More resorts, cruise lines and destinations are accommodating families with special needs.
Published: February 29, 2016
By: Lori Chandler Pruitt
For families with special needs, planning a vacation can be overwhelming. The good news is that more resorts, cruise lines and destinations are accommodating families with special needs, helping make sure everyone has a great time.
“It is very important that families travel and enjoy making memories together, even if it is to the beach or mountains only a few hours away,” says Michelle Tatum, a special needs mom and travel agent with Vacation Guru (www.govacationguru.com) in Birmingham.
Many standard travel destinations, no matter how simple, likely will have some sort of accommodation, such as wheelchair ramps at parks in order to enjoy a hike through the woods. Be sure to call ahead. Others offer special assistants for respite care for mom and dad to have a much-needed break for a few hours while the kids are off enjoying themselves with the staff. Others accommodate dietary needs. Others offer a zero entry pool or wheelchair accessible pool. Still others have special accommodations for rides and other attractions. Some resorts have been certified by CARD (Center for Autism and Related Disabilities).
Tatum says families must not only consider where and when to go, but possibly many other things, such as a refrigerator for medications, electrical outlets for medical equipment, passports for emergency travel, diet, wheelchair accessibility and where the nearest hospital is. “It can seem like you are bringing nearly half the house!” she says.
For families facing financial restraints, there are organizations such as Make a Wish and Magic Moments that can offer families a trip of a lifetime. Tatum suggests families talk to their case worker or physician about writing a recommendation.
Travel agents can help families determine what kind of trip is best. Some of the things travel agents may ask and do are:
- What is your child’s special need? What is he interested in? What are his strengths and weaknesses? What are their potential trigger points? What sensory and diet issues need to be considered?
- What about other family members? What are their ages? What are they interested in? What are your dreams and desires for an ideal vacation? What do you want to do with your respite time?
- Travel agents can speak directly with the executive chef/food and beverage manager and make sure they can accommodate special dietary needs, make sure of details including room type, bedding requirements, and room location.
Many cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Disney and Carnival are popular with special needs families. Royal Caribbean became the first cruise line to be certified “autism friendly” in 2014, Tatum says, providing sensory-related toys, autism-friendly movies, and modified kids programs.
“Cruises are great for families as they have a plethora of activities, with something to suit everyone,” Tatum says.
As to resorts and destinations, Beaches Resorts (family resorts by Sandals), Disney World and Disneyland parks and resorts are favorites with special needs families.
The Internet has many websites with checklists of things to consider before planning a trip, as well as what destinations offer. Here are a few places to consider, according to Tatum:
Dollywood, Gatlinburg, TN – Many rides and attractions are accessible to guests who can be lifted from their chairs with assistance from a member of their party such as Barnstormer, a swing ride. Some rides can accommodate guests who can ride while sitting in their wheelchair, such as River Battle and Adventure Mountain. Find the complete guide at www.dollywood.com.
Hershey Park, Hershey, PA – Known for chocolate, this park has more than 60 rides and lots of attractions. Hershey has an Attraction Accessibility Program, with a wristband that allows the person with special needs and three guests to bypass the long ride lines, with set ride times on up to 10 specific attractions. Hershey posts a ride accessibility guide and a questionnaire online; information should be filled out prior to arrival. Ask at the ticket window about reduced admission price to the park. Go to www.hersheypark.com.
Morgan’s Wonderland, San Antonio, TX – The world’s first accessible family fun park is designed for children and adults with special needs and their families. The park provides a wide range of attractions, with locator wristbands and touch screen display monitors so parents can keep track of their children. There is also fencing around the lakes and perimeter of the park for added safety. Guests with disabilities are admitted free of charge and are able to bring in their own food. See www.morganswonderland.com.
Lori Pruitt is associate editor of Birmingham Parent.