Family Vacation Activities in Tampa Bay, 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 Tampa Bay, 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 Tampa Bay.
Places to explore in and around Tampa Bay:
The Florida Aquarium
The Florida Aquarium in Tampa has teamed up with the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida to provide support and assistance to families who have a child with autism or a related disability. The Shark Swim story on the facility’s website helps a child prepare for an upcoming trip to The Florida Aquarium by making them familiar with what they might see and experience during their visit. The aquarium also has hands-on activities, quiet break areas and headphones to help reduce noise.
Children can wander among hundreds of life-sized dinosaurs in a natural setting at this laid-back family park. Families are welcome to bring a cooler with snacks and enjoy hands-on, tactile exhibits, a dinosaur-themed playground with slides and swings and boardwalks through natural areas shaded by massive oak trees. Located in Plant City, between Tampa and Orlando, the park is pet friendly and leashed dogs are welcome.
Great Explorations Children’s Museum
This children’s museum, the first in the Tampa Bay area, houses a variety of spaces for safe play and exploration. Listed as autism-friendly by the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities, staff members have received special training to increase awareness of the needs of visitors on the autism spectrum. The museum has an online support story to help children prepare for and understand what to expect during a museum visit. It’s Great Connections program for children with special needs and their families, held the second Sunday of every month, turns down the lights and sounds and provides a “cool down” room.
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.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park also has worked with the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities to create an autism-friendly environment. The zoo has a limited amount of visual aids at the front gate that can be borrowed during a visit. The animal park also has an autism-friendly version of its zoo map and information to help plan a visit, including sensory-friendly tips and social stories called Visiting the Zoo and Animal Encounters.
Glazer Children’s Museum
This imaginative and interactive children’s museum includes a cruise ship, farm, bank and fire house, among other themed exhibits. Glazer Children’s Museum also hosts Sunshine Sunday, a special bi-monthly event for children with special needs and their caregivers. Visitors can explore the museum with lights and sounds turned down and sensory adapted tools, special programs and community resources at their fingertips.
We Rock the Spectrum Tampa
We Rock the Spectrum Tampa is a kid’s gym with equipment designed for children with sensory processing disorders. The 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.
Sky Zone Trampoline Park
Sky Zone is an indoor trampoline park with massive wall-to-wall trampolines, a foam zone for jumping and sports areas on trampolines. The Tampa location holds sensory hours 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.
AMC Theaters and the Autism Society offer sensory-friendly films in select Tampa and St. Petersburg 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.
Where to stay
Tradewinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach has been designated as autism-friendly by the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities. The resort’s staff has received special training and distributes safety kits that include door alarms and outlet covers. The kid’s club offers activities for guests of all abilities and restaurants can accommodate special diets. The Crowne Plaza Tampa Westshore is also certified as autism-friendly.
Outreach Autism Services Network lists autism-friendly businesses in the Tampa and St. Petersburg area.
The Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida offers local resources and events.
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.