By Cammie Jones

Today’s families with special needs face obstacles that the average family may not ever consider. Planning a vacation that works best for every member of the family can be joyful and challenging. Fortunately, the travel industry has gone to thoughtful lengths in providing families with special needs some great options where family members can have fun and enjoy the vacation. So, where are some places the family can go that will be enjoyable for the parents, typically developing siblings and special needs children? Let’s take a look!

Dollywood—Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Pigeon Forge is within driving distance for many of our readers. Not as overwhelming as a larger resort, the park is in the Smoky Mountains where there is natural foliage, open spaces and surrounding trees. Dollywood also provides a few areas that are geared toward children with autism: a sensory room at the resort and a calming corner at the water park, to name two. A few of its attractions have been adapted such as The Brainstormer, Lightning Rod and Firechaser Express. Adult Changing and Companion Care restrooms are available to families.

Disney Resorts
Disney is extremely guest-focused so it’s no surprise that the company takes seriously those families who may have children with special needs. Although a large and busy resort, Disney does a fabulous job by personally catering to families with special needs, helping with cognitive, visual, hearing and mobility disabilities. They also assist children who have light sensitivity tendencies. Wheelchair accessibility is easy to find and in various locations.

Tradewinds Island Resort—St. Pete Beach, Florida
This specific resort is designated as CARD certified. CARD stands for Center for Autism and Related Disorders. Accommodations for these children include door alarms, corner cushions and outlet protection covers. Families can download a Social Book to share with their child about what to expect when they arrive and during their stay. Tradewinds offers a camp called KONK (Kids Only, No Kidding) that is equipped to deal with specific children’s needs as well.

Wyndham Hotels
The Wyndham Westshore in Tampa, Florida was awarded Tampa’s first Autism-Friendly hotel. Trained at the University of South Florida by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, the staff is well-equipped to handle families with special needs.  Most of the hotels have comfort items to help with sensory issues such as shortened blind cords, corner cushions and covers for the electrical outlets.  The Wyndham in Austin, Texas has several rooms available with an extra double bed offered at a discount to families with autistic children.

Beaches Resorts
If you are thinking of splurging on a vacation, check out the Beaches Resorts. Two locations—Jamaica and Turks & Caicos—offer an autism-friendly camp for children. Julia, a Sesame Street character who has autism, leads Amazing Art with Amy. This creative program caters to children with special needs and adds a cute twist to a regular camp-counselor-led activity. Beaches Resorts also take dietary restrictions seriously at their restaurants on site.

There are many destinations in the United States that recognize families who desire a vacation the entire family can enjoy—both for kids with special needs and their siblings. The best part is that these resorts do this seamlessly with specially trained staff who will include children without putting a label on them or making them feel different. If you want more details, call the hotel or resort and check that they have the amenities and services that you need to make your family’s vacation a success! Safe travels!


North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knolls Shores had its first Autism Friendly Day in February 2018. www.ncaquariums.com/pine-knoll-shores.

Fort Macon State Park has two-handicapped accessible beachside areas and numerous exhibits and Civil War remnants. On-site cannon and musket demonstrations may be active. www.ncparks.gov/fort-macon-state-park/home.

Great Wolf Lodge features a self-contained lodge for families who have special needs and makes it easier for families to visit during lower peak times.
www.greatwolf.com.

Autism on the Seas operates friendly cruise options for adults and children of special needs like autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. www.autismontheseas.com.

LEGOLAND Florida Resort has staff trained in autism awareness and sensitivity. Blue Hero Passes available.   www.legoland.com/florida.


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