Travel for all: 7 autism-friendly vacation destinations
At TPG, we feel strongly that travel should not only be accessible to all but enjoyable for all. In honor of World Autism Awareness Day (held annually on April 2), we’re highlighting cities and tourist attractions around the world that are doing just that — making their destination welcoming to all visitors.
About 1 in 36 kids in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every year, more and more destinations join a growing list of places that are dedicated to ensuring every visitor’s needs are met so that they feel welcome, cared for and, most of all, can have fun.
To do this, these destinations partner with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, an organization that focuses on autism and cognitive differences. In addition to health care and public safety training, IBCCES has developed a robust certification program for cities, zoos, restaurants, theme parks, hotels, museums and similar tourist destinations that are committed to serving individuals with autism.
Planning your next vacation? Here are seven autism-friendly destinations to consider.
Beaches’ family of properties includes three family-friendly all-inclusive resorts in Negril and Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and the Turks and Caicos Islands that aim to welcome all kinds of guests, including those with autism.
All of these resorts are designated Advanced Certified Autism Centers, and staff members have received special training from IBCCES. Not to mention, each property offers kids camps, custom dining options, sensory-friendly areas and sensory guides who provide details on sensory stimulation levels for the various amenities and activities at these Beaches resorts, including those led by popular Sesame Street characters.
Beaches resorts also offer one-on-one accredited staff members called “Beaches Buddies” who can assist your family during all or part of your trip and an expedited “Fast Track Arrival & Departure Service,” both for an additional fee.
Mesa, Arizona, has the distinction of being the first-ever autism-certified city in the U.S. This designation means that visitors can find autism-friendly attractions, hotels, restaurants and more throughout the city.
The city’s website provides a directory of certified lodging, dining and attractions. You can download a mobile passport that lists the attractions and can earn a special prize if you check into five Certified Autism Center locations during your visit.
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Nearby at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), visitors with special needs can request a complimentary “Compassion Cacti” lanyard so staff can easily recognize who may need additional assistance.
In December 2022, Visalia, California, earned the Certified Autism Destinations designation after a yearlong collaborative effort by the Visit Visalia tourism board and local hotels and tourist attractions.
Visalia keeps an updated list of Certified Autism Centers on its website, along with details on what is required for those hotels and attractions to earn that classification, including employee training, accommodations and amenities such as sensory guides, quiet spaces and exclusive low-sensory events.
The city also partakes in the “Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program,” which provides visitors with a complimentary sunflower-printed lanyard. This alerts staff at local hotels, restaurants and attractions that special accommodations may be necessary.
As of the 2023 operating season, all Legoland resorts across the U.S. will open as Certified Autism Centers.
Employees at Legoland Florida in Winter Haven, Florida, Legoland California in San Diego and Legoland New York in Goshen, New York, are specially trained to ensure guests on the autism spectrum or with other sensory disorders can enjoy the kids-friendly theme park. In the case of Legoland Florida, all three on-site hotels are also Certified Autism Centers.
Related: 7 things to know before visiting Legoland New York Resort
Additionally, Legoland New York and Florida offer quiet rooms, and all three resorts feature sensory-friendly areas and sensory guides for all attractions. These guides rate each attraction’s sensory levels in regard to touch, taste, sound, sight and smell. Visitors can also request a skip-the-line pass called a Hero Pass for guests with disabilities.
Peppa Pig Theme Park
Peppa Pig Theme Park — adjacent to Legoland Florida Resort — opened in February 2022 as an IBCCES Certified Autism Center.
In addition to staff training on sensory awareness and continuing education on needs for visitors on the autism spectrum, Peppa Pig Theme Park has an in-depth sensory guide on its website, sensory signage at each attraction and a skip-the-line pass for visitors with special needs. There are also areas designed for those on the autism spectrum, such as an indoor theater that shows episodes of “Peppa Pig” in a dark, quiet room with comfortable floor cushions.
SeaWorld Orlando has been an IBCCES Certified Autism Center since World Autism Day in 2019. The theme park that blends thrilling and kid-friendly rides with aquatic animal observation and education — along with its Aquatica Orlando water park and Discovery Cove all-inclusive day resort — offers staffwide training in autism awareness and sensitivity so that all visitors can enjoy the breadth of fun and educational experiences SeaWorld offers.
SeaWorld Orlando’s website provides information on the park’s skip-the-line ride accessibility program, plus the park’s quiet room and low sensory area. You can also download a sensory guide with details on each attraction at SeaWorld Orlando.
The DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld, one of Orlando’s many family-friendly hotels, is also designated as a Certified Autism Center, making it a convenient option for families traveling with children on the autism spectrum.
Sesame Place, which has locations in Philadelphia and San Diego, the only theme park where you can visit the friendly characters who call Sesame Street home, is also a Certified Autism Center.
In addition to the requisite training and sensory awareness guides, Sesame Place gives visitors the chance to meet Julia, a resident of Sesame Street with autism. Julia has been a prominent character on the “Sesame Street” TV show since 2017.
Related: 1st look at the brand-new Sesame Place theme park in San Diego
Six Flags has more than 20 theme park locations across the country. In 2020, Six Flags became the first family of parks to earn the Certified Autism Center designation at all locations.
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The parks partnered with IBCCES with the goal of removing the challenges of visiting a theme park with a child who has special needs while making every guest feel welcome. Each park has its own sensory guide, customized menu options at dining locations, sensory-friendly spaces and warm, accommodating staff members.
These seven cities, resorts and tourist attractions are doing everything they can to meet the needs of travelers on the autism spectrum.
For a full list of IBCCES-certified locations, visit the organization’s online autism travel directory.