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2023 Review: Wheelchair Accessible Destinations for Families

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©Jennifer Allen.Great Wolf Lodge, Williamsburg, VA

2023 Accessible Travel Award Winners

Phew! WHAT a year! Thanks to multiple emergency hospitalizations, we traveled significantly less this year. I thought about skipping our annual accessibility awards; but, when I reflected on our year, I realized that we found too many gems and genuine award earners to let them pass unnoticed!

The following were our favorite wheelchair accessible destinations – any of them would make great travel destinations for 2024! I bet some of these will surprise you.

Most Accessible Beach: Huntington Beach, California

Surf City USA wasn’t even on our agenda this year… until we were in the area and looking for a wheelchair friendly beach. What a find! A quick search pulled up their blog post on accessibility across beaches. Named one of USA’s top ten accessible beaches by Conde Nast, they have multiple beach wheelchairs available for pick up at Bolsa Chica State Beach, Huntington State Beach, and Huntington City Beach.

We visited the Huntington State Beach option, and were pleased to find you pick up the chair from the entrance station, not from the sand (I never understand having to cross the sand to get to the device that helps you cross the sand). They also have a paved beach path that covers nearly 8.5 miles of coast from the northern tip of Bolsa Chica State Beach to the southern tip of Huntington State Beach. The beach wheelchairs made it easy to get to the free beach bonfire pits, and they even had accessible pavilions. They’re working on adding more Mobi-Mats, but at the moment they have two in Huntington City Beach. City Beach has an all abilities playground, and you can even book adaptive surf lessons! We didn’t realize that until after our trip, but it’s a great idea for next time!

And for all of the nay-sayers who keep telling me that California doesn’t have wheelchair accessible beaches, check out this list of beach wheelchair locations along the California coast! It’s an ever growing list. California has some great accessible destinations!

Siesta Key

Siesta Key was a close runner up with easy beach wheelchair pick up, Mobi-Mat, easy to reach handicap parking, and fantastic restrooms. Of course, it’s also a perk that it’s another award winning beach in a fantastic area with plenty of wheelchair accessible activities and endless delicious treats. In addition to Siesta Key and the Sarasota area, Florida continues to be one of the most accessible places we’ve been. There are several accessible beach options, and shops, hotels, and restaurants tend to be easier to navigate than in most other places.

Most Accessible Outdoor Destination: Greenbrier Valley

Greenbrier Valley is not solely an outdoor destination, but it is West Virginia – so there are plenty of outdoor wonders! The Greenbrier River Trail offers 78 miles of packed gravel hiking at nothing higher than a 1% grade. Following along the old C&O railroad track, you can hop on from a variety of access points and take in all the views – from several small towns, to bridges and tunnels, to some of West Virginia’s most remote areas. This wheelchair accessible trail is rated in the top ten in the country!

As you can imagine, it’s Greenbrier Valley is also an excellent star gazing destination. Isn’t it handy that the world’s most accessible hotel just happens to be in town?

Most Accessible Hotel: The Schoolhouse Hotel

This was an easy winner, since we had the opportunity to stay at The Schoolhouse Hotel, the world’s first ultra accessible hotel.

From window placement to room layout, every space has been thoughtfully designed to go beyond the basic requirements of ADA. They also have beds for service animals, hoyer lifts and bath transfer benches available at no extra cost.

Inclusion doesn’t end with your wheelchair accessible room. Every public space is ADA compliant and beyond. The spacious gym has equipment for all abilities. The meditation room offers a quiet space with soft lights, textured play things, and ways to unwind for people with sensory needs. The meeting room, restaurant, and rooftop lounge are all fully accessible. Every space is designed to make all feel welcome.

Most Accessible Theme Park: Disneyland California

We’ve had great experiences with accessibility at Disneyworld and Disneyland Paris, so we entered California’s Disney parks with high expectations.

While Disneyland California is the oldest park, and has some accessibility drawbacks that show its age, California Adventure Park is sparkly new and easy to navigate. Because it’s a modern build, ADA was built into its design. There were very few alternate routes, no entering through exits, and we could get to every single part of the park.

You could choose to remain in your chair or transfer on The Little Mermaid, Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue, Pixar Pal-A-Round, Toy Story Midway Mania, and WEB SLINGERS: A Spider-Man Adventure. All other rides required a transfer, but all shows, shops, dining options, and restrooms were easy to navigate.

Most Accessible Water Park: Great Wolf Lodge, Williamsburg, VA.

Bonus points for being an indoor waterpark! My little wheelchair user has never had so much independence in a waterpark, which made our experience at Great Wolf Lodge unforgettable. In addition to pool lifts at every pool, the water-friendly wheelchair got him in and out of the wave pool and multiple childrens’ splash areas. With the exception of the water slides, he was able to do almost everything on his own. He did need some help transferring to the surfboard, but the staff were great with working with us to provide safe fun!

Most Accessible Playground: The Ark Encounter

I know this is more than a playground, but the playground at the Ark Encounter is worth writing home about. It’s only accessible by paid admission to the Encounter, but we could’ve spent our whole day at the playground! There were climbing structures and ziplines as well as a recessed merry-go-round and a wheelchair accessible maze and music area. The entire playground has a smooth surface for easy navigation. They also have a sensory swing in addition to the regular and handicap swings.

Most Accessible Overall Destination: Williamsburg, Virginia

This was a tough call to make, and I have to say that Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Sarasota, Florida; and Greenbrier Valley, West Virginia were all exceptional in accessibility. Perhaps Williamsburg stands out so much because it had so much more than what I expected, and I’m always delighted by surprise accessibility.

Williamsburg is not on the travel list for many wheelchair using families because most places that are known for their history are also known for their inaccessibility. In this case, that would be a misnomer. No, you can’t get inside many of Colonial Williamsburg’s historic homes, but you can easily navigate the historic streets and settlements and enjoy the extensively diverse activities – from mini golf and theme parks to top quality magic shows and fine dining. You’ll even find beach wheelchairs and accessible trolley tours along the way!

Most Progressive Destination: Oregon State

Ironically, my wheelchair user missed this trip. We got an interesting sampling of what was and was not accessible. Oregon is one of those beautiful places where you don’t have to choose between beach life and mountain life, because the mountains lead up to the ocean! Of course, neither the mountains or the beach naturally lend themselves toward accessibility.

We found a lot that we couldn’t do with a wheelchair, but everywhere we went we also saw improvements being made. There were waterfalls with wheelchair access, and track chairs for beaches. The state was recently awarded $3.6 million in grants for improving inclusive tourism, and they have an impressive line-up of changes to come! I’m excited to be able to go back with the whole family and explore on a new level.

Unique Accessible Finds: Castello di Amorosa

Ok, so I made this category up this year, but it was a unique find that needs to make your radar. This 14th century style Tuscan castle differs from a true historic castle of its kind in one way: accessibility. I doubt you’ll find any historic castles in Tuscany where you’re able to access everything from the cellar to the courtyard to the rooftop (the highest turret was not accessible, but the rest of the viewing points were).

Oh, of course the wine is also excellent! My little ones were treated like royalty and we ended up going home with several bottles of unfermented grape juice, which was alarmingly delicious. It was a fantastic family experience – all around.

The Ark Encounter

I wasn’t sure where to put this one, but since it is the second most barrier free experience we’ve ever had anywhere (second only to Morgan’s Wonderland, which was designed for people with disabilities), I needed to include it. It’s sometimes listed as a theme park, but I feel like that could be misleading. It’s main purpose is education, with a life-size model of the Biblical Noah’s ark. They also have a recessed carousel, an all-abilities playground, a fully accessible zoo, accessible animal encounters and shows, and several accessible dining options and shops. What most impressed me is that every experience was designed to be inclusive. The ark is ramped – the flow of traffic follows an accessible path, so there’s no need for alternate routes. In every exhibit, we were able to participate fully.

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