Rhode Island: Big on Wheelchair Accessible Fun

If good things do come in small packages, your expectation for a wonderful wheelchair accessible vacation in Rhode Island should be well-met! Roger Williams, the state's founder, established the first practical working model of Democracy, which was adapted by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and reflected in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. Little Rhody also lays claim to America's White Horse Tavern, built in 1673. It's the oldest, still-operating tavern in the United States. So we can thank our country's smallest state and, evidently, the birthplace of partying, Rhode Island, for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and several terrific wheelchair accessible attractions.

WaterFire, Providence 

The best time to view WaterFire is after dusk. Presented on the rivers of downtown Providence, WaterFire is an award-winning sculpture by Barnaby Evans that's well-known nationally and internationallly as a community arts event, when one-hundred bonfires illuminate the city, burning just above the surface of the three rivers that run through Providence. On WaterFire evenings (be sure to check the schedule), thousands of people take to the streets to delight in the flickering firelight monitored by "firetenders", breathe in the aromatic fragrance of wood smoke, and listen to music from around the world, in what they call Waterplace Park.

Here's the really cool part—WaterFire Access shows WaterFire's dedication to inclusivity. The wheelchair accessible water-taxi program lets children and adults with disabilities enjoy a memorable, up-close experience with the best view in the house! By the way, it's free (though they do accept donations to keep it going). They recommend you make reservations. Sounds like you'll have a "hot" time in Providence!

Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence

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As one of the first zoos to open in the United States (1872), Roger Williams (he's pretty popular in Providence!) Park Zoo has had plenty of time to create the ideal visitor experience. Built on 102 acres bequeathed to the city by Roger's great-great-great grandaughter Betsey, the Boston Globe has called it "New England's great zoo" for good reason. The zoo is filled with natural habitats and exhibit after exhibit, sharing Betsey's 102 acres with a world of animals that includes anteaters, emus, a laughing kookaburra, camels, African elephants, snow leopards, pandas, giraffes, primates, birds, insects, fish, reptiles, and dozens of animals you've probably never even heard of.

The zoo is wheelchair accessible, with wheelchair rentals available. Like Rhode Island, the zoo is small, but the quality of the exhibits and grounds is well worth the reasonable entrance fees.

Splash—The Experience, Warwick 

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It's the last thing you'd expect to find in a furniture store, it only lasts 20 minutes, it's free, and it runs all day. According to a review on Yelp, " It was hilarious fun!" Splash—The Experience is a water/laser light show in Jordan's Furniture at the Warwick Mall. For reasons people still don't quite understand, the furniture store commissioned experts in water, lasers, video, and sound to create Splash. The programs change from time to time, with new music, images, and splashing. The show features more than 9,000 water nozzles, 20,000 watts of light, 16 watts of cutting-edge lasers, and 15,000 watts of digital surround sound. Splash is wheelchair accessible, and, since it's in a furniture store, it's likely they'll have more than enough seating for everyone.

Slater Mill, Pawtucket

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Slater Mill is more than a museum—it's a whole complex of museums "dedicated to bringing the American Industrial Revolution to life." Skilled, costumed interpreters present fascinating demonstrations to show you how we got from the horse-and-buggy to life-changing machinery. The wheelchair accessible tours take you through Slater Mill, where raw cotton was turned into finished cloth as the first successful, water-powered cotton spinning factory in the US. In the Brown House, you'll see life as it was lived by an artisan in the early 19th century, emphasizing contrasts to life before and after the industrial revolution. Wilkinson Mill, a rubble-stone mill house, is a 19th century machine shop powered by a working, wooden water wheel to make nails and forge anchors.

Culturally, historically, and educationally relevant, Slater Mill weaves the story of American innovation, labor, women’s rights, cotton economy, immigration and assimilation, and industry, which made power wheelchairs possible.

Cliff Walk, Newport

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Fabulous views and fresh, ocean air! Cliff Walk is a wide, mostly paved, public-access path along the eastern shore of Newport. It's a National Recreation Trail in a National Historic District. On one side, you'll see the spectacular Newport shoreline along the Atlantic Ocean. On the other, you'll marvel at the majestic mansions built during the city's "gilded age." The views are stunning, no matter where you look.

You'll pass several of the most famous "castles" in America along the way--the Breakers, Marble House, Beechwood, and Rosecliff, to name a few. Some of the homes are private, but many are open to the public. Their mid-19th century, lavish interiors have been lovingly preserved so visitors can get a glimpse of the extravagant lifestyles the Astors, Vanderbilts, Belmonts, and other mega-wealthy families.

About 1/3 of the 3 1/2-mile walk is inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, because it becomes a rocky trail along the shoreline. Cliff Walk is open from sunrise to sunset 365 days a year.

The Breakers Mansion, Newport 

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After its architecture leaves you in awe, take a fully accessible tour of The Breakers, considered the grandest of Newport's "summer cottages." Yes, the Breakers and other Newport mansions were built by affluent families who spent the rest of the year far south of Rhode Island and needed a place to escape the summer heat. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, grandson of steamship and railroad magnate, Commodore Vanderbilt, had it designed and built to replace a wood-framed house, also called The Breakers, after it was destroyed in a fire.

The new "house" has 70 rooms in its 65,000 square feet. With seven children, they apparently needed the space. Not surprisingly, Vanderbilt insisted that the new place be fireproof. The Breakers is said to be the most-visited attraction in Rhode Island. When you see it, you'll know why. Visit the web site of the Preservation Society of Newport County. They do charge for the tour, but you can print your tickets out at home. That's how they pay for the cleaning and dusting.

Ocean Drive, Newport

ocean-driveDo this awesome drive in comfort--bring your wheelchair accessible van or rent one and take a ten-mile tour of breathtaking beauty on Ocean Drive. You'll be amazed at how much is packed into 52, 800 feet! You'll pass by a U.S. Coast Guard Station and several parks, including Fort Adams State Park, which was established in 1799 as a coastal fortification, just in time for the War of 1812. Time it right, and you can take in the world-renowned Newport Jazz Festival or Newport Folk Festival, both held on the grounds of Fort Adams. Picnic at Brenton Point State Park for eye-popping views of the Atlantic Ocean. Quaint boat-filled yacht clubs dot your drive along the ocean. Be sure to look for Hammersmith Farm, the stately Victorian mansion that was the childhood home of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The homes along the drive, though not as opulent as the Newport mansions along Cliff Walk, are still a sight to see. Just want to hang out on a beach for a while? They don't call it Ocean Drive for nothing!

Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Providence

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Do you ever wonder about the civilizations of the world and how they've contributed to our planet's personality? Pay a visit to the Ivy League's Brown University, and take some time to tour Manning Hall, the third building erected at Brown U in 1834 and now a cultural teaching museum. You'll have the opportunity to explore the world's cultures in all their richness and diversity--for free. When you plan your visit, check the museum web site for upcoming exhibits. Past exhibits include "Taoist Gods from China: Ceremonial Paintings of the Mien", "Shoes Have Soul," "Thawing the Frozen Indian: From Tobacco to "Top Model"," and "Crafting Origins." The museum's exhibitions and collections, including classical antiquities, are outstanding and wheelchair accessible. A little culture never hurt anyone...

AS220, Providence    

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The AS stands for "Action Speaks,""Art Space," or "Alternative Space", and it's all about the fine arts and performing arts in Providence. To encourage the state's citizens toward creativity, AS220 is a forum for the original works of every artistic Rhode Island resident, housing galleries, showcasing music, dance, and other performance arts, and providing work space and studio space for Rhode Islanders to follow their muse. It's part urban-revitalization and part inspiration for both kids and adults. Their "public programming", as they call it, includes galleries filled with original artwork and stages for live performance—all "unjuried, uncensored and open to the public." This just might be one of the coolest places to visit in Rhode Island. It's tough to imagine what's going on in the uncensored imaginations of the inhabitants in a single U.S. state. You'll just have to stop by this wheelchair accessible hive of creativity to find out.

The real beauty of vacationing in the smallest state in the country is that everything you want to see is within an hour or so of everything else you want to see here. It's 48 miles from North to South and 37 miles from East to West. Much of it is wheelchair accessible, and all of it is welcoming!