Enjoy an Accessible San Diego
10 local spots offer helpful perks to kids and caregivers

Many of San Diego’s favorite parks and museums offer accommodations for kids with special needs—but they’re thinking of parents and caregivers, too. Here are local spots that have amenities designed to make life easier for families with special needs, including companion passes, early entry, discounts and more.

San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
Both the Zoo and Safari Park offer a complimentary pass for one companion of a guest with special needs. It can be requested for regular admission or special programs. Both parks also offer an Easy Access Pass for those who have trouble waiting in line. At the Zoo, this pass is used to access separate boarding areas at the Skyfari Aerial Tram or the Guided Bus Tour.

At the Safari Park, use Easy Access Pass to easily enter the Africa Tram, attractions and show areas. Note: a short wait may still be required. Guests with disabilities may be accompanied by as many as three companions when using the access pass. Also note that shuttle services may be available if a member of your party has limited mobility.

SeaWorld’s Special Access pass allows visitors with special needs to be placed in a virtual queue for attractions. Once in the queue, your group is free to explore the park and visit other attractions. Simply return at a pre-designated time for entry. To obtain the pass, visit Guest Services upon arrival. You’ll be asked to enroll in the Ride Accessibility Program (RAP), which helps determine which rides are suitable for your group’s needs. Up to five guests can be accommodated with the Special Access pass.

LEGOLAND California
Visit Guest Services to request an Assisted Access Pass. While the pass doesn’t eliminate waiting for rides, it greatly reduces the amount of time spent waiting in a physical line. During your visit, you’ll be placed in virtual queues and receive assigned return times for the child with special needs and up to five guests. The pass holder must be present when redeeming the pass, but does not need to go on the ride—a considerate gesture for siblings with different preferences and abilities. The park also offers a free Licensed Caregiver Ticket, available at Guest Services. Participants must provide proof of caregiver license, and show that the child’s admission was purchased.

Torrey Pines State Park
Use a Disabled Discount Pass for half off the day-use fee to enter the park. This lifetime pass is available to citizens with permanent disabilities for a nominal one-time fee. Use it for half off admission to most parks in the California State Park System. Documentation is required and the pass needs to be renewed every five years. Apply at www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=29610.

Cabrillo National Monument
Visit for free with a National Parks Access Pass. This lifetime pass is available to those with a permanent disability and can be obtained for free at the park. Use the pass at National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands. If the site charges per vehicle, this pass admits all guests in the passholder’s vehicle. If the site charges per person, the passholder may enter with up to three additional adults (ages 16 and under accompany for free). Documentation is required. Learn more at www.nps.gov/cabr/planyourvisit/fees.htm.

Balboa Park Museums
Free social stories
for individuals with Autism are available at seven museums in Balboa Park: San Diego Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center, San Diego Museum of Art, Museum of Man, Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego History Center and Museum of Photographic Arts. Available in English or Spanish. Check them out at www.sdnhm.org/visit/accessibility/social-stories.

San Diego Natural History Museum
TheNat offers a free escort pass for the companion of a person with a disability. Check out monthly ASD Mornings, designed especially for the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) community. During these events, the museum opens early to create a more comfortable experience. ASD Mornings are held the second Sunday of each month at 9 a.m.—an hour before doors open to the public. On event days, a quiet room is available until noon. General admission applies. Schedule available at www.sdnhm.org/visit/accessibility/asd-mornings.

Fleet Science Center
For people with Autism, check out early access to the Fleet galleries from 9-10 a.m. on the third Saturday of every month. Enjoy a quieter experience for a full hour before the public is admitted and a cool-off space on event days. Attendees are invited to a special IMAX screening at 10 a.m. House lights remain on and the soundtrack plays at a lower volume. Regular admission applies.

San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum
The San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum in Escondido is packed with sensory learning opportunities and offers discounted membership for children with special needs and their families. A caregiver pass is available for a family’s paid staff, so your child’s personal attendant or one-on-one aide may accompany the family for free.

Those who would benefit from a quieter museum atmosphere may enter the museum one hour early on Sensory Friendly Mornings each Monday from 8:30-9:30 a.m. and first Sundays from 9-10 a.m. A social story and museum map are available at www.sdcdm.org/visit/special-needs.

New Children’s Museum
The downtown museum offers occasional Accessibility Mornings. Tickets are free for caregivers with reduced price for children. During these events, the museum opens early from 8-9:30 a.m. with sensory-friendly activities and a quieter atmosphere. Families can enjoy the museum, along with designated calming zones, and may stay after the museum opens. RSVP at www.thinkplaycreate.org.


Anne Malinoski is a contributing writer and mother of two boys. Her older brother has special needs.