: Arbor Lodge Park / Harper's Playground

Sensory-Friendly Activities in Oregon

Travelers of all ages can enjoy sensory-friendly fun around the state.
October 24, 2023

For neurodiverse visitors and those with other sensory sensitivities, the simple act of travel — whether it’s across town or around the world — means visiting a place that wasn’t typically designed to meet their needs. Attractions across Oregon have been working hard to change that by bolstering their sensory-friendly offerings. In some cases, theaters turn up the lights and turn down the sound to help more moviegoers enjoy the show. In other instances, museums offer special times or spaces for sensory-sensitive visitors so they can enjoy exhibits in a quieter environment. Here’s a look at how theaters, museums and even playgrounds around Oregon are adjusting programming to be more inclusive for both neurodivergent kids and adults.

A sensory room with soft lighting, reading chairs and textured walls.
The sensory at Portland International Airport features a quiet space, soft lighting and large windows. (Courtesy of Port of Portland)

Relax Before Flying out of Portland

Air travel can be stressful at the best of times. And for neurodiverse travelers, the steady stream of stimuli can quickly overwhelm. To help children with sensory needs, Portland International Airport has partnered with a pair of local organizations — the Autism Society of Oregon and the Portland chapter of the national nonprofit KultureCity — to create a sensory room. 

Located on Concourse D near gate D10, the room includes a large window that overlooks the runways, soft lighting, wooden puzzles, reading chairs, textured walls and other tools that help travelers relax and engage all five senses for a quiet spot to recharge in the airport.

The airport has also implemented an innovative program to help visitors with hidden disabilities, who can opt to wear a sunflower lanyard to indicate they may need extra help while traveling.

Outdoor Fun for Kids in Portland and Forest Grove

Leading the way in inclusive kids’ activities, playgrounds have made huge strides to help visitors feel more comfortable. In 2010 Harper’s Playground launched as a nonprofit dedicated to building inclusive playgrounds for children from all backgrounds. Today you can find more than a dozen such play areas that avoid wood chips, stairs and other barriers for certain children.

The organization’s first inclusive playground, Harper’s Playground at Arbor Lodge Park in Portland, features natural ramps and hills, accessible saucer swings and soft surfaces. West of Portland in Forest Grove, another Harper’s Playground project, Anna & Abby’s Yard, is enchanting for children of all ages. The open play area draws inspiration from the natural surroundings — most notably through an “infinity tree” crafted from the stump of a 200-year-old sequoia tree, a wooden dragon named Wilder and magical fairy huts.

Carousel figurines. A horse wears a hat.
The historic carousel in Albany offers sensory-friendly rides on the first Wednesdays of the month.

Ride a Carousel in Style in Albany

In the summer of 2017, the Historic Carousel & Museum of Albany opened its doors to the world, inviting visitors from all walks of life to ride roughly 50 hand-carved, hand-painted animals and fantastical creatures. As part of those efforts, the Willamette Valley attraction hosts sensory-friendly rides on the first Wednesday of each month. Each time, lights are dimmed, the carousel slows down and organ music is turned lower for riders who’d like to hop aboard a zebra, unicorn, dragon or 7-foot-tall giraffe.

Enjoy a Family-Friendly Film in Hermiston

We all enjoy a night out at the movies — munching mouthfuls of popcorn, watching superheroes save the day and getting swept up in the magic of film. At Hermiston Stadium 8 Cinema in Eastern Oregon, a monthly sensory-friendly movie event ensures everyone can enjoy the experience.

Each month the theater shows a family-friendly film that caters to neurodiverse moviegoers. During the movies, all of which appeal to kids, staff also turn up the lights, lower the sound volume and allow audience members the freedom to stand up and move around during the screening.

Shipwreck Exhibit and Soft Blankets in Astoria

The Columbia River Maritime Museum, a long-standing Astoria institution, covers a wide range of weighty topics — like shipwrecks and the dangerous Columbia River bar. It works to make that history and insight more accessible with its Sensory Sunday programming, held on the first Sunday of each month.

As part of the fun, the museum dims its lights, offers arts and crafts activities, turns off video presentations and lowers its audio — or shuts it off altogether. A self-regulation station, meanwhile, provides additional support with soft blankets, bean-bag chairs, foam flooring and other tools.

A young boy smiles at an exhibit of an owl perched on a log.
The museum's exhibits are open after hours for those with sensory needs through the "Museum and Me" program. (Courtesy of the High Desert Museum)

Special Exhibit Hours and Goodie Bags in Bend

Over the years, the High Desert Museum has earned acclaim for an expansive look at Central Oregon’s history, industry and wildlife through a variety of indoor-outdoor exhibits. Its quarterly “Museum and Me” program strives to make that accessible to all visitors — children and adults alike — by remaining open after hours exclusively for those with disabilities.

Even if you aren’t in town for the program, feel free to request what’s called a “Brain Break Bag” to use whenever the museum is open. The bag is filled with coloring pages, communication cards, noise-canceling headphones and other items to help reduce anxiety and overstimulation.

About The

Matt Wastradowski
Matt Wastradowski is a travel and outdoors writer living in Portland, Oregon. He’s written about the outdoors, craft beer, history, and more for the likes of Outside, the REI Co-op Journal, Willamette Week, 1859, and Northwest Travel & Life.

Trip Ideas