Christina is the creator and owner of “Love, Hope & Autism” and “Changing Spaces Pennsylvania” websites. Christina is a dedicated mom who is passionate about creating change for a more inclusive and accessible world for ALL people. She is committed to spreading a message of heightened awareness and acceptance of differences, ultimately inspiring hope.
Our family had the pleasure of visiting Erie for three days in July. We were looking for a destination that would be inclusive and accessible for a variety of needs. Our twin boys are twelve years old and one of them is autistic and also has sensory processing disorder. Public places can be a challenge for our son because of the loud noises, crowds, and lack of accessibility so we’re always looking for new places that allow our son to be himself and feel comfortable in his surroundings. We were also looking for a place that would be wheelchair accessible and accommodating to my physical limitations.
Erie is under two hours away from our house so we thought it would be the perfect place to get away for a long weekend. We traveled from Pittsburgh and our trip was very easy via Interstate 79 North. With twin boys who get car sick, I don’t say that lightly! It was a smooth ride listening to music and playing games. We didn’t have an exact plan in place for our long weekend away, but we knew there were a few places we’d like to visit!
When we first arrived in Erie, we stopped at Sara’s Diner to have lunch. It’s a 50s diner-inspired restaurant that’s well known in the area and we were excited to try it. My husband had a cheeseburger and our twin boys each ordered a foot-long hot dog. They had never seen one, let alone eaten one! So they were pretty excited about it. We stayed a little while after lunch to take photos of the area with the props they had set up. The boys even tried the hula hoops!
After Sara’s Diner, we traveled over to Asbury Woods Nature Center. The Nature Center had a few animals that you could look at and a beautiful esthetic with a little bridge and waterfall. It was wheelchair accessible throughout the indoor space and was easily accessible. We then ventured on to the nature trail that was located by the Nature Center. It was wheelchair accessible along the entire trail and the gazebo was a nice place to stop and rest in the quiet beauty of nature surrounding us. Our autistic son really enjoyed sitting in this space and taking a moment to calm his body and mind.
After our visit to the Nature Center, we drove to our hotel. We stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites Erie Bayfront. It’s one of Erie’s newest hotels and had beautiful Bayfront views. Our hotel room was very spacious and accommodating to my wheelchair needs. We loved that our hotel was close to most of the large attractions we were visiting. It also had a beautiful restaurant, Oliver’s Rooftop, on the 8th floor with spectacular views. Outside you’ll also find Oliver’s Beer Garden, live music, and mini golf!
After a quick dinner in our hotel room, we ended the evening with a game of mini golf at Oliver’s Mini Golf. It was located directly behind our hotel and close to the pier where boats were docked. The mini golf area was wheelchair accessible, and I was able to play golf with them. There is not a clear path for wheelchairs so it was a little difficult to navigate at different parts. However, we are grateful for the accessibility and that I was able to join them!
We started the second day of our trip by going to the Erie Zoo. Both of our boys love animals so they were really excited about this! The first thing I noticed was how accessible and spacious things were. There were ramps throughout the zoo that made it more inclusive and accessible for wheelchair users and they were very user-friendly. We enjoyed moving throughout the zoo and looking at the animals while we read about each one on the plaques they provided. The boys loved the baby monkey that carried a dinosaur blanket! Our one son LOVES dinosaurs, so he was smiling from ear to ear when he saw that. We also took a train ride while we were there. The gentleman who took us around on the train was phenomenal. He was very kind and made a point to share that the train whistles are loud. If anyone has sensory or sound sensitivities, he said it would be best to sit towards the back farther away from the whistles. Our son wears noise-canceling headphones while we are in public because of the noise. Listening to this staff member being accepting, accommodating, and kind towards individuals like our son was very heartwarming. We felt seen and welcomed and that makes the world of difference! The train was wheelchair accessible and even had a ramp for anyone who is not able to transfer. If you need to stay in your chair, you are able to do that, and they could safely strap you in. The train ride itself was very nice and interactive. We loved the dark tunnel with beautiful glowing artwork on the walls! We also really enjoyed all the different animals you got to see up close and the little turtles swimming around in the pond. The train conductor was also very informative and gave interesting facts about the animals and the zoo!
We took a long break after the zoo and the boys wanted to check out Waldameer Amusement Park and Water World. They each rode a few water slides and absolutely loved it! We then ventured over into the amusement park, and we had fun playing games together. They were excited to win prizes and take them home with us. Both the water park and the amusement park side were wheelchair accessible, and I was able to watch them play and go on water slides with their dad. Even though I couldn’t physically participate in it with them, it meant the world to me to be there and be present in the moment.
On our third and final day, we planned to go to the expERIEnce Children's Museum and then to Presque Isle State Park afterward. When we arrived at the museum, the staff members were very kind and made us feel welcome. We knew they had sensory bags available upon request, so we asked for one as soon as we arrived. We had to sign one out with our name, date, and time. The bag had a timer, noise-canceling headphones, multiple fidget toys, a small, weighted lap pad, a laminated feelings chart, and a communication page with items that are located throughout the museum. The sensory bag was a really great resource for anyone that has an autistic child or sensory sensitivities. The additional communication page was really nice to see as that can help with transitions, what’s coming next, and preparing the individual for things they’ll see throughout the museum. The packet within the sensory bag also included links to all of the items in the bag in case you were interested in ordering them for your child. As our boys explored the two different levels of the museum, there were a few things they really enjoyed. They loved the life-size Operation game and tried to get all of the pieces out without making the buzzer go off. My husband and I grew up playing that game, so it was really neat to see a giant one in the museum! On the lower level of the museum near the water play, they had a station where you could put yourself in a bubble. You’d stand within the circle and slowly pull down on the chain and the bubble would start forming around you. Our one son was able to get his whole body in the bubble! They both really loved it. While spending time at the museum, we did recognize that it was geared toward younger children. In our opinion, it would be best for children up to age six or seven. However, we really enjoyed our time there and the boys still had fun!
Before we left the museum, we headed to their family restroom to see if they had an adult-sized changing table. This is something that not only our family needs, but many individuals with disabilities, injuries, or chronic illnesses. Baby changing tables are for babies so it’s imperative that we continue to advocate for universally designed changing tables, so they accommodate everyone, not just babies and small toddlers. We were pleasantly surprised to see the height-adjustable adult-sized changing table in the restroom. This museum made human dignity a priority and that should be celebrated! We appreciate them taking the steps to create a more inclusive and accessible space for families to help their loved ones in the restroom. We are grateful for the wheelchair accessibility throughout every floor, and the accommodations, inclusion, and resources that made our experience at the museum enjoyable.
Presque Isle State Park (Beaches 8 & 11)
After we left the museum, we headed to Presque Isle State Park. Beaches 8 and 11 have an ADA ramp to the waters’ edge and Beach 8 also has beach wheelchairs available at the public safety building. The park and beaches are free of charge and the views were beautiful! We went to Beach 8 in hopes that they would have one of the beach wheelchairs that I could use. Unfortunately, when we arrived, a staff member told us that nobody was allowed in the water at Beach 8 that day and that we would have to go to Beach 11. We found out that it was closed for the day due to water testing levels that were elevated because of the recent rain. We asked if they would have a beach wheelchair at Beach 11 and she said no. She said she was trying to get one there at some point but didn’t know when that would be. We drove to Beach 11 and it was very crowded. The available handicapped parking spots were taken, and the number of people was too overwhelming for our son. We chose to go back to Waldameer Amusement Park and Water World to let the boys have more fun on our last day.
Our long weekend away in Erie was amazing and exactly what our family needed. After going through many challenges over the past few years, it was nice to unwind, take in the beauty of nature, and have fun as a family. The weather was beautiful and the views were stunning. We were grateful to see how inclusive and accessible the venues were that we went to. Not only were they wheelchair accessible, but several places also made a point to accommodate individuals with a variety of disabilities and that was really great to see. We will definitely be traveling back to Erie in the future!