Do you get overwhelmed when choosing a vacation destination that is suitable for your special needs child and exciting for other family members?
You’ll be glad to know there are travel planning services and vacation destinations that are gaining recognition for specialized services for families with special needs, including ASD and ADHD. For example, cruise lines, and destinations can acquire an Autism Certificate (e.g., Beaches resorts). Another option is for a service, destination or program to receive recognition or designation from one of the national organizations or research centers that specialize in ASD or other special needs, including:
To receive the designation as Autism-friendly, the resort or service has to meet certain standards. This usually includes specialized training for employees who assist guests with travel before, during, and after their trip.
While there isn’t a travel industry certification specifically for agents, many who specialize in travel services for special needs do so because they have experience with a special needs child or adult in their family. Some agents may be eligible to acquire an Autism Certificate from a credentialing organization. Others have established a strong network with practitioners, national/regional/state organizations, and support groups.
To help you sort through the choices and planning that goes into traveling with your special needs child and their siblings, we brought FAQs to travel specialist Jennifer Trinidad of Majestic Palms Travel, an agent of Modern Travel Professionals. Jennifer is the parent of a sensory hypersensitive child. She and her husband Christian specialize in travel services around the world for families who have children with a wide range of needs, from food allergies to developmental and sensory conditions. They have helped families navigate travel to Disney, Europe, the Far East, Canada, the Caribbean, Hawaii and mainland U.S., as well as cruises.
Take the time to do an initial phone call with the agent(s). Five basic questions to ask are:
Keep in mind that the right travel planner for your family may or may not be in your back yard. Many travel planners will work with clients regardless of where they live.
When you speak to an agent, be honest and up front about your concerns, interests, and needs. If the thought of planning the trip, and the “list of all of the possible things that could go wrong” that your brain decides to play on loop makes you want to run for the hills and hide, say so. Every family comes from a different place, mindset and experience level. If your agent knows where you’re really coming from, they’ll be better able to help guide you through the quoting and booking process, and the planning process to follow.
The goal of any questions an agent will ask should be to generate a conversation so that your needs and what is truly important to you and your family are brought to the surface during the initial quoting. A more directed initial quoting process benefits everyone. For us, we have a set of baseline questions for our clients during the initial conversations. These help us know where to dig further to make sure we look at the destinations that may best suit the family.
Some of the questions we may ask:
Families traveling with special needs have a variety of options, and those options will depend on your specific situation, interests, and comfort level:
For those looking for an all-inclusive option, our favorite for families with special needs of all types are the Beaches resorts in Turks & Caicos and Jamaica. Custom kids programming, experienced staff, a culinary concierge program to support dietary needs and an all-inclusive environment gives everyone a well-deserved break (that means you too, parents and caregivers).
If you prefer to stay stateside, Tradewinds in St. Petersburg, FL has received an Autism Friendly Certification. Also consider:
Rental homes are available throughout these areas, in addition to hotels. In Southern California, of course, are the three resorts located on-site at Disneyland in Anaheim.
Of course, there is Walt Disney World in Orlando, which we absolutely love for the many ways the parks accommodate for special needs. We also like Universal Orlando Resort. Universal Orlando is consolidated in size compared to the Disney parks. You can take an accessible walkway from any of the five (soon to be six) resorts to the entrance of Universal CityWalk under 20 minutes. Depending on your on-property resort choice, you’ll also be able to take an accessible water taxi or bus. With advance notice, special dining considerations can be met at many of the full-service restaurants. Universal Orlando’s private and small-group tour guides provide a add-on VIP experiences that may provide the personalized attention some families require. Also, express passes help families avoid congested and long waiting lines. Many rides at Universal Orlando theme parks also have a Family Waiting Room, providing a safe and sheltered place for those not riding to await those that are.
Many of the U.S. National Parks have accessible trails and activities, as do some states’ parks (check with your specific state). Depending on your specific situation, there are also cabin rentals in many parks across the country, such as Allegheny State Park on the NY/PA border, as well as RV parking/camping areas. Amtrak vacations are also a nice way to enjoy both the journey and the destination.
For more adventurous or globetrotting families, we recommend Adventures by Disney tours. With over 40 land and river cruise itineraries around the world (including the U.S and Canada), Adventures by Disney is different from other “group tour” companies. Aside from many immersive and unique “backstage” experiences included in your package (such as private, after-hours access to the Sistine Chapel in Rome), each tour is led by two Adventure Guides who specialize in the locations and can work with their guests on activity levels and other needs. While not every itinerary can be customized to every need, Adventures by Disney will have those discussions with travel agents and guests during both the booking process and planning process (so you don’t deposit a trip your family won’t be able to do).
Cruise lines have also take up the mantle of accessible accommodations. Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line have been recognized for their support of children and adults with Autism and other disabilities; Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have received formal Autism Friendly Cruise Line certification. All can accommodate several dietary needs. If accessibility is needed, work with your travel agent to assist you with securing an accessible room and onboard accessibility devices from approved partner vendors.
Destination choices generally come down two core considerations:
Keep in mind that the right travel planner for your family may or may not be at the agency in your hometown or the one owned by your cousin Sally. Search online and research agents and their services as much as you can. Many travel planners will work with clients regardless of where they live. Finally, allow your travel planner to help you think through where it makes the most sense to allocate your hard-earned travel investment in alignment with your family’s needs.
Special Needs Vacation Spots (list provided by TheVacationCritic.com)
Allergy-Friendly Travel Resources (provided by Majestic Palm Travel Agency)
Cruise Planners: Easy Access Travel; “Autism on the High Seas”
World Travel Excursions – Agencies specializing in family and group travel around the globe; list provided by FriendshipCircle.org
CARD Center for Autism Disorders find locations and then visit the. If you don’t see resort/vacation designations for a state, call the center for assistance.