Cruising with a child with a disability

Have you ever been to Hell and back?  I have! Hey! Be Nice! I am not talking about my travel with my kids when they were young! I am talking about my trip to Hell, a neighborhood of Grand Cayman Islands! Yeah, That’s right! If you embark with your family in Grand Cayman Islands when your cruise ship docks there, you can go visit Hell and come back. With proper planning and taking time to prepare, it can be a fabulous and accessible trip, I guarantee you.

Travel gives children an opportunity to learn about the world, experience different cultures and acquire other valuable life-lessons. A family vacation is anything but relaxing if not planned well in advance. Find ways to deal with problems that may arise due to disruption of routine, unfamiliar surroundings, longing for the home and/or a pet left behind etc. Everyone will enjoy the trip if the problem is foreseen and solutions have been thought out. It becomes even more important when one of the children have a disability. This is when the ugly word “special Needs” comes into play.

Terry Mauro, author and owner of website Mothers With Attitude says, “”Special Needs” is an umbrella underneath which a staggering array of diagnoses can be wedged. Children with special needs may have mild learning disabilities or profound mental retardation; food allergies or terminal illness; developmental delays that catch up quickly or remain entrenched; occasional panic attacks or serious psychiatric problems. The designation is useful for getting needed services, setting appropriate goals, and gaining understanding for a child and stressed family.”

Several problems can be tackled before hand if you take time to prepare. This will help you deal with situations that you had not anticipated! I can see heads nod bringing back the unsavory memories that are better forgotten.

First of all think what your family needs, focusing more on the child with the disability. What are the problems that you face in your day-to-day life? It is helpful to make a list. It is worth the time you spent on it!  If your children get bored easily take enough material such as books, CDs etc to stimulate and hold their interest. If noise bothers them, have noise canceling headphones or earplugs. Sunlight or too much light is a problem, have shades to protect the eyes!

Go through your list and prepare for each situation by taking exactly what you need and what you will use at home.

As Terry Mauro puts it ” “Special needs” are commonly defined by what a child can’t do — by milestones unmet, foods banned, activities avoided, experiences denied.”  These facts are to be considered when choosing a cruise. Every family’s need is unique!

Cruises these days are a great option for a family vacation. These floating “luxury resort hotels” provide something for everyone. It is a vacation where you choose the amount of time you want to spend with each other including your child with a disability! Today’s ships provide care and entertainment through out the day for anyone from a 12-week old baby to the oldest person on the ship.

Now that you have decided to go on a cruise, here comes the task of choosing one.

One of the best ways to do it is to consult with a travel agent who understands the difficulties, and has ample experience in disability travel. Since they have been dealing with people with disabilities irrespective of their age or type of disability, they are sensitive to the concerns of families with children who have special needs and have the right solutions. SATH ( is a good source of information to find the right travel agent or tour operator.

Since most cruise lines provide for accessible cabins featuring wider doors, roll in shower, accessible public areas, theatre seating etc, lets look more into the programs that are provided. This is more so since on July 6, the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued new ADA regulations to protect the rights of passengers with disabilities aboard vessels including cruise ships. The rule takes effect November 3, 2010

Children using wheelchairs and those who require oxygen must look for bigger and newer ships. They are more equipped with the facilities that they would need. Ships that were retrofitted after dry-docking it, will not have the same comfort level as newer ships which were specifically designed for accessible cruising.

Children who are blind or have visual impairments and those who are deaf and hard of hearing have a wider choice of ships.  Alert kits are available aboard cruise ships. Visual-tactile alert systems that let the child “hear” the doorbell or the telephone, vibrating alarm clocks and smoke detectors are part of these kits and are fitted in the cabin upon request. If the child is old enough to use a TTY telephone, it can be requested too.

Children with food allergies can be catered to special diets. You must contact the executive Chef of that ship and make them aware of the problem and the solutions. They are equipped to provide the appropriate meals. If this task is daunting, your travel agent (knowledgeable and experienced in disability travel, remember?) can set this up for you.

Cognitive, Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities will not bar a child from going on a family vacation. Most cruise ships’ youth programs can accommodate that child in their programs if given sufficient notice. If the parent feels more comfortable in the company of other families with children with similar disabilities, there are travel agents such as Guided Tours, Autism on the Seas etc. who set up group tours. One of Autism on Sea’s client says” “There was a time when I was hesitant to take my son grocery shopping and never considered traveling. Now we are “world travelers” and have been to Grand Cayman and Mexico. It was such a blast and we had such a great time that my son has decided that he is willing to give up all vacations (even Disney) to go on another cruise.”

Most cruise ships have some medical staff and facilities for any child with medical problems. However they differ a lot from one another. The Access Department of the cruise line, Cruise Lines International Association or your travel agent can provide you with information on the ship of your choice. There are specific cruises for those with other medical conditions. For example, Dialysis at Sea organizes cruises for those who need kidney dialysis and makes sure the appropriate equipment and medical staff are on hand.

Even though service dogs are permitted on cruise ships they are not allowed to disembark at all ports. The cruise lines must be notified in advance if you are bringing a service animal. Special documentation may be required to enter certain ports of call. It is better to have vaccination records, an International Health Certificate or written proof of the dog’s training as a service animal in case it is asked for. Cruise lines will allow only certain number of service animals that are comfortably accommodated unless it is a special charter cruise such as a Deaf Cruise.

Let’s look at the options offered by the most popular cruise companies embarking from North American ports.

Disney Cruises. When you think of a cruise for a child, they take the place of honor due to their appeal to the kids even though some other cruise lines provide better facilities that are accessible. Nearly an entire deck is dedicated to children’s activities.

Many activities are available for the whole family including children with disabilities.  Children’s activities are available for children age 3-12 who are potty trained and can interact comfortably with counselors and their peers.  Counselor-to-child ratio is 1:15 for ages 3-4 and 1:25 for ages 5-12. Parents whose children cannot meet the program guidelines can make requests for modified programming through the Special Reservations coordinator prior to sailing.  Ability to fulfill requests depends on the needs of the child, staff availability, and other factors. Disney The cruise ship Magic recently added a room called Ocean Quest, boasting a ship’s bridge simulator, which kids can use to pretend they are navigating a ship

Disney’s Castaway Cay, their private island in the Bahamas  provides facilities such as Paved pathways throughout the main areas, providing access to shops and restaurants, beach wheelchairs, available free of charge and on a first-come, first-serve basis, an accessible tram that accommodates them in both in manual and electric wheelchairs. There are accessible restrooms. For more information, please call (407) 566-3500 [voice] or (407) 566-7455 [TTY].

Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity’s Kids Program, features special children’s programs for ages 3 – 17, along with activities and play areas just for children and they are all closely supervised. During the summer and holidays a full program is offered for four age groups: Ship Mates (ages 3-6), Cadets (ages 7-9), Ensigns (ages 10-12), and Admiral T’s (ages 13-15 and 16-17). A limited program is offered during other sailings. All Celebrity Youth Counselors, who can speak most major languages between them, are well trained for all kinds of situations.  Any child with a disability, over the age of 3 who must wear diapers or pull ups due to a disability may participate in the Youth Program as long as the parent submits a signed copy of the ADA XClub Accommodation Request Form.

Carnival Cruises 

Carnival offers the most hours of youth programs. There are some conditions under which Carnival Cruises accepts Children with disabilities on board Carnival Youth Program such as Camp Carnival, Circle “C” and Club O2. There are simple ones such as filling in a registration form, tick off on a checklist etc. Parents be provided a beeper or phone (if applicable). All rules of the youth program viz-a-viz administration of medication, illness, hours and unacceptable behavior while in the program apply to those with disabilities too. A parent is allowed to stay with the child.

Princess Cruises

Access Office at 1-661-284-4521. You may also fax your request to the Access Office at 1-661-284-4408.

With Three Distinct Age Groups and Special Enrichment Programs, Princess Offers Younger Passengers Unique Edutainment’ Opportunities. Older grade school children enjoy Princess’ hands-on science program, run with the help of the California Science Center. Parents are always welcome to join their children in the Youth and Teen Centers.

Royal Caribbean International


Special Needs desk (866) 592-7225 (voice), fax (954) 628-9622, send an e-mail to,

They have a youth program, called Adventure Ocean, that excels at offering age-appropriate, hands-on activities, such as art projects, science experiments, and drama classes (developed in partnership with Camp Broadway). Upon request, they do waive Adventure Ocean toilet-trained policy.  Pagers for parents of children in Adventure Ocean program and  baby sitting services are provided. Plastic wheelchairs are provided at the children’s water park (the H2O Zone) in The Freedom Class, Oasis and Allure of the Sea to fully participate in the activities. The stage at the OnAir Club, where karaoke is held has ramps.

Holland America

Everyone with a disability is required to contact their Access & Compliance Department and to submit a Special Requirements Information (SRI) Form well in advance of the departure of their cruise and/or cruise tour. At Holland America Line they have a program called Club HAL where they do not discriminate against kids on the basis of disability. They to accommodate the needs of children disabilities to the extend it is feasible.

Some More Tips

A cruise line’s Special Needs brochure can alert you to all the amenities that they provide. Call the Access Departments of the cruise line to make sure you child’s needs are going to be met.

While packing do not foret that all medications on in the ahnd luggage. Prescriptions and/or a docotr’s note is needed for security clearance.

Never leave home for a vacation without proper travel insurance! Make sure they cover all the countries that you visit. Always have a copy of your insurance information, physicians’ contact information and emergency contact list. The cost of the travel insurance is worth it, in case you need to postpone or cancel due to some unforseen impediment.

For children who may become stressed at new situations and places, traveling can be very traumatic. To help calm the child, bring familiar and  well loved items from home, such as pillows, blankets and toys etc.

One item that can be a great one to take on a cruise due to the size of the ships is an inexpensive FM walkie-talkie. You can in touch with your family members and it can be a lot of fun for everyone. This is a good tip for everyone with or withoput disabilites.

Let’s go cruising…..

Reprinted from Play to Podium Magazine 

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