Attractions and Places for Special Needs Kids in Florida

By: Hilda Mitrani

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From the thrill of spotting dolphins to imaginative city tours, the Sunshine State is an easy destination for families of special needs children

As the parent of a 16-year-old with autism, I’ve faced the challenge of incorporating our family’s wide variety of interests with the need to find low-sensory impact settings and flexible visitation options.

When visiting some of Florida’s hidden treasures, a few extra considerations can assure a memorable trip for the entire family. Here are just a few of the many options for special needs families throughout the state.

Manatee Viewing

Manatee viewing is popular at both natural springs and manmade attractions. At Bradenton’s Parker Manatee Aquarium, children can study these magnificent mammals through the windows of a 60,000-gallon tank and watch one of several daily feedings. Trained educators engage the children by describing the manatees’ natural behavior, habitat, nutrition and physiologyDon't forget to stop and say "hello" to Snooty, the world's oldest living manatee.

The Aquarium is part of the South Florida Museum, which houses a variety of family-friendly exhibits, including a 125-seat planetarium featuring astronomy shows.


Shelling

Sanibel and Captiva Islands are considered among the top worldwide spots for shelling due to the tremendous variety and the immense quantity of shells that wash ashore. And that’s just one part of its allure. On these barrier islands, dolphin watch cruises, some of which are staffed by Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation docents, are a popular way to view the animals in their natural playground.

Swimming with the Dolphins

Dolphins abound in Florida’s warm waters and plentiful reefs, so you can see them swimming around the peninsula, from Destin’s Southern Star Dolphin Cruises in Northwest Florida to St. Augustine’s Eco Tours on the Atlantic. 

For those seeking more direct interaction, a supervised “swimming with dolphins” program is offered at the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon (in the lower Keys).

Other Popular Museums and Attractions

The Old Town Trolley Tours in St. Augustine and Key West offer tremendous flexibility. Board at any of the 30-plus attractions and disembark at will, electing to visit those places that suit your family’s interests and your child’s attention span. See a few attractions or catch them all - there’s something for every taste.

One popular spot is Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in St. Augustine, which (believe it or not) is the original location of this now world-famous brand. Watch popular reptile feeding at Gatorland or head for a history lesson at the Old St. Augustine Jail. Children who may get overloaded can take refuge on the trolley and yet remain included.                    

Pensacola is home to the National Naval Aviation Museum and the Blue Angels flight team. They’re a top attraction in Northwest Florida. While the Pensacola Lighthouse is much less frequented, it offers a spectacular view of the fliers when they’re performing. Climbing up the 177 wrought-iron steps is like occupational therapy, but the thrill is when the storied naval pilots buzz by. Afterward, stroll through the on-site keeper’s house, which is a museum on the region’s centuries-old Spanish-Colonial past.                                                                                                            

The Schoolhouse Children's Museum & Learning Center in Boynton Beach engages young children in playful discovery through two floors of hands-on, interactive, learning exhibits that integrate the arts, humanities and sciences in a historical setting. In this original schoolhouse, children can play and learn through workshops, guest presentations, classes and other educational programs. Using the museum’s interactive exhibits, visitors learn how children lived in the early 1900s in South Florida. The low-tech environment and cozy setting is perfect to keep wandering kids engaged and in-sight.  

The Sunken Gardens

A 100-year old slice of heaven called Sunken Gardens lies in downtown St. Petersburg. It’s a compact four-acre botanical extravaganza that was one of Florida’s original attractions. When it debuted, the owner charged a nickel to share his garden’s colorful blossoms. Today, the vistas include 50,000 tropical plants and flowers, waterfalls, exotic birds and beautiful demonstration gardens. The sheltered location is ideal for children needing a quieter spot and lighter crowds.

Traveling through Florida with special needs children is easy with a bit of extra research and planning. My family has enjoyed many of these manmade and natural settings throughout our travels. Fortunately, options abound for every family to create their own happy and inclusive vacations.


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