Play is important for all children.  Part of play is the family vacation.  Parents of special needs children have discovered suitable destinations after years of trial and error.  So to help out parents who are just beginning to travel with their children, here are certain destinations that pay special attention to special needs and are worth noting.  After all, vacation planning time is now!

1.  Shared Adventures – Santa Cruz, California

Shared Adventures is a non-profit organization that puts on an impressive array of programs through the summer for special needs children and adults.  In July they host an annual Day on the Beach, which offers adaptive or assisted kayaking, canoe rides, scuba diving and flotation for people of all ages. Volunteers erect plywood “paths” for wheelchair access; you can also rent beach wheelchairs. The day ends with live music and free food.

2.  Club Getaway – the Berkshires

Club Getaway in Kent, Conn., part of the Berkshires, is touted as a convenient getaway for urban dwellers in the tri-state area.  The setting is beautiful and there are lots of things to do. Safe, relaxing and not overly stimulating, families stay in rustic cabins with fully modern amenities.  Special Parents & Kids Getaway programs occur in August.

3.  Splore – Moab, Utah

Splore, a not-for-profit that provides outdoor activities for special needs children and adults at affordable prices. They organize river trips, rock climbing and hiking through a partnership with Red Cliffs Lodge.  Four-wheeling, river riding, horseback riding, mountain biking, scenic flights and hiking are all within 10 minutes of the lodge. There are wheelchair-accessible rooms adjacent to the lodge. Sidewalks with ramps lead to all patios and to a museum. Meals are “traditional cowboy fare,” but the chefs can rustle up special menus upon request.

4.  Mont Tremblant – Montreal, Canada

A ski resort located near Montreal, Mont Tremblant offers 95 runs serviced by 14 lifts. Besides skiing, winter activities also include snowmobiling, sleigh riding, ice-skating, dog sledding and ice fishing. Private ski lessons are available and many of the instructors are experienced in working with special needs children. For wheelchair users, Mt. Tremblant offers sit skiing, a sled-like platform guided by a second skier to negotiate a ski slope or trail. No reservations are necessary. It’s easy to get around, too — rooms are all ADA accessible and are generously sized for wheelchair maneuverability. Parents of children with allergies can request special meals at any of the resort’s restaurants. Every menu lists the ingredients in each dish and amendments are made cheerfully.

5.  Park City Resort, Utah

Park City Resort is one of the biggest ski destinations in Utah; and according to some, it is also the best for catering to physical disabilities.  The resort works in tandem with the National Ability Center to make adaptive skiing part of a whole family experience.  One creative example, there is a lift with a rubber and wood platform so that disabled tubers could sit on their tubes on the way up the lift.

6.  Dollywood – Gatlinburg, Tennessee

In addition to the great shows and exhibits there are tons of rides.   Dollywood is located within Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and has a rural feel, with lots of trees and natural creeks running through it. Guest Services provides families with information on each ride and whether or not it’s appropriate for kids with special needs. Recently the park adapted two of its attractions — River Battle, a water ride with boats and Adventure Mountain, the largest ropes course in the country — to accept wheelchairs. They also modified the Barnstormer, a swing ride, with seats that non-ambulatory children could access.

7.  Morgan’s Wonderland – San Antonio, Texas

One of childhood’s most cherished sensations is that of flying through the air on a swing.  This was something many disabled children never experienced — until Morgan’s Wonderland came along.  Billed as the world’s first Ultra Accessible Family Fun Park, this playland in San Antonio offers 30 traditional, adaptive and wheelchair swings along with many other rides and activities. A lake is stocked with fish for catch-and-release fun. Artists perform at an amphitheater with flat levels for wheelchairs. Visitors with special needs get free admission.

8.  Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont

Smuggler’s Notch is an overall winner for family fun, providing a heady combination of pools (eight in total, plus four waterslides), camps (including special interest camps like tennis), and mountainside condos with full kitchens and one to three bedrooms. But what truly makes it shine is its SNAP program (Smuggler’s Notch Adaptive Program) offers nine adaptive activities including swimming, hikes and horseback riding. The resort also has an inclusion program to help integrate children with special needs into group activities.

9.  Great Wolf Lodge – Nationwide

With 12 locations across North America, Great Wolf Lodge is like an exotic destination within (or at least close to) your own backyard. Famous for its giant indoor water parks and rustic-themed rooms with kid caves, this family-friendly resort is a favorite destination for 4 million visitors every year. Best news of all for special-needs families is that besides being fully ADA compliant in their accommodations, Great Wolf Lodge also offers “zero entry” pools at most of their locations and in the water parks. Nearly any kind of special accommodation will be made for visitors if they are given some advance notice.  The chefs welcome special menu requests, because it allows them to get creative.

10.  Disney Resorts

Of course, it’s hard to beat the Disney resorts in pretty much any category, and catering to special needs children is one of them. Although the parks, which include Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Epcot Center and California Adventure are full of crowds, bustle and activity, they all manage to personalize service for families with special needs.

When one small girl wanted to visit, her mom made a reservation months in advance, notified the chef of her daughter’s peanut allergy, and then called again on the eve of their dinner.  The chef came out and told the little girl she could have anything she wanted to eat. The chef then informed them that they had purchased all new pots, pans and utensils just for that meal.

The Disney hotels near the theme parks have a special reservation form that allows visitors to request anything from roll-in showers to double-rinsed linens. The theme parks offer guides that show mobility requirements for each ride. And don’t forget to ask about designated viewing spots along parade routes and shows!

Thoughts, opinions, suggestions? I'd love to hear from you!