Sensory-Inclusion Activities & Tips for San Diego Kids

San Diego is home to a diverse array of awesome families––and a growing list of local businesses are offering more all-inclusive accommodations for kids of all backgrounds and abilities. If your child has special needs, they can try out gymnastics, bounce around at local trampoline parks, connect with nature, explore museums or just catch a movie with the sound down and the lights up. Here are some fun places where they’ll feel welcomed and have a blast.

Movie Theaters

The lights and sounds of usual movie theaters can be too much for those with heightened senses; that’s why these theaters offer a sensory-friendly experience. They turn the volume down and keep the lights up for a more pleasant movie experience. Oh, and it’s okay for kids to make loud noises and get up to dance or walk around. Be sure to check your local theaters to confirm sensory-friendly showtimes.

AMC Theaters
When: 2nd & 4th Sat. (family-friendly) and Wed. evenings (mature audiences)
Where: various
Online: amctheatres.com

UltraStar Cinemas
When: every Wed. at 10 am and 7 pm (temporarily paused, keep checking back)
What: Technically, it’s called “Bring your infant to the movies,” but they provide the same sensory adjustments and these shows are open to anyone, not just families with babies.
Where: 7510 Hazard Center Rd., Mission Valley
Online: ultrastarmovies.com

Trampoline Parks

Jump around at this trampoline park that offers dedicated times for jumpers with special needs. Music is played at a lower volume, the atmosphere is calmer and everyone is aware of giving extra space and making sure jumpers are having fun.

Get Air Trampoline Park
What: “A Special Time For You” is for special needs jumpers. One adult can support the jumper for free and siblings are welcome.
When: First Sat. each month, 8-10 am

2755 Dos Aarons Way, Vista; 760-478-5867
12160 Community Rd., Poway; 858-848-1247
26201 Ynez Rd., Temecula; 951-268-3850

Online: getairsports.com

Parks & Recreation

Being in nature is inherently calming and slow-paced, which is perfect for anyone who gets overstimulated easily. Check out our go-to list for parks, hiking, camping and playing. 

National Parks
The Access Passes are free to U.S. residents with disabilities, so head out to Cabrillo National Monument or a little further out to Joshua Tree National Park for some sensory exploration.

National Park Service
Online: https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm

Hiking
The Jas Arnold trail is a “Trail For All People” in Rancho Penasquitos. The 1,100 flat loop trail is fully ADA and wheelchair accessible with four shade structures and lots of benches for frequent breaks.

Miner’s Ridge Loop Trail
14895 Carmel Valley Rd., Rancho Penasquitos
858-538-8082
Online: sandiego.gov

Camps
The Autism Society and the YMCA have partnered up to offer some special needs camps. They offer a day camp called "Camp I Can" in Carlsbad and Clairemont; and an overnight camp experience in the mountains in a safe and supportive environment.

Autism Society Special Needs Camps
Online:  autismsocietysandiego.org

Playgrounds
These inclusive playgrounds have sensory and adaptive features that will excite all the senses.

Briercrest Park (pictured above)
It’s won several awards and is a sensory park featuring outdoor chime instruments, an herb garden, mosaic pathways, a labyrinth, swings, rock climbing, sandbox, footbridges and gently rolling green grassy hills.
Where: 9001 Wakarusa St., La Mesa

Eucalyptus Park
It was built by the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons and KaBOOM! It includes adaptive swings, a spiral climber, V-bounce for kids and more.
Where: Fourth and C St., Chula Vista

San Dieguito County Park: Miracle Field Playground
This accessible playground features six key play elements: balancing, spinning, brachiating, sliding, climbing, and spinning. Specialty equipment was mixed in with features like ramps and rubberized surface flooring.
Where: 1785 Highland Dr., Del Mar

Children’s Museums

You’ll have these entire children’s museums to yourselves during their special morning hours that are just for sensory-needs children. You’ll find play-based exhibits, quieter environments, sensory activities, noise-canceling headphones, calming zones and more.

San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum
When: every Sun. from 8:30-9:30 am and daily quiet times after 2 pm
320 N Broadway, Escondido
760-233-7755
Online: www.sdcdm.org

The New Children’s Museum
When: quarterly during the year (temporarily paused so check back later)
200 W Island Ave., downtown
619-233-8792
Online: thinkplaycreate.org

Community Programs

Public Libraries
All over the city and county, public libraries have event calendars full of fun kids activities like yoga, sign and storytimes, songs & dancing, crafting and more. Many of these programs are accommodating and welcoming for all children, but some of them also have designated events just for special needs kids. These programs are paused, but definitely check back later because these free events are really well done and always very welcoming.

San Diego Public Library: sandiego.gov
San Diego County Library: sdcl.org

Therapeutic Recreation Services
This City of San Diego Park & Recreation Department provides sports, recreation, leisure and outreach services to people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities. These are available to children and adults ages 3 and up, with any type of disability. You’ll find fun activities like cooking, dance parties, board games, arts & crafts, workout classes, magic & talent shows, movie nights and more. Most of these are currently virtual, but they’re waiting for approval to open up in-person activities soon.

Therapeutic Recreation Services
3901 Landis St., City Heights
619-525-8247
Online: sandiego.gov

Museums

Future scientists and historians will feel at ease when these museums open their doors one hour early for families with special needs kids to tinker and discover. Museums are wonderful places that are full of sensory stimulation activities and visuals for everyone to enjoy. These two beloved museums at Balboa Park offer a morning just for those with special needs to engage with their activities. It’s a quieter museum experience and each of these has large-screen theaters with beautiful educational films where they turn the volume down and keep the lights up for easier processing.

Bonus: Both museums offer a free general admission ticket for an adult companion

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
When: 3rd Sat. each month from 9-10 am
1875 El Prado, Balboa Park
619-238-1233
Online: www.rhfleet.org

The Natural History Museum
When: 2nd Sun. each month from 9-10 am (temporarily paused, but check back later)
1788 El Prado, Balboa Park
619-232-3821
Online: www.sdnat.org

Theme Parks

Theme parks have a lot of stimulation with sounds and sights and while they don’t have special hours just for those with special needs, they do offer other services that might be helpful. For example, both have ride access programs, where those with special needs don’t have to wait in line. They also have quiet areas of the parks where you can go for less stimulation and to wind down. Check with each park’s guest services for all the details.

SeaWorld San Diego
What: Ride Accessibility Program (RAP) lets you book a specific time for rides and attractions, accompanied by up to five people in their party. Or you can sign up for the “virtual queue,” which holds your place in line while you go off to explore other parts of the park until your turn comes up.

500 Sea World Dr., Mission Bay
619-222-4732
Online: seaworld.com

Legoland
What: Assisted Access Pass allows you to board your first-choice ride without waiting in line. Choose the next ride and you’ll receive a boarding time to return and continue that process throughout the day.

One Legoland Dr., Carlsbad
877-376-5346
Online: legoland.com

—Bonnie Taylor