Anyone who’s organized a trip for the whole family knows how much time and effort it takes. But if you’re the parent of a special needs child, you can pretty much double or triple that figure. So much preparation is required that getting out of the house, reaching your destination successfully and still managing to have a good time can be considered a small miracle. But families do it every day — and have the time of their lives, over and over again. Consider one of these amazing special needs family vacations for your next adventure.
Destinations, Cruises and Tours for Children With Special Needs
Morgan’s Wonderland – San Antonio
One of childhood’s most cherished sensations is that of flying through the air on a swing. This is something many disabled children never experienced — until Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas, came along. Billed as the world’s first Ultra Accessible Family Fun Park, this amusement park offers more than 30 traditional, adaptive and wheelchair swings, along with The Sensory Village, Music Garden, Wonderland Express and Depot (train ride) and more. In 2017, Morgan’s Wonderland also added Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a fully accessible water park. Visitors with special needs get free admission to Morgan’s Wonderland.
Disney – All Locations
Of course, it’s hard to beat Disney in pretty much any category, and catering to special needs guests is one of them. Although the parks are full of crowds and activity, they all manage to personalize service for those with special needs. Disney provides assistance for those with cognitive, visual, hearing and mobility disabilities, plus light sensitivity, and also provides help for those in wheelchairs. Of course, Disney hotels cater to special needs families, as well.
Shared Adventures – Santa Cruz, Calif.
Santa Cruz is a well-known summer spot because of its Beach Boardwalk and gorgeous location. But it is also home to Shared Adventures, a non-profit organization that puts on an impressive array of summer programs for special needs children and adults. In July, it hosts an annual Day on the Beach, which offers adaptive or assisted kayaking, canoe rides, scuba diving and flotation for people of all ages. Volunteers erect plywood “paths” for wheelchair access; you can also rent beach wheelchairs. The day ends with live music and free food. The organization also holds year-round activities and events.
Splore – Moab, Utah
Splore is a not-for-profit program in Moab, Utah, that provides outdoor activities for special needs children and adults at affordable prices. Staff organize river trips, rock climbing and hiking through a partnership with Red Cliffs Lodge. More of a resort than a hotel, Red Cliffs Lodge offers an impressive variety of accommodations and activities. Four-wheeling, river riding, horseback riding, mountain biking, scenic flights and hiking are all within 10 minutes of the lodge, and most are adaptive for those with special needs. There are wheelchair-accessible rooms adjacent to the lodge. Sidewalks with ramps lead to all patios and the museum. And while most meals are “traditional cowboy fare,” the chefs can rustle up special menus upon request.
Dollywood – Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
When Tara Kline-Kennedy of Shoemakersville, Pennsylvania, took her two boys to Dollywood, they loved it — especially her youngest, who is autistic. “He loved the calmness of it, even though it was a theme park,” she recalls. “In addition to the great shows and exhibits, there were tons of rides he could enjoy, even at his small size.”
Dollywood is located within Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and has a rural feel, with lots of trees and natural creeks running through the property. In 2016, the park added a sensory room for children with autism, and in 2017, it added a Calming Corner at its water park. The park has also adapted many of its attractions, including The Barnstormer, FireChaser Express and Lightning Rod. Companion Care Restrooms and Adult Changing Restrooms are available, as well.
Park City Resort – Park City, Utah
In Utah, great skiing awaits families at a number of resorts and lodges. Park City Resort is one of the biggest ski destinations in Utah, and according to Barb Likos, a professional writer and mother to a wheelchair-using son, it is also the best for catering to physical disabilities. “The resort works in tandem with the National Ability Center to make adaptive skiing part of a whole family experience,” she explains. Once, when the resort’s newest tube lift could not accommodate her son’s wheelchair, the staff insisted on towing him up via snowmobile each time. Later, Likos found out they revamped the lift with a rubber and wood platform so that disabled tubers could sit on their tubes on the way up the lift.
Royal Caribbean Cruises
Royal Caribbean became the first autism-friendly cruise line in 2014. The cruise line provides sensory-related toys, autism-friendly movies and modified kids’ programs for those with disabilities. The crew on the ships are required to be certified and trained in autism awareness, and some staff have had hands-on training that allows them to assist those with special needs even further.
Smugglers’ Notch – Cambridge, Vt.
Smugglers’ Notch is an overall winner for family fun, providing a heady combination of pools (eight in total, plus four waterslides), camps (including special interest camps like tennis), and mountainside condos with full kitchens and one to three bedrooms. But what truly makes it shine is its SNAP program (Smugglers’ Notch Adaptive Program), which offers nine adaptive activities including swimming, hiking and horseback riding. The resort also has an inclusion program to help integrate children with special needs into group activities. Be sure to call ahead for reservations.
Best Resorts for Children With Special Needs
Franklyn D. Resort & Spa – Runaway Bay, Jamaica
All-inclusive resorts are great for any family, but Franklyn D. Resort & Spa offers a few extras for families with special needs. The Jamaica resort offers up to 50 percent off rates year-round for families traveling with children with special needs. Plus, the resort provides every family with a personal, professionally trained vacation nanny. Parents will feel safe knowing the resort has trained staff to help their family have an even better time in Jamaica.
Beaches Resorts – Multiple Locations
Beaches Resorts pull out all the stops for families — including those with special needs. The all-inclusive resorts, located in Turks and Caicos and Jamaica, provide autism-friendly kids’ camps with specially trained staff. All of the resort restaurants cater to special dietary needs, as well. Perhaps our favorite feature, though, is Julia, a Sesame Street character with autism. Introduced to Sesame Street and Beaches Resorts in 2017, Julia happily leads Amazing Art With Julia — a creative program for all child guests of the resorts.
Tradewinds Island Resort – St. Pete Beach, Fla.
The Tradewinds Island Resort in St. Pete Beach, Florida, is CARD certified (Center for Autism and Related Disabilities), which means its staff is prepared to assist families with special needs. “Upon check-in, I asked about the amenities available to us and was told about the ‘Safety Kits’ — corner cushions, door alarms, outlet covers and more,” says Carrie McLaren, whose daughter has Down Syndrome. “They also had a great Social Book that we were able to download from their site before our arrival, letting Molly know what to expect during our stay. It was comforting to her, but also to me as a parent.”
The KONK (Kids Only No Kidding) Club also offers sensory features, and staff always ask about dietary restrictions at meals. “What I loved most about our time at the resort is that Molly was treated like a typical kid. No one at the resort saw Molly as a kid with special needs — she was just a kid having fun.” You can read more about Carrie’s family vacations at Carrie On Travel.
Wyndham Hotels – Multiple Locations
Wyndham Hotels strive to be sensitive to guests with special needs. The Wyndham Westshore, for example, was designated Tampa’s first “Autism-Friendly” hotel. The staff has been trained by the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida. Since autistic children often respond better to places they are familiar with, a kit is available that offers stories about the hotel and various “comfort items.” Another great property is the Wyndham Garden Hotel – Austin, offering five standard rooms with an extra double bed — at a discount — to families with an autistic child. The rooms are equipped with safety features such as shortened blind cords, corner guard cushions and outlet covers.
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