Family Vacation Activities in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for Children with Special Needs
By Julie Landry Laviolette
Families traveling to Fort Lauderdale with a child on the autism spectrum or with special needs can find plenty to see and do.
If your child needs a sensory-friendly attraction, a quiet break or a patient, caring destination to explore, you can make family travel memories that will last a lifetime in these Fort Lauderdale locations and attractions.
Places to explore in and around Fort Lauderdale:
Young at Art Museum, a children’s museum with interactive displays, offers Sensory Sunday every second Sunday of the month. During this time, the museum opens one hour early for families with children with autism or other sensory integration sensitivities. Children will be able to explore exhibits in a calm and quiet environment and complete an art activity. The museum’s YAA for ALL Tool Bags, which can be checked out for free to use during a visit, include adaptive art tools like special grip scissors, weighted pencils and brushes, textured paint and noise-reducing headphones.
This tranquil botanical garden and Everglades wildlife sanctuary offers plenty of space to stretch out and relax. There are paved trails through exotic trees, butterfly and hummingbird gardens and a children’s garden. Compact animal exhibits include a flamingo pond, black bear habitat and wildlife encounters.
Known as the Venice of America, Fort Lauderdale is lined with ribbons of waterways that wind past million-dollar homes, shopping areas, eateries and beaches. Take a gently-moving tour on the Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi or use it as a unique way to get you from one sightseeing destination to another. The water taxi also offers periodic autism field trips.
The interactive, multi-level children’s science and nature museum in downtown Fort Lauderdale offers Especially for Me events with special hours and free admission for families with children living with developmental challenges. Events include autism-friendly and sensory-friendly times and pre-registration is required.
Located in West Lake Park’s 1,500 acres of coastal mangrove wetlands, Anne Kolb Nature Center is a low-key spot to get away from it all. There is an exhibit hall with displays about the ecosystem, hands-on nature activities and a saltwater aquarium. There are also trails for biking, walking, bird watching and fishing.
Inside Tradewinds Park in Coconut Creek, Butterfly World, a 30-year attraction and the world’s largest butterfly park, is home to more than 20,000 live butterflies from around the world. It features three acres of butterfly houses, botanical gardens and a working butterfly farm. There are also tropical bird aviaries and an interactive lorikeet encounter.
This kid’s gym in Davie offers a safe, nurturing and fun playspace for children of all abilities in an inclusive environment. There are open play gym times with an arts and crafts section, plus Mommy & Me creative dance and movement classes and special events. The gym promotes social interaction, communication and positive behavior modification.
Sensory Saturdays are held on the first Saturday of each month at this kid-friendly complex in West Palm Beach for families and children affected by autism spectrum disorder. Special morning hours have lighter attendance and decreased sound and lighting. Admission is half off.
Chuck E. Cheese’s Fort Lauderdale area locations offer Sensory Sensitive Sundays on the first Sunday of the month. The play area and restaurant opens two hours early with a specially trained staff to ensure a fun visit.
AMC Theaters and the Autism Society offer sensory-friendly films in select Fort Lauderdale and Miami locations the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. The lights are turned up, the sound is turned down and moviegoers are free to get up, walk, dance or sing along.
This 160-acre natural are, about an hour north of Fort Lauderdale, is home to several populations of rare plants, is designated as part of Florida's Greenways and Trails System, boasts a fishing pier and boardwalks, and is certified as an autism-friendly trail. "It's very calming and very peaceful," said Alicia Anderson, an environmental analyst for Palm Beach County Environmental Resource Management. "We actually organized a sensory tour which we highlight bringing you out in the woods, and it has a calming effect also," she said.
The Florida Disabled Outdoors Association offers a searchable database by county of parks, pools, beaches, attractions and events for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.
The University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities posts a calendar of social events and activities around the city specially geared to individuals on the autism spectrum or with sensory issues.
Autism Speaks has a searchable database of autism-friendly events such as sensory-friendly movie screenings, beach bike rides and community walks.
Fun4SoFLkids keeps a running calendar of Fort Lauderdale-area events for kids with special needs, including adaptive swim lessons, horseback riding therapy and art lessons with specially trained therapists.
VillaKey, a vacation rental company designated as a Certified Autism Center, offers sensory-friendly rental properties intended for families with autistic children. Properties are in quiet locations, with soothing decor, lights on dimmers and security such as fenced pools and doors with chimes or alarms. Many are pet-friendly and all have kitchens.