Seven Vacations for Families with Children with Special Needs

Seven Vacations for Families with Children with Special Needs

Traveling with children can be a challenge, but traveling with children with special needs can be even more challenging. Here are seven vacations, including Autism on the Seas and AdventureSmith, that cater to special needs to make your vacation an actual vacation, plus tips for traveling with a wheelchair.

albuquerque sandia mountainsDowntown Albuquerque overlooks the Sandia Mountains.

Traveling with little kids is rarely if ever stress-free, but when a family has to consider the needs of a special child when planning, it can feel even less like a vacation. Happily, the travel industry is catching on: You’ll find more programs, properties, and attractions geared to families like yours than ever. Here are some of the newest and coolest!

Autism on the Seas partners with Royal Caribbean cruise line—and departs locally.

autism on the seas

Autism on the Seas staff members swim with a young guest in the waters off the coast of Labadee, Haiti.

They were the first to organize cruises sure to feel like a real vacation for every member of a special needs family. Autism on the Seas staff took care of everything for the group, including meal arrangements, activities, and land excursions. Parents who booked through Autism on the Seas didn’t have to worry about details, and knew everything they did would be geared to their needs. For parents who rarely had time for themselves, and equally for siblings who rarely got their parents’ full attention, it was a dream come true.

Many parents agree that what makes the cruise a true respite is the certified staff, who are trained in dealing with autism (as well as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and developmental disabilities). “From the moment they greeted us in the crowded terminal and checked us in promptly, to arranging for private rock climbing, to attending every single group event with energy and enthusiasm, the staff made sure we had the most accommodating environment possible,” recalls Andrea Chaput, whose son, Mason, 8, has autism. “We were even able to slip into reserved seats five minutes before show times, eliminating the waiting period that can be so problematic for our son.”

Now, it gets even better. Autism on the Seas announced this year that Royal Caribbean International, always the home of their special cruises, is certified “Autism Friendly” on each and every ship. So rather than being able to share in the Autism on the Seas experience only on certain sailings, you can now book any Royal Caribbean itinerary and know that your child will get the same chance and encouragement to participate in activities and services that anyone else would. You can sail right from Port Liberty, NJ, instead of having to fly down to Florida (unless you want to, of course). Specific amenities will depend on the age of your child, but don’t be surprised to find sensory-focused toys, autism-friendly movies, and gluten- and dairy-free dining.



AdventureSmith Explorations customizes outdoorsy water journeys.

flamingo 1 galapagos

The 20-guest vessel Flamingo I at Kicker Rock in the Galápagos during an AdventureSmith trip.

This small-ship line is a great option if you like cruising on a more intimate scale. AdventureSmith Explorations cruises appeal to nature lovers, with excursions such as kayaking, hiking, and dog-sled rides. While not all itineraries and ships are compatible with physical disabilities, two are: The Glacier Bay Adventure Cruise aboard the Sea Wolf, and the Galápagos Islands Cruise on sister ships Eric, Letty, or Flamingo. Though they can accept wheelchairs, these are small boats—12-20 guests—so if you know another special needs family or two looking to take an adventurous trip, you might consider chartering. That way, the whole journey is customized. During the planning process, families are put in contact with the captain and crew, who’ll make sure the trip is safe and fulfilling for everyone.

The reward for the extra planning is a look at sights and ports that the big ships can’t get close to and a guest-to-crew ratio that makes you the center of attention.

Shared Adventures extends coastal California beach fun to everyone.

shared adventures beach wheelchair

Shared Adventures rents beach wheelchairs such as this one year-round so all visitors can have access to the beautiful beaches of Santa Cruz, CA ($30 per day or $175 per week).

Santa Cruz, CA is known for its boardwalk and postcard-worthy beach, so why shouldn’t it be accessible to everyone who wants to take in the sea air and engage in some outdoor recreation? That’s what the folks at the nonprofit Shared Adventures thought when they opened in 1994 with the aim of creating opportunities for physically and developmentally challenged individuals to enjoy arts and social interaction and engage with the natural environment.

Every year on the third Saturday of July, Shared Adventures celebrates its signature event, Day on the Beach, which draws crowds and plentiful local volunteers—who build a huge plywood walkway over the sand to make the beach accessible to wheelchair and walker users. Activities include adaptive or assisted kayaking, flotation, outrigger canoeing, and SCUBA diving, plus there’s free live entertainment and food for participants across the age spectrum (4-80!).  

Shared Adventures provides a year-round calendar of activities for individuals with varying special needs as well as special events such as overnight camping, sailing, horseback riding, archery, indoor rock climbing, dance parties, and group outings to local state parks and museums.

Beach wheelchairs are available to rent year-round, so even if your child isn’t interested in the group’s more active options, he can certainly enjoy a relaxing beach day with the rest of the family, stress-free.

On the way to the shore, stop at the touristy (in a good way) Mystery Spot, just outside of town. The location seems to defy the laws of nature—balls roll uphill, not down, for one thing. Also only 10 minutes away is the Roaring Camp Railroad, where you can ride an old-time, accessible steam train through the Redwood Forest.

Then stay the night at the Hilton Santa Cruz, a short ride to the boardwalk. The kids will love how it looks like a castle on a hill. The rooms have roll-in showers for wheelchairs and views of sky-high redwoods.

Find helpful planning tools at the Santa Cruz Visitor’s Center and a must-have resource of area hotels, restaurants, state parks, and transportation options with detailed accessibility ratings provided by Shared Adventures at scaccessguide.com.

Tips & Tools: Wheelchair Travel Plans

  • If you are flying with a motorized wheelchair, bring documentation about the battery your wheelchair uses.
  • Tape easy-to-read instructions about how to handle your wheelchair in a very visible place on your wheelchair.
  • Pack a wheelchair repair kit. For security reasons, it’s best to stow this kit in your checked luggage.
  • Carry medicine, medical equipment, and personal care items with you in your carry-on luggage.
  • Know your rights. The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel. This law requires U.S. air carriers to accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities. Download a printable version of the Department of Transportation’s “New Horizons: Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability”.
  • Gather information and make needed reservations with medical supply companies, wheelchair repair, and transportation at your destination well in advance.

 Courtesy Access Santa Cruz County


Dollywood provides personalized attention to special guests like you.

dollywood busy bees

Two friends take their turn on the Busy Bees ride at Dollywood’s Country Fair.

Many theme parks—being massive, packed, and crazy-stimulating by their very nature—overwhelm kids with autism. But this southern favorite in the Smoky Mountains of Pigeon Forge, TN, has a calmer, less chaotic vibe. Though this park was created by Dolly Parton in 1985 and she is still involved to this day, Dollywood is in no way a tribute to this iconic performer, or even to country music. Parton designed the destination to celebrate the Smoky Mountains, where she grew up. The food and the beautiful mountain setting show off the best of the region. Even the craftsmen selling handmade souvenirs on-site are locals. And with smaller size and slower pace comes personalized attention for visitors with special needs, with guest service employees taking families from ride to ride to help them size up how appropriate it is for them and assist as needed. To have your family’s particular needs assessed, your first stop should be the Ride Accessibility Center, located in Adventures in Imagination. Any park host can direct you to it as soon as you walk through the gates.

Three of the park’s main attractions (River Battle, Village Carousel, and Dollywood Express) are adapted to accept wheelchairs.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium is nearby in Gatlinburg. Tour kid-pleasers like a real shrunken human head, a two-headed calf, and an eight-legged horse before heading up the road to the 400-foot Space Needle to take in the view. At the Apple Barn Village you can beeline to the apple wine bar while kids swarm the ice cream and candy bar. Grab a heavenly fried apple pie to take back to The Bearskin Lodge on the River, a woodsy retreat in Gatlinburg featuring in-room whirlpools, hot breakfast included, a lazy river ride that actually is a lazy (natural) river, and a free (wheelchair-accessible) trolley that takes you to Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Albuquerque plays host to the nation’s only wheelchair-accessible hot air balloon, for starters.

hot air balloons albuquerque
The Special Shape Rodeo is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta’s most popular event.

The mountains and dry, sunny climate of New Mexico would make this western city a prime getaway spot even if it weren’t so family (and special needs) friendly.

The Explora Children’s Museum, as with most kids’ museums, is structured around hands-on, open-ended play and discovery. This one, though, is also sensory-adaptation focused, with interactive sections for kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learning styles. Kids explore art, math, and science concepts at small-scale, manageable exhibits with staffers stationed at each to help little visitors along.

Albuquerque is a hot air ballooning hot spot. The annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta frequently hosts Reach for the Stars Hot Air Balloon Foundation, which operates the nation’s only wheelchair-accessible balloon (ride year-round in Temecula, CA). The wheelchair-accessible baskets have wide-access doors to allow for easy and fast loading and unloading of passengers of every ability level, and are large enough to accommodate multiple passengers at one time.

Most resorts have some kind of kids club, but the Hyatt Tamaya Resort & Spa goes one better: The hands-on learning activities are especially designed to engage alternative senses that children can enjoy regardless of their special needs. A few favorites tied into the local culture are making an adobe brick, horse and animal grooming, and Native American crafts.

Estes Park is your undisputed entrée to exceptional Rocky Mountain fun and sun.

Easier Flights: If your child has autism, you know that air travel can be challenging. Many kids with autism have a hard time with the hectic rush of an airport. JetBlue’s Wings for Autism program lets families take a ‘practice’ run going through security and boarding a plane.

Though not as well known as neighboring Denver, Estes Park is well worth the 45-minute ride from the state capital. Perched alongside Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s just as pretty as the much-pricier mountain villages in the area.

Families visiting Estes Park can take disabled children on a wilderness hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. Handicap-accessible trails include: Sprague Lake Trail (features fishing platforms and wheelchair-friendly restrooms and picnic areas); Lily Lake Trail (which has a handicap toilet, picnic tables, and a fishing pier); and Coyote Valley Trail (traveling along the Colorado River, it has arguably the best scenery of these three can’t-go-wrong options).

One of the largest outdoor therapeutic recreation agencies in the world, the National Sports Center for the Disabled’s Snow Mountain Ranch is a base camp for kids with everything from ADHD to hemophilia to take part in seasonal outings. Think Nordic hut trips and snowshoeing in winter, horseback riding and rafting in summer.

The YMCA of The Rockies Estes Park Center, though affiliated with the national organization, isn’t a YMCA in the usual sense—it’s a destination for folks from all over. This unique outpost, aside from being the grandest Y you’ve ever seen, hosts camps for families who have a child with epilepsy, cochlear implants, burns, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions (depending upon what the Y currently has most call for). You don’t need to be a resident to participate in any of the programs. And if you’re more into spending the day than signing on for a weeklong camp, customized schedules let you pick what you want your kid to experience and when, from choices including ziplining, rock wall climbing, and swimming lessons in an accessible pool. An inclusion team specialized in diversity is on hand to make sure all kids feel welcomed and part of the group.   

The Estes Park Resort is the obvious place to drop your bags. The gorgeous mountain lodge has fully accessible rooms and an indoor pool with an ADA-approved lift. It’s situated on Lake Estes, adjacent to the handicap-accessible Estes Park Marina and 3-mile paved wheelchair path around the lake.

Did You Know?
A free lifetime pass (which is good at Rocky Mountain National Park and all other U.S. National Parks and federal recreational lands) is available for all U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. There is no age requirement, but documentation must be provided and passes may take a month to process. 

Caribbean resort fully integrates all members of the family for a cultural experience.

beaches turks and caicos
Beaches Turks & Caicos will accommodate any special dietary needs in any of the 19 restaurants on the resort property.

If you’re craving a tropical climate, Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort, an all-inclusive resort by Sandals located on the island Providenciales, aims to provide activities and experiences that immerse visitors in the culture of the Turks & Caicos islands. Starting at $8 per hour, Beaches offers one-on-one care for children with special needs to ensure everyone is able participate in these offerings, from engaging in Kids Camp (including infant, toddler, pre-teen, and teen) activities to swimming in 1 of 6 pools or playing on the beach.

The one-on-one care providers are part of a special needs unit that Beaches recruits from Jamaica’s Ministry of Education, according to Joel Ryan, group manager of themed entertainment for Sandals and Beaches resorts. Beaches also works with, and makes sure all its nannies and Kids Camp staffers are accredited by, the International Nanny Association to ensure its credentials are up-to-date with U.S. child-care standards, as the majority of visitors hail from the U.S.

The staff at the resort works with the parents of a child with special needs to modify activities so they are accommodating to the child, whether it’s turning down the sound, reducing flashing lights, or doing things away from a group. If a child isn’t able to attend the Kids Camp, camp activities are brought to him or her. “We try to make sure that if a new experience is being brought into a child’s learning space, that it’s brought in a familiar zone,” Ryan says. “Or we make sure they do the activity with the parent so that there is some consistency [with their everyday life].” If a child with special needs does attend the camp, though, parents can choose to take one of the provided cellphones as a way to have constant communication with their child’s caretaker, even on a boating excursion.

Special dietary consideration is yet another way Beaches caters to its guests. No matter the need—vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free, nut-free, gluten-free—the resort has Culinary Ambassadors that are able to design meal plans for guests with specific dietary needs.

As a brand that aims to capture the wow-factor and magic of a family vacation experience, Beaches also offers its one-on-one service at both of its Jamaica locations—Negril and Ocho Rios—and plans to offer it at the future Barbados and Antigua resorts.
—with additional reporting by Katelin Walling (Beaches Turks & Caicos)