Families traveling with a child on the autism spectrum or with special needs can find plenty to see and do in Destin, 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 at these Destin locations and attractions.
Places to explore in and around Destin:
Bright Horizons Diving
Bright Horizons specializes in adaptive scuba diving lessons for people on the autism spectrum or with other disabilities. Lessons begin with a one-on-one session in a swimming pool in a calm, supportive environment and family members are welcome to join in the fun. Sessions are available Fridays and Sundays.
Emerald Coast Zoo
This down-to-earth 10-acre zoo was taken over in 2017 by Rick de Ridder, known as Rick the Reptile Guy from the A&E show Wild Transport. The small animal park has camel rides, goat yoga, bird feeding and encounters with sloths and lemurs.
Rock Out Climbing Gym
This rock climbing gym has freeclimbing walls that begin at ground level for beginners and accepts children ages 4 and older. The climbs help with problem solving practice, as well as concentration and focus.
Alaqua Animal Refuge
A nonprofit animal sanctuary that takes in neglected and homeless animals, Alaqua Animal Refuge is located on a peaceful 10-acre farm about 20 minutes north of the Emerald Coast’s beaches. The refuge offers daily guided tours of the farm, which houses horses, donkeys, goats and cows, among other animals.
The E.O. Wilson Biophelia Center
A nonprofit environmental education center with an extensive trail system through a natural area. It is open to the public Thursdays and Fridays in June and July.
Emerald Coast Science Center
A hands-on science center in Fort Walton Beach with interactive, educational exhibits, the center features classic science experiments, robots and cutting-edge technology. The animal exhibit includes snakes, parakeets, guinea pigs, hamsters, bearded dragons and more.
Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park
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. 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.
Gulf Breeze Zoo
Gulf Breeze Zoo 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.
Niceville Children’s Park
Located in the Niceville Civic Center Complex, this park is a popular recreation hub with walkways, seating areas in gazebos and cabanas and shady picnic areas. Play areas include a bubble machine, dinosaurs, monkey bars, rock climbing, sandbox and slides. There is a splash play area open from May through September.
Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park
A sprawling 357-acre park with family camping, nature trails, a children’s playground and boat ramps offers access to Rocky Bayou, Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico with year-round saltwater and freshwater fishing. There is a three-mile paved bicycling trail, a picnic pavilion overlooking the bayou and canoe and kayak rentals.
AMC Theaters and the Autism Society offer sensory-friendly films at its Destin Commons 14 location 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.
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 Spectrum on the Emerald Coast provides resources and has a calendar of local events.
The Florida State University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities has a Pensacola office that covers the Destin area and 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.
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