Travel Tips: Making Fun Memories
Making Fun Memories
Booking a vacation should be an exciting time for families, filled with anticipation of the fun times and memories that will be created. Often, when a family travels with a child with special needs, the excitement is replaced with trepidation and anxiety. When traveling with my son BJ who has cerebral palsy, I have experienced both feelings. But, I have learned that with planning and research, wonderful family memories can be made.
We have gained travel confidence over the years after traveling to destinations within an easy drive of home. This allowed us to work out what equipment was essential without worrying about airline baggage limits.
After we had done local holidays for some time we started flying domestically and finally took the plunge and flew internationally. We have had the most amazing experiences (both locally and overseas) and vacations have been an important part of our family bond. Day-to-day we are busy with work, therapy, school and appointments. Vacations are a time of coming together and just being a family without distractions. Having a child with special needs is demanding on the family dynamics and it is important to take time out and have fun.
Last year we undertook our third vacation as a family to the U.S. It was three weeks of travel which started with a 15 hour flight. BJ has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and is non-verbal. He also likes to be on-the-go constantly so sitting for that length of time on a plane is probably one of the biggest challenges we face traveling. Once we arrive at our destination he is a pleasure to travel with because he enjoys meeting people and the stimulation of new experiences.
WANT SMOOTH TRAVEL? COMMUNICATE WELL TO EVERYONE!
Traveling with a son with special needs has emphasized to me the importance of good communication with all service providers. This makes for much smoother travels. I spoke at length with the airline’s special handling department regarding our requirements. Airlines need specific information when booking with a wheelchair and it saves time and multiple phone calls if you can have it at the ready. They usually need to know dimensions of the wheelchair; whether it is manual or electric; the battery type for electric chairs and whether it is a foldable manual chair. I requested that BJ use his wheelchair right up until the aircraft door, when it was then taken and put in the cargo hold. Since this was a long-haul flight to the U.S. from Australia, we researched and booked an airline that had a disabled restroom on board. These restrooms are significantly larger than a regular airline restroom and allow enough room (just) for a parent or carer to assist.
In the past we have always used a “hire car” from arrival but our confidence grows the more we travel and on our last trip we used regular shuttle services. I found that Super Shuttle has a wheelchair accessible service in both Los Angeles and New York. Once again, I encourage clear communication as to your requirements. BJ’s wheelchair does not fold and this is important information to provide to ensure a suitable vehicle arrives for pick up. After a long flight we found it more convenient to use the shuttle service.
As a child, I traveled extensively with my family (and again later as a travel consultant), but a visit to New York had eluded me until last year. To say I was thrilled to visit New York is an understatement.
We booked into the Hotel Beacon for an eight night stay. I chose this hotel for its location and accessibility. We find it better to invest a little more in accommodation in a good location if it allows easy access to local attractions when traveling with a wheelchair. The Hotel Beacon is a three block walk from Central Park and has a wheelchair accessible subway station a short distance away. It also has a grocery store opposite it, which saved us money because we could self-cater some meals. The hotel has wheelchair accessible accommodation and proved a convenient and comfortable base for our daily sightseeing.
When traveling with children, I like to mix visiting tourist attractions with experiences that may not be featured in typical tourist brochures. This itinerary plan made our stay in New York special for all of us.
The Statue of Liberty is probably one of the most recognizable landmarks around the world and having seen it in movies and television shows since I was a child, I was not content to just see it from a cruise. Being up close to Lady Liberty was a highlight of our visit to New York. It is hard to appreciate the statue’s size and grandeur without being on Liberty Island. The island itself is wheelchair accessible but what I found particularly exciting was the option of an accessible visit to the pedestal level of the Statue. Access inside the Statue of Liberty is an additional cost and requires pre-booking. Included in this ticket price is a visit to the museum which gives an overview of the history of the Statue and the incredible logistics of gifting it to New York. The pedestal viewing area is narrow (better suited to manual wheelchairs) but allows wonderful views of the New York skyline.
High Tea at The Plaza Hotel – being big fans of the movie and book series, “Eloise at the Plaza”, by Kay Thompson, we were keen to experience the Eloise High Tea at The Plaza. It is wheelchair accessible and as Nanny from the series would say, “divine, divine, divine.” The Plaza Hotel’s foyer is adorned with crystal chandeliers and spectacular large, fragrant flower displays. Although not on the usual tourist list, it was something the whole family enjoyed. After the high tea we went to The Plaza’s Food Hall where we visited the very pink Eloise store. A must for every little girl or grown up who loves Eloise.
The Intrepid Air and Space Museum was a wonderful surprise. We have not experienced another museum with a display ship, not to mention an aircraft carrier, which is wheelchair accessible. This proved extremely educational as it was something BJ had never had the opportunity of doing before. The highlight of our visit was the Space Shuttle Enterprise exhibit which has a wheelchair accessible lift to allow close inspection and a great photo opportunity.
Central Park was one of our favorite places in New York. We only managed to see a small corner of the park during our visit because the area it covers is so vast. We did a carriage ride through the park (we had to trust a street vendor with BJ’s wheelchair. I would recommend taking a bike chain if you plan on doing this), hired boats to sail in the lake, visited the John Lennon memorial and did lots of people watching. We found there are some uphill areas but, in general, it is easy to get around with a wheelchair.
The Top of the Rock Observation Deck – We visited both the Empire State Building and
The Top of the Rock Observation Deck and although we enjoyed each one for different reasons, I would recommend Top of the Rock for the easiest wheelchair access. Large glass panels allow for unobstructed views of the city, including The Empire State Building. Visiting prior to sunset is a good time to see New York in many shades; daylight, watching the sunset and then wait to see the city come alive with twinkling lights as night falls.
Make Meaning – it is important to remember that children need some down time when traveling. My daughter, AJ, loves her craft and she particularly enjoyed stopping in at Make Meaning in New York. She chose to make soap (which was not the most logical craft to do when traveling) but there are a variety of activities children can choose from including ceramic painting, cake decorating and candle making. As adults it is tempting to drag children to every attraction available when visiting a new city but sometimes a bit of quiet, creative play is what they need. We visited Make Meaning on the Upper West Side and this location was fully wheelchair accessible. The staff was wonderful with both our children and it was just around the corner from our hotel. There are many outlets throughout the U.S.
Ellens Stardust Diner was popular with our whole family. With a queue stretching around the corner it is definitely not a well-kept secret. The singing wait staff are the main attraction and for us, a unique experience. Many previous staff members have gone on to perform on Broadway and it is no wonder because the quality of the singing is top notch. The diner is noisy and not for anyone who is intolerant of a rowdy evening. We joined another family at a table and it proved a lovely opportunity to swap stories of our hometowns and the differences between the U.S and Australian school system.
Walking the Brooklyn Bridge is free and accessible. So, one afternoon, we caught the ferry to Brooklyn, had a pizza from Grimaldis and ice cream from the Brooklyn ice creamery and walked back to the city as the sun was setting. It was a perfect evening; the kids were happy with pizza and ice cream and we all loved the walk across the bridge back to the city.
DO YOUR RESEARCH: ASK YOUR QUESTIONS
Getting around New York was easy and we tried all modes of transport. We preferred the subway system for its speed and efficiency, but not all subway stops are wheelchair accessible and we did find lifts (escalators/elevators) out of order on occasion. If you are more cautious, the bus system is wheelchair accessible, and although slower due to traffic congestion, it is easy to use and reliable. We also used the cabs in the city and hailing an accessible cab took us about the same amount of time as it took me to hail a ‘regular cab’ on another outing without the family.
New York was our dream destination but whether you travel close to home, or further afield, research your choice and ensure it will provide a good foundation for your family’s vacation. Ask lots of questions of hotels, airlines and tour providers and clearly identify what you need for them to provide. Rarely does a person who is not in your position truly understand your requirements. Do not assume they do. Be clear, but realistic.
Lastly, vacation memories are precious, so have fun.
Julie Jones is the creator of Have Wheelchair Will Travel (www.havewheelchairwilltravel.net) where she combines her skills as an ex travel consultant with her life and experiences as a Mom to her son BJ who has Cerebral Palsy. www.havewheelchairwilltravel.net
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This post originally appeared on our May/June 2015 Magazine