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The road less travelled

There’s always something different (and accessible!) to discover in the United States, from sea to shining sea.

The United States has long been a popular travel destination for people with disabilities, for both its famous attractions and American with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance rules. If you’ve visited once, or twice, or many times, you might think you’ve already done it all – but there’s always something different (and accessible!) to discover, from sea to shining sea.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin

Many of America’s national parks have made great strides in accessibility over recent years, but none more so than Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin. They received the Accessibility Excellence award back in 2017, and they’ve continued to build on that success since then. 

All of the Visitor Centers in the park have accessible parking spots near the entrance, as well as wide and flat paths and entryways, with lifts where required. The brochures they provide are available in a variety of formats so as to be accessible to all (including Braille, audio-description, and text only). Their exhibits are curated according to universal design principles, so they incorporate visual, audio, and tactile experiences that will give everyone the opportunity to learn and explore.

If you’re hoping to make the most of the great outdoors, head to the accessible campsites on Stockton Island and Sand Island. They have wooden tent pads, boardwalk access, and vault toilets that can accommodate wheelchairs. You’ll also find accessible picnic tables, fire rings, and bear lockers at each location. Permit reservations are required, so phone (715) 779-3397 to book.

A large rock with a tree growing on top of it in a lake of still water
Honeymoon Rock is one of the natural marvels you’ll see at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Credit NPS/N Howk

Bonus tip: The official National Park Service app provides up-to-date accessibility information for more than 400 national parks across the US. You can check facilities and trails ahead of time or on the day, and make use of audio descriptions and other accessibility features. The app is available for free for iOS and Android users.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

If you want to be wowed by pre-Colonial history, you need to go to the Montezuma Castle National Monument in Arizona. It’s the home of incredible preserved cave dwellings built by Sinagua people, circa 1100AD. 

While the area around the monument is rugged, the Visitor Center and the loop trail is paved to be accessible for wheelchairs and other mobility aids. You’ll want to bring your own wheelchair and be prepared for rugged terrain to get the full experience. Luckily, there are many shaded seating areas around the trail for rest breaks.

Audio cassette guides and Braille text guides are available from the Visitor Center, and a sign language interpreter is available by prior arrangement. Contact the park rangers on (928) 567-3322 to plan a visit that suits your needs.

A preserved castle at Montezuma Castle National Monument
See some of the country’s oldest preserved buildings at Montezuma Castle National Monument. Credit: NPS/Sharlot Hart

Dollywood, Tennessee

Dolly Parton is a true living legend. Instead of using her millions to clone her dogs or launch herself into space, she returned to her home state of Tennessee and created a tourist attraction that would employ thousands of people, and attract millions of visitors each year. Best of all, Dollywood goes above and beyond to ensure everyone – including people with disabilities – gets to thoroughly enjoy their visit.

Your first stop should be to visit the Theme Park’s Ride Accessibility Center, where Hosts can talk you through each Dollywood experience and help you determine whether it’s suitable for your needs. They can provide you with a Ride Accessibility Pass, which is like a boarding pass, guiding you and your companion(s) to the rides that suit your needs. Show this to the Host at each ride, and they will help with queuing, accessible entry, and so forth.

The rugged Tennessee terrain that Dolly sings about so often can be a little tricky to navigate, which is why Dollywood provides Electronic Convenience Vehicles (ECVs) and wheelchairs for rental. They also recommend that visitors who are blind or have low vision bring a companion who can ensure they move around safely.

For guests who are d/Deaf or hearing impaired, a Sign Language Interpreter can be arranged with advanced notice, and there are Assistive Listening Systems in each theatre. Scripts for regular shows are also available.

Theme parks can be overwhelming, so Dollywood has a Calming Room with sensory items and a private gated Calming Area for guests who might need a quiet break. A Host at the Ride Accessibility Center can guide you to these spots.

For detailed information, Social Stories, additional supports, and contact information, visit the Dollywood accessibility page.

Close up of a rollercoaster car dipping down with excited people in every seat
Dollywood is a one-of-a-kind theme park in Dolly Parton’s homeland of Tennessee.

Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch, Arizona

There is no experience more quintessentially American than staying at a dude ranch. Dan and Carrie Rynders were frustrated to find, though, that none of the dude ranches they wanted to visit could accommodate their daughter, Amy, who uses a wheelchair. So, they decided to build their own: the Stagecoach Guest Ranch, in Yucca, Arizona.

As always, their lived experience shines through in the inclusive design of this beautiful ranch house. They go above and beyond ADA requirements. You won’t find any stairs on the property, there’s lots of room to manoeuvre in the lodge and dining room, and all doors (including the bathrooms) are widened. The swimming pool and hot tub have a chair lift, and the showers are roll-in, so everyone can relax and unwind after a day on the ranch.

When it comes to ranch-specific activities, they have you covered. They provide specially designed ramps to enable wheelchair users and people with limited mobility to mount the trained horses for a ride. Staff will also provide additional support for riders who might find balance challenging. If you’re looking for both accessibility and authenticity in your holiday accommodation and activities, you can’t go past Stagecoach.

A covered coach in Arizona desert at Stagecoach Trails
The Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch offers a quintessential American experience to visitors.

Woodland Park Zoo, Washington

The Woodland Park Zoo is a must-do if you’re in the Pacific Northwest. This not-for-profit organisation does incredible work, and every dollar you pay for your ticket goes into conservation of habitat and protecting endemic species such as the Washington turtle.

The Zoo goes above and beyond to ensure that every visitor (there’s more than one million per year!) has the support they need to fully enjoy their experience. It starts with parking, offered for free to disability permit holders, with accessible spaces available in all five lots. They also offer complimentary entry for attendants and aides for guests with disabilities. Given the sensitivity of the species living at the zoo, there are some additional guidelines regarding the attendance of Service Animals, all of which are outlined on their website.

Of course, your zoo experience will be enhanced by a knowledgeable guide. A trained sighted guide and/or sign language interpreter is available by advance request.

There are several restrooms with accessible stalls around the park, and if a guest needs an adult-sized sanitary space for changing or medical needs, there is a private area with a medical bench available for use at Guest Services (near the South and West entrances).

To access their Sensory Map, which highlights quiet areas and sensory-friendly gardens, and find out more about accessibility and accommodations available at the zoo, visit the Zoo’s access page.

A red panda snoozing on a log surrounded by green leafy vegetation
See amazing animals and support the incredible work of the Woodland Park Zoo. Credit: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Bonus tip: Seattle is one of the most accessible cities in the US. Make the most of its world-class public transportation to get around (instead of struggling manually up and down the infamous hills). Passengers with disabilities receive priority seating and fare discounts across all forms of public transit. Sound Transit’s Link light rail has level boarding without need for a ramp, while buses and streetcars have ramps and lifts for access. There are also audio and visual stop announcements across all of these transit options.The Washington State Ferries are also wheelchair accessible.

The Adler Planetarium, Illinois

The Adler Planetarium was the very first Planetarium in the US. It’s more than a museum: it’s a laboratory, a classroom, and a community for everyone who wants to explore the universe. They reach millions of curious stargazers each year through their youth programs, neighbourhood skywatching events, people-powered research, and other events.

With this community-centered philosophy comes an inclusive approach to ensuring everyone has an amazing experience. Enter through the Leffmann Education Center, with wide push-button doors, and make your way through the planetarium with elevators that access all floors. You can use your own mobility aid to get around, or borrow a manual wheelchair from the box offices, free of charge. 

The box offices also provide assisted listening devices for guests who are d/Deaf or hearing impaired. Hot tip: make sure your phone or tablet is fully charged so you can access the closed captioning of the Adler sky shows on your own device through their website.

Accessible restrooms are located on the mid-level, with a single-occupancy room in the Leffmann if needed.

You can find several accessible parking spaces at the Chicago Park District lot adjacent to the Adler, or arrive by public transport at the nearby Roosevelt stop (100% of the Chicago Transit Authority’s buses and railcars are wheelchair accessible).

If you want to get a feel for the experience before you go, check out the Adler Anywhere digital experience online.

Overhead view of the Adler Planetarium surrounded by green bushes
Look up to the stars at America’s first planetarium. Credit: Adler Planetarium

Sesame Place, Pennsylvania

It’s time to hit the street – Sesame Street, that is! Sesame Place in Philadelphia is a must-visit for Elmo-obsessed kids and nostalgic adults, a magical place where everyone can feel at home. This theme and water park, like the show that inspired it, is famous for its inclusivity. Its robust accessibility program has everyone covered. 

Sesame Place was the first theme park in the world to receive designation as a Certified Autism Center (CAC). Staff members have been specifically trained to support visitors with autism so that they can have the best experience possible. If any visitors become overwhelmed by the sensory stimulation of the park, they can visit one of the Sensory Rooms, created in partnership with Enabling Devices. There, you’ll find many tactile and sensory devices to soothe and engage. 

They also have a Ride Accessibility Program (RAP), which begins with a questionnaire to match your needs to each ride at the park. Bring your completed questionnaire to the Welcome Center to receive a tailored list of attractions, and access supports like noise-cancelling headphones, show scripts, and wheelchair rentals.

Around the park, you’ll find accessible restrooms (including a facility with adult changing tables across from Big Bird’s Burgers & Bites), viewing areas, restaurants and more. 

The Sesame Place website is a treasure trove of accessibility-related information and resources, so you can plan your visit to maximise your enjoyment.

On the day, ensure you have the official Sesame Place app downloaded to your device, as it contains maps, queuing guides, ahead-of-time purchases, and more. It’s available for free for Apple and Android users through their respective stores. 

A young girl hugging a life-size Elmo in front of formal green doors
Sesame Place is a dream come true for Elmo-obsessed kids (and nostalgic adults).

Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory Tour, Vermont

If you have a sweet tooth, Vermont is your dream destination. And the treats don’t stop with the state’s famous maple syrup. Take a tour of the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory in Waterbury, a 30-minute drive from Burlington. The short tour takes you from the main floor (where the gift shop and accessible bathroom facilities are located) up to the “Cow Over The Moon” theatre for a short historical film, then down to the mezzanine level for a bird’s eye view of the melty magic being made. The tour ends with the main event, the Flavor Room, where you can sample the flavour of the day. Don’t worry, there’s an elevator (or “VanillaVator”) to transport you up and down if needed.

If you’re visiting in summer, don’t miss the Flavor Graveyard, where all the past flavors of Ben & Jerry’s are “buried”. There’s also a playground, if the kids need to burn off some of the sugar high. 

There are accessible spaces available in both the main and upper parking lots, but choose the upper one if you can (as there are stairs between the main lot and the entrance). This is a budget-friendly experience, with tickets from US$6 (at time of writing), but booking in advance is essential to avoid disappointment on the day (tours are usually booked out). Visit the Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tours website to book, and contact the team about any accessibility needs.

Three hands reaching up for three Ben & Jerry's ice cream cones over a counter at the factory
Indulge your sweet tooth and see how the treats get made at the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory.

The Strong National Museum of Play, New York

If you can pull yourself away from the bright lights of the Big Apple, there’s plenty to discover in New York State. Located in the heart of Rochester’s Neighbourhood of Play, The Strong National Museum of Play is the world’s only museum dedicated to the history and discovery of play. 

A recent expansion has incorporated amazing new features like the World Video Game Hall Of Fame and the world’s largest playable Donkey Kong arcade machine – sure to appeal to all those nostalgic ‘80s and ‘90s kids!

The Museum has an impressive commitment to inclusivity, ensuring that guests of all ages have an enjoyable experience. All entrances to the museum and most exhibits are structured to accommodate wheelchairs (and wheelchairs are available free of charge to use onsite). There are elevators to access different floors, multiple accessible restrooms (including one with an adult-sized change table), and ample accessible parking. Care providers and interpreters can enter the museum free of charge.

The Museum has partnered with Autism Up to host Sensory Friendly Sundays, and provide designated quiet areas with sensory friendly toys, light and sound reduction, and extra visual safety signage. There’s a fantastic library of social stories, and information about more accommodations and supports, available via the Museum website.

Bright and colourful exhibits in a gallery at the Strong Museum of Play
The Strong National Museum Of Play is a fascinating and inclusive experience.

This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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