Taking a family vacation can be extremely beneficial. It provides a change of scenery, time to bond as a family, and new experiences that broaden horizons and build character. But for families with children on the autism spectrum, the idea of a family vacation can be one of overwhelming stress. For kids on the autism spectrum, many go-to destinations are just too loud, too crowded, too different from their normal routine.
It was for just these families that we went on the search for the very best autism-friendly vacation ideas. A destination that works for one child on the spectrum may not work for another, so we’ve included a variety of destinations that can be done in one afternoon or one week. We also searched for places that would satisfy different budgets, from $25/night campsites to luxury international resorts. But despite the range of options and differences on our list, each of these 30 autism-friendly vacation destinations have one thing in common: they all go out of their way in some way to accommodate autistic children and their families.
Cities are definitely not the first things that come to mind when choosing an autism-friendly vacation destination, but the city of Austin, Texas hopes to change that perception — at least when it comes to them. Start your vacation by booking a “thoughtful” room at Austin’s Wyndham Garden Hotel. These rooms are especially designed for families with children on the autism spectrum, and feature quiet locations, baskets stocked with snacks and games, special safety features, and surfaces and carpets cleaned with non-chemical cleaners. Outside the hotel, the city is home to quite a few autism-friendly sights and activities like the Austin Nature and Science Center, the Austin Children’s Museum, the Austin Aquarium, swimming at Barton Springs, and lots of places to hike, bike, or listen to live music.
Beaches Caribbean Resorts
Traveling with children on the autism spectrum is full of challenges, so why not let a full-service resort deal with some of those hardships? At Beaches all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean, every staff member is trained in autism awareness and the key strategies put forth by the Sesame Street “See Amazing in All Children” autism initiative. Such training goes a long way to providing an understanding atmosphere for any child. The resort includes pools and beaches, and a Kids Camp which offers adaptive activities for those who need them.
Vacation rentals and relaxing resorts abound in the Berkshires, making this picture-perfect destination a great vacation idea for families with children on the autism spectrum. Choose just about any type of accommodation and you’ll likely find that you experience a quiet and relaxing place that is low on stimulation. Plus, there are tons of things to do! Spend your days hiking through the beautiful natural surroundings, visiting a local farm, lazing near the lake, or kayaking on a family-friendly excursion.
Camping serves as the perfect autism-friendly vacation destination for a number of reasons. Campsites can be found for as little as $25 per night, making it extremely budget friendly. Plus, no matter where you are in the country, family-friendly and safe campgrounds are sure to be located within only a few hours’ drive. Once there, many campgrounds are practically resort-like, with a quiet atmosphere, lots of beautiful natural surroundings, and amenities ranging from modern to totally rustic.
With its fun — yet controlled — atmosphere and wide variety of fun activities, a cruise to the Caribbean makes for a great vacation if you have children with autism. We recommend booking with Royal Caribbean, the first and best cruise line to be declared “autism friendly.” Modified kids programs, autism-friendly movies, and sensory-related toys are all available on board, plus each staff member has received training in autism awareness. Children on the spectrum will love exploring the different parts of the ship, while port of calls include relaxing beaches and dozens of options for fun family-friendly activities. And should the need arise, ship staterooms are usually quiet and easily accessible. Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, and Carnival Cruise Line also offer autism-friendly cruises to the Caribbean and other places.
Disney Parks & Resorts
Leave it to Disney to establish itself as one of the leaders in entertainment for those on the autism spectrum. Though any Disney park is bound to be crowded and active on any given day, each resort will go to great lengths to accommodate those with any special needs. For example, Disney cast members at hotels and on rides can provide assistance for those with light sensitivities, and with the presence of a letter of diagnosis from your child’s doctor, will provide front-of-line passes.
Dollywood is another great theme park to consider! Nestled amongst Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains (which is itself a great destination idea), Dollywood is inspired by nature (there are lots of shade trees, plus creeks that run right through the park), and is very friendly to those with autism. Besides the huge benefit of feeling less crowded and stimulating than so many other theme parks, Dollywood provides information about each ride and if it’s appropriate for children with autism and other special needs. Rides exist for children of all ages and sizes, though plenty of other activities, such as shows and exhibits, are also offered.
Edaville Family Theme Park
Edaville Family Theme Park in Carver, Massachusetts, about one hour from Boston, is extremely inviting to children on the autism spectrum. The railroad-themed park — which features a Thomas [the Train] Land as well as a Dino Land — offers a train car-turned-quiet room complete with weighted blankets and toys to those who need it. Fidget toys are available for those waiting in line, and even the bathrooms are decked out to accommodate children with sensory issues. If you can, arrange to make your trip to Edaville Family Theme Park in April, when it hosts a Sensory Awareness Weekend during which music is turned down and train whistles are shortened and altered.
Great America Theme Parks
Perhaps less crowded than Disneyland, but with many more locations than Dollywood, Great America is a great place to take a high-energy child on the autism spectrum. The whole family will love the many rides and shows available, while the park does a great job accommodating families with children on the autism spectrum by offering front-of-line passes and tracking wristbands to minimize the chance of getting lost.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Any child (and their family members!) are sure to have a blast at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Take a two-hour Bison Tour and keep your eyes out for wildlife sightings. Bison, coyotes, elk, and sandhill cranes are just a few of the many species that make their homes here. And of course, a trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park isn’t complete without a go or two sandboarding down the dunes!
Great Wolf Lodge
With more than a dozen locations nationwide, Great Wolf Lodge makes for a great vacation destination for families with children on the autism spectrum. Each lodge is its own exotic location, complete with rustic-feeling hotel rooms and suites, restaurants, pools, water slides, kid caves, splash pads, and hot tubs. Both kids and parents will appreciate all there is to do at this family-friendly, straightforward, and affordable vacation destination.
Greece with One Million Senses
One Million Senses, a company that saw a gap in the market and has sought to fill it, will arrange everything a family with children on the autism spectrum will need to take a family vacation to Greece. The company currently has contacts on a number of islands, and will organize everything from ensuring that a family’s hotel room is in a quiet section of the hotel, to putting together twice-daily activities led by speech and occupational therapists for children on the spectrum in order to give parents and other family members some individual time.
Like the other theme parks on our list of the 30 best vacation ideas for families with children on the autism spectrum, HersheyPark in Hershey, Pennsylvania does a great job catering to those with autism. As you arrive at the park, stop by guest services to fill out a Ride Accessibility Questionnaire. After answering a few questions, you’ll receive a detailed list of the rides and attractions best suited for your family’s personal situation. Such a tailored experience is extremely helpful, and stems from the fact that HersheyPark partnered with Parent to Parent of Pennsylvania to ensure their property is as accessible to those with disabilities as it is for anyone else.
King’s Island Theme Park
Add King’s Island, located near Cincinnati, to your list of autism-friendly theme park vacation ideas. The park comes highly recommended by parents with autistic children, who cite the accommodating and understanding nature of King’s Island employees. For example, families with children with autism can stop by the park’s guest services to receive front-of-line passes for any child with autism, plus three guests (a doctor’s diagnosis letter may be required). And good news for those children with dietary limits: you can bring in outside food!
LEGOLAND Florida Resort
While all LEGOLAND resorts (there is one in California as well as several internationally) offer some sort of accommodation for children with autism, none can beat LEGOLAND Florida, which in recent years has partnered with Autism Speaks to become entirely autism-friendly. Built into a quiet space of the park is a large panel of hands-on and sensory-stimulating activities, while various other “quiet rooms” have been installed for those who need them. Furthermore, all staff members and volunteers receive training in autism awareness and sensitivity and “front of line” passes can be arranged.
International travel can be autism-friendly too, and there may be no international destination better suited for a family with autistic children than London. A number of the most autism-friendly airlines, including Delta and Virgin America, offer direct flights to the United Kingdom (check with your favorite airport or airline to see if they offer an airline “rehearsal” program for children with autism). Once there, London is a great place to explore at one’s own pace. Museums are often quiet experiences, while such attractions as the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace offer interesting and interactive activities that are sure to wow anyone in the family. When quiet time is needed, simply head to one of London’s many green spaces, which are both beautiful and relaxing. Finally, London is one of the best places in the world to experience theater, and many of London’s most child-friendly productions frequently present adaptive shows.
Not very many cities come with a small-town feel and laid-back atmosphere, yet that is exactly what families searching for autism-friendly vacation destinations will find in Madison, Wisconsin. Maybe it’s because the city employs an autism expert, but either way, Madison boasts myriad activities and amenities for children on the spectrum, including programs ranging from art to yoga, museums and parks, and a local theater that specifically welcomes kids with autism once a month.
Morgan’s Wonderland, located in San Antonio, Texas, is the world’s first “Ultra Accessible Family Fun Park.” The 25-acre park was designed to cater almost exclusively to children with special needs and their families, and includes an impressive number of traditional and adaptive rides, swings, and activities to suit all ages. There’s even a Sensory Garden, and a lake stocked with fish for catch-and-release fun. Children with special needs, including autism, receive free admission.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina has long been considered one of the United States’ very best destinations for families, and the resort town wants their guests to know that they are just as inviting to those families with children on the autism spectrum. Before arriving in Myrtle Beach, head online to secure a special card that provides children with autism special accommodation at area hotels, restaurants, and attractions. Besides the beach, where quiet spots can almost always be found, attractions like the Myrtle Beach Speedway offer quiet rooms for those who need them. Finally, be sure to check out Savannah’s Playground, a top-notch, ADA-approved facility that includes a ton of fun sensory-friendly features.
Portugal with 4 All Senses
Beautiful Portugal can be accessible to families with children on the autism spectrum thanks to travel companies like 4 All Senses, which specializes in tourism for people with special needs. Families can choose between having the company provide transportation or need-based accommodation, or they can join one of 4 All Senses’ thematic tours. Want it all? The company does that too, and can arrange private tours of Lisbon and other popular destinations that will accommodate any needs a child with autism might have.
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo, as well as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park located about 35 miles away, is a great autism-friendly vacation destination. Children who love animals will be in awe of all there is to see, and since animals don’t necessarily love loud noises either, the zoo has dozens of quiet and shady areas where kids can enjoy viewing the animals without any over stimulation. The zoo also offers an Easy Access Pass upon request, which which families can skip lines and receive information about which rides and attractions would be most appropriate for their child.
SeaWorld in Orlando and SeaWorld in San Diego both offer accommodations for children on the spectrum, and therefore make for a great autism-friendly vacation destination. The park offers an Accessibility Guide that details which rides and activities may be best suited for those with autism. Upon arrival, families should head to guest services for a Ride Accessibility Pass, a pass and timecard that allows families to visit specific rides at specific times without having to wait in any long lines.
Between its “See Amazing in All Children” autism initiative and Julia, the newish character with autism, Sesame Street has long been an ally to families with children on the autism spectrum. So it should come as no surprise that we didn’t even hesitate to include the Sesame Place theme park in Langhorne, Pennsylvania on our list of the best autism-friendly vacation destinations. The theme park is easily accessed from most of the major Mid-Atlantic cities, and includes rides, a water park, shows and programs, and lots of friendly recognizable characters who interact well with children of all abilities.
Skiing in Colorado
For families who like to ski, there may be no better place than Colorado — especially for the family with children on the autism spectrum! Dozens of ski resorts in the ski-obsessed towns of Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, and Vail offer adaptive ski programs and autism-friendly lessons. At the Copper Mountain Resort in Breckenridge, for example, children on the autism spectrum can receive an adaptive skiing lesson — complete with specialized equipment and a lift ticket — from the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center.
Smuggler’s Notch Resort
This Vermont-based resort is a perfect family destination at any time of the year, as it provides a long list of adaptive programs and tours for children with autism and their families. These programs include one-on-one swimming lessons, horseback riding, and hikes, among a number of other fun things. There are also eight pools and four waterslides to fill the time and keep both adults and children refreshed and entertained. Each condo on the resort’s property has multiple bedrooms, plus a kitchen for ease in preparing food for kids with dietary mandates.
Snow Mountain Ranch
Many children on the autism spectrum love spending time around animals, so why not try a dude ranch getaway? Several dude ranches across the country pride themselves on being autism friendly, including Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby, Colorado. The ranch is more like a resort, and is operated by the YMCA of the Rockies. Children with autism will love taking part in the many camps and programs designed especially for them, including therapeutic horseback riding.
Surfside Beach, South Carolina
The small coastal town of Surfside Beach, South Carolina — located near Myrtle Beach — has taken on the task of becoming the world’s first official autism-friendly destination. The town aims to become a year-round destination for those families who love the beach, but can’t head to those destinations with loud or over-stimulating boardwalks and crowded beaches. Surfside Beach already makes our list of the best vacation destinations for families with children on the autism spectrum, but the ultimate goal sounds even better. Eventually, Surfside Beach will be an entirely judgement-free zone in which local businesses host events specifically designed for kids with autism.
TradeWinds Island Resort
As one of only five hotels in the United States to be declared autism friendly by the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities, TradeWinds Island Resort in St. Petersburg, Florida is a great vacation destination for families with children on the autism spectrum. Staff members receive training in autism awareness, and are always willing to step in to lend a hand should the need arise. Plus, the resort offers a long list of family-friendly amenities and activities that include a water park, pirate show, beaches, parasailing, and dolphin-spotting cruises, to name but a few.
Wilderness Resort is a great autism-friendly destination located on 60 acres in beautiful Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. Book a room, condo, or villa for your family, then visit and enjoy the property’s eight waterparks. Thanks to the resort’s free transportation system, returning to your accommodations is quick and easy should the need arise. Another huge benefit is that many of the resort’s affordable rooms and villas come with kitchens so that cooking for the diet-limited or picky child is a breeze.
Yellowstone National Park
For the child who loves nature and animals, there may be no better vacation destination than Yellowstone National Park. Colorful hot springs, mud pots, and the famous Old Faithful geyser are sure to prove fascinating (be aware that some pools have a sulfur smell), while the near-constant views of wildlife make for good motivation to keep one’s eyes peeled. The park itself has some autism-friendly lodgings, though any accommodation inside the park tends to book up quickly.