6 Vacation Destinations for Special Needs Families


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Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, offers an aquarium, park and more.

Photo courtesy of Adrian Wood

Wondering where to vacation if you have a child with special needs? Here are some tried-and-true fun spots for families who are not only juggling kids with special needs, but also typically developing siblings. Choose whether to travel near or far.
 

Atlantic Beach, North Carolina

Not quite three hours from the Triangle, Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, is known for its old-school family friendliness and low-key fun. It also offers several attractions for special needs families.

In February, the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores hosted its first Autism Friendly Day. The activities, which were also open to other family members, included nature walks, live animal programs, a sensory exploration room, a quiet dive program, calm spaces for families and more. The aquarium is located at 1 Roosevelt Blvd., Pine Knoll Shores, and open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., daily including most holidays.

Across the Morehead City Bridge is the renowned Shevans Park. Nestled a couple of blocks away from the waterfront, this park features a castle-like playground known as the “Sea of Dreams,” created and built by local families. Children adore the labyrinth of wooden passages connecting slides, swings, rope obstacles and hideouts. Parents can join in or observe from nearby shady seating areas. Tennis courts are well-kept and within earshot of the covered picnic area beside the playground. Shevans Park is located at 1501 Evans St., Morehead City.

Fort Macon State Park is hidden away at the eastern tip of Bogue Banks and surrounded by the sea. The restored Civil War-era fort, designed by Robert E. Lee when he was a young army engineer, contains 26 vaulted rooms enclosed by 4.5-feet thick walls, making these living quarters for Civil War soldiers a cool respite from the summer heat. The Coastal Education Center showcases numerous exhibits about the history and ecology of the park, as well as Civil War remnants. Prepare special needs children who don’t like loud noises for the cannon and musket demonstrations.

Walk across the dune to explore tidal pools and an unspoiled shoreline that accommodates fishing, swimming and shelling. For those who have physical limitations, there are two handicapped-accessible beachside areas.

Fort Macon State Park is located at 2303 E, Fort Macon Rd., Atlantic Beach.


Great Wolf Lodge

Great Wolf Lodge, an indoor waterpark with locations throughout the country — and nearby locations in Concord, North Carolina, and Williamsburg, Virginia — features a self-contained lodge for families who have children with special needs. Water slides vary in length to accommodate all ages and skill levels. There is also a standard pool for swimming, several splash pads and a few hot tubs.

Relax in rustic hotel rooms and suites that feature kids’ sleeping areas designed with a tent or cabin theme. The buffet-style restaurant ensures no waiting for meals.

When your child tires of swimming, he or she can join in scavenger hunts or MagiQuest, during which participants purchase a special wand, infuse it with magical powers and set off on an interactive quest throughout the lodge. There are also bedtime stories and an arcade.

Special needs children may enjoy visiting Great Wolf Lodge during the week, when there is typically a smaller crowd, as opposed to the weekend. If your child has a sensory issue and prefers not to wear a wristband, let the check-in staff know. They will work with you to make your child comfortable.

Great Wolf Lodge offers two locations within a few hours’ drive of the Triangle: 10175 Weddington Rd., Concord, North Carolina; and 549 E. Rochambeau Dr., Williamsburg, Virginia.


Disney Cruise Line

Disney Cruise Line’s partnership with Autism on the Seas, a national organization, facilitates family-friendly cruise options for adults and children who have special needs such as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Disney Cruise Line also provides sensory-related toys, autism-friendly movies and modified programs for children with special needs.

Crew members are certified and trained in autism awareness, and some have also been trained to offer additional assistance for guests with special needs. Children who are not potty trained are welcome to join in the kids’ clubs, too.

Caretakers provide respite and fun for a few hours each day for all kids — whether they have special needs or not — so parents can have some downtime at no extra cost. Nightly shows offer reserved seating for families so they don’t have to arrive early.

Learn more by contacting specialservices@disneycruise.com.


Beaches Resorts

Beaches all-inclusive resorts, located in the Turks and Caicos Islands and Jamaica, has partnered with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards to provide autism-friendly kids’ camps that are Certified Autism Centers. The child care staff has been trained in the following areas: sensory awareness, motor skills, autism overview, program development, social skills, communication, environment, emotional awareness and bullying. Resort restaurants cater to special dietary needs by offering custom dining options.

Sesame Street’s “Julia,” a puppet who has autism, is the inspiration for Beaches Resorts’ children’s art program. Also available are one-on-one caretakers and inclusive programming that serves children with and without special needs.


LEGOLAND Florida Resort

LEGOLAND Florida Resort, located about 40 minutes south of Walt Disney World, has partnered with Autism Speaks to become a model, autism-friendly resort. Hands-on and sensory-stimulating activities are scattered around the park, and families have access to complimentary resources such as headphones, weighted blankets, squishy toys and LEGO building tables. Families can also access “quiet rooms” for a much-needed break from the noise and fun, and there is a similar space available within the guest services area at the adjoining LEGOLAND Florida Water Park.

Staff members are trained in autism awareness and sensitivity, and a free “Blue Hero Pass” is available at guest services for those on the autism spectrum. This allows special needs families to bypass the standby line at popular attractions and rides. Guest services also offers visitors the chance to review “social stories” — illustrated, step-by-step walk-throughs of every ride and show — so special needs guests won’t be startled by loud noises, bright lights, darkness or other overwhelming elements.

LEGOLAND Florida Resort is located at 1 Legoland Way, Winter Haven, Florida.


Smugglers’ Notch Resort

Smugglers’ Notch is a four-season resort in Vermont offering skiing and snowboarding in the winter, and mountain adventures in the summer. Shawna Fatigate, manager of the resort’s Smugglers’ Notch Adaptive Program (SNAP) for children with special needs, says the staff and facility “can accommodate anything and everything — even severe medical needs.”

SNAP offers numerous adaptive activities for children with special needs and is guided by an inclusive philosophy that integrates them into group activities. A daily children’s program is scheduled and, depending on a child’s individual needs, he or she may be assigned a one-on-one camp counselor within the group program for activities such as swimming, hiking, horseback riding, rock wall climbing, and participating in arts and crafts.

Smugglers’ Notch Resort is located at 1 Morse Dr., Jeffersonville, Vermont.


Adrian H. Wood, Ph.D., lives in Edenton with her husband and four children, the youngest of whom has extra-special needs. Read more of her writing at talesofaneducateddebutante.com.

 

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Calendar

December 2019

Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about tummy time alternatives, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to...

Cost: 24.00

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
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Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about carry positions, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to crawl,...

Cost: 24.00

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
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Create artwork inspired by the Christmas tree. Ages 6-10. Register online. Choose course #126771.

Cost: $31/resident, $40/nonresident

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Website »

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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

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Geocaching is a treasure hunt where participants use GPS coordinates to track down hidden "caches." We will learn how to use traditional GPS units and the Geocaching App (by Groundspeak), then hike...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Holiday Gift Making for Friends They're back! Come learn how to sew the perfect sized scrunchie - an excellent holiday gift for friends. Choose from a variety of fabrics, colors, and...

Cost: $5.00

Where:
The Studio School of Durham
1201 W Woodcroft Pkwy
Durham, NC  27713
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Sponsor: The Studio School of Durham
Telephone: 984-377-4502
Contact Name: Danielle Sunde
Website »

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Favorite Christmas songs are presented in authentic Nashville country style with dazzling guitars and fiddles along with soaring harmonies. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $25/person

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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The ensemble performs favorite holiday tunes as well as the soundtrack to "The Snowman" as it is shown on a large screen. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Favorite Christmas songs are presented in authentic Nashville country style with dazzling guitars and fiddles along with soaring harmonies. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $25/person

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
View map »


Website »

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Ages 15 and older enjoy a night of dancing, refreshments, a winter wonderland photo booth and more. 

Cost: $3/person

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Winter is a great time to explore nature at the park! Join a naturalist to learn how to identify tracks, explore conifers, and drink pine needle tea. Then observe snow and ice through hands-on...

Cost: For all ages; FREE. Registration is required for everyone

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
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Telephone: 919-662-2850

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Family members join teams to shoot foul shots for a chance to win a holiday ham. See website for age divisions and times. No registration necessary.

Cost: Free

Where:
Apex Community Center
73 Hunter St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Telephone: 919-249-3402
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Ages 11 and older with special needs enjoy a showing of "Home Alone." Register online. Choose course #128732.

Cost: $2/resident, $3/nonresident

Where:
The Cary Theater
122 E. Chatham St.
Cary, NC  27511
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Please join Admissions, Division Directors and our Head of School as they talk about Duke School’s unique program, specifically for students entering 5th-8th grade for the 2020-21 school year....

Cost: $0

Where:
Duke School
3716 Erwin Road
Durham, NC  27705
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Sponsor: Duke School
Telephone: 919-416-9420
Contact Name: Logan Blaylock

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See Happy Dan perform magic, comedy and more.

Cost: $5/person

Where:
Renaissance Centre
405 Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Assist with our habitat box monitoring. Tasks will vary depending on what needs attention and may include: cleaning or repairing habitat boxes or installing new ones, monitoring our current boxes...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
View map »


Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

More information

Enjoy a family-friendly movie and a slice or two of pizza. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $5/person. $2 for ages 2 and younger

Where:
The Halle Cultural Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Website »

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Kids hike, make projects and engage in nature activities. Ages 5-8. Register online. Choose course #127199.

Cost: $9/resident, $12/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC  27518
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

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Bring your kids to the park for a day of crafting and nature while you take advantage of a few more hours of holiday shopping.  The crafts your child creates will make great keepsakes or gifts for...

Cost: $16 per child

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

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Ages 11-17 create old-fashioned taffy and hard candy using ingredients like caramel, marshmallow and chocolate. Register online. Choose course #127044.

Cost: $18/resident, $23/nonresident

Where:
Herbert C. Young Community Center
101 Wilkinson Ave.
Cary, NC
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Kids spend a night out in nature making memories and new friends in an old-fashioned, camp-style program. Ages 8-12. Register online. 

Cost: $15/resident, $19/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Raleigh, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Kids spend a night out in nature making memories and new friends in an old-fashioned, camp-style program. Ages 8-12. Register online. 

Cost: $15/resident, $19/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

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Traditional dance caller Connie Carringer teaches fun dances for the whole family: squares, circles, Appalachian and more accompanied by old-time, string band music performed by local musicians. No...

Cost: $2/person or $5/family

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Website »

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No Christmas season is complete without your family experiencing The Raleigh Boychoir’s shining “Carols of Christmas.” This year we are excited to invite community members to sing...

Cost: $10 Students, $15 Seniors, $20 Adults.

Where:
Edenton Street United Methodist
228 W Edenton Street
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Raleigh Boychoir
Telephone: (919)881-9259
Contact Name: Erin O'Hara
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Give rugby a try. Take part in tag rugby pick-up games every Saturday morning at Baileywick Road Park, near the Second Shelter.  No experience necessary. All ages. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Baileywick Road Park
9501 Baileywick Rd
Second Shelter Field
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Sponsor: Raleigh Redhawks Rugby
Contact Name: denise travis
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Ages 5 and older move through yoga poses set to holiday music, decorate a special treat and drink hot chocolate. Registration required online. Choose course #127393. 

Cost: $19/child

Where:
Middle Creek Community Center
125 Middle Creek Ave.
Apex, NC  27539
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Website »

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Ages 4-12 enjoy free arts and crafts. Registration not required. Children must have adult accompaniment. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Website »

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One ticket admits the entire family to decorate a special gingerbread house. Supplies provided. Workshops available at 2 p.m. Allergy-free workshop available at 11 a.m. Registration required...

Cost: $40

Where:
Family Preschool
4907 Garrett Rd
Durham, NC  27707
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Sponsor: Family Preschool
Telephone: 919-402-1500
Contact Name: Sue Henson
Website »

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Harris Lake will welcome a special holiday visitor this December! Santa will take time out of his busy schedule to join us for a cup of hot cocoa and a ride on our wagon along the back roads of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

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Girls ages 5-12 take their favorite doll and have a creative time together preparing for the holidays. Register by emailing llpolkhouse2@gmail.com.

Cost: $22/attendee, $20/sister

Where:
Historic Polk House
537 N. Blount St.
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Telephone: 919-676-6368
Website »

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Discover what's happening in nature as the sun sets and listen to stories around a campfire. All ages with adult. Register online. Choose course #127675.

Cost: $18/resident, $24/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Take part in this annual walk to celebrate the winter solstice. Take a handmade lantern (white lanterns/lights only, handmade is requested, no fire allowed). Participants will gather at the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Downtown Hillsborough
, NC  27278


Website »

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