Planning a family vacation takes a lot of work. You have to pick the right destination, decide how to get there, where to stay, where to eat, and make sure there are activities everyone will enjoy. Now add a special needs child to that equation, and things get a lot more complicated, not to mention more stressful.
It can be overwhelming to think about spending a good amount of your hard earned money on a vacation that could be more work than relaxation, but we want our kids to get to experience the world like everyone else. They flat out deserve to. So how do we make the most of our travels? I do lots of research and plan for everything. I want to share with you what I have learned over the past several years of traveling with my special needs daughter. Some you may know; some may be a surprise, but I hope all of these help you seize the day and explore the world with your amazing kids.
Choose the right destination
Picking the perfect destination for your vacation is key to a trip. I’m going to highlight a few of my favorite destinations for special needs kids. These places are incredible and can accommodate a wide range of needs.
Disney World and Disneyland- I know everyone has heard of this place, and for good reason. Walt Disney did an amazing job creating magical experiences for guests of all ages in his parks. Disney is definitely at the top of my family’s favorite vacation spots list. We love Disney because it provides us with a low-stress vacation and amazing accommodations for our daughter. First, Disney parks offer a special pass called a Disability Access Pass (also known as a DAS pass). You can visit the Guest Services desk in any of the four parks at Disney World or 2 parks at Disneyland to pick up a pass that is valid for your length of stay. This pass will allow you to check-in for any attraction or character that offers a FastPass line and receive a return time to come back and enter. This allows children who have a difficult time waiting in line or don’t like crowded spaces or winding lines to take a break, grab a snack, etc., before breezing through the FastPass line upon return. Another thing Disney does very well is to handle special dietary needs. My oldest also has celiac disease and must maintain a very strict, gluten-free diet. We love that at Disney, she is treated like royalty. They have always been able to provide amazing gluten-free options for her, and that has even included special custom made items off-menu. Now, that is service!
Universal Studios Parks- If you have older children or like me, are Harry Potter obsessed (Go Gryffindor!), Universal should be on your list for sure. Not only is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter everything Potterheads dreamed of and more, but they are so well-trained when it comes to autism and special needs. Do you remember seeing the Facebook post from a woman whose son was so excited to ride the Spiderman ride at Universal and had a complete meltdown when the ride experienced technical difficulties? The employee in that story laid on the floor with this heartbroken child until he felt better. I wanted to find this precious employee and hug her myself after reading it! The thing is, she isn’t the only employee that would do the exact same thing in this situation. On top of its excellent employee training, Universal also offers its own disability pass. This pass allows you to walk right on any attraction that has less than a 30-minute wait, and get a return time for any waits that are longer. To receive this pass, you just stop by guest services inside the park, and they will take great care of you.
Beaches Resorts- If the hustle and bustle of a theme park seem like more work than a vacation, then an all-inclusive resort is a great option. Imagine spending your days lounging on the beach, eating 5-star gourmet food, and enjoying a full waterpark in the sunny Caribbean. Now imagine being able to have some one-on-one time with your husband or wife, enjoying a romantic dinner with a view or an evening stroll down the beach, while the kids are taken care of by professionally trained nannies. Doesn’t that sound dreamy? At Beaches, this is a daily occurrence! Plus, this is an all-inclusive resort, so not only are your accommodations included but so are your food, beverages, tips, activities, kids club, and entertainment. Beaches is the first and only autism certified resort in the Caribbean. They are partnered with Sesame Street and recently announced that their newest featured character, Julia, has autism. I love that Beaches resorts fully embrace the autism community. On top of their amazing nannies in the kids club, they also provide one-on-one care for a small fee ($15). This is fantastic because you can still enjoy some adult time even if you feel your child needs a little more specialized care than the kids club offers. Beaches Resorts are located in Turks and Caicos, Negril, and Ocho Rios.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Line- If you like the idea of an all-inclusive type vacation but don’t like the idea of navigating international travel alone, then a cruise is a great option. I chose Royal Caribbean because they are the only cruise line that offers a special Autism at Sea program, and they even offer a special autism focused cruise once a year. They offer special activities and accommodations throughout the ship specifically for autism, and their food is incredible. Some of these special accommodations include priority check-in and boarding, flexible ability-based grouping for kids clubs, toilet-training policy exception, and pagers/phones for parents while your child is in the ocean kids clubs. You also have the same server every night in the main dining room, so they get to know your family's preferences quickly. On our last Royal Caribbean cruise, our server had our preferred drinks waiting for us each evening and provided excellent recommendations from the menu according to our tastes.
Dollywood- If you are looking to stay closer to home but still want to get away, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is a great option. (If you live outside of the Chattanooga area, it may not be so close, but as a Tennessee girl, you definitely should put this place on your list!) The family atmosphere and southern hospitality can’t be beaten here. On top of the sweet southern accents and yummy fudge, you’ll find Dollywood provides some wonderful accommodations for special needs families. They have a special sensory room available to families located right inside the park. Dollywood is also one of the best at accommodating special diets. We have always been able to find several options throughout the park that fit our needs.
I’ve learned over the years that it’s best to have a plan for your vacation, but also plan for when things go awry. Notice I didn’t say catastrophic, because if you are prepared, it’s just a small bump in your day and not the epic fail you imagine in your vacation planning nightmares. (And no, you are not alone in having night sweat-inducing, heart racing nightmares about what could go wrong.)
Here are a few of my favorite items to carry along on vacations:
Snacks- Everyone gets a little hangry when they are hungry and our kids are no exception. I’ve found having a bag of snacks in my backpack has held off a few meltdowns along the way. Plus, it’s nice to have a familiar treat on hand in case the chicken fingers we ordered for lunch are not the exact right color or shape and therefore, inedible.
Headphones- Noise-canceling headphones are such a fantastic invention. If loud noises is a trigger for your child, these are a must. You can put a pair on to just quiet the excess noises or pair it with an electronic device to provide a different type of distraction.
Tablet or other handheld electronic devices- In this day and age electronics go with us everywhere, including vacations. I must say, while I am not a huge fan of electronics, having one on hand comes in very handy. It has prevented meltdowns while waiting in line, waiting for dinner to arrive, or riding in the car for hours. You can easily download a number of free apps that can keep your child happily distracted during stressful times.
Weighted blankets or other calming devices- These really should go up on the top of your list. Weighted blankets are great for providing calming pressure that kids crave and need while feeling overstimulated. These amazing blankets can calm a child within a few minutes. They also can help children sleep better by making them less restless and actually reduce the number of times they wake up in the middle of the night, which is very common when sleeping in an unfamiliar environment. While carrying a weighted blanket through a theme park may seem cumbersome, there are actually travel size weighted blankets that are perfect for just that! My absolute favorite company for weighted blankets (and other calming devices like eye masks) is SensaCalm. They provide high-quality products and really care that their customers not only have the products available but also provide information on how to use them best. I also love that you can create a custom product just for you! I mean, who doesn’t love designing their own custom made product? I know I do!
Other things to consider
Airlines- All airlines will allow you to board early. All you have to do is ask. This is so nice because it allows you to get settled in your seats before the crowds come through. If your child has food allergies, this also gives you the opportunity to wipe down your seats and surfaces like tray tables and armrests.
Use a travel agent- I know, I know, this is going to sound a little cliche, considering I am a travel agent and all, but bear with me. A good travel agent can be worth his or her weight in gold. It’s my job to make sure that you are matched with the right location and the right accommodations for your family’s needs. I also make sure that all your needs are taken care of. This means calling the resort and requesting a deep clean of your room to protect your child who is ANA to peanuts, or walking you through all the ins and outs of using the disability pass in conjunction with your FastPasses to maximize your time in the parks, It means sitting back and enjoying your vacation countdown while I make all of your dining reservations or notify the airline that you will need special boarding accommodations. What does this cost you? Absolutely nothing. There is no charge at all to use these services when you book your vacation with a travel agent (Me! Me!), and a lot of times the prices I quote are either the exact same or even cheaper than booking direct. Plus, you are helping another mom grow her small business. It’s a total win-win ;)
I know that traveling with a special needs child can seem very overwhelming and sometimes even downright scary, but I promise it is so worth it. The look on his/her face when they see that turquoise blue water of the Caribbean for the first time or come face to face with their favorite character makes me want to plan my next vacation right away. I hope that you learned something new. Now go out and plan your next adventure!
If you would like more information about any of the destinations in this article or a complimentary quote, please contact Rachel at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rachel Trundle is a southern girl who lives in North Georgia with her husband, Jason, and 3 kids: Rylie, Jensen, and Paxton. She has a passion for travel and especially loves planning vacations for special needs families since her daughter, Rylie has special needs. After lots of research and planning several of her own vacations, she turned her passion into a career 6 years ago. When she isn't traveling, you can find her cheering on the Trion Bulldogs on Fridays and the Tennessee Vols on the weekends or exploring with her kids around Chattanooga.