Dolphins, gators and fish, oh my! Welcome to sunny Florida, where these animals and more are as abundant as the UV rays. When people think about adventure in Florida, the activities that come to mind may not sound very accessible to people who use wheelchairs or have limited physical abilities.
But fear not. Lying on the beach, deep sea fishing and even snorkeling are in the cards for every Florida visitor, if you pick the right spots. So take your seat and grease your wheels: we’re going to take a roll around the Sunshine State and highlight accessible ways to get your blood pumping.
The Birdwalk at Myakka River State Park is just one of the many accessible places available to Florida travelers © Sylvia Longmire / Lonely Planet
Dolphin spotting on the Florida panhandle
Let’s start in the Florida Panhandle, which locals often refer to as LA for “lower Alabama.” This region has some of the most beautiful white sand beaches and clear blue waters in the state. One special treat for visitors is dolphin-watching along the Emerald Coast, and thanks to Olin Marler Charters, everyone can take part. The Hannah Marie offers 1.5-hour narrated dolphin watching cruises out of Destin Harbor. The cruises are accessible for guests in manual or electric wheelchairs with a maximum width of 26 inches. There are stairs to get to the top and bottom decks, and on-board bathroom space is limited. However, the dolphin viewing experience is fantastic from the accessible main deck.
Catch glimpses of dolphins in the Gulf as part of an accessible tour © Manuel Mazzanti / Getty Images
A visit to the panhandle wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the beach. Wheelchair users can stay in Pensacola and take a ride on the sand in a motorized beach wheelchair rental with Access Mobility of Pensacola. If you’d rather relax in your own wheels, Panama City Beach has installed a Mobi-Mat in 2017, which allows wheelchair users to roll to the water’s edge. If that wasn’t cool enough, the city also purchased two floating Mobi-Chairs that allow people with mobility issues to strap in and actually go into the ocean. Sadly, they have no cup holders, so keep your beer in the cooler. You can also find more Mobi-Mats and beach wheelchairs around the coastal corner on Siesta Key Beach near Sarasota.
Many Florida beaches offer specialized wheelchair rentals to make the sun and sand accessible for the whole family © icholakov / Getty Images
Airboats and snorkeling adventure on the Gulf Coast and the Keys
The Sarasota area just south of Tampa Bay has to be one of the most scenic parts of Florida, and that includes Myakka River State Park. Just nine miles east of Sarasota, this lush habitat is full of great scenery and beautiful water birds...not to mention alligators. Both manual and electric wheelchair users can get up close and personal with these ancient predators aboard one of the world’s largest covered air boats with Myakka Wildlife Tours. Afterward, you can do some bird-watching from the park’s accessible boardwalk.
Snorkeling and deep-sea fishing are typical activities for locals and tourists alike in the Florida Keys. Fortunately, whether wheelchair users want to catch fish or just swim with them, it’s all possible in Key Largo. Tranquil Adventures offers people with a wide range of disabilities the chance to enjoy the Keys lifestyle. They have adaptive equipment, wheelchair-accessible boats and a custom lift to allow people who cannot climb a ladder access to the water to swim, snorkel or kayak. Captain Mick also books deep-sea fishing charters if you’ve got a hankering for some fresh mahi mahi.
Charter an accessible boat to explore the turquoise waters and admire the legendary sunsets of the Florida Keys © Alex Grichenko / Getty Images
Simulated skydiving in South Florida
Now we’ll head away from nature towards some adrenaline-pumping adventure. A lot of people believe it’s ridiculous to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, which explains the popularity of iFly, an indoor skydiving facility with three locations in Florida. After saying goodbye to the gators, you can head to the iFly Fort Lauderdale location, where every second Thursday of the month they host All Abilities Night. There are some health and weight restrictions and requirements, but the knowledgeable instructors are there to make sure wheelchair users can experience the exhilaration of skydiving in their wind tunnel without ever having to board a plane.
Flying high in Central Florida and the Space Coast
If experiencing the simulated excitement of the open sky isn’t enough for you, how about the real thing? Second to actually visiting Walt Disney World is flying over it—in a hot air balloon, of course. Thompson Aire in Orlando offers more adventurous wheelchair users with the opportunity to enjoy a peaceful early morning glide over the heart of Florida. They have a hot air balloon basket that’s equipped with benches for people who can’t stand. Guests will need to be carried into the basket and into the van at the landing site if they can’t transfer on their own. However, the combination of great and helpful folks at Thompson Aire and a sense of determination and adventure will get wheelchair users up in the air in no time.
Soar above the city of Orlando on an seated hot-air balloon ride © Radius Images / Getty Images
Still not enough excitement for you? Then shoot for the stars! To the east of Orlando lies Florida’s Space Coast and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Here, wheelchair users can take part in the Center’s exhilarating Shuttle Launch Experience, which veteran astronauts say is the next best thing to actually flying in the shuttle. For the launch simulation, each crew cabin is equipped with an accessible seat that includes a pivoting grab bar that allows visitors to transfer directly from a wheelchair to the seat. If a visitor is not able to transfer to the seat or decides not to take part in the simulation, a Launch Observation Room is located near the crew cabin where visitors can experience the launch without the simulation.
Mind games in Jacksonville
Not ready to leave Florida just yet? You can get trapped in The Great Escape Room in Jacksonville – for an hour, at least. Escape Room games are challenges where teams of several players are placed in a room and have to “escape” the room within a given time limit, usually 60 minutes. The games have a mission, goal or objective that players have to solve by figuring out clues, riddles, puzzles and mysteries. All four themed rooms are wheelchair accessible, but keep in mind, your mind (see what I did there?) and not your legs will probably be your greatest asset to the team.
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