When 6-year-old Kyle climbed aboard the spaceship ride Thursday at the Strawberry Festival grounds, mother Kelly Merrill watched intently.
"This is a real good sign," Merrill said of her autistic son's delight as he whizzed by in a brightly colored car. "He rode the motorcycles three times, and he's interested in everything this year. He usually doesn't ride too much."
Kyle and his classmates from Loyal H. Barker Elementary School were among 1,500 disabled youngsters treated to a preview of the festival, which opens today. For the 12th year, festival and concession operators opened the grounds a day early and gave free rides, hot dogs, cotton candy and toys to students from nearby schools.
"A lot of these kids wouldn't be able to come without this day," said Dawn Miller, president of the Strawberry Festival committee. "There is too much noise, too many activities. And some have physical challenges that would preclude them from riding on another day."
Physical limitations were no concern Thursday. Wheelchairs and strollers were parked by entrances to the rides as operators and aides gently lifted children on and off the roller coaster, the Ferris wheel and the Crazy Plane.
Michelle Buckert said her 7-year-old daughter, Caryn, doesn't talk but conveyed with facial expressions just what she thought of the outing. "You can just tell how much fun all of these kids are having," she said.
Miller said 550 volunteers, including 100 students from Garden Grove High School, worked together to make the preview day possible for the disabled children. Some served lemonade and popcorn, while others escorted youngsters from ride to ride.
Amy Nezda and Nicole Miller, both 17-year-old Garden Grove High seniors, were on hand to help students from Jordan Secondary Education Center.
"They're so excited," Miller said as she and Nezda waited for their students to exit the Dragon Wagon roller coaster. "It's so neat that they like all the rides."
Carnival ride operators are among those who volunteer their time so that the students can participate.
"The kids are having a great time," said George Belford, who operates the Crazy Plane. "When they were helping one of these kids onto the ride, it almost made me cry. When I come out here and see them, that's all I need."
The Strawberry Festival opens today and continues through Monday. Admission is free. Hours are 1 to 10 p.m. today, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday. Information: (714) 638-0981.