December in the DMV is packed with holiday attractions! But families with special needs children may struggle with accessibility or sensory overload, so planning is a must. To save you time, we’ve done the research for you! Here are some of our favorite DC-area holiday events for kids with special needs that are both wheelchair-accessible and sensory friendly.
ZooLights: A wheelchair-accessible shuttle runs on a loop at this annual Smithsonian National Zoo event, featuring more than 500,000 LED lights, glowing lanterns and an interactive art exhibit. Complimentary sensory-friendly kits for children containing fidget items, noise-canceling headphones, earplugs and a weighted comfort item can be checked out on a first-come, first-serve basis. Ongoing
Bull Run: A fun drive-through spot with 2.5 miles of holiday light displays. The holiday village is mostly wheelchair accessible but can get crowded on the weekends. Ongoing
Festival of Lights: Another great drive-through location with over 2.5 million lights and a huge LED musical tree. Ongoing
Meadowlark’s Winter Walk of Lights: An enormous public garden with a half-mile path of stunning light displays that offers lots of room to run and explore. Ongoing
A Christmas Carol: This particular performance at Ford’s Theatre has a multitude of sensory accommodations, including adjusted sound and light settings, plus a take-a-break space and quiet areas. December 14.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe: A dedicated sensory-friendly performance at Imagination Stage offering adaptations such as preparatory materials so kids know what to expect and “seating holes” between families. An unexpected and thoughtful accommodation: Tickets are refundable up until the show begins. December 15.
Nutcracker in a Nutshell: Created with the shorter attention span of children in mind, this adaptation of the classic performance runs just over an hour. Ask for side or rear-theater tickets so squirmy kids can move around in the aisles or step into the lobby for a quick break. December 20 – 22.
Other Fun Events
Winter’s Eve: A celebratory evening of crafts, singalongs, hot chocolate and more! Glen Echo Park offers plenty of room for those who might need to escape the crowd. December 14
Clarendon Menorah Lighting: This easy-to-navigate outdoor event offers a less-crowded, more flexible Chanukah celebration than the larger downtown events. Not to mention free chocolate gelt and dreidels for everyone! December 25
Season’s Greetings: America’s Gardens: Escape the cold at the U.S. Botanic Gardens and enjoy a model train exhibit, seasonal plant displays, replicas of local landmarks and one of the largest indoor decorated trees in D.C. Sensory bags are available to borrow and individuals with disabilities who are unable to wait in long lines may request a pass to advance through the line. Ongoing
Hints to make holiday events even more enjoyable for the entire family:
- Call ahead and ask about available accommodations, such as early entry, quiet rooms, headphones, etc.
- Try to visit during the week to avoid crowds.
- Look for social stories and videos on the venue’s website to introduce your child to the experience before your visit. The Smithsonian, for example, does a great job of providing pre-visit resources.
- Don’t forget to bring noise-cancelling headphones if your child gets overwhelmed easily.
By: Hannah Grieco