, visual cues, and fidget toys. The multisensory art cart offers sensory-based activities, and sunglasses are available upon request.
For those who want to visit the AGO during its relaxed viewing hours, bookings can be made in advance online.
Guests at Jays games can also request sensory bags in advance containing noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys, and verbal cue cards.
If you need a break from the crowds and noise, quiet areas are available in the following locations:
- Gate 3: Elevator lobbies (100 and 200 levels)
- Gate 13: Elevator lobby on the 500 Level
An available sensory room allows fans to take a break from crowds and noise in a private environment. It’s located by section 212, behind the fan services desk.
At the fan service booths, anyone can request a sensory bag or gain access to a quiet space or a sensory room. The fan service booths are available in the following locations:
- 100 Level: Sections 120 and 135
- 200 Level: Sections 212 and 236
- 500 Level: Sections 508 and 532
Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall
At the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), relaxed performance options are available. According to the TSO website, here are the key features of a relaxed performance:
- Patrons can move around, express themselves vocally or leave the concert hall.
- Access to a venue guide that explains the concert experience and the performance.
- Three rows of seats at the back of the hall are for guests who want to move further away from the sound of the orchestra on stage.
- Patrons can access a quiet room with comfortable seating.
- Fidget toys and relaxing activities are available.
Before the concert, you can sign out sound-dampening headphones. You must return the headphones afterwards.
TSO staff and musicians receive training on working with people who have sensory processing difficulties. Relaxed performance consultant Rachel Marks conducts this training.
TSO regularly updates their relaxed performance schedule to reflect the current events calendar.
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
Since 1979, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre has produced alternative and queer theatre as the world’s largest and longest-running queer theatre. It is also very accessible to disabled patrons.
One of many ways the theatre prioritises accessibility is by making relaxed performance options available in the festival and mainstage seasons. According to its website: “This set-up includes low light in the audience during the performance. It also includes a pre-show introduction to the play, the characters, and the sound and light cues. We use less intense sound and lighting effects. Audience members can come and go from the space.”
Do you want to know about future relaxed performance options? Email communications and development manager Aidan at email@example.com.
Are you a fan of the Toronto Marlies? Or do you visit the Coca-Cola Coliseum for concerts and live events?
If you answered yes to either of those questions, you may love the news that the venue is now sensory inclusive. As with many of Toronto’s sports stadiums, sensory bags are available for visitors. Sensory bags contain a mixture of fidget toys, noise-cancelling headphones, and weighted pads.
Quiet-space access is also available for anyone who finds the stadium’s crowds and noise overwhelming. If you need a sensory bag or a quiet space, you can contact the fan services department by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also talk to the fan services department on-site. The fan services desk is at Gate 1, behind Section 117.
Code and markup by Bridget Walsh. ©Torontoverse, 2022