Several years ago, I had an epiphany. It was after a celebration that I had attended for the anniversary of ADA. ADA was obviously landmark legislation and has completely changed the way we view many things in our society. But we’re still not there. I approached then editor of MetroKids about this idea. I remember saying to him, “With my child, I don’t care how wide your doorways are. I don’t need a ramp. What I do need to know is…what is the lighting like? How loud is it? What food do they have?” Because autism, ID and other sensory issues are not usually physical disabilities, right? Most of the time, our kids can walk through the front door of a venue. But we need to know what is waiting for us once we step inside, because accessibility takes many different forms.
I asked him (editor of MK) to approach his advertisers and businesses that he works with, and we came up with a list of other things that our parents would need to know. Things like light and sound, family restrooms, quiet spaces, food allergens and so on. He agreed it was a good idea and these features began to appear on their guide. I certainly do not take credit for all of metro Philly getting on board with this, but several years later we can look back and admire. There are many venues out there who are now going out of their way to accommodate our kids. Sure, I’m all for inclusion, there is a a time and place for separate evenings and separate events with our kiddos. Sometimes they don’t like crowds. Anyway, I’m starting to ramble, but here it is:
Family attractions near Philadelphia who go out of their way to accommodate children with special needs
Sesame Place-You knew they’d be on my list, right? Of course we love Sesame Place. Some of the highlights from their 44-page Sesame Place Accessibility Guide include allergen free meals and dining, special ride access and written scripts for the shows. They also work with the Variety Club of Philadelphia every year to offer free admission days for children with disabilities. (you must be registered with Variety Club ahead of time, info available through that link) A point of pride for me is–a couple of years ago, one of this blog’s readers asked me to ask Sesame Place to have a special disabilities section for parade watching. The very next season…it was there, painted on the ground! That is something I am taking credit for. Sesame Place is one of the few parks of it’s kind that allows you to bring food in, which often is a big help.
Camden Riversharks-The Camden Riversharks contacted me several years ago to do a ticket giveaway. What I like about them is that they not only have an Autism Themed Night, but they also do nights for several other conditions and illnesses. I got the idea from the very beginning that it was important to them to include everyone who wanted to watch a baseball game. Yes, there are others who do similar events but I like the vibe I get from the Riversharks office people when I email, plus they are affordable.
Please Touch Museum– I am sad that this will probably be the last year for us to visit as my kids are getting older. I love love love the PTM. And what is not to love about their “Play Without Boundaries” initiative? Take a look: Please Touch Museum’s Play without Boundaries program provides families of children with disabilities with innovative tools to make a museum visit more comfortable and enjoyable. The program creates a comprehensive welcoming structure for families of children with varying abilities through the following initiatives:
- Quiet Space of the Day, for children and families who need a sensory break during their visit.
- Quiet Kits containing sensory cool-down items to set up larger quiet spaces for group visits.
- Sensory-based games and toys available in the Kids Store
- Specialized accessibility and inclusion training for staff
- Special Play without Boundaries evening and early morning events for families of children with disabilities
- Mobile programming that brings PTM-themed games and toys to schools, childcare centers, libraries, or social service agencies.
- Accessibility tools for families of children with disabilities include museum stories and gallery maps
Longwood Gardens-I’ve grown up going to Longwood Gardens and to be honest, as a kid I found it pretty boring. But Longwood is always changing and being innovative to become more family friendly. Now they have a Pumpkin Playground for fall and the holiday lights are not to be missed. But….did you know…they also have family restrooms? They do! And, with their recent expansion and opening of a Meadow Garden, it’s quiet and it’s accessible…all 86 acres of it. You can also contact their dining venues about allergies which they will try to accommodate and there are quiet places for quiet time retreats. My kids love it there.
Philadelphia Zoo– We had a membership to the zoo for many years and now it’s time to go back. I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t been there since they opened up Kid Zoo U in 2013. As part of their upgrade and expansion, they went all out. The Philadelphia Zoo worked with experts from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Autism Research and the Overbrook School for the Blind, among others, to ensure the design of KidZooU is friendly to special needs communities. KidZooU will include braille, sign language and a picture exchange system for children on the autism spectrum. Think about it…PECS! At the zoo! How cool is that?
Garden State Discovery Museum– The GSDM has Open Arms evenings for children with disabilities. Held quarterly and free, these evenings give our kids a chance to explore GSDM with less crowds and more accommodations than usual. This is another venue that I have not yet visited, but from emailing back and forth with their staff, I get the feeling that they really want to do the best for all kids and make sure that everyone is included.
Philadelphia Eagles– You might be surprised to see them on this list. If you follow my blog, it should come as no surprise since my family has attended the Huddle Up for Autism many years in a row. They did not host it in 2014 (always in April) but hopefully it will be back in 2015. The Eagles have chosen CHOP’s Center for Autism Research as one of their charities to support and the event is a fun and educational day as part of that initiative. It’s a really fun day with some great behind the scenes stuff, like touring locker rooms! The Eagles have also hosted dozens of Philadelphia’s non-profits, many that serve our kids, for things such as workshops to learn how to operate better. While I certainly am not a huge fan of the NFL recently, we can’t forget that some players and some teams are still doing good things for our kids!
Sahara Sam’s– Special Needs Events at Sahara Sam’s Oasis provide fun, judgment-free evenings for individuals with special needs to enjoy with their family and friends. SEAS events are offered to the community at a significantly reduced rate and are designed with the unique challenges of special needs individuals in mind.
National Constitution Center– If you have a child who needs various methods for learning, then the National Constitution Center is for you. They bring the Constitution and other parts of American history to life! If your child struggles with reading and doesn’t learn from a class lecture, bring them to the NCC. Their interactive displays make it all fun and interesting. Plus, it’s very accessible and you can park right underneath…don’t even have to go outside if you don’t want. The bathrooms are wide and spacious, there are quiet corners and benches you can retreat to if you need a break and the cafeteria has a very varied menu. Plus, they often have hosted or played a big supporting role in Philadelphia’s Annual Disability Pride Day, have held discussions about Constitutional issues that affect our kids, celebrated ADA and more.
Fairmount Water Works-I visited there just a few weeks ago but was impressed enough to put it on this list. It’s quiet. It’s free. It’s accessible. It’s interesting for kids, but not overwhelming or over stimulating. It can be done as a short outing, again to not overwhelm a kid. The bathrooms were spacious. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get up close to some iconic Philadelphia images and help kids connect the dots as far as what they see on tv, in the media and in real life. And what isn’t too love about toilet seats?
Art Reach-I love Art Reach even though they are a program not a venue. But…they give access to so many venues! Their mission statement: Art-Reach enriches lives by connecting underserved audiences with cultural experiences so that they may enjoy and benefit from the transformative power of the arts. I suggest that if your family is in the “underserved audiences” category that you learn about the programs and services they offer. Everything from special events and special night to discounted or free tickets. If there is an event in your community you can also talk to them about making the event ASL accessible. They even will send out guides to events to help you learn about what you are enjoying….I love that idea! This is definitely on our list of things to do this winter.
Knoebel’s-Ok, so it is a 3-hour drive from Philadelphia. But I love them so much I couldn’t leave them off this list. I have written about Knoebel’s many times since I have been going there since a child myself. But they have special ride access for kids with disabilities and they even host a Deaf/HH day each spring. It’s affordable, you only pay for the rides you want, and if an adult doesn’t want to ride rides, they don’t pay! They have a special nursing and baby area that could be used as a family changing area.
And last but not least…let’s not forget the smaller venues and programs like the AMC Sensory Friendly Movies, that occur monthly.
Ok, so there you have it, my list of the best special needs friendly attractions in and around Philadelphia. Please make an effort to visit some of these venues, not just because I said so, but because it will send the message that these accommodations are needed and wanted. Thanks for reading!
This post was originally published in 2014, but is being updated and republished in June, 2016.