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How to Plan a Family Vacation with Kids with Special Needs

Four vacation spots with accommodations for kids with special needs, from mobility disabilities to autism.

Vacations with kids with special needs can be chaotic, nerve-wracking and stressful. So stressful, in fact, that many families choose to just stay home. Well, that’s about to change! More and more destinations are making strides to remove the barriers of accessibility and understanding in order to give kids of all abilities the freedom to see the world. Below, find four vacation spots with accommodations for kids with special needs.

The Best part: Each destination is a less than a 3-hour flight from DFW! Scroll on for more travel tips and tricks, like organizations with special needs services and advice from local moms.


How Far: Direct 3-hour flight from DFW

What Makes It Special: Utah is home to five national parks that offer everything from rafting and hiking, to rock climbing. All of these activities are accessible to visitors of every ability level thanks to a wide-range of programs throughout the state.

Splore Utah is a non-profit organization that was the first in the state to offer rafting down the Colorado River to people with disabilities. Since 1977, they have continued to find ways to eliminate barriers to outdoor adventure. Using specialized equipment and highly trained staff, Splore is able to provide access to activities, including indoor and outdoor rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, snowshoeing and camping. Fitting with Splore’s belief that there should be no obstacles to outdoor fun, monetary scholarships for trips and activities are also available.

Summer camps can be a challenge for differently-abled children. Camp Kostopulos is an exception, and offers weeklong camps especially geared toward kiddos with special needs and abilities. Activities include horseback riding, arts and crafts, canoeing, camping, rope courses and fishing. Camp K also offers weeklong road trips on their Travel Trip Adventures programs, where participants can enjoy hiking, camping, river rafting and wildlife viewing at places such as Bryce Canyon, Moab, and Yellowstone.

Where to Stay: Hotel Monaco has everything covered from wheelchair accessible rooms and bathrooms, to communication devices for hearing and visual impairments. That will make the parents happy, but the kids will be sold when they see the living-room-style lobby replete with built-in Xbox console waiting for them to level up. Evening family hour with board games and refreshments is followed by a slightly more grown-up wine and mulled cider hour — another win-win for the entire family.

Extras to Make It Easier: Wheelchair Getaways Utah can meet you at Salt Lake City Airport with a fully accessible, ramp equipped van. Thrifty Car Rental also offers accessible minivans that include wheelchair ramps with drop-down service for ground-level access, as well as hand controls and removable seats to accommodate wheelchairs.

Best for: Children with physical and mental disabilities, as well as developmental disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome


How Far: Direct 3-hour flight from DFW

What Makes It Special: San Diego is all about the sand and surf, but beach access and activities can be limiting for children with special needs. To ensure that everyone can enjoy the beautiful beaches, accessible accommodations in the area are plentiful. For starters, free beach wheelchairs with jumbo wheels are offered at seven area beaches. For kids who want to get up close and personal with the sea, Surf Diva at La Jolla Shores offers surf lessons for all abilities for ages 5 and up. Call ahead to confirm that they have adaptive surfboards and gear ready for you to hit the waves.

Many of San Diego’s family favorites have unique accommodations for special needs families. For instance, Sea World San Diego offers dolphin interaction programs for kids with special needs, while the city’s world famous zoo offers handicap pickup at any location on the property. Both Sea World and the zoo provide free admission to the caregiver of the child with special needs.

For one of the best ways to explore downtown San Diego, hop on the Old Town Trolley Tour. An entertaining narration of San Diego sites and history accompanies the 2-hour tour that offers on and off privileges at eight stops around town. Trolleys can be equipped with a wheelchair lift with a 2-hour notice. Written scripts of the tour or additional descriptive narrations are available for visitors with visual or hearing impairments.

Where to Stay: Many hotels only give a cursory nod to accessibility, but the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego really goes the distance. The hotel boasts 63 ADA compliant rooms with roll in showers and lowered peepholes, as well as ramps throughout the hotel. Braille labeling is also extensive throughout the hotel. With the necessities covered, families can play together in the BackYard, an area filled with games, arts and crafts, and more, or splash into the poolside cinema for a family-friendly movie under the stars.

Extras to Make it Easier: Accessible San Diego produces a comprehensive guide for travelers with disabilities that is packed with info on what’s accessible in San Diego, including hotels, restaurants, transportation and recreation.

Best for: Children with physical disabilities, particularly those who use a wheelchair.


How Far: Direct 2-hour flight from DFW

What Makes It Special: Tampa and the surrounding areas are leading the way in providing vacation destinations that are welcoming to families with kids on the spectrum. In a partnership with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD), many area destinations and lodging options have completed a CARD Certification that shows that they have met certain standards in accommodations and training for guests with autism.

Glazer Children’s Museum offers Sunshine Sunday, a weekly program where the lights and sounds are lowered and a “no judgment zone” is in effect. During regular business hours, guests can borrow an “accessibility box” from the museum that includes grips, noise blocking headphones, visual timers and other sensory aids.

Lowry Park Zoo also offers a toolbox that includes supplies and stories to aid autistic children in exploring the zoo. Ybor City Museum and Florida Aquarium have also met the necessary standards and training to become CARD certified.

Extras to Make It Easier: Many of the attractions around Tampa, including Glazer Children’s Museum, the Lowry Zoo and Florida Aquarium have created social stories to help prepare kids in advance for their visit to Tampa. Through pictures, children with autism can learn about their vacation environment so they feel more at ease when they arrive. These resources can be downloaded from the websites of each attraction.

Best for: Children with diagnoses on the autism spectrum, as well as those with sensory processing disorders, OCD and high anxiety


How Far: Direct 2-hour flight to Denver+ 90 minute shuttle/car ride to Keystone

What Makes It Special: Headquartered at Keystone Ski Resort, Keystone Adaptive Center provides winter and summer activities for all ranges of disabilities and special needs. In the winter, ski and snowboard instruction is available in individual and highly specialized lessons with instructors who are trained in adaptive sports.

Ongoing education, such as training for autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities, ensures that kids will be comfortable and successful in their lessons. Adaptive summer activities include hand-cycling, rock climbing and an accessible ropes course. Off the mountain, visitors with limited visibility or mobility can feel the thrill of ice skating with the help of metal walkers to bolster safety and confidence.

Where to Stay: Keystone Resort has a wealth of options when it comes to accessible accommodations, including the Inn at Keystone and the Keystone Lodge. The resort also has a number of condominium units that include full kitchens and open floor plans that are wheelchair-accessible. These units are an ideal choice for families with special needs, because they allow more control over the environment and, thus, comfort for the child.

Extras to Make It Easier: ADA transportation is available anywhere in the Keystone Village by dialing X4200 from an in-house phone.

Best for: Children with physical and mental disabilities, as well as developmental disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome


Autism on the Seas offers specialized cruise experiences for families living with autism, Down syndrome and other related disabilities. Trained staff sail on select dates along with families on all of the major cruise lines and provide accommodations for the guest while onboard. 800/516-5247
Suntastic Tours specializes in VIP concierge services for vacations at Walt Disney World, Sea World, Universal Studios and all of the area attractions. Call to ask about special needs accommodations. 321/284-4507



These moms have been in the trenches of travel with special needs kids and have a few tips to make the process a bit smoother. 

Karin Sheets of specialneedstravelmom.com is mom to a daughter with multiple physical disabilities and offers this practical advice: “When you arrive at an amusement park or zoo, look at the map to locate the medic station. In addition to medical assistance, the medic station will have a large changing table for your special needs child, private restrooms and a private area for meds or feeding.” She also provides a word of encouragement to traveling families. “Start small, but dream big. I’m always trying to tell people you can do it, just try,” she urges. “The dreaming big is so awesome.” See more of Karin’s inspirational travels at

Barb Likos at momofftrack.com has picked up a few tricks while traveling with her son who has spina bifida. “Always carry medications and special equipment in carry-on baggage and pack at least three days extra in case of delays. Keep important medical information, such as insurance cards, physician information and letter of diagnosis, stored safely in an [online] cloud so you can access it anywhere” She’s also learned a thing or two about wheelchair upkeep while traveling. “Wheelchair users should always carry a portable bike tire pump and flat repair kit with them. Airplanes can change tire pressures immensely.”

Dr. Jessie Voigts is the creator of wanderingeducators.com and has learned the easiest way to travel with her limited mobility. Whenever possible, she prefers to drive to her destination. “Car travel is so much easier for disabilities. I have my own door-to-door service, handicap plates and ease of getting around wherever we are,” notes Voigts. She also opts to rent a home rather than a hotel when possible, adding, “I have complete control over the environment with a home rental.”

Margalit Francus, the creator behind autisticglobetrotting.com, recommends sharing your child’s diagnosis freely while traveling. When it comes to autism, too many people feel uncomfortable about divulging their kid’s disability and often make do without needed accommodations, leading to bad travel experiences. She recommends telling everyone who has contact with your child what to expect in terms of their physical and emotional limitations.

This article was originally published in April 2014.

Photo courtesy of Douglas Pulsipher