Traveling with any kind of disability can prove challenging not only to the individual, but also to other members of the party. That’s certainly a statement that preaches to the choir. What the choir might not know, however, is that there is much about Miami to sing its accessibility praises.
And that’s from the get-go, literally. Miami International Airport is designed to encourage disabled travelers with unisex bathrooms, and designated areas for service animals to relieve themselves. Loaner wheelchairs are available for transport to and from the airplane, and if an individual can’t walk down the airplane aisle, there are provisions for that as well.
If you prefer to travel light and rent a wheelchair, power chair, or electric scooter during your stay in Greater Miami, rental companies, like Family Rentals can deliver your equipment directly to the airport when you arrive or to your hotel.
On the ground, taxi stand captains have the wherewithal not only to call a wheelchair-accessible cab, you can go right to the front of the line. Although there are more than 70 wheelchair cabs from 20 or so companies, there’s a reason to take advantage of this service, given that they may all be in use at the time. Eliminate some of your wait by sending someone ahead to notify the captain.
Become familiar with the taxi service – and befriend the driver – that takes you to your hotel so that you can depend on it for the duration of your stay. Or rent a wheelchair van from companies like Wheelers, Wheelchair Getaways and Sunset Mobility, which usually offer a pickup and delivery service, as well as emergency service. On a budget? SuperShuttle – providing service to the airport – and every Miami-Dade bus is wheelchair accessible with lift equipment and trained drivers.
Another option for individuals with special transportation needs is ITransport Services, Inc., one of three certified providers under Miami-Dade County's Special Transportations Services (STS) Program. Offering private transportation as well as coaches and vans for charters. There's even a luxury vehicle option, the MV1 vehicle, to take riders where they want to go with style and comfort.
As for getting around by yourself, especially in an electric wheelchair, it’s a whir to tour South Beach. Though the Art Deco District, particularly Washington and Collins avenues, can be crowded with pedestrians, they’re fully sidewalked with ramp exits and entrances. If you have to detour or cross the street, you’ll find plenty of company with bicycles, skateboards, baby strollers and other wheeled vehicles, in addition to cars. Regular drivers of this area know what to expect, especially at busier times of day, and it’s nearly impossible to speed.
As far as Ocean Drive goes, wheelchair-goers have an easier time on the beach walk across from the hotels and cafes, which are thronged with diners and tables. You can get through, but you have to have patience. It’s best to sightsee from the eastern side of the street until you see a restaurant where you’d like to eat. That said, the buildings here are historic, and it can be a trial to get inside them or dine on their porches; fortunately, most have sidewalk sections.
For the easiest access, Lincoln Road, a shopping district and pedestrian mall, where every store and café is on ground level, is probably the best place for needs to be met without undue fuss. While many of these are quality casual cafes, such as Balans Restaurant and the Café at Books & Books, others offer fine dining, like Meat Market and Quattro Gastronomia Italiana. Any way you roll it, dining on Lincoln Road is a cinch. A service animal blends in, too – the promenade is a fashion show for dogs from all over the city, as well as the occasional parrot or ferret!
Elsewhere, Bal Harbour Shops, the iconic, luxury mall in exclusive Bal Harbour, offers ground-floor and outdoor fine-dining at Makoto, La Goulue and the ever-popular Carpaccio. For more casual fare nearby in Surfside, Flanigan’s Seafood Bar and Grill is famous for its fresh fish and barbecue.
When it comes to activities, don’t feel limited to paved surfaces. Some of the beaches, like South Beach, are flat and wide with packed sand that can accommodate wheels – vehicles including bicycles ride here, too – and have ramps and mesh pathways. Better yet, Crandon Park Beach on Key Biscayne and Haulover Beach, offer special reclining chairs for the mobility-impaired. They can even go into water up to six inches deep (any deeper and you float, so be careful!). These chairs are not electric, so you should bring a friend for pushing duties and also call ahead to make sure chairs are available; they’re a first-come, first-serve amenity and go very quickly on weekend afternoons.
Better yet, rent a beach wheelchair from a private company such as Deming Designs. This might be best for children with disabilities, who need smaller sizes.
As for children with disabilities, you can take advantage of programs at Miami Seaquarium. There, special-needs kids, whether they have health, emotional or physical challenges, can get in a pool for a classroom-like session with dolphins (make reservations for the Dolphin Encounter well ahead of time). A caregiver needs to be in the pool as well, however, and it’s always best to confirm beforehand. Also, be aware that for any disabled person, the accessible seats at the shows are in the front rows where visitors get splashed by whales and dolphins. Exchange electric wheelchairs for loaners at the get-go to avoid problems.
Touring natural attractions is also less hassle than you might think. At Shark Valley in the Everglades, wheelchairs can freely traverse the paved, 15-mile path (be careful to steer wide of the sunning alligators!) that winds its way through the River of Grass, and the center also has wheelchairs on loan. Alternatively, you can enjoy a two-hour, narrated tram ride through the park.
Caveat: While service animals are trained not to react to other animals, the extensive wildlife here, including the very visible ‘gators, is not. While alligators don’t generally pose a threat unless they’re in water, and only lie across the path to increase their core body temperature, it’s always best to call ahead when bringing a service animal anywhere in Everglades National Park.
As far as service animals go, Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, built in the early 1900s by wealthy industrialist James Deering, encourages them. A National Historic Landmark, the Italianate mansion and grounds are extremely friendly to assisted visitors. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is another spot that’s exceedingly accessible, has chairs for loan, and best of all, the tram there has two wheelchair accessible spots on it. So you can view the fascinating foliage from your own seat without moving a muscle.
Zoo Miami is among the friendliest attraction for those with limited mobility. Flat, paved and wide, the park also features canopied “Safari Cycles” to get around the open-air exhibits – bring a friend to supply the pedaling energy – and the shows and even the monorail are chair-accessible.
It’s difficult to find a hotel that’s not wheelchair accessible in Miami, but some, naturally, are more sensitive to needs than others, with handicap-accessible rooms featuring roll-in showers and ADA-approved common areas. Also, some feature adult-only pools that are equipped with an ADA device to assist with entering and exiting. This includes the famed and stunningly designed Fontainebleau Miami Beach, which underwent a $1 billion renovation recently, including outfitting some of the pools with wheelchair lifts. For a different view of the city and spa services to boot, try Grove Isle Hotel & Spa, located on a small, private island near Coconut Grove, or The Standard, located between South Beach and downtown on the picturesque Venetian Causeway.
The Surfcomber Miami-South Beach, a Kimpton Hotel, is also a recently redone property on South Beach. Kimpton Hotels are known for their sensitivity, from the environment to the disabled. There’s another one downtown called the EPIC that is an excellent central post if your tastes run to scenic tours of Biscayne Bay by yacht, or Little Havana by coach, all available through the cultural institution HistoryMiami. Kimpton Hotels not only welcome guests of all stripes, they’re especially fond of animals, providing amenities galore for four-footed assistants.
For all services, from hotels to transportation, the best way to answer any questions you might have is, of course, to call ahead, or visit the government-sponsored city, parks and recreation sites. You can also trust the ones who know: Deaf Services Bureau, Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, Miami-Dade Disability Services and Independent Living, Miami-Dade Office of ADA Coordination and Miami-Dade Transit – Special Transportation Service.