Special Needs Destinations And Programs For Travelers

There are many special needs destinations and travel programs, both to snow and sand vacation resorts, that offer fun for the whole family, including those with physical or mental disabilities or special dietary needs.

Disability travelers will appreciate the resources available, whether for themselves or companions who have special needs, either physical or intellectual ones. From mainstream destinations with special programs for the deaf or mobility challenged, to specialty locations that focus primarily on working with autism and other mental disabilities, travelers of all backgrounds and interests should be able to plan a fun family vacation.

Year Round Recreation for Special Needs Travelers

Two people on adaptive cycle at NEDS school
The NEDS program helps those with developmental needs learn to ride a bicycle among other activities.

Loon Mountain NEDS
NEDS New England Disabled Sports
60 Loon Mountain Road
Lincoln, NH 03251
New England Disabled Sports at Loon Mountain offers year round recreation for disabled children and adults, with summer programs including water skiing, cycling, kayaking, hiking, and winter programs such as skiing, snowboarding, and telemarking for ages 4+. They employ over 160 volunteers who teach guests with both cognitive and physical disabilities. The New England Disabled Ski Team is for young, up-and-coming skiers and features elite-level skiers who have competed in Paralympics. A great program offered at this destination is PAC (Pre Adaptive Coach) Program. It is for teens ages 14-18 who want to become volunteer coaches. Our feature story on Loon Mountain has a complete list of activities and attractions on the destination.

Aspen Snowmass Adaptive Programs
P.O. Box 6639
Snowmass Village, CO 81615
All four Aspen Snowmass mountains welcome those with disabilities. Each is able to accommodate special needs in limited ways. At Snowmass mountain in Aspen, the Challenge Aspen program is specifically designed for those ages 4 and older with physical and/or cognitive disabilities. They offer adaptive, recreational, and cultural activities year-round, with skiing and snowboarding in the winter. That’s the time for elite ski racing for adults with disabilities, or arranging a volunteer who may be available to ski with you for a nominal fee. There’s hiking and fishing in the summer, along with therapeutic art, drama, and outdoor adventure camps.

The mountains’ Ascendigo program provides specially trained instructors for children and adults anywhere on the autism spectrum. Snowmass also offers the Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, in operation for more than 50 years. For more information regarding the Snowmass Aspen resort, read our article on Snowmass.

Snowsports Resort for Special Needs

Adaptive skiing class
The Adaptive Snowsports program at Greek Peak ski resort.

Greek Peak Mountain Resort
2000 NYS Rte 392
Cortland, NY 13045
This comprehensive adaptive ski program takes place winters only at a smaller ski resort in the Adirondacks region of New York. They founded GP Adaptive Snowports in 1974. They have a dedicated training center and support the volunteer organization that provides instruction, as well as offering reduced rate lift tickets on weekends for skiers and snowboarders with disabilities. New York State Ski areas host other adaptive snowsports programs as well. Greek Peak has recently expanded with the Hope Lake Lodge and Indoor Waterpark, strengthening the family-friendly atmosphere and making it a fun mountain destination for families at any time of year.

Caribbean Resort for Families with Special Needs Kids

Franklyn D. Resort
P.O. Box 201
Runaway Bay
St. Ann, Jamaica W.I.
Book the all-inclusive FDR resort if a personal vacation nanny sounds perfect. These talented staff members look after your kids, regardless of their needs, when parents want a break. They are all trained and come highly recommended by our readers. Family members with physical or cognitive challenges have an opportunity to get to know the nanny and feel comfortable with her. Whenever you don’t need her help, the nanny will stay back at your suite, while new COVID-19 hygiene crews do housekeeping. All of the air-conditioned suites are wheelchair accessible and numerous activities are offered that kids and adults of all abilities can partake in. Rooms come with a stocked refrigerator, free internet access, full kitchen, dining area and a balcony or terrace. Yellow Bird’s Kids Club runs daily from 7:30am to 10pm, with everything from crafts and swimming to snorkeling and a video games room. All activities, meals and programs are included in rates.

Specialty Tour Operators

Canoe outing with special needs children from Shared Adventures, California
The canoe outing is hosted by Shared Adventures, a special needs outfitter in California.

Wheel the World
Wheel the World, recognized in 2021 by Lonely Planet as “Best in Travel for Diversity and Inclusion,” is an online travel booking company empowering people with disabilities, seniors and their families to explore the world. Their multi-national team covers more than 80 destinations with places to stay, things to do, multi-day private trips and multi-day group tours, all with detailed accessibility information. Their team will help your family decide what’s right for your needs.

Shared Adventures
P.O. Box 396
Santa Cruz, CA 95061
Based in Santa Cruz, California, this company organizes wheelchair accessible activities along with great adventures for people of all disabilities. With activities ranging from a day on the beach (they rent fat-tire beach wheelchairs, a wonderful tool if you’ve never tried it) to adaptive yoga, gardening, an annual four-day kids’ summer camp and a multitude of arts ‘n’ crafts events, Shared Adventures caters to all ages and developmental abilities. In addition, they have sailing and kayaking excursions, a luau dance, indoor rock climbing, table tennis tournaments and more.

Special Needs Travel Information

Each day, there are more resources available for travelers with special needs, physical disabilities and developmental challenges.

New York State, for example, is a destination that’s home to more than 1.5 million people with a variety of disabilities, prompting them to launch a special online Disability Travel in NY resource. N.Y. State attractions and amenities can be sorted so that travelers know where disabilities such as Blind/Low Vision, Cognitive/Autism Spectrum, Deaf/Hearing Loss and Mobility/Wheelchair Access are most easily accommodated.

TSA Special Procedures for Disabilities and Medical Conditons – Know your rights when it comes to TSA Security Screenings and get the latest information about transporting medications through airport security.

Special Needs and Disability Resources for all Families

If you’re a parent or caretaker of a child with special needs, here are some other resources you might find useful.

Cerebral Palsy Family Network – Discover a compassionate community that provides resources for transportation, recreation and other support for loved ones with Cerebral Palsy.

AutismTravel.com – This handy website is part of IBCCES, a company that runs training and certification programs. Resorts, cultural facilities and attractions that have completed the IBCCES training earn the “Certified Autism Center” designation and are promoted on this website.

Special Needs at Sea – This company offers special physical needs rental equipment, ranging from wheelchairs and scooters to power chairs and oxygen tanks. In addition you can get referrals to more information regarding special needs travel.

Emerging Horizons – This site is a great resource, providing travel news for wheelchair users and slow walkers. The site also highlights destinations or resorts that focus on special needs travelers, reviewed by special needs author Candy Harrington, who has written books such as 101 Places Accessible Vacations and Barrier-Free Travel.

Use a Travel Professional

In addition to the resources mentioned above, most cruise companies and airlines have procedures and services to assist travelers with disabilities. To ensure a more accessible experience, be sure to arrange for them ahead of time with your travel professional. In fact, this guide to how the airlines handle passengers with disabilities will be useful in your planning.

For tips from an expert on how to make travel most convenient for you parents, follow our guide on Traveling With Special Needs Kids.

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