As a pediatric occupational therapist, parent of children with sensory processing disorder, and a frequent cruiser I have put together this list of 5 things to consider before booking a cruise with your child with special needs.
Many special needs children are very picky with what they eat. Does the cruise line you have selected have the foods your child eats? Are they known for going out of their way to provide requested foods?
Do the dining times work for your family? Some cruise lines have set times, while others have programs such as My Time Dining on Royal Caribbean where you can eat at whatever time you would like. However, consider that these programs may have a longer wait than those ships with set dining times
What are the size of the typical cabins? Does your child sleep best close to you, or separated? Can you get a cabin without a balcony if you are worried about your child getting out there unsupervised?
All cruise lines offer different types of cabins. But they are also so different between the cruise lines. Looks closely at where the 3rd and 4th person will sleep in the stateroom.
On our first cruise, we were a family of 5. We booked a family verandah stateroom on the Disney Wonder. Sleeping arrangements consisted of a queen-sized bed, a twin pull-out couch, a wall pull-down bed, and a bunk bed that pulled down from the ceiling. Sounded great, all 3 kids got their own bed. Until….. my daughter would not sleep on the bunk bed. Guess who slept up there? My husband!
On the next cruise, we discovered 2 oceanview staterooms were the same cost as one family verandah, and in subsequent cruises we actually preferred to 2 inside cabins.
Accessible staterooms are usually available but are usually very limited. Book early if you would like one! It can be hard to fit a wheelchair in a regular cruise stateroom.
What amenities are available on the ship that are appropriate for your child? Do they have a great spash pad? Family activities? A movie theater? Rockclimbing wall?
Spend time thinking about what activities you and your child like to participate in.
Does your child have a hard time staying calm?
Is it a meltdown or a tantrum?
Learn the differences so you can respond with confidence!
Is your child toilet trained? If not be aware that swim diapers and children who are not fully toilet trained are not allowed in pools on cruise ships. This is because if there is any indication there was an accident in the pool, it must be drained fully and cleaned. Keeping it closed for hours on end.
Talking about toilet training, many of the fabulous kids club activities may be off-limits if your child is not toilet trained either.
Does your child need one on one assistance and you would like to go into these great kids' areas with your child? Check your cruise line policy on adults in the kid's clubs. For instance, the guidelines for the Disney Cruise Line for children with disabilities state “Our programs are available to children who are fully toilet trained, able to individually participate within our counselor-to-child ratio groups, and interact socially and comfortably with peers of their own age and physical size.”
They do offer times the kids club has open play where adults are welcome with their children but there are no planned activities during these times.
Autism on the Seas
Do you think a cruise sounds like a fabulous vacation but you may need more assistance to cruise with your child with special needs? They even help on shore excursions! If so, check out Autism on the Seas.
This company brings volunteer “staff” on cruises with the families. They help in the pool, with embarkation, and provide respite. They also support families with cruises for special needs adults!
I love what they offer so much I have partnered with them. If you are interested please use my code OR-239 to receive a $25 onboard credit for your family. (I do receive a few dollars from Autism on the Seas that help me continue to run my free website with information for pediatric occupational therapists.)
Professionals who Work with Special Needs
Are you a professional looking for a fun volunteer opportunity where you get to use your skills? Check out the opportunity to volunteer with Autism on the Seas.
As a cruise-loving family, I would have loved to have been a volunteer with this organization when I was a newer therapist. I might still!
Much more detail about Autism on the Seas here
Booking a cruise with a special needs child can require some extra consideration and planning, but it can also be a wonderful and memorable experience for the whole family. By taking into account factors such as dining options, cabin arrangements, onboard amenities, pool regulations, and youth programs, parents can ensure that their child's needs are met and that everyone has a comfortable and enjoyable time. For those who may require additional assistance, companies like Autism on the Seas provide invaluable support and resources. With the right preparation and support, a cruise can be a fantastic family vacation that creates lasting memories.