Travel insights from Taylor Coulson, contributing editor of The Compass

10 Certified Autism Centers Around the U.S.

Everyone deserves the chance to relax and have a little family fun on vacation. Yet travelers with family or friends on the autism spectrum or with special needs have been accustomed to exclusivity from tourism, until recent Certified Autism Centers (CAC) were introduced throughout the U.S. thanks to International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). These centers are recognized internationally for completing extensive training from renowned autism experts.

The 10 places listed below are able to provide an accessible, educational and inclusive experience for every visitor. Many of these attractions are the first CACs in their industry which makes the experience even more exciting!

  1. Aquatica Orlando
    Aquatica Orlando was the first CAC-designated water park in the world, and has also been voted the nation’s top water park. A low sensory area behind Loggerhead Lane, a quiet room near Kata’s Kookaburra Cove and ride accessibility program are just a few highlights included in this new accreditation. Whether your vacation consists of hanging by the kid-friendly pools or water slides, sandy beaches or relaxing in a cabana after floating along a lazy river, Aquatica has every visitor covered for an extraordinary experience.
  2. Discovery Cove
    Discovery Cove in Orlando was the first all-inclusive day resort and animal interaction park in the U.S. is to become a CAC. See for yourself by visiting the tropical resort where you can swim with dolphins, snorkel and hand-feed exotic birds and explore lagoons, rivers and reefs, all within the same day. “Discovery Cove has long been recognized for its adventure-filled yet relaxed environment with a variety of open, clear spaces that make attractions and services more accessible and reduces sensory overload for guests with cognitive disorders,” said Kyle Miller, president of Discovery Cove.
  3. EdVenture
    EdVenture, the largest children’s museum in the south, located in Columbia, South Carolina, is a recent CAC . This interactive children’s museum has barrier-free experiences for visitors that are challenged by physical or social accessibility issues. As soon as you arrive, you can’t miss Eddie, the world’s largest child at 40 feet tall and 17.5 tons. He’s designed to teach visitors of all ages how the body works when you listen close. Visitors can experience the joy of learning with seasonal exhibits, becoming a fire fighter or veterinarian (and more) for the day, and virtually traveling across the world.
  4. Elmwood Park Zoo
    The Elmwood Park Zoo (EPZ) in Norristown, Pennsylvania is ideal if you’re seeking an educational and immersive experience. It’s the only ropes course in Pennsylvania with zip lines over animal exhibits and features more than 50 challenges that strengthen visitors’ knowledge of living an environmentally healthy lifestyle through various exhibitions, courses and team building activities. Every Saturday between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m. between April and September, you can obtain a sensory backpack at early access mornings. EPZ offers the opportunity for families and guests with special needs to enjoy the zoo in a relaxing environment prior to opening to the general public.
  5. Georgia Aquarium
    If you’re planning a trip to an aquarium, head to the first CAC-designated aquarium, the Georgia Aquarium. It’s also the largest aquarium in the U.S. and the second largest aquarium in the world and is home to tens of thousands of animals living in the 10 million gallons of water. Visitors can experience the world beneath the waves with excursions like sleeping under the sea or a behind the seas tour. Designated quiet zones, expedited entrances and sensory bags are also available for guests. This nonprofit is committed to “inspiring awareness and preservation of our ocean and aquatic animals worldwide,” said Anthony Rivera, vice president of guest experience and hospitality.
  6. Nickelodeon Universe
    The No. 1 entertainment brand for kids, Nickelodeon Universe in the center of Mall of America is one of the newest theme parks designated as a CAC. It’s the first CAC destination in Minnesota, with seven acres of attractions and entertainment for all ages and courage levels. With 27 rides to choose from, ranging from attraction, family, junior or thrill, there’s one for every rider. Visitors can meet their favorite Nickelodeon characters, get “slimed,” experience the longest indoor zip line and so much more.
  7. Santa Barbara Zoo
    The first CAC-designated zoo on the West Coast, Santa Barbara Zoo is also one of the world’s most beautiful zoos. It’s located on 30 acres of botanical gardens and accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, as it’s home to almost 500 animals in open, natural habitats. Every visitor is welcome to a fun, educational and memorable experience with safari sleepovers, behind-the-scenes tours and programs that contribute to saving wildlife. Quiet spaces along with sensory backpacks that feature fidget cubes, noise-canceling headphones, squeeze balls, zoo cars and more aim to keep the autism community feeling safe, supported and welcome at the zoo.
  8. Sesame Place
    Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pennsylvania is the first CAC-designated theme park. With more than 28 theme parks and water rides, shows, games and fun activities for all ages, it’s no doubt the best family theme park for your next vacation. It’s also the only theme park based entirely on Sesame Street, which is bound to create an unforgettable experience. Similar to Aquatica Orlando, a ride accessibility program, quiet rooms, noise-cancelling headphones and low sensory areas are available. Whether it’s eating at Cookie Monster’s Foodie Truck, taking a photo with interactive characters like the Muppets, or visiting the Sesame Street Neighborhood, every visitor will enjoy an authentic experience.
  9. Space Center Houston
    Space Center Houston is the first CAC space center in the world. The space and science exploration learning center has more than 400 activities for visitors to experience, so there’s no question behind USA Today naming this “The Best Museum in Texas.” You’ll have a chance to be a part of NASA’s mission with every tour, gallery and exhibit. Sensory friendly evenings with reduced lights, sounds and crowds are designed to improve learning experiences for visitors with special needs. Eager to be inclusive and inspire the next generation of problem solvers, the center’s president and CEO, William T. Harris said, “Science, technology, engineering and mathematics education is for everyone.”
  10. Zoo Miami
    Zoo Miami is the first CAC zoo in Florida. It’s also Florida’s largest and oldest zoological garden, home to more than 1,000 species of trees, palms and various plants. Here you’ll find more than 3,000 animals from around the world in addition to unforgettable views and tours. Whether it’s the Mission Everglades expansion with Florida natives like alligators, bobcats, bald eagles, panthers and more, you’ll discover numerous ways to take in the only sub-tropical zoo in the continental U.S. For a comfortable and relaxing aerial view of the zoo, there’s a four-stop, air-conditioned Monorail available.

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