Voices from the Road

From Magic Gardens to the Top of the Rock: Searching for wheelchair-accessible attractions on an East Coast road trip

I’m not sure why, but I got a bee in my bonnet last spring that I needed to take my girls to Boston. 

With one sheltered COVID-19 summer under our belt, my husband and I, as well as our oldest daughter, were now vaccinated. I was not comfortable traveling by plane, as our two youngest kids were still not eligible for the vaccine, but a 2021 summer road trip seemed doable—and I had my sights set on Boston. 

Having lived in New York City for the first 4 years of our marriage, we loved exploring the East Coast, and Boston was always a favorite destination. I wanted my girls to see this city full of character, charm, and history. We also decided to hit a few other cities on the way, two of which we had not spent much time in before—Cleveland and Philadelphia—and, of course, New York City, which I always want to visit.

a family of five poses in independence hall

Instant cameras and planning ahead

I gifted every family member their own travel journal complete with stickers to decorate, and I made sure the kids’ instant cameras had batteries and film. I knew that keeping a record of our trip would make it more fun and meaningful for them, letting them decide what was important or fun enough to document. While they didn’t use them until the very end, I still think it was a great way to get them excited for the trip and to help keep them present. 

The other part of our road trip preparation revolved around accessibility as our middle daughter is a wheelchair user. That means that a significant amount of time goes into researching each Airbnb we book to make sure it’s accessible. Not a true ADA-standard accessible home or apartment—that pretty much never happens—but if we can get her wheelchair through the front door, we consider it a win.

We also have to do research about the places where we eat, sightsee, and so forth, to make sure they have the necessary (and required by law) accommodations. Unfortunately, a lot of businesses and attractions still do not follow accessibility laws. 

a person in a wheelchair explores an old prison

History and rollerskating

One of the unexpected highlights in Philadelphia was Eastern State Penitentiary. While my girls found some of the other historical sights, like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, a little stale, the penitentiary kept their attention as they walked the grounds and read the stories. Of course, a site like this is not exactly fun—nor is it meant to be—but it was educational and eye-opening. Their other favorite place in Philly was Magic Gardens, an interesting and immersive art experience (although not fully accessible).

The other favorite memory made in Philly involved roller skating. We brought skates with us—not totally sure if we would actually use them on the trip—and our middle daughter brought her adapted Segway (her recreational wheels). We spent a lot of time at a skate park just below the Philadelphia Museum of Art, skating as a family amid local skateboarders and bikers, with beautiful sunsets in the background and funk music playing on my phone. 

three girls sit at a skate park

My husband flew back home from Philly and the rest of the trip was just me and my girls. Without a doubt, the one full day we had in New York City was our favorite. We took a pedicab ride through Central Park, a great way to see a lot of the park in a little amount of time. It’s also a great activity to do with kids and a wheelchair user. That said, I did have to carry my daughter at the various stops—not for everyone, but it worked for us. 

We went to the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center and down Fifth Avenue with stops at both the LEGO Store and FAO Schwartz. We ate at Shake Shack and a noodle bar; just this morning, my 7-year-old said that riding the subway was her favorite thing to do. The little things are the big things. 

Boston and books

Finally, Boston. The truth is, my girls didn’t take to Boston like I hoped they would. The Freedom Trail was just a little too historical, and while they liked the aquarium, it wasn’t a particularly “Boston” thing to do. We still had fun, but they were growing weary of old buildings, and tired from all the walking. On our way out of town we had just one stop left, and I honestly didn’t know how it would go: Harvard University

a family of four poses at the top of the rockefeller center observation deck

Gilmore Girls has a special place in my heart, and we’ve watched it as a family many times. Harvard—as well as Yale University, which we also stopped by—play central roles in the storyline, so I thought it would be fun for my girls to see the real Harvard. In addition to the Hollywood connection, I hoped that by taking them there it would show them that it’s a real place where real people go to study.

I don’t necessarily care where my kids choose to go to school, but if they ever think about applying to Harvard (or another Ivy League school), I want them to know it’s a possibility. They loved it and enjoyed wandering around the beautiful campus and exploring the gorgeous buildings. They each got to pick out a book from the Harvard bookstore, and we left for home on a high note.

Amy’s family road trip

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