FTA Spotlight: Re/Defining Family Travel > Traveling for Families with Special Needs

FTA Spotlight: Re/Defining Family Travel > Traveling for Families with Special Needs

Posted on August 8, 2015   •   Written by

FTA Spotlight: Re/Defining Family Travel

At the end of September this year, the Family Travel Association is hosting its first annual Summit at the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Montana. Over the course of two full days, an assembly of industry executives and family travel experts will expand upon topics essential to a rounded understanding of the challenges we face today with family travel and the efforts we can make as an industry moving forward. In anticipation of that, we will count down the 12 weeks leading up to the Summit by spotlighting 12 core family travel topics to the public. Each week, we will publish an introductory essay written by an authority on the topic, which will open it up for public discussion. Following the Summit, we will initiate a 12-month process of digging much deeper into each of these topics, one per month. By the time we gather for the next Family Travel Association Summit in September 2016, we expect to have a much more powerful grasp of what’s at play in family travel.


TOPIC 6: Travel Supports Learning, Including for Families with Special Needs

According to the 2010 US Census Bureau Report, “One in every 26 American families reported raising children with a disability.”

I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destinations.
-Jimmy Dean

All children benefit from travel!

When you travel and explore the world with your children, you have the opportunity to share their experiences and enthusiasm. Travel increases a child’s confidence, creativity and imagination, as well as reinforces academic, social and communication skills. Most children with special needs are no different: they too “learn by doing.” Travel supports this type of learning. Children with special needs, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities, should be afforded the same opportunities as other children to travel, see new places and enjoy enriching experiences.

Karin Sheets and her special-needs daughterKarin Sheets and her special-needs daughter on Indian Beach near Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast, where, on her daughter’s 13th birthday, they went on a Twilight movie road trip looking for filming locations. Photo courtesy of Special Needs Travel Mom

Emma’s Dream Comes True
Let’s look at an illustration of the possibilities and benefits of travel for a child with significant needs.

Emma’s mother, Natalie, had wanted to fulfill her daughter’s dream of visiting the Magic Kingdom at Disney World. However, due to Emma’s significant medical and ambulatory concerns, her parents thought that a trip requiring long-distance travel was not feasible. Emma is non-verbal, has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy and is fed through a gastrostomy tube. Emma’s parents were overwhelmed by the supports that would be required prior to travel and while on vacation.

family pondering travelEmma’s dream became reality in April 2012 when she and her family traveled to Disney World.

“Extensive planning by the Starbrite Kids staff and a little bit of fairy dust was necessary to make Emma’s dream trip come true. On a mild day in April, Emma visited the Magical World of Disney. It was magical! Yes, all of Emma’s disabilities were still there, but having everything so accommodating and seeing the smile on Emma’s face made it all worthwhile.” – Natalie

Disney really was magical for Emma and her family. Emma still smiles when she looks at the photos of her vacation. As Natalie stated, “The struggles fade, but the memories will last a lifetime.”

You Can Do It Too!
As educators of children with special needs, we have repeatedly heard from parents how difficult it was to travel with their children. Just like Emma’s parents, many were apprehensive that their children would not be able to handle the physical and/or emotional challenges of travel. Others were overwhelmed with planning the trip and securing the required special provisions. Many were simply unaware of the supports and services available to them.

family at aquariumCounter to their experiences, while conducting research for our special-needs travel books we were pleased to find a variety of outstanding programs and attractions in the United States that provide special accommodations and inclusive programs for children with special needs. We found museums offering unique art programs and multi-sensory workshops, adaptive ski and sport programs for children with physical and developmental disabilities, wheelchair accessible Boundless PlaygroundsTM and the Theatre Development Fund Accessibility Program, to name just a few.

Fortunately, over the past two decades in the United States, accessibility for individuals has improved with the passing of the Americans Disability Act (ADA) of 1990, making travel easier for individuals with disabilities. While we acknowledge that impressive efforts have been made by the travel industry to accommodate the special-needs population, ongoing improvements will continue to benefit and facilitate all traveling families.

Room for Improvement
Just like all families, parents of children with special needs are looking for places to vacation and to enjoy memorable experiences with their children. Feedback from our clients indicates that they would like to see improvement in the following areas:

family at amusement park

  • Hotels, airlines, and attractions that clearly display special provisions/accommodations, and make them obvious on their websites, like Morgan’s Wonderland, a 25-acre accessible amusement park in San Antonio, Texas, for children and adults with special physical needs.
  • Hotels that exceed ADA compliance with support such as roll-in showers, shower chairs, zero-entry pools and beds that accommodate Hoyer Lifts.
  • Resorts, hotels and cruise lines that provide specialized children’s programs with knowledgeable staff, like Royal Caribbean International, which was named by Autism on the SeasTM as the first certified Autism Friendly Cruise Line. Autism Friendly Certification is awarded to cruise lines for their efforts to ensure their products and services are accessible for inclusion and participation by the autism and developmental disability community.
  • Clear airline protocols guiding check-in and boarding, like the Transportation Security Administration’s TSA Cares Help Line to assist travelers with disabilities and medical conditions.
  • User-friendly tools and resources (books, apps, websites) for parents to use in planning and securing a vacation. For example, New York City has an Official Accessibility Guide and the Theatre Development Fund Accessibility Program’s mission is to increase access to theaters for all audiences in NYC.
  • Staff sensitivity and disability awareness, like that offered by TradeWinds Island Resort in St. Pete Beach, Florida, which was designated an autism-friendly business by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. Staff underwent sensitivity and disability awareness training. Safety kits, gluten-free offerings, sensory activities and social books are also available at the resort.
  • Family-friendly resorts with nanny/respite programs.

Keiper, Jones and others from Starbrite KidsKeiper, Jones and others from Starbrite Kids. Photo courtesy of Starbrite Kids

Efforts at continued improvement by the travel industry will ensure that more and more families with special needs can enjoy the benefits of travel. We understand the challenges parents face when traveling with children with special needs, but we believe the benefits of travel are invaluable.


We look forward to being part of the growth and change that benefits everyone. Let us know your thoughts and ideas. The Family Travel Association is looking to identify more room for improvement and celebrate those who exhibit best practices.

Please share your feelings in the comments below or, for more interaction, on the Outbounding discussion board prepared specifically for us. And stay tuned in the weeks ahead for more articles about core family travel topics.


Jesemine JonesIda KeiperJesemine Jones (right) and Ida Keiper (left) have a combined five decades of educating children with special needs. Jones is a school social worker and Keiper a retired teacher with over 30 years of experience as a special education teacher. They are co-founders of Starry Night Travel, a travel agency specializing in travel for families with special needs. They are also co-authors of Starbrite Traveler: A Travel Resource for Parents of Children with Special Needs, Starbrite Traveler: Destinations For Kids with Special Needs – East Coast Edition and Autism and Travel.


For more essays in our FTA Spotlight: Re/Defining Family Travel series, click on the topics below.

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