Seas The Day: 3 accessible beaches for families with special needs
North and South Carolina beaches with sensory-friendly activities and wheelchair-accessible amenities
When our son Ben grew too large to be carried from his wheelchair to the beach, we wondered how we’d manage future trips to the shore. His favorite pastime is splashing at the ocean’s edge, and we didn’t want him to miss out. Once we learned about beach wheelchairs—a chair equipped with large, inflated wheels that can roll across the sand without sinking—we only chose beaches that had one available.
Many parents raising children with developmental delays and intellectual and physical disabilities may find a beach vacation tough to navigate. We found three beach towns along the Carolina coast with services and resources to assist families, and they’re all less than a four-hour drive from Charlotte.
Five tips for planning your trip:
- Ask about the waves and current. Before you decide on a destination, ask about the water. “Less tumultuous water may be easier for people with disabilities to access and enjoy, as opposed to choppy water and high waves,” says Alvaro Silberstein, CEO and co-founder of Wheel the World, which helps people find and book accessible travel in more than 80 destinations.
- Find accessible lodging close to an accessible beach. Longer distances between accommodations and the beach can complicate transportation logistics.
- Seek out destinations with accessible water activities. Look for adaptive surfing, kayaking, and scuba diving. Nonprofits in the area may operate programs for visitors as well.
- Rent or borrow a wheelchair specifically for navigating sand. Some towns offer free access to beach wheelchairs. “Understand which mobility device may be comfortable and best for a person with a disability,” Silberstein says.
- Call ahead to restaurants. Ask about peak hours, accessibility, and space for wheelchairs. Do they offer a private dining area for children who need quiet? Do they have the option to order an appetizer ahead of time to have it ready when you arrive?
Check out these three beach towns for families with special needs:
Beaufort (pronounced BEW-fert) is a small walkable town on the Beaufort River. The Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park has a paved path with views of the water and quick access to restaurants. The playground has accessible equipment and sensory-friendly activities.
Hunting Island State Park has two Mobi-Mats (beach mats) and two beach wheelchairs available at no cost. Find them near the Hunting Island Camp Store and the Lighthouse Gift Shop.
- The Visitors Center, Nature Center, and the new Pier at Hunting Island all have ramp access. The Visitor Center’s Virtual Lighthouse has a climb experience for people unable to make the climb on foot.
- The Kazoo Factory is wheelchair accessible and allows therapy dogs inside. Let staff know if your child is sensitive to noise and they can skip the noisy part of the tour.
- Port Royal Cypress Wetlands has an accessible boardwalk through the marshes.
MYRTLE BEACH, SC
Champion Autism Network (CAN) named Surfside Beach and the City of Myrtle Beach Autism-Friendly Vacation Destinations, which means a number of attractions, hotels, and restaurants offer sensory-friendly experiences.
Several area beaches offer beach wheelchairs at no cost on a first-come, first-served basis. Wheelchairs and Scooters of Myrtle Beach and Mobility Center also have beach wheelchairs for rent. Find more accessible local beaches here.
- Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach is wheelchair accessible and offers sensory-friendly dates.
- Cherry Grove Pier is wheelchair accessible from the parking lot and has a full-service tackle and bait shop for experienced and new anglers. The shop also has a beach wheelchair available at no cost.
- SkyWheel, a 20-story high Ferris wheel with enclosed gondolas, is fully accessible. Rides last 10 minutes.
- Savannah’s Playground is designed for children of all abilities.
In 2018, Cory Lee, the award-winning blogger behind Curb Free with Cory Lee, visited Wilmington and its beaches. Since 2013, Lee has shared his experiences traveling around the world in a wheelchair, and he found this pocket of coastal North Carolina to be extremely wheelchair-friendly. He was able to lounge on the beaches, tour the Carolina Beach boardwalk, and visit Britt Donut Shop.
Carolina Beach has a seasonal wheelchair beach mat to help get wheelchairs closer to the ocean.
- The Children’s Museum of Wilmington has sensory packs with noise-canceling headphones, a sensory sound map, and quiet spaces for families who need it.
- North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher earned a Sensory Inclusive Certificate from KultureCity in 2019. Aquarium staff and many volunteers were trained to better understand and interact with guests with different sensory characteristics.
- Cameron Art Museum offers Connection Tours on Mondays when the museum is closed to the public. These guided tours are designed for adults and children with special needs.
- Life Rolls On has an adaptive surfing event on July 23 in Carolina Beach.
- Indo Jax Surf School hosts surf events for children who have diabetes, cancer, or are visually impaired.
- The Miracle Field + Kiwanis Miracle Playground at Olsen Park welcomes guests of all abilities.
- The half-mile Venus Fly Trap Trail at Carolina Beach State Park is wheelchair accessible; so is Wilmington’s 1.75-mile wood plank Riverwalk.
VANESSA INFANZON is a Charlotte-based writer and mom. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @morethanVMI.