Accessible Travel: Cruising for Families Living with Autism
Cruising is an amazing vacation experience that all can enjoy. While guests need different levels of services, several cruise lines offer services specifically for families living with autism.
Cruises are an excellent option for family vacations. From giant water slides to five-star dining onboard, the ships are memorable entertainment and dining experiences. There is something for everyone!
Cruising also allows travelers to see different locations without having to unpack, which helps reduce stress and fatigue during a trip. The stable nature of cruises also helps make passengers feel more comfortable with each other. Passengers get used to seeing familiar faces, which can help people with autism feel more comfortable with their surroundings.
From sensory-friendly entertainment offerings to onboard staff resources, dive into what several cruise lines are offering to support guests with special needs, including those with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Autism on the Seas is the leading developmental disability service supplier to the cruise industry. Since 2007, this international organization has worked with Royal Caribbean International to develop cruise vacation services to accommodate families and adults living with autism and other special needs.
Autism on the Seas’ staff-assisted cruises are selected from regular cruises throughout the year so that guests can receive specialized services such as respite and private activities/sessions and use entertainment spaces in an accommodated and assisted manner. Staff-assisted cruises are open to extended family and friends.
Staff members are educated, experienced and sanctioned by the cruise lines. Staff members accompany guests to provide amazing cursing experiences onboard Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, Disney and Carnival cruise lines.
Carnival works with parents or guardians to include all children in youth programs. Each child’s needs are assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine how to best accommodate and integrate the child in programs. Parents of children with disabilities will be provided a phone based on availability.
Because Carnival does not provide one-on-one attention, parents and caregivers can stay and take part in activities with the child.
Carnival is the first cruise line to be certified “sensory inclusive” by KultureCity, a nonprofit dedicated to accessibility and inclusion for individuals with sensory and invisible disabilities.
All guest-facing crew has been trained to help and understand guests with sensory/cognitive needs, and guest services and youth staff are ready to help adults, youth and children with sensory-related questions. Youth staff has access to different resources such as weighted vests and sensory cards to help soothe, calm and entertain children taking part in youth programs.
Guests can check out KultureCity Sensory Bags for a cruise’s duration. The bags include items to help calm, relax and manage sensory overload such as comfortable noise-canceling headphones and fidget tools.
Carnival recommends families who are cruising with a child who has a sensory or cognitive need to meet with Guest Services once boarding the ship to talk about special accommodations, including a private safety briefing.
Disney Cruise Line offers a variety of services and facilities for guests with autism and other disabilities to help provide a magical vacation experience. Disney provides information pertaining to help guests with autism or other disabilities that affect their ability to wait in lines or in a crowded environment.
Disney recommends guests to complete online check-in at least 72 hours before sailing. To reduce wait time in the terminal, Disney also recommends guests to choose a terminal arrival time. Note: the first two hours are typically the busiest, and later check-in times may be the least impactful.
Before entering the terminal, all guests will undergo a security screening process that includes bag x-ray and metal detectors. Once inside the terminal, guests should identify themselves to a cast member for check-in help. All guests need to be photographed and issued boarding documentation.
Staterooms open after 1:30 pm, and other public venues, including dining options, will open upon embarkation.
Some restaurants and theaters onboard featured audio/visual experiences that may be unexpected. If you have specific questions or concerns, contact Disney Cruise Line Special Services at least 60 days before your cruise to discuss additional options. Once onboard, you can talk to your restaurant management or theater host, for more information or to discuss seating options.
Crew members will be available at the entrance to the Walt Disney Theatre beginning 30 minutes prior to showtimes to assist guests. Guests can request to reserve seats in a theater if a member of their party has a disability that affects their early show arrival.
Disney also offers a family feature film in the Buena Vista Theatre where they leave some lights on and turn the volume down. Audience members are welcome to talk and move around the theater.
For character meet and greets, one family member can wait in line, and your party can be reunited when it is your turn to meet the character. Single parents or guardians, who cannot do so, should notify the character greeter for help.
This cruise line offers autism-friendly experiences for families living with autism, Down Syndrome and other developmental disabilities.
Royal Caribbeans’ autism-friendly experiences include:
Priority check-in, boarding and departure
Special dietary accommodations, including gluten-free and dairy-free offerings
Sensory-friendly films (presented in low-lit and low volume environments) and toys
Adventure Ocean flexible grouping by ability (for children 3 to 11 years old)
Autism-friendly trained staff
Adventure Ocean toilet-trained policy exception
Pagers/phones for parents of children in the Adventure Ocean program while signed into our care
For teens with autism, Royal Caribbean’s Teen Program offers teens-only hangouts and activities. Some activities are hosted, but they do not provide supervision or one-on-one attention.
Celebrity Cruises’ offerings for families living with autism mirror Royal Caribbean. Both cruise lines offer more services including a “Cruising Social Story.”
A Social Story is a written or visual guide detailing social interactions, behaviors, situations, skills or concepts. Celebrity Cruises offers a Social Story Booklet about cruising to help families with autism prepare for their cruise vacation. These Social Stories help people with autism to better cope with social situations.
Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean also offer services for adults with autism. These services include:
Expected check-in, boarding and departure
Special dietary accommodations, including gluten-free offerings
Autism Friendly Toy Lending Program
Autism Friendly Films
Social Story Booklet
Celebrity’s Cruise Activities Program. (Some of these activities are hosted, but supervision or one-on-one attention is not provided. Adults are not permitted in Teen or Camp at Sea spaces.)
To help all guests enjoy freestyle cruising, Norwegian Cruise Line’s staff are specifically trained to meet guests’ needs. The team of access coordinators is trained to provide a safe and accessible cruise experience—before, during and after your cruise—for all guests with special requirements.
These coordinators will talk with you and your needs and experience after Norwegian receives a guests’ Special Accommodation Requirements Information form available from our Access Desk. Norwegian Cruise Line has Access Officers who will be the primary go-to person for all of your needs.
An Access Desk representative will talk with families living with autism about every aspect of their upcoming cruises from transportation to and from the vessel to shore excursions and staterooms. Once onboard, Norwegian’s staff will be available to help guests, and access officers will be the primary go-to resource all for your needs.
Norwegian asks for guests who need special accommodations to contact the Access Desk well before their cruise. Contact Norwegian’s Access Desk here.
River cruising is another popular cruising option. These cruises tend to attract older travelers and explore more destinations with shorter stops. While several of the prominent river cruise companies do not advertise services specifically for travelers with autism, K3 Travel will help ensure your vacation runs as smoothly and as enjoyable as possible.
For more resources on traveling with autism, visit.