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Travel Tips and Special Needs Vacation Spots

Destinations for families with special needs

Written by Carol Martin, Insurance Billing Agent, Rainbows’ Finance Office

Everyone loves summer vacation season, but organizing one is a hassle, in the best of circumstances. Add in the fact that you have one or more family members with special needs, and you’ve got a major task at hand. Don’t panic, it can be done. A little pre-planning is the key to a successful and relaxing (even for parents) trip.

Prepare: Search travel websites for possible journeys, and look over picture books or videos of your destination. Include the whole family in the travel decision. If you plan to visit family members or friends, make sure to familiarize your children with them by displaying photos and having phone or Skype conversations. Check out accessibility guides. ADA-compliant means different things to different people, so call potential travel spots for specific needs. In fact, call ahead to hotels, airports, restaurants and attractions. A bit of research saves a lot of headaches when you’re on the road.

Pack: Noise-cancelling headphones, tablet and games, favorite sleeping blanket, pillow, or teddy, coloring books, puzzles, favorite snacks and moist wipes are all important items to include in your bags. Make sure your child has a card with your name and contact information on them at all times.

Drive: When traveling by car, update a mileage chart so everyone knows how much farther it is until you reach your destination. A clothes pin on a ribbon or string is a good visual cue. Make periodic stops at places with room for everyone to walk around and stretch their legs. Bring a Frisbee or ball to throw around. Driving at night seems to work well for families with younger children.

Fly: When flying, pack a full change of clothes and extra diapers/pull-ups in your carry-on bag. Stress and altered schedules can bring on anxiety. Call your airline carrier before the flight to ask for early boarding privileges. Put all medications in your carry-on, as well. EarPlanes help with ear pressure on flights.  They are inexpensive and have junior sizes. If your child has never flown before, try to do an “airport rehearsal” before the real thing. Check the TSA website for travel rules and regulations here:

Stay: Try a suite, rental home, or small apartment versus a regular hotel room. This gives a stressed-out  kid, or parent, a quiet place to decompress. is a respected website for vacation home rentals, or try the destination city’s tourism bureau website. Maintain a schedule, if possible. Too much change is troubling to any child.


Kansas City, KS/MO: Barbecue is king in KC, but there’s more to do than chow down. Great Wolf Lodge ( is one of the best, most inclusive family resorts in America. From their large suites to the zero-entry pool, it’s a wonderful destination.  Kansas City also boasts a fun and interactive attraction, Legoland at Crown Center (, with a brick pit that contains over three million Legos! Make pizzas, sing karaoke, build a race car or practice your ninja skills at this creative location. There’s so much to try here, and their next door neighbor is Sea Life Aquarium.  The T-Rex Café is a dinosaur lover’s delight with giant animatronic beasts and a Paleo Zone, where you can dig for fossils while you wait for your meal to be served. According to Jessica Mingle, sales manager, this eatery is fully ADA-compliant and autism aware. There’s also a new Build-A-Dino workshop where kids can make their own dino friend. Union Station is the home of Science City ( and visitors can find hands-on exhibits on weather, space, nature and more. The Sheraton Kansas City at Crown Center has lots of accessibility features for a comfortable stay (

San Antonio, TX: Morgan’s Wonderland ( is the world’s first ultra accessible family fun park with adaptive and wheelchair swings, the Sensory Village, Music Garden, Wonderland Express and Depot, among others. There are plans for a fully accessible Water Park in summer 2017. Battle for Texas: The Experience ( is an interactive museum located adjacent to the famed Alamo Plaza. Artifacts there include Davy Crockett’s long knife and Santa Anna’s pistol and uniform.  A new attraction to the Alamo area is the 3-in-1 museum, Ripley’s Haunted Adventure/Guinness World Records Museum/Tomb Rider 3D ( . Take time to stroll along the beautiful River Walk ( You can shop, dine, people-watch, or board a barge for a river tour (  JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa ( has several accessible rooms and suites, and a water park to boot! Wyndham hotels have made great strides in accessibility for their guests, and they have two hotels in San Antonio, the Wyndham Garden San Antonio Riverwalk /Museum Reach and the Wyndham San Antonio Riverwalk. Get a free $50 gift card now on when you book the Best Western Plus Fiesta Inn (

Estes Park, CO: The National Park system is celebrating its centennial this August and what better way to enjoy the outdoors than with a trip to Rocky Mountain State Park (, near Estes Park, CO? With easy walk/hike trails, ranger-led kids programs, wildlife watching, camping and fishing, there is so much to do. Here’s their accessibility page:  Nearby the park are the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake. YMCA of the Rockies ( in Estes Park is a fun alternative to a regular hotel, with many family-friendly activities. Best Western hotels always have a free full breakfast ( Another great Colorado destination is the National Sports Center for the Disabled ( in Denver and Winter Park.

Oklahoma City, OK: This nearby location has lots of options for summer fun. Visit the Bricktown Entertainment District (, Oklahoma City Zoo (, the Oklahoma History Center (, Myriad Botanical Gardens (, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (, Science Museum Oklahoma (, take in a play at the Oklahoma Children’s Theatre (, and Jim Thorpe Museum & Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame ( . The Endeavor Games ( at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, is an Olympics-style competition held every June, and is open to disabled athletes of all ages. has some great bargains in OKC with accessibility, or stay at the LaQuinta Inn in Edmond (, or Hilton Garden Inn, Bricktown—which has accessible everything! (

Santa Cruz, CA: Why not spend your vacation by the ocean? Shared Adventures hosts their 23rd annual Day on the Beach (, on July 16 in this seaside city. Participants can spend the whole day kayaking, canoeing, scuba diving and riding in beach wheelchairs, with volunteer staff guidance. There are many fun activities on shore, too. Registration is required. Explore the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with free Friday night concerts, or Wednesday night movies and twilight sailboat races. Monterey Bay Aquarium ( is nearby and has special exhibits for guests with physical, vision and hearing impairments. Kids Week Downtown features a Harry Potter Festival ( Stay at the wheelchair-accessible Edgewater Beach Inn & Suites (, Rio Vista Suites (, or try a home rental, like this one! (

Other ADA-friendly cities are Washington, D.C., Park City and Moab, UT (home of Splore and Red Cliffs Lodge), Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN, Tampa, FL, and Smuggler’s Notch, Cambridge, VA (home of Ben & Jerrys Ice Cream). Disney properties and cruises are always accommodating to special needs travelers.

(Research credits:; Meredith Yennerell, guest experience manager, Legoland Crown Center; Jessica Mingle, sales manager, T-Rex Café; National Park Service;