6 Vacation Destinations for Special Needs Families
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.
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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.