Five Sensory-Friendly Vacation Spots for Children with Autism
Everyone wants to be able to go on vacations, get away from the stressors of life, and have fun––no matter age, ability, physical health, or mental health. Having fun and taking a break from life should be a right, not a privilege.
Finding great travel destinations for children with autism, and other disabilities can be a real struggle for parents, as you probably know from experience. Looking online may be deceiving, and getting to a location to find out that the place isn’t accessible or autism-friendly can be frustrating and disappointing.
Many vacation hot spots can be sensory overloading for children in general, and children with autism are much more vulnerable. Theme parks, resorts, and popular vacation spots for children are usually packed full of bright lights, loud noises, intense scents, and can be overwhelming. Not only that, but most of these places aren’t designed and equipped to be accessible for individuals in wheelchairs, those with communication needs, or those with cognitive impairments.
Luckily, as awareness of autism is growing, so too are options for sensory-friendly trips. Companies and organizations are finally listening to parents and autism advocates about what children on the spectrum actually need and want out of a vacation experience.
Everyone deserves to make amazing memories and have family-friendly fun.
Here are five of the best places for vacationing with children on the autism spectrum.
- Morgan’s Wonderland
- Disney Theme Parks
- Beaches Resorts
- Royal Caribbean Cruises
- Myrtle Beach
Business tycoon, Gordon Hartman, developed the theme park called Morgan’s Wonderland for his daughter and the special needs community. Located in San Antonio, Texas, this theme park is the world’s first fully inclusive of its kind.
Every ride is wheelchair-accessible, and visitors with special needs receive free admission. An entire section of the theme park, called Sensory Village, is designed for children with autism and sensory-friendly relaxation rooms are scattered throughout the 25 acres. In 2017, a water park with heated pools was added to the grounds.
This is what two visitors had to say after their time at the theme park:
We had a group with a special needs child, who is dearly loved by all, so it was incredible to find such a special needs friendly park. I was quite taken aback.
This extraordinary theme park has been designed for any individual no matter what their disability happens to be. At the same time, children without disabilities can enjoy it. This makes a fantastic vacation for families.
The founder and staff at Morgan’s Wonderland have one main goal: to see a smile on each and every child’s face when they leave the park.
And Morgan’s Wonderland isn’t the only place designed for inclusion in the area. The company also runs Morgan’s Wonderland Sports and Morgan’s Wonderland Camp. They encourage others to jump on the inclusion train by visiting their other site, Morgan’s Inclusion Initiative.
For children with a special interest in Disney movies or characters, no experience can beat a trip to any Disney theme park. However, for children with autism, a vacation to a theme park can quickly become a challenge for the entire family due to the large crowds, screaming people on rides, and simply too much stimulation.
Fortunately, Disney takes everyone into consideration when designing parts of their parks and thinking about what those with special needs truly necessitate.
What does Disney do that others don’t?
They offer an access pass dedicated to individuals with autism. This pass is called the Disability Service Pass and is part of Autism at the Parks.
The services included in the pass are:
- Advanced Ticket Purchase
- Stroller and Wheelchair Rental
- Strollers as Wheelchairs
- Rider Switch
- Accessing Attractions
- Break Areas
- Companion Restrooms
- Helpful Guides for Attractions and your General Resort Experience
- Dietary Accommodations
A review from a parent with a child with autism who used the DAS pass says:
For us, the DAS really helped our vacation come together. Our preplanning was a major part of the trip’s success, but Disney’s planning will always trump mine. It’s amazing that whenever one may anticipate a hurdle, Disney has already thought of it, and has a plan in place. I am so appreciative to the folks at Disney for ensuring that all guests and families will have a magical time like we did.
It is great news that Disney theme parks offer several autism-friendly options! Children with autism will benefit from their accommodations and will experience the wonderful magic that Disney has to offer.
The Beaches resort family is working hard to be a top vacation spot for children with autism. They are the first resort company in the world to hold an autism certification so that they may offer families with children with autism and other special needs specialized service, engaging activities, and custom dining options so that all families may enjoy a memorable, award-winning Beaches experience.”
Beaches Resorts offers children’s camps run by certified counselors with autism training and age-appropriate activities for infants, toddlers, children, and teenagers. There is no need to worry about picky eaters or children with dietary restrictions––Beaches has you covered by offering vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian options as well as will work with families to create a meal for someone with allergy restrictions. Plus, Beaches has partnered with Sesame Street to bring Julia, a character with autism, into the Beaches experience, so children will have a familiar face waiting for them.
The staff at Beaches who work with vacationing children with autism are trained in the following areas:
- Sensory Awareness
- Motor Skills
- Autism Overview
- Program Development
- Social Skills
- Emotional Awareness & Bullying
Knowing that your child is in great hands as you lounge on the beach with a drink or go on an adults-only excursion is nice. And knowing that your child will be treated equally and understood for who they are is priceless.
This travel destination is so popular for families with a child with autism, that Forbes even featured an article about them.
On a cruise vacation, families will visit new cities, spend a week or so in a new environment, and meet lots of new friends. For children with autism, cruises can be an overwhelming experience. That’s why Royal Caribbean has created a special program, featuring autism-friendly toys, priority check-in, a cruising social story, and dietary accommodations.
On some sailings, families can take advantage of respite rooms, extra staff members, and private services. For children with special interests in sailing, families can meet with the Captain at a special reception, ask for a behind-the-scenes tour or just sit back and watch their child enjoy exploring.
Royal Caribbean shows autism-friendly films on board, offers autism-friendly activities, and also already has a “cruising social story” ready for your child. They are not only prepared to have children with autism onboard, but they also accommodate teens and adults with autism.
In a blog called the Cruise Critic, the author wrote about 5 reasons to go on the “Autism on the Seas” cruise with Royal Caribbean. These include:
- The logistics are easier to manage in a hosted setting.
- With exclusive access to various venues and activities, families won’t feel like there’s a spotlight on them 24/7.
- Parents and caregivers can reenergize and savor alone time without worrying or feeling guilty.
- Financial assistance helps alleviate the cost.
- Making new friends is priceless.
If you’re planning an upcoming vacation with your child who has autism, choosing an autism-friendly cruise line is a way to go!
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is a popular tourist and beach-goer destination.
According to CNN Traveler, it is also one of the first autism-friendly communities in the country. Thanks to one mom’s dedicated efforts, restaurants and stores across the beachfront have been trained on autism. Families can ask for quiet seating, attend sensory-friendly movie nights, take surfing lessons from autism-friendly instructors or even get a GPS tracking band for their escape artist children. The local airport also offers a sensory-friendly decompression room.
According to their website Visit Myrtle Beach:
Surfside Beach and the City of Myrtle Beach are certified autism-friendly through the Champion Autism Network (CAN). Through this certification, many attractions, hotels, restaurants, local residents, and the Myrtle Beach International Airport came together to offer sensory-friendly experiences, autism-aware and specially trained staff, preferred entrances at attractions, and travel discounts to make the Myrtle Beach area the ideal autism-friendly destination.
If you’re a parent with a child with autism, you might want to hear from other parents who have been to Myrtle Beach with their child.
“Best moment ever was watching my children (all have autism and sensory issues) feel the sand between their toes for the first time. Priceless.”
“This was our son’s very first time seeing the ocean. He struggles with some sensory issues, a learning disorder & anxiety… but the minute he set foot on the beach that evening, he seemed to instantly calm and all was “right” with him. It’s like he finally felt at “home” in the world.”
Just because you have a child with autism doesn’t mean you can’t build sandcastles, splash around in the water, and collect seashells!
Children with autism deserve the same experiences as their neurotypical peers. With these five sensory-friendly and fun travel spots for children with autism, families can make childhood memories without any meltdowns.
Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University
Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University
Updated October 2021