6 Vacation Destinations for Special Needs Families


Published:

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

August 2019

August 16th is National Tell a Joke Day. Come to the Finley Center anytime during the day to share some jokes with the park community. A large board will be set up in the Exhibit Hall where...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

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For almost 200 years, farmers brought their wheat and corn to what is now Yates Mill to have their grains ground into flour and meal. Today, you can stop by the Yates Mill visitor center to see a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

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Join Mindful Families of Durham, a Buddhist-inspired spiritual community that supports area parents, caregivers, and their children in the practice of mindfulness and the understanding of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Erwin Road
Durham, NC  27705
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Sponsor: Mindful Families of Durham
Contact Name: Adam, Laura, Josh, Sumi
Website »

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Enjoy live music, kid activities, a taco eating contest and The Best Taco contest.

Cost: Free

Where:
Knightdale Station Park
810 N. First Ave.
Knightdale, NC  27545
View map »


Website »

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Ages 18 months-5 years with special needs enjoy educational and therapeutic toys with caregiver. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Flaherty Park Community Center
1226 N. White St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Website »

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Step back in time with our 19th-century costumed interpreters and watch the millstones at work grinding corn into meal. Tour fee: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60 & over), $3/Child (ages 7-16),...

Cost: $5/Adult, 4$/Senior (60+), $3/Child (7-16), 6&Younger Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

See the Game Grumps play games, make jokes and more in this stage show. Purchase tickets online. 

Where:
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St.
Durham, NC  27701
View map »


Website »

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Stop in during one of our Back to School Open Houses!  Meet our instructors, tune your instrument, learn a quick song and more!. Aug 12th 7-8:30 Brass & Woodwinds Aug 17th 12:30-2:00...

Cost: Free

Where:
Bach to Rock Music School
9587 US 64
Apex, NC  27523
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Sponsor: Bach To Rock Music School
Telephone: 919-446-5386
Contact Name: Kelly Foster
Website »

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Ages 18 months-5 years with special needs enjoy educational and therapeutic toys with caregiver. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Flaherty Park Community Center
1226 N. White St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
View map »


Website »

More information

Ages 11-17 learn how to make foods inspired by Asia. Register online. Choose course #124729.

Cost: $35/resident, $46/nonresident

Where:
Herbert C. Young Community Center
101 Wilkinson Ave.
Cary, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

Stop in during one of our Back to School Open Houses!  Meet our instructors, tune your instrument, learn a quick song and more!. Aug 12th 7-8:30 Brass & Woodwinds Aug 17th 12:30-2:00...

Cost: Free

Where:
Bach to Rock Music School
9587 US 64
Apex, NC  27523
View map »


Sponsor: Bach To Rock Music School
Telephone: 919-446-5386
Contact Name: Kelly Foster
Website »

More information

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Enjoy storytime with Amy Godfrey. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Locopops Dessert Cafe
2618 Hillsborough St.
Durham, NC  27705
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Website »

More information

Dragonflies love to eat flying bugs, especially mosquitoes and gnats!  Discover the different parts of a dragonfly's body through a colorful craft, learn about its life cycle, and play fun...

Cost: Free

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Road
Apex, NC  27539
View map »


Sponsor: Crowder County Park
Telephone: 919-662-2850
Website »

More information

Ages 18 months-5 years with special needs enjoy educational and therapeutic toys with caregiver. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Flaherty Park Community Center
1226 N. White St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
View map »


Website »

More information

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Join us at Harris Lake County Park as we explore the wonders of water through educational activities and some for just plain fun! We will dip for critters in our pond to discover what lives...

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

Ages 18 months-5 years with special needs enjoy educational and therapeutic toys with caregiver. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Flaherty Park Community Center
1226 N. White St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
View map »


Website »

More information

Come to Learning Express Falls Pointe for an instructive class on how to make your very own Do-A-Dot Art creation.

Cost: Free

Where:
Learning Express Falls Pointe
9660 Falls of Neuse Rd
#130
Raleigh, NC  27615
View map »


Sponsor: Learning Express Falls Pointe
Telephone: 919-325-6057
Contact Name: Stephanie Gillespie
Website »

More information

Enjoy tea time for the whole family. Samples of hot tea, cold tea, and kombucha will be provided, along with games and family fun.

Cost: Free

Where:
IngenuiTea Kombucha Coffee & Tea
514 E Williams St
APEX, NC  27502
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Sponsor: IngenuiTea Brews
Telephone: 919-438-3684
Contact Name: Mark Poole
Website »

More information

Join park staff for an informal fishing experience for the whole family. Bring your own poles or borrow one of ours through the Tackle Loaner Program. Bait and basic instruction are provided. All...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
Website »

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Take the fast track to nature in this hands-on study of ecology. Ages 8-12. Register online. Choose course #124972.

Cost: $9/resident, $12/nonresident

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


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Ages 18 months-5 years with special needs enjoy educational and therapeutic toys with caregiver. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Flaherty Park Community Center
1226 N. White St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
View map »


Website »

More information

Design a T-shirt. Materials provided. Grades 3-5. Register at the library or call 919-245-2539.

Cost: Free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W. Margaret Ln.
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

More information

We are so excited for our next Durham Night Market at Pine & Poplar at The Wine Feed. Over 40 local makers will be selling their handmade products. There will be food trucks, live music...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Wine Feed
307 S Roxboro St
Durham, NC  27701
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Sponsor: Raleigh Night Market
Website »

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Film to be announced. *Actual time to be determined by sunset. Bring your lawn chairs, blankets, and picnics to enjoy a movie under the stars in our beautiful garden!

Cost: Free

Where:
GREGG MUSEUM OF ART & DESIGN
1903 Hillsborough Street
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Sponsor: Gregg Museum of Art & Design
Telephone: 919-515-3503
Contact Name: Gregg Museum
Website »

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Ages 18 months-5 years with special needs enjoy educational and therapeutic toys with caregiver. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Flaherty Park Community Center
1226 N. White St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
View map »


Website »

More information

Personality Festival is a Roxboro tradition. Enjoy amusements rides along Main Street, food vendors, singers, dancers, craft and merchandise vendors, local businesses and more. Little Miss...

Cost: Free

Where:
Uptown Roxboro
211 N. Main St.
Roxboro, NC  27573
View map »


Sponsor: Roxboro Area Chamber of Commerce
Telephone: 336-599-8333
Contact Name: Melissa
Website »

More information

Bring your friends and family to Learning Express for a Family Game Night. There will be several games available to play including popular board games, card games, arcade games, and dice...

Cost: Free

Where:
Learning Express Falls Pointe
9660 Falls of Neuse Rd
#130
Raleigh, NC  27615
View map »


Sponsor: Learning Express Falls Pointe
Telephone: 919-325-6057
Contact Name: Stephanie Gillespie
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. Choose course #124903.

Cost: $15/resident, $19/nonresident

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


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Take the family for a night of jigs, reels and anything Celtic. 

Cost: $3/person

Where:
Carrboro Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Website »

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Shop for local handmade arts and crafts from local vendors. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Durham Central Park
501 Foster St.
Durham, NC  27701
View map »


Website »

More information

The North Carolina Boys Choir and Girls Choir Half-Day Camp and Music Workshop is open to public (all children in our community between 7 and 14 years of age). Register online. ...

Cost: Free

Where:
Binkley Baptist Church
1712 Willow Dr
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
View map »


Sponsor: North Carolina Boys Choir and Girls Choir
Telephone: 919-239-9083
Contact Name: Robert Unger
Website »

More information

Hundreds of artisans from across the Southeast, festival foods, demonstrations, a kids' play area and live music highlight the town's signature arts and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Town Hall Campus
316 N. Academy St.
Cary, NC  27513
View map »


Website »

More information

Learn basic canoeing skills and a bit about the millpond's history, then head out to explore the pond's many features as seen only from the water. Canoes, paddles, and life jackets are...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Play children's games from the past. No registration rquired. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Leigh Farm Park
370 Leigh Farm Rd.
Durham, NC  27707
View map »


Website »

More information

Celebrate North Carolina farming culture and history at Duke Homestead. Don't miss the looping contest and Hornworm Race. This event features live music, local arts and crafts vendors, hands-on...

Cost: Free

Where:
Duke Homestead
2828 Duke Homestead Rd.
Durham, NC  27705
View map »


Website »

More information

Celebrate North Carolina farming culture and history at Duke Homestead. Don't miss the looping contest and Hornworm Race. This event features live music, local arts and crafts vendors, hands-on...

Cost: Free

Where:
Duke Homestead
2828 Duke Homestead Rd.
Durham, NC  27705
View map »


Website »

More information

Personality Festival is a Roxboro tradition. Enjoy amusements rides along Main Street, food vendors, singers, dancers, craft and merchandise vendors, local businesses and more. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Uptown Roxboro
211 N. Main St.
Roxboro, NC  27573
View map »


Sponsor: Roxboro Area Chamber of Commerce
Telephone: 336-599-8333
Contact Name: Melissa
Website »

More information

Ages 18 months-5 years with special needs enjoy educational and therapeutic toys with caregiver. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Flaherty Park Community Center
1226 N. White St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
View map »


Website »

More information

Learn basic canoeing skills and a bit about the millpond's history, then head out to explore the pond's many features as seen only from the water. Canoes, paddles, and life jackets are...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Take the family for treats, music, art and more. See a special exhibit showcasing the work of Artspace's talented young artists.

Cost: Free

Where:
Artspace
201 E. Davie St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Want to get inside Historic Yates Mill? Join us for a half-hour tour (starting at 1:00, 1:30, 2:00, 2:30 & 3:00 p.m.) to view the main power drive and milling machinery while exploring the...

Cost: $5/Adult, 4$/Senior (60+), $3/Child (7-16), 6&Younger Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Come into Learning Express North Hills for a trading event. Socialize with others who collect Pokemon and/or LOL dolls and negotiate for rare cards.

Cost: Free

Where:
Learning Express Falls Pointe
9660 Falls of Neuse Rd
#130
Raleigh, NC  27615
View map »


Sponsor: Learning Express Falls Pointe
Telephone: 919-325-6057
Contact Name: Stephanie Gillespie
Website »

More information

Children make treasured memories while increasing their knowledge of plants and animals. Ages 7-10. Register online. Choose course #124931.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

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


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Join Horne Memorial UMC & First Baptist Church of Clayton for an evening of Christian fellowship, inspirational music, free food and family fun. All proceeds benefit Clayton Area Ministries...

Cost: Free

Where:
Clayton Town Square
100 W. Main Street
Clayton, NC  27520
View map »


Sponsor: First Baptist Church of Clayton and Horne Memorial UMC of Clayton
Telephone: 919-218-4010
Contact Name: Melissa Dooley
Website »

More information

East Cloud Kungfu hosts a Parent's Night Out event, featuring a safe environment for kids as they about the wide world of kungfu.   Check it out!...

Cost: $25 first child, $20 each additional child

Where:
East Cloud Kungfu, LLC
5655-A Western Blvd
Raleigh, NC  27606
View map »


Sponsor: East Cloud Kungfu, LLC
Telephone: 252-646-7053
Contact Name: Imari Colon
Website »

More information

North Carolina State University celebrates the beginning of a new academic year with good, music and family-friendly activities. 

Cost: Free

Where:
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC  27607


Website »

More information

Caribbean culture and cuisine showcase this 7th annual festival that features masqueraders, arts and craft vendors, live music and a kids corner. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
400 Fayetteville St.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Website »

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