Family Vacation Activities in Pensacola, Fla. for Children with Special Needs
By Julie Landry Laviolette
For families traveling with a child on the autism spectrum or with special needs. Pensacola, Fla., has plenty to see and do.
Whether your child needs a sensory-friendly attraction, a quiet break or a patient, caring destination to explore, you can make family travel memories in Pensacola that will last a lifetime at these locations and attractions.
Places to explore in and around Pensacola:
A massive 350,000 square-foot museum on 37 acres, the National Naval Aviation Museum offers free admission and features more than 150 restored aircraft on display from World War I to present day. There are cockpits where you can take pictures, displays of flight suits and memorabilia, a Kitty Hawk children’s playground and an onsite café. The museum is open daily except for major holidays and offers free guided tours.
(Note: The National Naval Aviation Museum is open Monday through Sunday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. to current Department of Defense (DoD) ID cardholders. Access to NAS Pensacola is limited to current Department of Defense (DoD) ID card holders (active-duty service members, retirees, and their families) and Veterans who possess a Veterans Health Identification Card (VHIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs that displays the Veteran’s eligibility status. DoD ID card holders can escort guests as part of the Trusted Traveler Program, but must remain with their guests at all times. Unless sponsored through the Trusted Traveler program, no civilians will be granted access onto the base until further notice, and thus will not be able to access the National Naval Aviation Museum. Call 850-452-8450 for answers to your questions about visiting the museum and attending Blue Angels practice air shows.)
Pensacola MESS Hall is a hands-on, 3,000 square-foot science museum that encourages individual experiments by handing out kits that explore different concepts. Permanent exhibits include wind tubes that show how everyday objects interact with moving air and a marble run where you can build your own ball track. Visitors sensitive to crowds and noise are recommended to visit on weekday afternoons during the school year, when there are fewer people and a calmer environment.
Escambia County’s parks and recreation department has a variety of parks and beaches that offer tranquility in natural areas, with opportunities for nature hikes, paddling and picnics. Eight special needs areas with play equipment for children with sensory and motor skills challenges are available.
These peaceful barrier islands on the Gulf of Mexico offer white sandy beaches, boat rides, camping and historic forts. There are ranger-led programs and plenty of areas to fish or paddle. All visitor centers, pavilions and auditoriums are wheelchair accessible. Orientation films are closed captioned at Naval Live Oaks. Beach wheelchairs are available at Johnson Beach.
Dolphin and sea lion shows, an otter den and exhibits about the habits and habitats of marine life are all part of the fun at Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach. The outdoor attraction has awnings for shade and animal encounters that include feeding dolphins. Visitors on special diets can bring in their own food and the park has a special needs assessment to help visitors of all abilities enjoy the park.
This longtime animal park features 50 acres of wildlife preserve and is home to more than 900 animal species, including giraffes, rhinos, kangaroos, lions and tigers. There is an aviary with exotic birds and a farmyard petting and feeding area with gentle animals like goats, sheep and llamas. There is an elevated boardwalk that overlooks the preserve and a safari train ride.
Kids interested in learning about aviation or how to fly a plane can participate in an aviation-based STEM camp through the National Flight Academy. The camps welcome students on the autism spectrum and with varying disabilities and will adjust the program as needed. Flight simulations take place in a classroom that looks like an aircraft carrier, and if a student has sensory issues, lights and sounds can be adjusted and headsets are worn. Advance registration is required.
This longtime waterpark, which sits next to Sam’s Fun City, an amusement park, offers lots of water fun. There is a slow-moving 750-foot endless river that you can float on in a giant innertube, as well as seven pools, 12 large slides and two kiddie interactive play pools with pint size slides.
Sky Zone is an indoor trampoline park with massive wall-to-wall trampolines, a foam zone for jumping and sports areas on trampolines. The Pensacola location holds sensory hours the first and third Sunday of the month with a quieter, toned-down jumping experience for visitors with sensory issues. It’s a fun place for children to learn new skills in a safe, controlled environment.
A cozy, two-floor museum with a mix of traditional and contemporary art, the Pensacola Museum of Art has been certified as autism-friendly by the Centers for Autism & Related Disabilities. There is a sensory break box available with activities, quiet spaces for breaks and staff members who are trained to help those with sensory issues. Family sensory days for people with sensory processing disorders are held quarterly.
Autism Pensacola provides resources and a listing of local events.
Florida State University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities has a Pensacola office that offers local resources and information.
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, beach bike rides and community walks.