Florida Wants to Be a Leader in Accessible Travel. Is It?

In recent years, the state has invested significantly in accessible tourism.

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Aboard an accessible catamaran off of Miami, Florida

Courtesy of Cory Lee

This interview is part of the “Voices from the South” series, which highlights changemakers in the region.

When Cory Lee was a child, vacationing in Florida wasn’t easy. Lee remembers visiting the beach, where there were no ramps to get to the beach, no motorized wheelchairs, and little effort toward accessibility. An act like watching the waves crash on the shore—something that non–wheelchair users might take for granted—posed challenges for Lee’s single mother, who often had to carry him down to the beach herself.

In 2013, Lee founded the travel blog Curb Free With Cory Lee to highlight accessibility in the travel industry. To date, Lee has visited nearly 40 countries on seven continents, though he also enjoys traveling closer to his home of LaFayette, Georgia. And in the South specifically, Lee, now 32, says traveling to Florida continues to get “better and better.”

In the past few years, the state has invested significantly in accessibility, launching a 2021 campaign dubbed “Limitless Florida,” announcing it wants to be the world’s “number one” accessible destination, and debuting a multi-faceted guide. Visitors to the state can take history tours in Braille and tour accessible state parks; travelers can also take “practice trips” with a virtual tour to get comfortable with their surroundings and sort by destination, interest, or sensory-friendly attractions. Florida’s commitment to accessibility is an effort that Lee—diagnosed at age two with type 2 Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a genetic condition affecting nerves that control muscle movement—appreciates.

Recently, Lee and I spoke about what draws him back to Florida—and how the state is getting accessible tourism right.

I’d love to get your perspective on traveling across Florida. What has the state actually been doing with regards to accessibility?

I visit Florida at least three times a year. Within the past five years, the state of Florida has really amped up its accessibility efforts. If you go to the Florida tourism website, they have an amazing accessibility page with videos showcasing accessibility and different Florida destinations.

There’s a ton of information on there. With most tourism websites—especially destinations within the U.S.—it’s really difficult to find any kind of accessible travel information, but Florida makes it easy. That’s why I continue to keep going back time and time again because they really just have increased [their] effort on it. And I mean, on the ground in Florida, I’ve even seen more focus on making attractions accessible and more beaches accessible. I’ve covered almost every big city in Florida, and it continues to get better and better, so there’s always a reason to go back.

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Lee, who first traveled to Florida as a child, returns roughly three times a year to various cities and beaches around the state.

Courtesy of Cory Lee

Where are your favorite places to explore?

If I had to narrow it down, I would say probably Panama City Beach, which is in the panhandle of Florida. I’m a huge fan of that place; I’ve visited pretty much every year since I was about four years old, so my entire life, I’ve been going there.

But within the past few years, they have really increased accessibility efforts. So now, at St. Andrews State Park and Panama City Beach, they have beach wheelchairs that are complimentary to use on a first-come, first-serve basis. They have beach access maps. So I can stay in my own powered wheelchair and roll out on the beach on the mat. And they also have really amazing companies there that offer powered beach wheelchairs.

Aside from beaches, I love the history in St. Augustine; Castillo de San Marcos is mostly accessible. I love exploring Tampa—ZooTampa is a fun attraction and one of the most accessible zoos in the country—and checking out museums. The Ringling in Sarasota is one of my favorites.

You’re a huge Disney fan. What makes the parks so special?

I think the best theme park for a wheelchair user is definitely Disney World. Universal [Studios] and Sea World don’t really have any accessible rides at all, so I try to avoid those. But Disney World, Magic Kingdom—all four of the Disney parks have wheelchair accessible rides where I can just stay in my chair, get on the ride, and have a fun time.

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Lee praises Disney parks, which allow him to remain in his wheelchair and enjoy the rides.

Courtesy of Cory Lee

Magic Kingdom is probably the most accessible, and they have more accessible rides than any other park, but the other three Disney parks are really great, as well, and you can definitely enjoy a full day of theme parks.

What does it mean for you as a wheelchair user to see Florida invested in every type of traveler?

It’s totally changed the game for wheelchair users, [especially] when we visit the beach. It’s important [to have] things like beach access mats—it’s great for me, but it’s also really great if someone has a stroller and they can use that at the beach, or even if you’re carrying a cooler onto the beach, then you can take it down the access mat instead of having to drag it through the sand.

Accessibility doesn’t only improve things for me as a wheelchair user, but it can improve things for everyone. I also think it’s important just to note that making something accessible doesn’t make it inaccessible for anyone else. By improving accessibility, it’s really just helping everyone in the long run.

What does your perfect Florida weekend look like?

I would probably start out by going to the beach. I know it’s pretty cliché with Florida, but I would definitely do that and spend most of the day there on Friday, and then maybe get some really good seafood on Friday night [like Caretta on the Gulf and Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber] at an accessible restaurant in the Clearwater area.

They have so many good options; that’s why I keep going there. I’m addicted to that area. On Saturday, I would probably start at the beach in the morning while it’s not incredibly hot and then [in the] afternoon visit an indoor attraction: the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is incredible. At night, [I’d] get some really good seafood, and on Sunday, to wrap it up, I would get one last beach visit in, or even an adaptive sporting activity. Shake-A-Leg in Miami offers adaptive sailing and boating experiences.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Victoria M. Walker is a travel reporter and the founder of the travel lifestyle site and newsletter Travel With Vikkie. She is a special correspondent for AFAR.
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