Family Vacation Activities in Jacksonville, Fla., for Children with Special Needs
By Julie Landry Laviolette
Families traveling with a child on the autism spectrum or with special needs can find plenty to see and do in Jacksonville, Fla.
Whether 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 Jacksonville.
Places to explore in and around Jacksonville:
Museum of Science and History
The Museum of Science and History, also known as MOSH, has a planetarium, interactive science exhibits and a naturalist’s center with animals native to Northeast Florida. There are science and live animal shows and an outdoor courtyard with a pond and native plants.
Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens
An art museum and serene historic garden, the Cummer Museum has an impressive collection of world-class art from 2100 B.C. to the 21st century. It’s nationally-recognized education program includes summer storytelling tours for kids, an art tour where kids can create their own digital artwork and special tours for kids ages five and younger. Special needs services are available to alter programs to fit an individual’s needs.
The theme park’s Jacksonville Beach location includes a waterpark with a lazy river, a half million-gallon wave pool, a natural area with alligators and a Teddy bear factory.
Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens
Experience a walking safari at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, which has more than 2,000 rare and exotic animals and more than 1,000 species of plants on 117 acres. The zoo features interactive and educational experiences, plus the award-winning exhibits Range of the Jaguar and Land of the Tiger. There are plenty of natural spaces to get away from crowds, plus a play park and splash ground.
H2Om Float offers float therapy, a unique, calming experience for those on the autism spectrum. Float pools have about 10 inches of water warmed to body temperature. The pools contain about 1,000 pounds of salt, which allows clients to lie back and float effortlessly. Lights can be turned on or off and music is available. Float The Idea also offers float therapy.
We Rock the Spectrum
This kid’s gym 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.
A massive indoor trampoline park with a Ninja warrior course, mini-bowling, laser tag, climbing walls and an arcade, Bravoz holds sensory-friendly sessions the first Monday of every month. During the sessions, the music is turned off and distractions are dialed down to make the facility more sensory friendly. Jumpstreet Indoor Trampoline Park in Jacksonville Beach also holds special sessions for children with special needs on the first Saturday of the month.
This sensory-friendly gym offers open play times with swings, slides and games for children and their caregivers. There are also art classes, dance classes and kids’ yoga classes. Sensory Towne also offers special events including Glow in the Dark parties and book-based parties. The gym’s mission is to provide sensory resources for families of children of all abilities.
TNT Gymnastics and Fitness
An adaptive gymnastics open play time is held weekly to give kids who are on the autism spectrum or who have sensory needs a chance to explore the gym and participate in the sport of gymnastics. Kids can work on balance, flexibility, strength and motor skills while at play.
Where to stay
Hope Springs Florida is a nonprofit vacation respite home for families, primarily those with autism, 30 minutes from the beach. Founded by parents of a child with autism, Hope Springs provides airport pickup, grocery buying services, childcare and a sensory-friendly environment. Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, a Certified Autism Center with specially trained staff to work with families on the autism spectrum, is located in Ponte Vedra Beach, between Jacksonville and St. Augustine. The resort offers a private beach, several pools, a wave pool and six restaurants.
Autismtravel.com is a free online resource that lists Certified Autism Centers and connects families to other resources and each other. Certified Autism Center requirements include staff training and an on-site audit by autism experts.
HEAL Foundation, short for Helping Enrich Autistic Lives Foundation, offers a directory of resources in Jacksonville.
Center for Autism & Related Disabilities – The University of Florida’s Jacksonville office offers support, assistance and resources.
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.