Taking your crew on a family vacation can feel a little daunting under any circumstances—but when a member of your family has special needs, you already know that a fun trip calls for a little extra planning. Happily, family-friendly attractions in California cater well to guests with disabilities—from playgrounds that feature plenty of wheelchair ramps to theme parks that accommodate guests with cognitive disabilities who might be affected by loud noises or long lines.
Before a trip, it’s always wise to check the accessibility section of an attraction’s website, which will detail any available amenities like wheelchair rentals, listening devices, special events, or the policies regarding service animals. Or, sometimes you can find deals: California state parks, for instance, offer a 50 percent discount for visitors with disabilities.
Many attractions now also offer “social narratives” that help visitors with Autism Spectrum Disorder know what to expect on a visit—like the guide offered by The Broad, a crowd-pleasing contemporary art museum located in downtown L.A., or the app made by Santa Barbara’s science-oriented MOXI Wolf Museum of Exploration & Innovation. “From the beginning, we have been intentional in trying to make sure our museum is inclusive and reflective of our community,” says MOXI’s director of education Ron Skinner. The app, he says, “helps families better understand what a visit to MOXI might be like, so that they can make informed decisions about their visit.”
Here are 20-plus more attractions—including theme parks, playgrounds, and museums—that have been especially proactive in welcoming families with special needs.
Enroll in the Guest Accessibility program, at Guest Services by the front gate, and you get your “RAP Sheet” (Ride Accessibility Program) that lets a guest get scheduled times at rides and attractions, accompanied by up to five listed people in their party. The online guide gives the physical demands for each ride—say, that one must be able to grip a railing with at least one hand, etc. If you’d like a sign language interpreter for shows and tours, contact Guest Services two weeks before the visit.
LEGOLAND California, Carlsbad
Playing with LEGO bricks has long been considered a good way for kids on the spectrum (or kids dealing with other issues) to develop social and communication skills—and the LEGO-celebrating park accommodates such guests too. Ask for an Assisted Access Pass at Guest Services to get on rides (no documentation is needed): The pass allows the guest to board his or her first choice ride with no wait, and then get scheduled times for other rides during the day. The park also has designated quiet areas and a downloaded guide for wheelchair access. Ask for a tag to use your stroller as a wheelchair, or rent either a wheelchair or stroller, too, near the front gate. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org at least two weeks ahead of your visit and the park can also arrange for sign language interpreters for shows.
Disneyland Resort, Anaheim
The Orange County mecca has a wide array of offerings for guests with mobility, vision, and cognitive disabilities. Start your visit at the Guest Relations Center where you can discuss any needs you might have during your stay. While Disneyland Resort already has the FASTPASS program, which lets anyone schedule out certain rides to avoid the longest lines, the Disability Access Service offers even more options for setting up “return times,” scheduled one at a time at Guest Relations kiosks. Before you go, download the Attraction Details for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities and the Special Dietary Requests Guide.
Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park
Gilroy Gardens, Gilroy
California’s Great America, Santa Clara
These three parks—Knott’s in Orange County's Buena Park, Gilroy Gardens in the Central Coast garlic capital, and Great America in Silicon Valley's Santa Clara—are all part of the Cedar Fair chain and offer the same programs. Guests with mobility issues or ASD can request a Ride Boarding Pass at the Guest Services office near the front gates. Use your pass (obtained after just answering a few questions) to get scheduled boarding times from the attendant at any ride’s alternate entrance (usually the exit); the pass works for the guest and up to four companions. The Guest Assistance guides for Knott’s, Gilroy Gardens, and Great America each list specific features of all rides and attractions, and details which rides feature strobes or other lights that might affect anyone with photosensitivity.
The L.A. County movie-themed park offers a variety of accommodations for different situations: Its Family Center has a quiet room—helpful for ASD guests who are ready for some downtime—while the Guest Relations office can lend visitors assistive listening devices or Braille or large-font scripts; call a week ahead of time to arrange interpretation services. Check out the Rider’s Guide for a preview of the speed, sensations, or special effects of the rides and attractions, and the Dietary Food Guide for dining options compatible with gluten-free, peanut-free, or dairy-free diets.
Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Vallejo
Request an Attraction Access Pass at Guest Services at either of the two Six Flags theme parks in California, located in L.A. County’s Valencia and in Vallejo, east of San Francisco. The pass lets the guest and up to three companions board their chosen rides on a fairly set schedule, with set time intervals in between (at each ride, the attendant marks the time once the ride has been completed). You will need a doctor’s note, attesting that there is some kind of disability, to receive an Attraction Access Pass, but once you have received a pass at any Six Flag park, you won’t need to present a note again at any Six Flags—your information will be stored in the parks’ overall system.
Ask at Guest Relations about assisted listening devices for any shows; American Sign Language Interpreters are available if requested at least seven days in advance. Licensed Personal Care Attendants, meanwhile, can accompany a disabled guest for free.
Balboa Park Museums, San Diego
Seven museums around Balboa Park—including the Museum of Man, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the Museum of Photographic Arts—offer Social Stories that you can download ahead of time; these visual previews to the museums were created by high-functioning young adults with an ASD.
Two of the park’s most kid-friendly museums also have special days for ASD families. The Fleet Science Center offers Autism Accessibility Mornings on the third Saturday of each month. On such days, the museum opens early, for quieter explorations; has a designated cool-off space; and features a special, lowered-volume (and lights-on) IMAX screening. Nearby, The San Diego Natural History Museum offers ASD mornings every second Saturday of every month. Admission on those days includes a private, sensory-friendly showing of “Ocean Oasis” in the giant IMAX theater, and access to a quiet room from 9 a.m. to noon. Every day at the two museums, you can request assistive listening devices for use with the museum’s IMAX films, or closed-captioning devices for the Fleet’s Dome Theater.
San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum, Escondido
This museum in San Diego’s North County offers Sensory-Friendly Museum Mornings on the first Sunday of the month, from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., and then every Monday from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Visitors on the spectrum or with sensory sensitivities can make use of quiet places and a designated break space. On any day, ask at the front desk for noise-cancelling headphones.
Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach
Every few months, this huge aquarium in L.A. County hosts an Autism Night, when most of the aquarium is open for special needs families, offering a quieter atmosphere (and a nicely discounted admission price). Year-round, ask at the front desk for audio tours for the sight-impaired or listening devices for the hearing-impaired, or check the calendar for other special needs evenings such as Abilities Night.
MOXI Wolf Museum of Exploration & Innovation, Santa Barbara
This museum in Santa Barbara is lined with hands-on, STEAM-related exhibits (science, tech, engineering, arts, and math). It also offers a free, sensory-friendly app, Access MOXI, created so that visitors with autism and sensory processing disorders can preview the museum. Or, check out sensory backpack kits from the front desk, which include noise reduction headphones, fidget toys, sunglasses, and “if lost please call” wristbands.
This kids’ museum in Silicon Valley hosts Afternoons for All Abilities on the second Tuesday afternoon of the month, featuring a special story time and sensory activity. Check the calendar for autism-friendly Saturday sessions called Play Your Way for ages 2–15. Every day, check out the museum’s Social Story, ask for sound-reducing headsets at Admissions, and take note of the Quiet Room on the first floor.
The Tech, San Jose
The Bay Area museum offers Sensory Friendly Hours on specific evenings every few months. That means a lower capacity for admission for fewer crowds, quiet rooms, and well-lit (and lowered volume) exhibits and IMAX screenings. The Tech also offers a variety of other themed days, too, like Girls Days for ages 7–14.
Universally Accessible Playgrounds, Los Angeles
Los Angeles County has 38 special needs-friendly playgrounds, which were either created or adapted to accommodate kids of all abilities. Some notable ones include Shane’s Inspiration in Griffith Park, designed to welcome kids with Autism, Down Syndrome, and Cerebral Palsy, and Aidan’s Place at Westwood Recreation Center, which offers adjustments like an elevated sand-castle-building station.
Fairmount Carousel Playground, Riverside
Set inside the city’s 250-acre Fairmount Park, the merry-go-round-themed playground has musical equipment, a splash pad, a carousel, and special noise-making panels.
Tatum’s Garden, Salinas
Stop at this 20,000-square-foot play space in the Central Coast town that was inspired by a young resident with spina bifida. It’s lined with wheelchair-friendly ramps, dotted with adaptive swings, and covered with cushioning rubber.
Helen Diller Playground, San Francisco
Open since 2012, this playground in Mission Dolores Park has accessible pathways leading to a 45-foot-long slide and two wheelchair-friendly play boats.
For a lot of people, the winter scene around Southern California’s Big Bear Lake may be the first snow they have...