How to Plan a Sensory Friendly and Accessible Vacation

By: Kelly Nesbitt, MOT, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist

Summer vacation is in full swing, along with all the stress and planning that parents feel as they try to make a great relaxing vacation for their whole family. For parents of children with disabilities, these feelings can be very overwhelming as they have to take into account how to travel efficiently and safely while accommodating their child’s needs.

To make your trips a little easier, I’ve compiled a list of resources about air travel, cruises, and US-based destinations that are perfect for a family with a child with disabilities.

Air Travel

TSA Cares is a national program through the Department of Homeland Security that offers one-on-one assistance navigating the airport and security for people with disabilities. Services include escort by a Passenger Support Specialist who can meet you at a specific point in a chosen airport, help with baggage through security, assist in security checks, and just be another support system navigating a chaotic environment such as an airport.

Click here to learn more about TSA Cares. You can also contact them with further questions at (855) 787-2227 or TSA-ContactCenter@tsa.dhs.gov

Open Taxis is a new wheelchair accessible taxi service in Chicago. It is open 24/7, so it is perfect for quick taxi rides to the airport without parking your own accessible vehicle at the airport for the entirety of your trip. You can call to prearrange a trip or call the day of the trip. You can schedule a ride by calling 855-928-1010.

Two children wait to embark on the airplane

Travelers Aid Chicago is a service in Chicago O’Hare that provides support and protection for “vulnerable at-risk travelers who need guidance, support, or advocacy” as well as crisis intervention for passengers with cognitive or developmental disabilities. Information desks are located in terminals throughout O’Hare.

Travelers Aid Chicago provides the option to schedule an Airport Practice Experience. You can take a “practice run” through O’Hare airport including going through security and the terminals to help children know what to expect on the actual travel day. They even have visuals to provide to families so that the child can have their own visual schedule of their trip to O’Hare.

I would especially recommend this for a child who may have Autism and/or an Anxiety disorder and has not experienced anything like flying before.

To inquire about Travelers Aid Chicago’s services or to set-up a practice day, contact them at (773) 894-2427 or travelersaid@heartlandalliance.org

Cruises

A boy looks over the side of a cruise ship with binoculars

Autism on the Sea is an international organization that creates cruise experiences for children and adults with Autism, Down Syndrome, Tourrette Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and more. These experiences are currently available on well-known cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruises, Carnival Cruises, and Disney Cruises.

With this service, cruise members who are experienced and background checked can accompany you on the cruise and adapt activities in order to fit the special needs of your family. This organization will also collaborate with you in order to contact cruise lines to adapt your vacation to fit the dietary, physical, mental, and emotional needs of your child.

They even provide images of common used “cruise ship words” to be used as part of a child’s Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) so that you can create a social story to prep your child for their trip.

Click here for additional information on Autism on the Sea and their services.

Disney Cruises offers many special services for passengers with special needs, such as accessible suites, access to medical equipment, sharps containers, and a variety of other accommodations. Disney Cruises also offer American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for on-board entertainment and shows. Please contact Disney Cruises 60 days before your cruise to arrange accommodations.

For more information or to request accommodations call (407) 566-3602 or email SpecialServices@disneycruise.com

“Stay-cations” in Chicago

As Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley is based in the western suburbs of Chicago, here are some tips for exploring the Windy City!

The Chicago Children’s Museum Play for All program offers free admission for the first 250 visitors with disabilities the second Saturday every month from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. to experience exhibits via a private tour. You must pre-register in order to get this special offer. The museum also has sound reducing headphones, pictures for a visual schedule, and lap trays for wheelchairs so that children with disabilities can experience the museum.

For more information on the Play for All program, call (312) 464-8249 or email partnerships@chicagochildrensmuseum.org.

Children attending Play for All at the Chicago Children's Museum

Calm Waters at the Shedd Aquarium offers extended hours on selected days especially for children with disabilities. They have specially designed shows with novel sensory experiences, a “quiet room” for sensory breaks, and an app in which there is information about noise levels in different parts of the Aquarium to help you plan your trip.

Click here or call 312-939-2438 for additional information on Calm Waters at the Shedd Aquarium!

Sensory Saturday at the Field Museum: The Field Museum opens early on select Saturdays in which children with disabilities or sensory processing issues can enjoy the field museum without loud crowds as well as access to hands on experiences to learn through tactile play and exploration.

Click here or email to learn more about Sensory Saturdays at the Field Museum!

Want more inclusive event ideas for children with disabilities in the Chicagoland area? Click here!

Walt Disney World

It really is the happiest place on earth. Disney World offers numerous services and accommodations for children with special needs at each of Disney’s parks.

Services include:

Disney has many guides to help guests with disabilities enjoy their experience.
  • Access to Break Areas for children who need a break from the sensory overload of Disney. You can ask any cast member to help you locate a break area.
  • Sensory Guides for each park’s rides and shows that have strobe lights, scents pumped in, loud noises, have a lot of unpredictability, bumps, go fast, etc. It even lists what type of restraint is used in each ride for safety as well as how long each ride is.
    This guide can help families of children with special needs decide which attractions would be most enjoyable for their child. If you are planning to go to Disney, it may be helpful to show this list to your Occupational Therapist, as they can help you figure out which rides will best suit your child’s unique sensory system.
  • Resources for Children with Autism Spectrum disorders in booklet form. This booklet lists FAQ’s about Disney for children with Autism, what Disney recommends bringing to the parks (ID bracelet, a sensory toy, earplugs/headphones, etc.)
  • Rental wheelchairs
  • Empathetic, warm staff : Many blog posts from parents of children with disabilities rave about how warm and engaging Disney staff and characters are with their children with special needs- meeting them where they are and not overwhelming them. Click here to read our past blog, The Magic of Disney and Your Special Needs Child
  • Sign Language interpreters
  • Handheld captioning/video captioning
  • Braille guidebook

Morgan’s Wonderland

Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas is an amusement and waterpark that has 25 “ultra-accessible” attractions. Opened in 2010 by parents of a daughter with physical and cognitive disabilities, Morgan’s Wonderland is the world’s first theme park designed specifically for children with special needs. This unique theme park has a variety of amazing attractions such as the Sensory Village (which is a replica small town for children to engage in imaginative play), wheelchair swings, a large sand box, a musical playground, and more!

Morgan’s Inspiration Island is a waterpark addition to Morgan’s wonderland that provides an opportunity for guests with limited mobility to experience the fun of a waterpark. They have access to waterproof chairs and compressed air operated power wheelchairs so that all children can play in the water without having to worry about ruin their personal power wheelchairs.

There are also hotels that are partnered with the amusement and water park that offer discounts and accommodations to make the entirety of your trip accessible. Morgan’s Inspiration Island was listed as one of TIME Magazines 2018 “World’s Greatest Places.” Best of all? Admission for guests with disabilities is free.

Morgan's Wonderland and Island Inspiration

National Parks

The National Park Service has a list of the most wheelchair accessible hiking trails so that guests with limited mobility don’t have to miss out on the beauty of our national parks. There are wheelchair accessible hiking paths at the Grand Canyon, Sequoia, and Zion National Parks.

Whether you decide to go on a cruise, roadtrip, or fly somewhere this summer, bring up your vacation plans with your child’s therapists for further accessibility tips and sensory strategies that can make your trip more enjoyable for everyone involved. Happy travels!

For more information about Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley and our services, visit: https://www.easterseals.com/dfv/our-programs/

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