Family Vacation Activities in Miami, 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 Miami, 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 Miami.
Places to explore in and around Miami:
The first zoo in Florida to earn a Certified Autism Center designation for having specially trained staff and programs for guests with autism or other sensory disorders, ZooMiami’s 750-acre lush, tropical open-air exhibits feature more than 3,000 animals. The zoo plans to create sensory bags for special needs guests with noise-canceling headphones and fidget toys. Quiet places are being identified and Zoo Sensory Guides are also in the works.
Miami Children’s Museum
One of the largest children’s museums in the country, this waterfront, 56,500 square-foot facility is chock full of interactive exhibits and hands-on play areas. It includes the Snoezelen Room, a multi-sensory environment in a relaxed spaced with reduced lighting. The space was created specifically for children with autism, sensory processing disorders, developmental delays and other special needs to enjoy with their families. Sensory Friendly Saturdays are held the second Saturday of every month with limited admission, sound and lighting adjustments and special activities.
Shake-A-Leg Miami is a not-for-profit that works with children and adults with physical, developmental and economic challenges. Participants can experience the beauty of Biscayne Bay in Miami through therapeutic sailing, swimming, kayaking and other watersports. Programs are offered seven days a week year-round.
Autism on the Seas
Staff-assisted cruise vacations are available for families with children with special needs, including autism, Asperger Syndrome, Tourette Syndrome, cerebral palsy and cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities. Autism on the Seas staff members help accommodate typical cruise services, plus provide respite care and private activities on regular cruises on Royal Caribbean, Disney and Carnival cruise lines, among others. Ports are located in Miami and nearby Fort Lauderdale.
Island Dolphin Care
Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, a short drive from Miami, offers therapy programs with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins for children with special needs and their families in the water and on land. Customizable programs are offered that include interactions with therapists and dolphins from the dock or in the water.
New World Symphony
The Miami concert hall and music school offers a Sensory-Friendly Environment for families with members with autism and sensory processing disorders. The special accommodations include a streaming live feed of a concert, reduced volume levels, noise-redacting headphones and muted lighting. There is also a quiet room.
A.D. Barnes Park
This 65-acre park nestled in the heart of one of Miami’s busiest areas offers special camps for children with disabilities, as well as inclusive activities for visitors of all abilities. The park contains The Sense of Wonder Nature Center and Trail, a peaceful oasis for migrating birds and birdwatching.
This longtime aquarium on scenic Biscayne Bay offers dolphin and sea lion shows and sea-life exhibits with manatees, sea turtles and penguins. A swim with the dolphins program and experiences to interact with penguins and seals also are available.
Chuck E. Cheese
Chuck E. Cheese’s Miami and Hialeah locations offer Sensory Sensitive Sundays on the first Sunday of the month. The playspace and restaurant opens two hours early with specially trained staff to ensure a calmer visit at a quieter time.
Sensory-friendly activities have been designated throughout the Miami area by the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs. The Sensory-Friendly access symbol of a black and white umbrella with puzzle pieces designates events that are modified for sound and lighting, have remote viewing, noise-reducing headsets or other modifications to promote inclusion.
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.
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.
Autism Speaks has a searchable database of autism-friendly events such as sensory-friendly movie screenings, beach bike rides and community walks.