Special Needs Travel to Florida: Attractions, Things to Do
From the thrill of spotting dolphins to imaginative city tours, the Sunshine State is a top destination for special needs travel.
By Hilda Mitrani
Here are just a few Florida attractions and activities for special needs families.
Florida's theme parks do a fine job of making rides and other activities accessible to disabled travelers. Guest services at each park can provide information and assistance, including wheelchairs, Braille guides, sign-language interpreters and listening devices. Many of the rides are accessible to people in wheelchairs.
Manatee viewing is popular at both natural springs and manmade attractions. At Bradenton’s Parker Manatee Aquarium, children can study these magnificent mammals through the windows of a 60,000-gallon tank and watch one of several daily feedings. Trained educators engage the children by describing the manatees’ natural behavior, habitat, nutrition and physiology. The Aquarium is part of the South Florida Museum, which houses a variety of family-friendly exhibits, including a 125-seat planetarium featuring astronomy shows.
Sanibel Island and Captiva Island are considered among the top spots worldwide for shelling, with a tremendous variety and immense quantity of shells that wash ashore. And that’s just one part of its allure. On these barrier islands, dolphin water cruises, some of which are staffed by Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation docents, are a popular way to view the animals in their natural playground.
If you thought indoor skydiving was out of reach for you or your gang, think again. With Florida locations that include Orlando, Jacksonville, Tampa and Florida, iFLY lives by the motto, "Define Your Own Abilities,’" and refuses to believe the impossible isn’t possible. Their All Abilities Program offers the opportunity to indoor skydive for individuals with physical or cognitive challenges. Highly-trained instructors help with everything from donning a flight suit to soaring beyond expectations. While reservations are not required, they’re highly encouraged. Please call the iFLY location of your choice for details.
Kids with any physical, cognitive, medical or hidden disability, chronic or life-threatening illness or those who are medically fragile are the VIPs at Nathaniel’s Hope in Orlando. Register your little one to enjoy events, buddy-breaks and more.
Singing songs, chanting rhymes, dancing, and playing instruments (or props) are all part of the adventure at Music Together, offering classes for children through five years old at multiple locations in Winter Park, Oviedo, Lake Mary, Orlando and Apopka, with discount options for special needs children.
Located in Orlando, Daniel’s Gift believes no need is too small and no voice is too quiet to be heard. This volunteer-driven group hosts a day camp for teens and young adults with special needs, brimming with activities like arts, music and even field trips.
We Rock The Spectrum Kid’s Gym in Brandon, Fla. (near Tampa) boasts an all-inclusive environment, with fun, nurturing social skills groups and activities for children. The indoor gym even includes a trampoline and zip line. Craft classes, special events and parties round out the offerings.
Little Linksters GOALS Program says “no” to labels. Designed to make golf more inclusive for children with special needs, ages three and up, all are welcomed at various locations around Florida.
Packed with activities like zip lining, swimming, archery, dancing, sports and music and drama, the Easterseals Camp Challenge in Sorrento offers peace of mind for you and a fun-filled summertime adventure for your loved one. It provides two summer camp programs, a fully-accessible Overnight Camp for children over six years of age and adults of any age with disabilities or special needs, and a Day Camp for school age children, typically developing or those with mild to moderate special needs. Scholarship funds are available for the overnight camp.
Camp Boggy Creek
You’ll find 232-acre Camp Boggy Creek just outside of Orlando, a year-round retreat that serves children ages 7-16 who’ve been diagnosed with chronic or life-threatening conditions. It makes it possible for these special kids to enjoy a camp experience in a safe, medically-sound environment—and there’s no charge for attending. The weekly and weekend camp programs include joys like horseback riding, fishing, and climbing a ropes-tower, as well as the promise of making new buddies.
The Mindful Music Center in Sanford gives everyone a voice, offering piano, voice, percussion and music lessons for students with disabilities.
Brevard Field of Dreams in Brevard County is specially designed for folks with special needs. This five-acre sporting complex promises fully-rubberized playing surfaces for baseball, soccer, and basketball – and all of them accommodate wheelchairs and other mobility equipment.
Live the Dream
The Central Florida Dreamplex urges people to ‘Live the Dream every day!’ – and that goes for everybody. Located in Clermont, this center for fitness and recreation is designed specifically for families with special needs, blending alternative therapy, adaptive sports, recreation activities and group fitness classes as a path to wellness. The Dreamplex also hosts inspiring events.
Sharing their passion for adventure and the underwater world, The Scuba Gym Adaptive SCUBA in Clermont, Fla., offers a program for open water certification and weekly SCUBA therapy programs. Its SASP (Special Adventures for Special People) Summer Camp caters to children and adults with special needs ages 10 and up.
Dolphins abound in Florida’s warm waters and plentiful reefs, so you can see them swimming around the peninsula, from Destin’s Southern Star Dolphin Cruises in Northwest Florida to St. Augustine’s Eco Tours on the Atlantic.
Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo is a not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to helping adults, children and families who are dealing with developmental and physical disabilities, emotional challenges and critical, chronic or terminal illness.
Old Town Trolley Tours in St. Augustine and Key West offer tremendous flexibility for special needs travel with kids. Board at any of the 30-plus attractions and disembark at will, electing to visit those places that suit your family’s interests and your child’s attention span. See a few attractions or catch them all - there’s something for every taste.
A popular spot in St. Augustine is Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, which (believe it or not) is the original location of this now world-famous brand.
Watch popular reptile feeding at the Alligator Farm Zoological Park in St. Augustine.
The Pensacola Lighthouse offers a spectacular view. Climbing up the 177 wrought-iron steps is like occupational therapy, but afterward you can stroll through the on-site keeper’s house, which is a museum on the region’s centuries-old Spanish-Colonial past.
SPARE stands for a glorious truth: Special People Are Really Extraordinary. It celebrates that fact with weekly Saturday afternoon bowling at Oviedo Bowling Center, bringing opportunities for fellowship and accomplishment to kids.
Go to School
The Schoolhouse Children's Museum & Learning Center in Boynton Beach engages young children in playful discovery through two floors of hands-on, interactive, learning exhibits that integrate the arts, humanities and sciences in a historical setting. In this original schoolhouse, children can play and learn through workshops, guest presentations, classes and other educational programs. Using the museum’s interactive exhibits, visitors learn how children lived in the early 1900s in South Florida. The low-tech environment and cozy setting is perfect to keep wandering kids engaged and in-sight.
A 100-year old slice of tranquility called Sunken Gardens lies in downtown St. Petersburg. It’s a compact four-acre botanical extravaganza that was one of Florida’s original attractions. When it debuted, the owner charged a nickel to share his garden’s colorful blossoms. Today, the vistas include 50,000 tropical plants and flowers, waterfalls, exotic birds and beautiful demonstration gardens. The sheltered location is ideal for children needing a quieter spot and lighter crowds.
Florida has dozens of wildlife theapy programs – including equine and forest therapy – that tap into the state’s surrounding wildlife and natural landscapes to complement therapeutic treatments for autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and Down syndrome.
Museum of Art
The Orlando Museum of Art is an 80,000-square-foot facility dedicated to showcasing local, regional, national and international work. The museum is fully accessible with wheelchairs available for loan, and assisted listening devices, too. Accessible bathrooms are in the main lobby.
Selkie Adaptive Paddle offers complimentary guided adaptive adventures to people of all abilities and their friends and families. Discover the beautiful waters of Boca Grande and Englewood, Fla., by kayak and paddleboard. Meet manatees and dolphins, learn about the wide variety of birds and coastal ecosystems, explore shelling, or wet your fishing line. Selkie offers specially designed paddleboards, kayaks, and adaptive equipment to meet the needs of paddlers.