Family vacations can be a richly, rewarding for all concerned, but no one ever said traveling with kids was easy.
The challenges increase when a child has special needs. But that hasn’t stopped Meg Harris, an inveterate traveler and mother of a six-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter with Rett Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that causes cognitive and developmental problems.
Determined that her children discover the joys of travel she experienced as a child, Harris became a skillful trip planner but was frustrated with the scarcity of online resources for traveling with a special needs child. Information was either outdated or aimed at children with physical disabilities. “Nobody was talking about traveling with a child who has cognitive issues,” she says. “My daughter doesn’t need a wheelchair and a ramp. But she’s a runner who has a hard time waiting in line and likes to bolt and hug people.”
Harris’s solution was to start Special Globe, a website for families traveling with special needs children. Through partnerships, the site offers families discounts on hotels, rental cars and vacation home rentals. But the goal is to turn the site into a community where families with a special needs child can find information, trade travel stories and pass along tips. “A Tripadvisor for special needs families” is how Harris views the site.
The site, which is live but still has sections under construction, plans to offer curated trips to popular destinations. “It can take days to put together a trip, so we want to offer preplanned trips so people can just book and go,” Harris says.
At the heart of the site are detailed itineraries for family holidays, road tested and written by parents who have been there, done that. Stories are personal, gleaned from first-hand experience and illustrated with family snaps, like a trip to New York Harris took with her daughter and son. “Lots of people are asking to write content, and since I can’t go everywhere, I want them to take trips, come back and write about them,” Harris says.
Her experiences with two hotels during their New York visit offer a hint of what the site can provide. Residents of Maine, the Harris family traveled to Manhattan over Memorial Day weekend in 2014 and began their stay in Times Square at the Marriott Marquis, chosen for its easy proximity to The Lion King and the Empire State Building. Waiting to check in, Harris found herself in a long line with a restless daughter. But a hotel employee noticed, pulled her from the line and brought her to a check-in attendant in a quiet area.
The room proved ideal. “My daughter loves windows, and ours looked onto Times Square. She could look out and see where the ball drops,” Harris says.
Still, for a child easily upset by sensory overload, a big, bustling Times Square hotel was a bit too much. The Beacon Hotel, a smaller neighborhood hotel near the American Museum of Natural History proved more soothing.
A hope for Ms. Harris, an executive recruiter, and her website partner Jonathan Yardley, a market researcher, is that the travel industry will become more aware of children with cognitive issues, whether it’s a hotel that offers a family a quiet room or attractions with staff that can ease a family away from a crowded area.
Their other hope is families with special needs children will see the site and become inspired to hit the road. Yes, traveling can mean fun for the entire family, but Harris believes it can accomplish much more. “Every time my daughter comes back from a trip she is a step above where she was before we went,” she says.