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Accessible Seattle for Families

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Seattle's Space NeedleSean Kelly is a London-based writer who recently visited the West Coast with his wife and three children, including one young daughter who uses a wheelchair. His visit to Seattle earlier this year started with an unintended encounter …

Let me start by apologizing profusely to the passengers on Argosy’s Spirit of Seattle.

After all, how was I to know that about 100 of you would be gazing directly at me as you went past on your evening cruise—right as I walked out of the shower and over to the window of my room at the Edgewater Hotel?

If it’s any consolation –- and recalling the recoil-in-horror looks on some of your faces it probably isn’t — then I was mortified. Yes. I was the wet, hairy-chested, overweight human sea lion wearing just a towel and a stupid look on my face who was looking back at you). In any case, I certainly have an imprinted vacation memory!

Unintended encounters aside, there is a boatload of reasons why Seattle is now a family favorite holiday destination for us, starting with the 223-room Edgewater Hotel which is located on Pier 67 on Elliott Bay.

The aptly-named Edgewater HotelThe Edgewater is a hotel with rock ‘n roll pedigree of the highest order after the Beatles stayed there in August 1964. It was from Room 272 that they were pictured fishing from the window thereby starting a legend and getting a now-themed suite named after them in the process. During their own 1969 visit, Led Zeppelin evolved the fishing legend—if the much-repeated stories are true—in a slightly more X-rated way.

Regretfully, the hotel management doesn’t condone fishing from their room windows these days.

“We don’t have fishing rods,” the receptionist responds almost in anticipation of my request. “Besides it’s illegal to fish out the window.”

Don’t miss our Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Seattle, Washington.

The Edgewater is essentially a hotel of two halves, with both water and city views. The former is generally the more desirable and expensive with views of Seattle’s ferries and planes plying their trade across Elliott Bay. (And don’t be surprised if you wake up nose to bow with an NCL cruise ship one morning—they dock right next door!)

A sailboat at sunsetCityside, which faces onto the Seattle skyline, is more of a train-spotter’s nirvana with a procession of lengthy three-or four-engine locomotives hauling commerce up and down the coast. On the downside every train driver seemingly hoots the horn within hearing distance of the hotel. And as a side note, if noise is an issue, the Edgewater’s trendy Six Seven Bar and Restaurant tends to attract a crowd in the evening—so opt for a room at the other end of the hotel.

Of particular appeal for our family was the choice of accessibility rooms to accommodate my daughter’s wheelchair. There are 10 rooms variously equipped for accessibility, including roll-in showers and bathtubs, and the hotel can also provide you with space measurements for wheelchairs and has various kits to help with increased accessibility. Rooms are comfortable and designed to be lodge-like in appeal with knotty pine furniture and river rocks surrounding the fireplace.

Our youngest child has cerebral palsy requiring wheelchair time and rest, so our sightseeing experiences need to be planned with some element of logistical consideration if not military precision.

Don’t miss our Accessible Travel section for more planning help.

We rented a Ford Flex from Alamo that had enough space to fit the five of us, as well as the collapsible wheelchair and baggage that seemed to be reproducing every time we opened the hatch.

Duck tours near the Space NeedleWith hotel fishing off the menu, so to speak, we opted for the ducks. Not hunting them, but riding The Ducks of Seattle located next to the next to Seattle Space Needle. Here it’s worth booking ahead and going early especially if traveling with youngsters or disabled companions. As the day progresses, the queues grow longer and there is little cover from the elements.

It took a little time to board us (it’s not particularly disabled-friendly unless you can physically ascend/descend the somewhat perilously narrow drawbridge-type drop steps on the back of the vehicle) but it was well worth the effort. It was, in fact, 90 minutes of infectious fun as we cruised around town before splashing into Lake Union.

At some point we all danced or shout-sang “Louie, Louie”—the still unofficial anthem of the city—as we took in the key sights highlighted in our multi-tasking, steward-driver-captain’s running commentary. Passengers quickly got into his exhortation to make the cash-register sound “ka-ching” in unison every time we saw a Starbucks. (In fact, it’s now become a family car trip game.)

It was only after the Duck plunged into Lake Union that we caught sight of something I had heard about previously from a friend. It was small pathway to the side of the road near the lake and it had a surprising number of mid-morning runners and walkers. It was if the driver had read my thoughts when he said, “We know this as the Spandex Highway!”

fruit on displayThe trip on the Duck was followed by another family hit: a visit to Pike Place Market. Aside from dodging famous flying fish, we snacked on a natural treat of donut peaches and later watched cheese be made as we sat on old milk churns at the Beechers Handmade Cheese shop.

Then it was a quick homage-paying visit to the appointed home of the original Starbucks—complete with the signage featuring its original (but politically incorrect) bare-breasted twin-tailed siren. And we couldn’t leave without sitting on Rachel. Don’t worry—she’s the 700-pound bronze pig that has been a market fixture since 1986.

Next it was on to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project (EMP) museum which is also linked with the Science Fiction Museum & Hall of Fame garnered mixed family reactions. Disabled access meant we could get around, but it took a bit of time to find one of the lifts.

We liked the studios on EMP’s upper floor and tried a family music session in one of the recording booths. It was a recording that, thankfully, will never see the light of day.

What activities and experiences do locals recommend? Check out our Ask the Locals City Guide: Seattle.

The high point and most family fun came from taking part in a puppetry rock concert in front of a small audience down in the Science Fiction Museum. My Kurt Cobain-like mop-top puppet’s amazing guitar moves were only let down by my balding head making an unintended appearance above the parapet. You really had to be there.

Sadly family members couldn’t empathize with my excitement at seeing EMP’s exhibit on Jimi Hendrix. Or maybe it was just my spontaneous air-guitar version of “All Along the Watchtower!.” Was the overall experience worth it? No. It didn’t rock most of our world: I lost 4-1 on the family vote.

Seattle ferry boatFor dinner we rocked (and rolled) out of the Edgewater and down Alaskan Way skipping a stop at the popular Seattle Aquarium to see the wonderful live fish and, instead, heading directly to the aquatic end game—Ivar’s—for fish and chips (and a very close encounter with the ever-hungry seagulls). Restaurant founder Ivar Haglund passed away in 1985, but you can still sit with him and his beloved seagulls, as both have been immortalized in a bronze statute.

The next day my daughter and I had to forgo the famed but wheelchair inaccessible Underground Tour of the city and instead did our own spot of shop-seeing (as opposed to shopping). Reports back from the tour-takers were mixed: They enjoyed seeing the underground elements of Seattle but ended up despising the tour guide who obviously thought she was auditioning for Comedy Central.

Looking for exciting & accessible destinations? Try Washington, DC with America’s Accessible Heritage.

Whenever we travel we try giving family group tourism a break and give the kids a choice of going with mom or dad. There’s no straw drawing and no drama about it, you simply choose a parent. For my wife and elder daughter it was a no-brainer—shopping at the four-story Westlake Center.

For the rest of us it was a choice to go up the 605-foot high Space Needle or get the car and make a-30 minute trip up north of Seattle to see the Future of Flight Aviation Centre & Boeing Tour at Paine Field near Everett. Boeing won out.

Boeing assembly lineBy sheer fortune, we managed to get on a tour without pre-booking, but it really is best to make arrangements well ahead of time (a week or more of notice is highly advisable) especially with a disabled visitor as they only run accessible tours at allotted times. And check their height restrictions to avoid disappointment for younger travelers.

Boeing has a disabled-friendly visitor induction theater and, importantly, a special mini-bus and arrangements to transport disabled people to the giant works hangers. Once there, we were able to ride in golf carts and buggies and take special lifts up to look down on the production line.

Boeing’s Everett aircraft assembly building alone is an education by itself. It remains the largest building in the world by volume and has its own fire dept, 19 cafeterias and enough other statistics to fill a fleet of aircraft. The six hanger doors along the side are each nearly the size of football fields.

Learn more about Seattle travel & this Boeing tour with the feature: The Qatar Chronicles: From the Boeing Factory to the Sky.

It was really an unparalleled opportunity to see one of the bastions of American engineering and design and to see the planes including the 787 Dreamliner (if Boeing can sort out its much-publicized problems) and the 747-8 down on the production line. But the aircraft that really caught my son’s attention was parked outside—the Dreamlifter. Imagine a 747 but with bulging hot-dog bun of a fuselage that enables it to ferry sub-assemblies of the 787s around inside. It’s funky.

A Washington waterfallAll that only just left time for a late afternoon dash to REI, the outdoor gear retailer whose flagship store in Seattle set the benchmark for what’s termed as “experience economy retailing.” REI had enough in and about it to satisfy the shopping, eating and adventure-seeking factions of our family – the latter content with climbing the 65-foot high REI Pinnacle!

Dinner at the Crab Pot Restaurant at Pier 57 followed by some games arcade action next door helped make our family time complete. We returned to the hotel room just in time to catch the last vestiges of the amazing sunset. (I did so while sitting on The Bear—a small bear-like furry block of a footstool found near the fireplace in our room.)

The footstools are a signature piece of the Edgewater, but some are available to buy as individual pieces through the hotel shop. We made eyes through the window at a honey bear named “Muffin,” but at $309 (and that’s before the overweight airline baggage charge we would have undoubtedly incurred) we abandoned the plan faster than if we’d encountered a real bear. Muffin, if you’re still there we’ll be back to see you!

For more ideas, visit our Family Travel section.

And we will be back. The travel secret for us is never box-tick everything so you can go back to the places you love. So we still want to go up in the Space Needle. We’d like to get up close and personal with the Gas Works Park and, whether they need it or not, my baseball-loving wife feels we owe the Seattle Mariners baseball team some vocal home support.

And, as for trying something different, well as we got lost on our way to fly out of Seattle Airport we spotted a sign in the Georgetown area for the School of Acrobatics & New Circus Arts (SANCA). That appealed enough to the kids to make us add that to the list.  Next time!

Hempfest SeattleFinally, we find that travelling with a disabled child sometimes provokes occasional whispered comments and both subtle and not-so-subtle looks and nudging from other people. While we are aware of it, we’ve learned to largely ignore much of it. But we couldn’t on this occasion.

It was as we headed back along Alaskan Way to the Edgewater Hotel from our dinner that we became conscious of numerous attendees of the city’s annual Hempfest (the “cannabis policy reform” event) commenting about our daughter.

It took a little bit to figure out that the comments weren’t actually about her, but about her “wheels.” Her wheelchair was unintentionally but appropriately event-themed—with large yellow smiley face wheel spoke panels.

Hence the unexpected attention and, amusingly, whispered acclaim. Happy days!

By Sean Kelly for

For outdoor adventures for travelers with mobility needs, try Adaptive & Accessible Hiking.

And don’t miss our complete Accessible Travel section as well as the Family Travel section

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