Family Vacation Activities in Orlando, 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 Orlando, 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 Orlando.
Places to explore in and around Orlando:
SeaWorld offers many opportunities for children with sensory issues to have quiet time, including aquariums, the orca or dolphin underwater viewing areas and the Wild Arctic habitat area. The park’s Ride Accessibility Program provides accommodations for visitors who have trouble waiting in a regular line and is individualized to a person’s needs. The resort is opening a Sesame Street-themed land in 2019.
Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World Resort, which includes the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, has services available for guests with cognitive disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum. A Disability Access Service Card, which can be picked up at guest services as you enter a park, is a tool to help visitors with disabilities enjoy the parks, including providing line-up areas in the shade and reducing the amount of time a guest has to wait in the regular line for an attraction. The theme parks also offer break areas, companion restrooms and accommodations for food allergies.
An imaginative indoor play and exploration zone that’s part science museum and part arcade, WonderWorks includes interactive displays about natural disasters, space discovery and art, among others. For Sensory Days, WonderWorks exhibits are altered to provide limited stimulation for children with special needs. Music is lowered, loud exhibits are not operational and a safe environment is created so that children will not feel overwhelmed.
Universal Theme Parks
Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Orlando offer an Attraction Assistance Pass at guest relations as you enter each park. The passes, for guests with a cognitive or physical disability that prevents them from waiting in a conventional line, offers options such as an alternative line or returning to the ride at a set time.
LEGOLAND Florida Resort in Winter Haven offers a Hero Pass for guests with disabilities and their families to enjoy the park. The pass can be picked up from guest services as you enter the park. It allows immediate boarding for your first ride, then gives you the opportunity to reserve a ride time at other attractions throughout the day.
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens
This long-standing, 100-acre animal park includes a serene botanical garden and splash area on the shores of Lake Monroe in downtown Sanford. There is a children’s playground, a petting zoo and a series of elevated accessible boardwalks to view the animals. The zoo is now home to 350 animals and more than 100 species. There is also a train and a carousel.
See alligators in their natural habitat, watch gators being fed and even see some alligator wrestling at this old-fashioned park, the first amusement park in central Florida. There is a train ride and reptile shows where kids can interact with different species. Feed the birds and enjoy the petting zoo in a low-key setting.
Blue Man Group
Reduced sound and light levels, a calm environment and limited direct audience interaction are some of the features of Blue Man Group Orlando’s occasional sensory-friendly performances. The special edition of the typically high energy, multi-sensory show is put on in partnership with Autism Speaks.
Aquatica water park, a Certified Autism Center, offers a Park Sensory Guide to assist families with children with autism in planning a day at the park. Visitors should visit the park’s guest services area for more information and a copy of the guide to the park’s water slides, lazy river, attractions and splash areas. Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon has a wave pool that can be soothing to children 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 at the Parks offers advice for visiting Orlando theme parks.
Autistic Globetrotting offers recommendations for non-theme park family activities in the area.
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.
Autism Speaks has a searchable database of autism-friendly events such as sensory-friendly movie screenings and community walks.