Disability-Friendly Vacation Destinations
Stress-free vacations are something we all enjoy, right?! Wrong – those don’t exist. Even a vacation comes with stressful factors, such as planning, packing to make sure you have EVERYTHING just to realize you forgot that ONE thing, arranging pet care (if you have pets), getting there safely, and we won’t even get into the recovery session needed post vacation before returning to reality. Most of us can relate to these inevitable struggles of vacationing; what we cannot all relate to is the additional stress factors experienced by families planning trips with members who have disabilities and special needs. This usually starts with choosing a disability-friendly vacation spot, which can be overwhelming.
Let go of hesitations and focus on destinations
While picking a destination, people tend to search with relaxation in mind. The majority of families with special needs are hesitant to leave their “norm” and familiar surroundings, therefore accommodation and inclusivity are the primary areas of focus rather than relaxation. For most of these families, traveling away from home is accompanied by a new (and sometimes long) list of concerns.
That being said, no matter the amount of extra stress, vacations are something EVERYONE needs in their life. Navigating these trips with special needs in mind requires special attention and consideration. In order to make these experiences as convenient as possible, resorts and hotels, cruise lines, parks and airlines all continue to expand their services and accommodations for those in need. Let’s take a look at some of these inclusive travel options…
The increase in disability-related training and certifications throughout hotels and resorts is hopeful! Hotels and resorts all over are striving to be more considerate and sensitive to guests with special needs through training, programs, design, and special services. In your search for special needs friendly vacation stay, you can now find accommodations such as wheelchair accessible pools and beaches, sensory rooms, listening devices, designated floors with thicker walls to provide quiet rooms, tailored safety kits in rooms, roll-in showers and fold-down shower benches, adaptive activities and sports, and so much more.
Champion Autism Network (CAN) named Surfside Beach and the City of Myrtle Beach Autism-Friendly Vacation Destinations. There are multiple beaches that offer beach wheelchairs, at no cost, while others have beach wheelchairs and scooters available for rent. Some wheelchair accessible and disability-friendly attractions include Ripley’s Aquarium, Cherry Grove Pier, SkyWheel (a 20-story high ferris wheel with enclosed gondolas), and Savannah’s Playground.
Wilmington, North Carolina has wheelchair accessible beaches, and some even have seasonal wheelchair beach mats. Children with disabilities can also enjoy The Children’s Museum of Wilmington, North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Cameron Art Museum, adaptive surfing at Life Rolls On, and so much more.
Shared Adventures, a nonprofit in Santa Cruz, California, has an annual family-friendly Day on the Beach event held in July. On this day, more than 300 people with special needs and their families join an enthusiastic team of volunteers to share a full day of adaptive sports, such as kayaking, outrigger canoeing, scuba diving, and beach wheelchair rides. In addition to water activities, they offer live music and entertainment, free food, sandcastle building, and more; the best part is this fun experience is all FREE.
Cruise Lines Making Waves in Disability-Friendly Vacation Options
While cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters should maintain compliance with the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there are some cruise lines that go above and beyond for passengers with disabilities. Special Needs at Sea recognizes Royal Caribbean International for having roomy spaces and being exceptionally accessible. Royal’s Symphony of the Seas was acknowledged as the world’s largest cruise ship in 2018. It offers wide doors, low door sills, ramped thresholds, roll-in showers, grab bars, turning spaces, lowered sinks and vanity, lowered closet rods and so much more.
Another well-known cruise line that recognizes the special needs community when developing their ships and featured attractions is Disney. Guests with disabilities have access to comfortable staterooms and suites, along with a full range of services, facilities, and amenities, including auxiliary aids, on every Disney Cruise Line ship. You will find accommodating features, equipment, and services, such as 32” (minimum) doorways, open bed frames, emergency call buttons, transfer bench (upon request), communication kits (door knock and phone alerts, bed shaker notification, and a strobe light smoke detector – available upon request), ASL interpreters, and much more.
Amusement and acceptance at theme parks
Did you know Specially Gifted Foundation gifted a trip to Disney for SGF Kiddo Parker and his family?! Disney World is not only a magical place, but also a place that provides an inclusive environment with accessible experiences for guests with disabilities. During your visit, guests with a need will have the option to utilize a handheld device that offers assistive listening, captioning, and audio description. They also offer a program, Disability Access Service (DAS), to assist those who, due to a disability, are unable to wait for extended time periods for attractions. As you are planning your trip to Disney, it’s important to visit their site and review all of their services for guests with disabilities and contact Disability Services.
Have you been to Texas before? If not, you will want to go there now. Located in San Antonio, Texas is the world’s first Ultra Accessible Family Fun Park, Morgan’s Wonderland. This incredible amusement park, featuring a fully accessible water park, was developed in 2010 by Gordon Hartman. Gordon’s daughter served as his inspiration as he designed a place where “those with and without disabilities can come together for fun and a better understanding of one another.” Here you will find over 25 traditional and adaptive options for kids to play on together, including wheelchair-friendly swings and The Sensory Village.
Not only does this park offer accommodations for all guests, but admission is FREE for all guests with special needs. If you are interested in visiting, their website offers a virtual tour, maps of the parks, helpful FAQ’s, suggestions for hotel partners nearby, and so many other resources.
Other theme parks with a focus on inclusivity and accessibility include Sesame Place, Legoland, Dollywood, Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari Water Park, MarineLand, SeaWorld, and more.
Hotels and Resorts Offering Disability-Friendly Vacation Experiences
Beaches Resorts became the first resort company in the world to be recognized as a Certified Autism Center (CAC) by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). These resorts offer special services such as sensory-friendly spaces, special dietary modifications, one-on-one Beach Buddies, and more. Beaches Resorts also have certified kids’ camp staff and water sports and PADI staff that are trained and certified to assist and accommodate children with autism. You can visit these resorts in Jamaica and Turks and Caicos.
St. Pete Beach, Florida is home to Tradewinds Island Resort. Tradewins is Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) certified. Some of their special services include corner guards, door alarms, a Social Book (a comfort tool informing the reader of what to expect during their stay), temporary safety tattoos, and so much more.
Would you rather play in white fluffy snow instead of white sandy beaches? No worries! Park City Resort in Utah offers adaptive skiing experiences for the whole family. Aspen Snowmass in Colorado is made up of four mountains; each of these provides certain accommodations for those with special needs. The Challenge Aspen program consists of adaptive, recreational, and cultural activities year-round, with skiing and snowboarding in the winter. In the summer, there’s hiking, fishing, therapeutic art, drama, and outdoor adventure camps. They also offer the Ascendigo program (pairs specially trained instructors with those on the autism spectrum) and the Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program.
There are countless resorts across the country that offer adaptive ski and snowboarding lessons, in addition to other outdoor and snow sport activities, for those with disabilities. Earlier this year, SGF Kiddo Jake and his family were finally able to take their ski trip out west that was gifted back in 2021. His family was kind enough to send SGF a video of Jake showcasing his awesome ski skills; watch his video here.
Adventure Awaits for ALL!
Now that we’ve covered countless travel options, where are we going?! This list is nowhere near as long as it could be, which makes my heart smile. Travel agents are also a helpful source for your special needs friendly trip planning. Knowing that these families, who usually face limitations everywhere in one form or another, are gradually gaining more opportunities to travel and spend time with their families is incredible!
Picking a disability-friendly vacation destination is only part of planning the experience. With each family and individual comes a unique set of challenges to plan for, including different types of assistive devices or therapy equipment, comforting items, medications, and the list goes on. No matter the preventative measures taken, you can never guarantee a completely uneventful trip; this applies to everyone. So, take the time to plan the trip and make beautiful memories every moment you are able.
Resources for Disability-Friendly Vacation Planning
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