Anyone who has organized a trip for the whole family knows how much time and effort it takes. But if you're the parent of a special needs child, you can pretty much double or triple that figure. So much preparation is required that getting out of the house, reaching your destination successfully and still managing to have a good time could be considered a small miracle. Nevertheless, families do it every day -- and have the time of their lives, over and over again. Consider one of these destinations for your trip.
Shared Adventures - Santa Cruz, Calif.
Santa Cruz is a well-known summer spot because of its Beach Boardwalk and gorgeous location. But it is also home to Shared Adventures, a non-profit organization that puts on an impressive array of summer programs for special needs children and adults. In July, it hosts 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. The organization also holds year-round activities and events.
Club Getaway - Kent, Conn.
Club Getaway in Kent, Connecticut, part of the Berkshires, is touted as a convenient getaway for urban dwellers in the surrounding areas. The setting is beautiful and there are lots of things to do. For Elizabeth Pflaum, a certified parent coach and mother to an autistic son, it's a haven of rest. "It's safe, relaxing and not overly stimulating," she says. Families stay in rustic cabins with fully modern amenities. Families can kayak or try out the flying trapeze over the lake. Special Parents & Kids Getaway programs occur in August.
Splore - Moah, Utah
Splore is a not-for-profit program in Moab, Utah, that provides outdoor activities for special needs children and adults at affordable prices. Staff organize river trips, rock climbing and hiking through a partnership with Red Cliffs Lodge. More of a resort than a hotel, Red Cliffs Lodge offers an impressive variety of accommodations and activities. Four-wheeling, river riding, horseback riding, mountain biking, scenic flights and hiking are all within 10 minutes of the lodge and most are adaptive for special needs. There are wheelchair-accessible rooms adjacent to the lodge. Sidewalks with ramps lead to all patios and to the museum. And while meals are "traditional cowboy fare," the chefs can rustle up special menus upon request. Utah itself prides itself on offering accessible recreation. The Utah Office of Tourism offers "Accessible Utah," a guide to the places, organizations and activities that cater to special needs travel.
Recommended Park City Hotel: Red Cliffs Lodge
Red Cliffs Lodge
Royal Caribbean Cruises
Royal Caribbean became the first cruise line to be certified as "autism friendly" in 2014. The cruise line provides sensory-related toys, autism-friendly movies and modified kids programs for those with disabilities. The crew on the ships are required to be certified and trained in autism awareness, and some staff have had hands-on training that allows them to assist those with special needs on the ships even more.
Colorado Ski Resorts
Skiers in Colorado have a lot of choices when it comes to adaptive ski programs. Lessons for alpine skiing, snowboarding and cross-country skiing are all available at Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail. Families need to call ahead for schedules and availability. The Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center provides lessons in all types of adaptive skiing at Copper Mountain Resort; the fee includes one-on-one instruction, specialized equipment and lift ticket.
Park City Resort - Park City, Utah
In Utah, great skiing awaits families at a number of resorts and lodges. Park City Resort is one of the biggest ski destinations in Utah; and according to Barb Likos, a professional writer and mother to a wheelchair-using son, 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," she explains. Once when the resort's newest tube lift could not accommodate her son's wheelchair, the staff insisted on towing him up via snowmobile each time. Later, Likos found out they revamped the lift with a rubber and wood platform so that disabled tubers could sit on their tubes on the way up the lift.
Recommended Park City Hotel: Hyatt Centric Park City
Hyatt Centric Park City
Morgan's Wonderland - San Antonio
One of childhood's most cherished sensations is that of flying through the air on a swing. This is something many disabled children never experienced -- until Morgan's Wonderland in San Antonio came along. Billed as the world's first Ultra Accessible Family Fun Park, this playland offers more than 30 traditional, adaptive and wheelchair swings, along with The Sensory Village, Music Garden, Wonderland Express and Depot (train ride) and more. Morgan's Wonderland will also launch a special needs water park in 2017. Visitors with special needs get free admission.
Recommended San Antonio Hotel: JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa
JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa
Dollywood - Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
When Tara Kline-Kennedy of Shoemakersville, Pennsylvania, took her two boys to Dollywood, they loved it -- especially her youngest, who is autistic. "He loved the calmness of it even though it was a theme park," she recalls. "In addition to the great shows and exhibits, there were tons of rides he could enjoy, even at his small size." 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. 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. It also modified the Barnstormer, a swing ride, with seats that non-ambulatory children can access.
Recommended Dollywood Hotel: Dollywood's DreamMore Resort
Dollywood's DreamMore Resort
Smugglers' Notch - Cambridge, Vt.
Smugglers' 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 (Smugglers' Notch Adaptive Program), which offers nine adaptive activities including swimming, hiking and horseback riding. The resort also has an inclusion program to help integrate children with special needs into group activities. Be sure to call ahead for reservations.
Recommended Hotel: Smugglers' Notch Inn
Smugglers' Notch Inn
Franklyn D. Resort & Spa - Runaway Bay, Jamaica
All-inclusive resorts are great for any family, but Franklyn D. Resort & Spa offers a few extras for families with special needs. The Jamaica resort offers up to 50 percent off rates year-round for families traveling with children with special needs. Plus, the resort provides every family with a personal, professionally trained vacation nanny. Parents will feel safe knowing the resort has trained staff to help their family have an even better time on the island.
Franklyn D. Resort & Spa
Great Wolf Lodge - Nationwide
With 12 locations across North America (and a 13th expected to open in Colorado Springs), Great Wolf Lodges are like exotic destinations within (or at least close to) your own backyard. Famous for giant indoor water parks and rustic-themed rooms with kid caves, these resorts are a favorite for all families. The best news of all for special-needs families is that besides being fully ADA-compliant in accommodations, Great Wolf Lodges also offer zero-entry pools at most of locations for ease of access.
Recommended Great Wolf Lodge: Great Wolf Lodge Poconos
Great Wolf Lodge Poconos
Of course, it's hard to beat Disney in pretty much any category, and catering to special needs guests is one of them. Although the parks are full of crowds and activity, they all manage to personalize service for those with special needs. Disney provides assistance for those with cognitive, visual, hearing and mobility disabilities, plus light sensitivity, and also provides help for those in wheelchairs. Park hotels also cater to those who need help
Recommended Disney Hotel: Disney's BoardWalk Inn
Disney's BoardWalk Inn
The Wyndham chain of hotels strives to be sensitive to guests with special needs. The Wyndham Westshore, for example, was designated Tampa's first "Autism-Friendly" hotel. The staff has been trained by the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida. Since autistic children often respond better to places they are familiar with, a kit is available that offers stories about the hotel and various "comfort items." Another great property is the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Austin, Texas, offering five standard rooms with an extra double bed -- at a discount -- to families with an autistic child. The rooms are equipped with safety features such as shortened blind cords, corner guard cushions and outlet covers. Staff has been trained in autism awareness.
Recommended Wyndham Hotel: Wyndham Tampa Westshore
Wyndham Tampa Westshore
Carlson Hotels manages Country Inn & Suites, and kids will love the hotels' complimentary "Short Stature Kit" at Carlson Hotels. The kit, made with little people in mind, consists of a stool, closet rod adaptor, "poke 'n pull" stick and a grabber tool, making it ideal for wheelchair users as well. "I wish that kit was in every hotel," says Kelly Rouba of Hamilton, New Jersey, and the author of "Juvenile Arthritis: The Ultimate Teen Guide."
Recommended Carlson Hotel: Country Inn & Suite Cape Canaveral
Country Inn & Suites Cape Canaveral
More From Family Vacation Critic:
Travel With Special Needs Children
Museums With Special Needs Programs
Best Special Needs Vacation Spots
Written by Erika Kotite