Sarasota Florida’s Beach Town with an Inclusion Mindset
The beach is probably the last place that comes to mind when planning a wheelchair accessible family vacation, but, in Florida, it shouldn’t be. Overall, Florida has been growing in inclusion in tourism as they add mobi mats and beach wheelchairs to popular beaches, and as more places are becoming Autism certified and working to incorporate varying needs into their business and tourism models.
We all know that ADA is far from meaning accessible. Which is why I’m placing Sarasota above our other wheelchair accessible Florida favorites. Sarasota doesn’t just meet ADA in most public spaces, they’ve taken the next steps to make sure that all people are welcome and included. Here’s what we loved, and why we think Sarasota should be your next wheelchair friendly family beach trip!
1. Ease of Getting There and Around
This is the first time we’ve traveled somewhere as a family and flown into a small airport. Because we travel on a budget, we typically fly into the closest big-city airport to save significantly. We were able to find flights directly into Sarasota for less than any neighboring airport. While we could’ve saved money on our rental car by picking up in Tampa (another nearby flight option), the cost difference balanced out to be almost exactly the difference in flight cost.
If you’ve never flown through a smaller airport, you should know that there are many perks for wheelchair users. There’s no need for busses, shuttles, and trains to get from your car to the terminal. It’s one building with easy access. The security line is small and moves quickly. While you’ll still get the extra pat-down as a wheelchair traveler, you won’t have to wait as long to get it!
Car rentals are available just down an elevator ride upon arrival, and they’re parked immediately outside the airport doors. The amount of time saved at a small airport is often worth the upcharge, but in Sarasota the price was comparable to Tampa or Orlando, anyway! Of course that varies a bit by departure city. We found better deals out of Philadelphia than Baltimore, but they were still comparable.
All SCAT (Sarasota County Area Transit) are accessible, with loading ramps and space to accommodate two wheelchairs. Because we used a rental van, I don’t have any experiences to share on ease of use.
We enjoyed having a rental van because we were always able to find handicap spaces – both at attractions and on the street. Metered street parking is free for up to three hours with a valid handicap placard.
2. Beach Accessibility
Of course the beach should be central to any Florida travel plans! Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.
Siesta Key beach, a central Sarasota beach, is one of the most wheelchair friendly beaches we’ve ever visited. Of course they have a mobi mat and accessible restrooms – but that’s just a baseline.
The beach has a large parking lot with plenty of handicap spaces, so we didn’t have to worry about where to get started. There are multiple ramped entrances to the sidewalk that leads to concessions, bathrooms, and the beach.
Siesta Key has one of the only beach wheelchair programs we’ve experienced where you don’t have to cross sand to get to the wheelchair. You can pick up your free loan beach wheelchair on a first come first serve basis at the concessionaire at the beach entrance. (If you need a wheelchair outside those hours, or want to plan ahead, can contact the Sarasota County ADA Coordinator three days before their visit and make an accommodation request at 941-861-5000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The handicap restrooms are large private rooms with appropriate space for changing. The outdoor showers are at varied heights. Overall, this was just a really easy beach to navigate! At no point did we have to split up or turn around because something wasn’t accessible. We enjoyed the beach as a family.
3. Accessible Dining
Old fashioned ice cream shops? No problem.
Historic Florida favorites? Why not?
Fine dining? They’ll take care of accessibility, you just keep your kids under control.
Pubs, grills, and diners? You bet!
Picnic tables in the sand? Well.. everything is ramped, but if you’re chair is like ours, grab a table off-sand.
We had an incredible foodie experience in Sarasota, with diverse styles of restaurants, but all of them were wheelchair accessible. Don’t miss Columbia Restaurant. Babe Ruth shared my opinion that it’s one of the best places to eat in Florida! Rise and Nye’s is another must – with deliciously creamy ice cream, perfectly crafted espresso drinks, and a business model built on diversity and inclusion. You can check out all our favorites, here!
4-7. Off-Sand Entertainment
What do you do when you’re not on the beach or eating? This is when the rest of a vacation takes place! When I think of beach towns, I think of mini golf and arcades. Allow Sarasota, Florida to expand that view of all that a beach town has to offer.
Discover Sea Life
MOTE Marine Laboratory and Aquarium was an easy favorite. The deep sea holds so many mysteries… like the elusive giant squid… and MOTE is a place to uncover them. Manatees, sharks, and sea turtles hold the obvious appeal, but we were amazed by all that we learned in each exhibit as we discovered another world of life. Both buildings were easily wheelchair accessible. The upper deck of the shark tank is only accessible by stairs, but the best views are from the underwater viewing areas below.
Generally, you’ll want to avoid Florida’s wildlife, but there are a few places that create exceptions to that rule where you can learn about a variety of creatures up close in a safe, educational environment. Sarasota Jungle Gardens is a great place for discovering local reptiles and feeding flamingoes. The paths, shows, shops, cafes, and restrooms are all easily wheelchair accessible.
Sarasota’s Big Cat Habitat is a non-profit large-animal rescue, sanctuary, and permanent home for big cats and other tropical animals. Think lions, and tigers, and bears… (I’m not going to say it!). This safe placement for animals in need has become a place to educate the public about animal care and conservation. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can see a live liger or tigon, and it’s all wheelchair friendly.
Sarasota’s great outdoors is more than just beachfront! Roam through 15 acres of Florida’s native jungle, as well as international plant life, at Marie Selby Gardens. This was another great example of how Sarasota’s accessibility and inclusion are next level. Not only were the garden paths wheelchair accessible, but the children’s play area and tree house were accessible, too. There was even an elevator to the top viewing deck of the treehouse.
I don’t know why we forget about history and culture on beach vacations, but Sarasota is steeped in both – and it’s colorful! As the winter home of the Ringling Bros. Circus, you can see tributes to circus culture and history around each corner. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art takes you back in time to explore the wonders of the circus era. In addition to the art and interactive museum, there are splendid gardens, a playground, and an on-site bistro. You can also visit the The Ca’ d’Zan (the house/estate), but this is the first, and only, place we encountered steps with no alternate route.
Sarasota also has a thriving arts scene that I wish we’d had more time to explore. To fit with the town at all, I imagine the streets of galleries and shows are also wheelchair friendly. I’d love to hear what you discover on your trip!
8. Accessible Shopping
There are no bumpy boardwalks in Siesta Key, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice long strolls past all of the unique beach store fronts. While St. Armands Circle is the most condensed shopping area for a variety of beach shops, upscale boutiques, and sweet treats, downtown Sarasota actually has a couple of good neighborhoods for strolling through the sights and shops. Most shops have zero entry, and the remaining options are all ramped. Obviously, we didn’t go everywhere, but we did not encounter one set of entry stairs. Anywhere.
9. Accessible Accommodations
This is something Florida excels in more than any other state, so you have options! My HomeExchange search brought up 12 wheelchair accessible homes, which is more than I’ve ever found in a single destination.
Sarasota also has all of the major chains, if you’re looking to book on points or have a favorite accessible chain.
We stayed at The Sarasota Modern, a Marriott Tribute Hotel. In addition to accessible king size rooms, they have a brilliant pool and spa area with chair lifts for both the pool and hot tub and easy accessibility in the game area, cabanas, pool side bar, and trendy on site restaurant.
What am I missing? Is there anything else you look for on an accessible vacation? This checked all of the boxes for us, and it’s an area we’ll be returning to!