Florida attractions, accommodations striving for greater accessibility

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One of the Florida vacation rental homes by VillaKey, a vacation rental company that specifically markets to families with autistic children.
One of the Florida vacation rental homes by VillaKey, a vacation rental company that specifically markets to families with autistic children.
Holly V. Kapherr
Holly V. Kapherr

Over the past several months, I've received close to a dozen press releases about attractions, accommodations and events around the Sunshine State that are making changes to their offerings or programming to make travel easier and more accessible for guests with disabilities.

For example, Legoland offers a "Blue Hero" pass to allow no-wait access to attractions and rides for families with autistic children. Saturdays at the Miami Children's Museum are now sensory-friendly, and the Orlando Repertory Theatre adjusts several of its shows each season to a sensory-friendly environment. Sesame Place, which originated in Pennsylvania but will be added as a "land" to SeaWorld Orlando in 2019, was the first theme park certified as an autism center, featuring specialized attractions for children on the spectrum.

There's clearly a course-correction being made in tourism for families with disabled children and for disabled adult guests. In the case of autism, the numbers speak for themselves: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 59 children will be identified as being on the autism spectrum. Alice Horn, CEO of VillaKey, a vacation rental company that specifically markets to families with autistic children, said, "Families with disabled children need an extra layer of support, and they need help establishing a comfort level even with the idea of traveling." Out of VillaKey's 1,200 rental properties, most of which are in Miami and Orlando, 250 of them are specifically intended for families with autistic children.

Horn worked with the University of Miami's Center for Autism and Related Disabilities on a focus group about families with children on the spectrum and travel. "There was a desire for these families to travel, but there were needs that weren't being met," she noted. VillaKey is now the first vacation rental company to be autism certified by the IBCCES, the leading organization for standards revolving around cognitive disorders.

VillaKey's sensory-friendly properties, which range from $120 per night to well over $600 per night, depending on location and size, are chosen for their quiet locations, soothing decor in calming colors, lights on dimmers and extra security such as fenced pools, doors with chimes or alarms for wandering children. Many are pet-friendly, as some families have service or support animals, and all have kitchens for families with kids on special diets and cook familiar foods.

Autism is just one aspect of these "ability-driven" tourism adjustments. Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach is now giving tours in American Sign Language. Hannah Campbell, associate director of education at Loggerhead, said, "It's critical that we strive for equal accessibility to the tools and resources we offer individuals to make informed choices and take responsible action regarding the environment." Creating equal opportunities that enable deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to connect with the center's mission to protect and conserve ocean ecosystems is essential, which drove the center to include sign language tours in their offerings.

At Loggerhead , the field operations assistant, Jennifer Reilly, who is a member of the deaf community herself, developed the translated content for the tours. "She continues to seek ways to connect the deaf and hard-of-hearing community with our conservation messaging," said Campbell. Additionally deaf and hard-of-hearing accessible on-campus programming and virtual resources are forthcoming. Guests who have participated in the sign language tours have provided positive feedback, "particularly because they have experienced limited knowledge and access to the field of marine conservation in the past," said Campbell.

Organizations that market to people with physical disabilities are also expanding their offerings. Special Needs Group, a company that works with physically handicapped travelers to deliver and demonstrate wheelchairs, oxygen tanks and other equipment, recently unveiled a "white glove service" initiative at Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises terminals in Florida.

Andrew Garnett, president and CEO of Special Needs Group, said, "So many people automatically think that they cannot travel if they cannot walk as far as they used to or maybe they have started using oxygen. We want to get the word out that anyone who wants to travel can go and enjoy the trip." To Garnett, the biggest gains in physical accessibility have been made in cruise travel as well as theme parks.

"There is still work to do, but a person with a special need who has a successful and enjoyable trip to your hotel, attraction or event will be your customer for life and will tell everyone they know how great your brand or location is," he said.

Horn agreed and touted her connections to travel agents who either specialize in special-needs travel or have diversified their skill set to include special-needs travel. "There are 11 million families who have at least one child on the autism spectrum," she said. "It makes good business sense to assist this market, but it also allows opportunities for accessibility to those who may have never been able to participate in tourism before."

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