Special Needs Travel

Best Zoos and Aquariums for Kids with Autism

Last updated 2nd November 2017

Ask most kids, and they will tell you aquariums and zoos are fun to places to visit. In fact, both venues provide hours of educational and entertainment experiences for all ages. However, for kids with autism, dealing with crowds, prolonged walking outdoors and strong smells can be quite challenging.

Many U.S. venues have added services to accommodate families with autism. Here are the best U.S. zoos and aquariums for children with autism for parents who wish to take their kids on a fun day trip.

Monterey Bay Aquarium along Cannery Row in Monterey.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California

With over 40,000 plants, animals and sea life the Monterey Bay Aquarium is an ideal place to explore. The aquarium features many interactive activities. There are penguins, sea otter’s feedings and shallow ponds where visitors can touch sea creatures. Also, those who want to get a more in-depth understanding of aquarium operations can attend one of the several tours. In fact, the trips range from 60 to 120 minutes and can be booked ahead of time.

Autism Travel Tips

The Aquarium is planning a unique scuba experience for kids with exceptional challenges. In collaboration with the Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital Foundation, the event is scheduled for the summer of 2018. Furthermore, parents that wish to prepare their kids for their visit can download printables available on the venue’s website. The printables include games and activities to keep children occupied for hours. Furthermore, the site features live webcams to “check up” on favorite animals.

Rainbow Harbor in Long Beach with the large Aquarium of the Pacific to the left.

Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach, California

This Aquarium’s primary focus is California’s sea and ocean life. Visitors can explore exhibits and shows along with exclusive behind the scene tours. Furthermore, the aquarium hosts several special events throughout the year. It is important to realize, that the events emphasize the aquarium’s conservation efforts of endangered sea life and nearby wetlands.

Autism Travel Tips

The Aquarium offers several events for families and individuals with autism. Therefore, families should check the venue’s calendar for scheduled Autism Family nights and Abilities Nights before visiting.

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, part of the Nature Institute.

Audubon Nature Institute, New Orleans

The Audubon Nature Institute encompasses ten different venues. The venues include the Aquarium, the Zoo, and the Insectarium. The 58-acre zoo is home to 2,000 animals from gorillas to Louisiana swamp inhabitants. Its neighbor the Aquarium boasts a 400,000-gallon aquarium tank that features Gulf of Mexico sea life.

But the real show stopper is the Insectarium. With more than 50 live exhibits, the 23,000-square-foot facility is the largest free-standing U.S. museum dedicated to insects. Kids will love the Insectarium one of a kind dining experience. Apart from the “living tables” where diners can watch living termites, the cafe’s chefs offer demonstrations on how to cook with bugs!

Autism Travel Tips

The Audubon Zoo offers a sensory Sunday program for families with autism. Every month the event covers a different theme. Moreover, there’s no registration required, and all the events are free.

New England Aquarium along the Harborwalk on downtown Boston’s waterfront.

New England Aquarium, Boston

At the New England Aquarium, visitors and children can explore underwater life. Ranging from California Sea Lions, Little Blue Penguins to Atlantic lobsters the aquarium has something for everyone. With this in mind, most exhibits showcase the marine life and teach guests about ongoing conservation efforts. A seasonal highlight is the venue’s whale watching program. Guests can gawk at the mammals from the aquarium whale watch booth, or take a boat tour.

Autism Travel Tips

At this aquarium, every floor has tactile exhibits for sensory stimulation. Visitors can touch and interact with stingrays, starfish, and bamboo sharks. Furthermore, the aquarium teamed up with MagnusCards to help families with autism. The free app provides detailed descriptions of tasks and routines on its cards. So, parents wishing to prepare their kids for a future visit should check out the aquarium cards available on the app.

Birmingham Zoo, Birmingham, Alabama

The Birmingham Zoo is a 200-acre venue near the intersection of U.S. Highways 280 and 31 in Alabama. The zoological park that opened in 1955 is home to over 750 animals. The zoo has its share of “celebrity” inhabitants. In 2004, the zoo’s gorilla, Babec, became the first gorilla to receive a heart pacemaker. Then in 2011, the zoo became a national leader in the care of elephants after opening their exhibit with Bulwagi from Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Autism Travel Tips

To become more inclusive, the zoo partnered with KultureCity, a nonprofit organization. After training their staff, the zoo is now a “sensory inclusive facility. ” As part of this collaboration, the zoo offers families the option to borrow weighted lap pads and sensory bags. The bags include noise-canceling headphones and fidget toys. Furthermore, the zoo has four “Quiet Zones” where guests can sit and regroup when overstimulated. For parents that want to prepare kids for an upcoming visit, the zoo website has a free social story available.

Tampa Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa, Florida

With over 56 acres, Tampa’s Zoo’s family-friendly reputation is well deserved. The facility offers multiple educational programs and recreational amenities.

But what sets this zoo apart is their manatee conservation program. So far, the program has cared for over 400 manatees! Interested guests can observe how staff members treat the sick and orphaned ones through unique underwater windows.

Autism Travel Tips

The zoo became an  “autism-friendly business” after cooperating with the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at USF. As part of the partnership, the zoo offers autism-friendly maps and guides to help those with sensory challenges.

Minnesota Zoo, Apple Valley, Minnesota

Opened in 1978, the Minnesota Zoo was one of the first establishments to organize animals by living environment instead of species. The zoo exhibits are showcased in six themed areas that include three walking trails. Most noteworthy about this venue is that this zoo has a dedicated section for farm animals.

Autism Travel Tips

As a trailblazer of experiences, the venue provides outstanding accommodations for families with autism. Parents can borrow earmuffs and fidget toys at Guest Services. Moreover, patrons with noise sensitivities can ask staff to lower the carousel music volume. Other accommodations available are free disposable earplugs and manual flushing commodes

San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo, San Diego

Lastly, the world-renowned zoo offers visitors diverse learning and entertainment opportunities. Afterall, the San Diego Zoo has hands-on experiences to animal shows there is something for all visitors. Also, guests who wish to get a deeper understanding of animal habitats and the zoo’s conservation efforts should book one of the zoo tours.

Autism Travel Tips

Guests who have a hard time standing in line can ask for the zoo’s “Easy Access Pass.” In essence, the pass enables guests to sit in a waiting area until their turn comes up. Additionally, the “Easy Access Pass” works in the Panda exhibit, amphitheater, and the Skyfari train. In addition, there’s an on-call shuttle to transport individuals when needed.