By Jodi Mailander Farrell
You’ll find South Floridian Frances Osorio Rivera anywhere there’s wind and water.
A U.S. Army veteran and below-knee amputee who now sells watersports equipment, she wakeboards at the Miami Watersports Complex in Hialeah, paddleboards in mangrove-lined Oleta River State Park in North Miami Beach, windsurfs off of Virginia Key, and kite-boards off her favorite sandbar at Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables.
“I love the ocean and the water,” Rivera says. “By challenging myself and putting myself out there in nature, it has built me into who I am.”
Whether you’re an adaptive athlete and thrill seeker like Rivera or someone who simply enjoys open spaces and wildlife, South Florida’s outdoors are open to all abilities. Here are some of Rivera’s favorite spots, along with other opportunities to enjoy accessible Florida.
ON THE WATER
Oleta River State Park in North Miami Beach is Florida’s largest urban park and a quick paddle escape for Rivera without leaving the city. It offers eco tours, intro to paddleboarding classes, full moon and sunset kayak or canoe tours, cabins for camping, and a small beach, with beach wheelchairs and access mats available.
Shake-A-Leg Miami, located in the sailing-centric Coconut Grove neighborhood just south of downtown Miami, has a dedicated fleet of 10 sailboats, 30 kayaks and safety ships purposely designed and modified to accommodate a wide range of disabilities. Offering a variety of sailing experiences for people of all ages, the non-profit organization aims to use the marine environment to improve the health, education and independence of children and adults with physical, developmental and economic challenges in an inclusive community setting. Offerings include 20-foot sailboats, 23-foot keelboats, 30-foot pontoon boats that can take out groups of up to 30 people for cruises on Biscayne Bay, safety boats, an accessible 60-foot sailing catamaran that is fully operational by a person in a wheelchair, and kayaks that can adapt to any paddler needing lateral stability. Shake-A-Leg’s free Disabled Veteran’s Program is designed to serve soldiers and their families, with offerings including sailing, rowing, and paddling instruction, fishing, physical conditioning and a veteran’s lounge.
Team Paradise, located at the U.S. Sailing Center also in Miami’s Coconut Grove, provides access to sailing on Biscayne Bay for recreational, therapeutic and educational experiences to people at all levels of ability, including disabled communities and U.S. veterans. Founded in 2005 by Olympic sailor Magnus Liljedahl, its programs are tailored to individual need, from beginner to advanced instruction. The organization also designs programs for individuals with physical and/or intellectual-developmental disabilities.
Tranquil Adventures in Key Largo is an eco-sightseeing operator that features trips in John Pennekamp Reef State Park and the shallow mangrove channels of the Upper Keys for visitors with mobility or mental challenges. Founded by Capt. Mick Nealey, who was motivated by his own mobility challenges after childhood polio, the company offers water vessels equipped with wheelchair ramps and a captain’s chair lift for full-day or half-day tours individually customized for boating, fishing, snorkeling, kayaking and other water access. Thanks to Vets on the Water and other grant support, there are free trips for individuals in wheelchairs who need financial assistance. Anglers in the area regularly catch cobia, pompano, hogfish snapper, porgy and mackerel on the ocean side, and grunts, snook and jack crevalle on the bayside, as well as grouper in season and the occasional barracuda or shark. Capt. Nealey also runs Active Disabled Americans, another charter operation specializing in trips for people with disabilities, out of Islamorada.
Miami Yacht Charters offers a custom-built catamaran designed to provide unrestricted access for individuals with disabilities. The catamaran’s airlift protrudes four feet over the water from the rear. An industrial-strength dive platform is able to lower passengers with disabilities into the water.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park’s iconic glass-bottom boat tours offer wheelchair accessibility aboard the Spirit of Pennekamp, a 65-foot, high-speed catamaran that transports up to 130 passengers throughout the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Tours of the nation’s first underwater park include views of the shallow reefs teeming with wildlife and are 2 ½ hours long. Reservations should be booked ahead online.
Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles west of Key West, is a remote adventure accessible only by boat or seaplane. The home of Fort Jefferson, a 19th century fortress, the 100-square-mile park is surrounded by blue water and fantastic coral reefs. The ferry boat is wheelchair-accessible, as is the first floor of Fort Jefferson, for a one-of-a-kind day trip.
IN THE WATER
Diveheart, a non-profit volunteer organization originally founded in Illinois, now operates programs in West Palm Beach, Miami and Fort Lauderdale offering scuba diving lessons and therapy to build confidence and independence among children, veterans and others with disabilities. The classes use zero gravity and adaptive scuba. Diveheart works with individuals who have physical and developmental disabilities, vision and hearing impairments, amputations, traumatic brain injuries, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and more. Check the organization’s calendar on its website for upcoming classes throughout South Florida.
Island Dolphin Care Center in Key Largo offers opportunities to swim with dolphins at its fully-accessible facility. The non-profit organization is dedicated to providing unique, animal-assisted programs for people with differing abilities and needs and their families, allowing them to maximize their strengths and achieve their goals. It also serves veterans living with PTSD. The marine center provides dock yoga, therapeutic programs for special-needs children, and an aqua aerobics class at the Jacobs Aquatic Center, a pool complex equipped with ramps and lifts. In late 2021, the facility was closed to in-person visits due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but it currently offers virtual opportunities to interact with the dolphins through 10- to 12-minute Zoom sessions.
Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key offers Public Dolphin Interactive Program Assistance for guests with special needs for its many offerings, which include dolphin encounters in the water, family dolphin splashes, trainer-for-the-day experiences, and paint-with-a-dolphin opportunities, among others.
Miami Beach public swimming pools offering pool lifts include Flamingo Park Aquatic Center and Normandy Isle Pool, which both have lap lanes and interactive water playgrounds, and the Scott Rakow Youth Center Pool. All of the pools are heated in the winter.
Fort Lauderdale public swimming pools include Croissant Park Pool, a 25-yard lap swimming pool that has a wheelchair-accessible ramp, two water wheelchairs and an accessible water playground that begins at zero depth. Carter Park, Riverland Park and Lauderdale Manors Park also provide lifts and accessible water playgrounds.
Everglades National Park offers trails through Florida’s one-of-a-kind “River of Grass” that are wheelchair accessible, with paved or wooden boardwalks at several entry points. One of the most popular is Shark Valley, with its two-hour tram tour along a 15-mile loop road that is paved and accessible. Along the road, you may see alligators, herons, egrets, turtles and snail kites. The Shark Valley Visitor Center is accessible to wheelchairs from the parking lot via a curb ramp. The parking lot contains van accessible parking spaces, and the tram for the tour contains a ramp and tie downs for wheelchairs. The tour includes a stop at a 45-foot observation tower with a steep, spiral ramp that is accessible with assistance, although a concrete barrier can inhibit views. Assistive Listening Devices are available for the tour and ranger-led talks. At the visitor center, there are accessible bathrooms and touch-table experiences that enhance the visit for people with vision challenges.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables is an 83-acre botanic garden with extensive collections of rare tropical plants including palms, cycads, flowering trees and vines, and accessible paths throughout. Wheelchairs are available on a first come, first serve basis. Tour trams can accommodate two visitors using wheelchairs and are equipped with assisted listening aids.
Historic Greynolds Park in North Miami Beach is a 265-acre urban park that was built on the banks of the Oleta River in the 1930s. The one-time Seminole Indian trading post and rock quarry features a mangrove forest, hardwood hammock, an archaeological site and a designated archaeological zone. A 2019 revamp of the park created an ADA accessible walkway through its campground, an accessible restroom and improved walkways throughout the park for greater access to nature. There’s a mangrove boardwalk with a paved path around the lagoon.
More than two dozen South Florida state parks provide free “beach wheels” with special tires that don’t get stuck in the sand. One of the best in South Florida is Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne, which has two free beach wheelchairs and one swimming wheelchair on a first come, first serve basis at the park’s bicycle rental area. There’s also wheelchair mat at Beach Access #6 next to the park’s Lighthouse Café, and other accessible amenities such as picnic pavilions and benches, grills, a fishing pier and playground.
Crandon Park Beach, also on Key Biscayne, offers free non-motorized beach wheelchair rentals to enjoy its two-mile beach. The nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center provides exhibits, lectures and naturalist-led tours along accessible paths.
Haulover Beach, just north of Miami Beach, also offers free non-motorized beach wheelchair rentals that can be used along its 14-mile beach, which also has the distinction of being Florida’s best-known and oldest public nude beach.
Hollywood Beach in Broward County, halfway between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, was the first in the state to roll out a wheelchair beach mat in 2009. There are four mats installed at Tyler, New York, Johnson and Connecticut streets, and four more at Oregon, Harrison and Carolina streets, and Keating Park at Magnolia Terrace. Hollywood Beach also offers mobility rental through Sun and Fun Cycles, which partners with cruise mobility vendor Special Needs at Sea, to rent mobility scooters, traditional wheelchairs and “Joy on the Beach” wheelchairs with air-filled balloon wheels that roll easily on beach sand. The beach chairs also can be rolled into the ocean’s open water, with the wheels providing flotation. Hollywood Beach has a fantastic wheelchair-friendly, 2 ½-mile, brick Broadwalk lined with shops and cafes for oceanside cruising.
In Miami Beach, beach wheelchairs can be checked out for free from two locations: the Beach Patrol Headquarters at 1001 Ocean Dr. and the Beach Patrol inside South Pointe Park, 1 Washington Ave. Manual and motorized beach wheelchairs are available first-come, first-serve from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the months of February through October, and from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during the months of November through January. Call 305-673-7714 for availability. At numerous points along Ocean Drive, accessible “Mobi-Mats” provide a barrier-free path from the Beachwalk across the dunes and to the edge of the beach.
The Leisure Access Camp at A.D. Barnes Park in Miami is a 10-acre pinewood and tropical hardwood space featuring two rental cottages fully accessible for people with disabilities. The cottages, available only to groups or organizations, are equipped with showers and the camp includes a dining hall with full kitchen. Each cabin can bunk up to 10 people and includes central air conditioning and heat. Special activities for people with disabilities are offered at the camp, and the complex can be reserved for special programs.