Thursday, September 20, 2012

12 reasons Smuggler's Notch is special needs family vacation heaven

It was the splinter on Max's butt that nearly made me weep from happiness. We were on vacation at Smuggler's Notch, Max was due to go to camp, Dave and I had booked a kayaking session that morning and I couldn't get the splinter out (how it got there, I had no clue). So I brought Max to the special-needs program at the camp, conferred with the director, and asked if she had tweezers. "I'll find a pair and try to get out the splinter," Alisa said. "I know you have to go!"

Finding a resort to vacation at when you have a kid with special needs can be really hard. I always call ahead to make sure kids' programs can accommodate Max. Plenty of times, I've been told they do not have the staff to include him (or the willingness, though they never say it). The fact that Max is not fully potty-trained can be an issue, too. But a camp for children and teens with special needs run by a person willing to extract a splinter from a kid's butt? Wow. Just, wow.

Smuggler's Notch, located in the mountain-bordered town of Jeffersonville, Vermont, is generally a spectacular place for families (it bills itself as "America's Family Resort," and has won awards for it). But it's a particularly spectacular place if you have a kid with special needs, as I found out when we were invited to stay there for five days. Why it's so lovable:

1. The Smuggler's Notch Adaptive Program (SNAP)

This is Smuggs' program for kids with intellectual and physical disabilities, offered seven days a week. Max was beyond happy to come every day, and for good reason: They know how to show kids a great time. The program offers crafts, swimming, walks, nature explorations, mini golf, kayaking, tie-dyeing, sensory activities and f-u-n. There is no age limit. It serves about 20 kids per week, and Max had his own dedicated counselor. It wasn't just Alisa—formerly of the National Sports Center for Disability in Colorado—who was so can-do; all the counselors I observed seemed determined to show kids the time of their lives.

Five times a summer, SNAP offers Autism Mountain Camp for kids and adults with disabilities. This one's more adventurous, with sailing, tandem biking, horseback riding, and a llama trek (yes, a llama trek). During our stay, I met several other parents of kids who have special needs who'd all bought into timeshares at Smuggler's Notch because they felt so at home there, and because they loved SNAP.   

It's one of the best adaptive programs in the country; a friend who's gone for years has raved about it. Kids can stay for the day or half day and ski with trained instructors. Max informed us more than once that he wanted to come back and ski. There's also an Autism Snowman Camp offered during four times throughout winter for kids with developmental disabilities; besides skiing, kids can go on sleigh rides, dog sled, snowshoe, horseback ride, ice-skate and swim. Love that Smuggs also hosts three Make A Wish families every winter. 

3. Smuggs' other camper programs

There are five groups offered for campers ages 2&1/2 to 17 years every day of the week. Sabrina was in Adventure Rangers, which has four tracks: Adventure & Games, Nature & Hiking, Arts & Crafts and Sound & Stage. I signed her up for Nature & Hiking because we were, after all, in Vermont. As it turns out, one day of hiking was puh-lenty for her and after that she did Arts & Crafts. 

Exploring the river bed at camp

Sabrina also got to do the Adventure Overnight, in which she stayed at the Madonna Based Lodge complete with a pizza dinner, dance party, bonfire with s'mores and games. Oh, and if the regular camp experience isn't enough, there are specialty programs for kids ages 9 to 17 including Awesome! Water Camp, Survival Camp, Junior Tennis Camp, and Skateboard Champ. Warning: You may just feel a little sad because you are too old to go to camp, although age has its benefits (see: Segway Adventure and winery below).  

4. Because it's a super-nice play to stay.

Our condo was in the Kestrels community

Sweet, eh? 

Our unit had all the comforts we wish we had at home, including a huge kitchen where we made breakfast daily and a big jacuzzi tub in the master bedroom suite that comfortably fits a family of four, including kicking kids. There was cable TV, Internet access I tried very hard to resist, and an outdoor BBQ grill. Max loved the condo so much he called it "new home." 

The porch, my fave spot

5. Because it's so easy to get around

In summer and winter, shuttle buses are everywhere around the resort; you call and they come to get you, including ones that are wheelchair accessible. If you happen to have a child who happens to love riding around on buses, you might spend quite a bit of time on one. Not that I know any child like that.

6. The POOLS! OMG, the POOLS! 

The resort has eight heated outdoor pools, four waterslides and Rum Runners' Hideaway, a six-acre reservoir on top of Morse Mountain with a 25-food water trampoline and a shore-line wading area for non-swimmers. Smuggs' main pool areas: Mountainside Water Playground, with a Giant Rapid River Ride, mini waterslide and little-kid lagoon; Courtside Pool, with a flume waterslide; and Notchville Park, including the 140-foot Twister Waterside, a Raven's Roost Climbing Tower and a Lily Pad Walk. This one was our favorite; it was pretty uncrowded, with lots of stuff to do.

Sabrina walks the walk

Max pad-hopped, too

Max takes aim

The quietest pool area of all was at the Aquatics & Exercise Center in the North Hill; we liked going here for pre-bedtime dips.

7. Because you never, ever, ever run out of activities.

When I first flipped through the Resort Information Guide, I was floored by the number of family activities. You could go on one of twenty-plus guided nature walks or hikes. Make sock puppets. Play Giant Tic Tac Toe and other oversize games. Tie dye. Or do a Zip Line Canopy Tour, take tennis lessons, and try your hand at the driving range or disc golf, all for an additional fee. 

The FunZone, a gigantic indoor play area with a huge pirate-ship bouncy house, giant slide, obstacle course, table games and arcade.  

Sabrina and Dave went on the Gone Fishing trip, where she showed an amazing amount of patience I'd like her to apply to doing homework.

Sabrina bungee jumps. "MOMMMMMMY! I'm flying!" she screeched. Perhaps you heard? Max chose to watch.

Best $90 bucks we've ever spent (for a 24-hour rental). We refused to participate in Max's scheme to drive one home.

One morning, Dave and I went kayaking on a quiet pond. We could have brought the kids, but given that once when we were dating we almost broke up during a kayak ride where we couldn't paddle in tandem and nearly went down a waterfall, we thought it might be wise to exclude them. "I call them divorce kayaks!" the guide from Green River Canoe and Kayak told us, cheerfully. We kayaked separately, and peacefully.

Kevin bought boards in case we wanted to try paddle boarding. Dave said no way, and then of course I was all "I'll do it!" And I did. For maybe six minutes. But I stayed on! The trick, I discovered, is to pretend your feet are Krazy-glued to the board. 

8. Because there's a ton of pure grown-up fun, too.

Aqua-Volleyball? Check. Hot River Massage? Check. Zumba Fitness Party? Check. Yoga? Check. Cooking classes? Check. Chocolate tasting? Check. Creative classes, including card marking, beading, and sculpting? Check, check, check! 

Hel-lo, Segway Adventure! I've always wanted to try one, and Dave and I gleefully zipped around for an hour (don't be impressed, there's no skill involved). 

My masterpiece from art class. I was the only student at the time and had the wonderful instructor, Nancy, all to myself. I learned some great techniques, and will be auctioning this off for a starting bid of $1,000,000 in the near future.

9. The cool evening fairs and activities

There were free family events every evening, including Movies on the Green, Twilight Karaoke, bingo, a Saturday night DJ party, and a bonfire sing-along, as well as special events like the Family Splash Down party at Mountainside pool and a marionette show.

The Smuggsational Family Social

Sabrina played every single game. Twice.

Max hung out with Mogul Mouse and went for a ride on a tractor

Sabrina and Dave at the waterball toss

If you want to ditch the kids for the evening (not that I know any parents like that), you can drop them off for Kids' Night Out at Treasures, by day the resort's Child Care Center for tots 6 weeks to three years old. There are giant fish tanks in every room and toys galore. SNAP's lovely deputy director, Shay, was there and the kids did not want to leave when we came to get them. 

10. Because there's good food.

We most often ate at the Morse Mountain Grille, a reasonably priced-place with, Dave says, the best chili he's ever had—and plenty of homemade mac 'n cheese for Max. One night, we dined at the Hearth & Candle Restaurant, a kid-friendly gourmet spot with a delicious cheese platter and the most unique fish & chips I've ever had (potato-crusted cod with citrus herb risotto and asparagus).  

I judge places by their soup, and the tomato bisque was outstanding.

11. Because there's great stuff to do in the area, too. 

While the kids were in camp, Dave and I tooled around. We went to Stowe once, our old stomping grounds from vacay two winters ago. We loved the oversize omelets at 158 Main Restaurant and Bakery in Jeffersonville. We drank too much coffee at Brown and Jenkins Trading Co. (worth ordering from).

One afternoon, we visited the Boyden Valley Winery and did a tasting with lots of yummy iced wine.  

 Random old home I was obsessed with

12. Smuggs' I-Did-A-Cart

This is a longtime Smuggler's Notch tradition where families build carts out of provided cardboard boxes, paint and craft stuff like pipe cleaners, then let it fly down a ramp.

Max and I paired up to make a purple school bus.

Sabrina and Dave went for maximum size.

Max paints a "headlight."

It was super-fun to see everyone making carts. There was judging—most creative, best height, longest flight off the ramp. Max snagged second-place for creativity, but we didn't care much about the judging; we just had ourselves a great time.

Note: Thanks to Smuggler's Notch for hosting us. All opinions (and calories) are my own.


  1. That place looks unbelievable!! I've never heard of it in my life until now. I hope they gave you the vacation...and will now pay you for the amazing review. :-)

    Max is doing so many great things lately. I'm so, so happy for him!! (And you!)

  2. Wow, that's fantastic!!! I skied at Smuggler's Notch with my parents when I was in high school, and LOVED it, but now that I have a child with special needs, I'm thrilled to hear that it's so beautifully equipped for fun for all. I may have to consider a trip up there again one day. Glad you had such a great experience!

    1. Becca, you have to go. You will have such a great time and so will your child. Our son Patrick, who has Autism has such a great time every summer, and our other son Tommy who is 16 has a great time also. They have so many activities for everyone including adults. It is such a great vacation.

  3. It looks like so much fun! My daughter is 5 - non-verbal and non-mobile. She mostly uses a wheelchair to get around and is working with an eyegaze communication device to talk. Do they have children like that in the SNAP program? I'm thinking it would be worth a trip if they do. She loves hanging with all her typical peers and being included in the action and it would be nice to have someone help out on that who isn't Mom or Dad.

    1. Kristina, yes they do. Give Alisa Anderson, who is the SNAP coordinator a call. You can talk to her about your concerns. Smuggs is great!! You should go. Not only your child but you will also have a fantastic time. Our family goes there every summer.

  4. Wow! This place sounds great. How long did it take to drive there?
    I am gonna to pass this on to two friends who have kids on the autism spectrum!

  5. I'm afraid even to look at the costs...this sounds like it would be prohibitively expensive for those of us with average means.

    1. Mari, the best time to go is in June when the cost is less expensive. There is a cost for SNAP, but there are plenty of 'FREE" activities to do for adults and families. We always say that we "can not afford not to go" because our time at Smuggs makes us feel so relaxed and happy. Our whole family has such a great time.

  6. Wow. Do they have a west coast version? If not.. we will just need to head back when you go again.
    So glad you had a great time. I love it when everyone's needs get met on a vacation!

  7. thanks for the recomendation when are u going to come to CA

  8. What an amazing vacation for your family. And a great post to boot. We will have to check this place out. I had good things before but your post made me even more sure!

  9. We broke up the trip to Vermont—we did that farm stay first—but it generally takes a good 7-8 hours from NY area. Definitely cheaper than flying! Mari, the rates are most reasonable in June, for summertime, you could check that.

    Kristina, there were a bunch of kids/teens there in wheelchairs.

    AZ, we will definitely be coming to California at some point so we can visit Cars Land!

  10. Mary Kay April 14, 2013.

    My family and I have been coming to Smuggs for years. Our son Patrick attends the SNAP program and has a fantastic time. Patrick is non-verbal and can be quite a handful, but the wonderful people at SNAP led by Alisa Anderson have no problem working with Patrick and showing him a great time. We are so comfortable with him there. Needless to say, we ALL have a great vacation.

  11. Our son, Kurt, has been in SNAP for 19 years, he literally grew up there with all the wonderful counsellors. We go in Jan every year and he learned to ski before he could walk. We bought a timeshare there in 1994 expressly because they have the SNAP program. We have made many wonderful friends there and look forward to skiing every year. Kurt has a moderate intellectual disability and cerebral palsy so needs a one on one instructor. We have never had a person we didn't like and they try to give you the same counsellor each year if possible. We are so blessed to have found Smuggs.

  12. What a great story about Max. It reminded me of the experience my wife and I have had with son Patrick at Smugglers'.Patrick has Down Syndrome. We have been going to Smugglers' for 19 years, since Patrick was 7. Our family goals for Patrick are for him to be a valued member of his community and based on that we always had him participate in inclusive environments be it school or social. In his early years at Smugglers he was able to participate in the regular camps. I remember our first day vividly. My wife and I stayed "local" as we anticipated a call, not having had any experience with Smugglers. No call came and when we picked him up we asked if there were any problems. The counselors sort of looked at us with a puzzled expression and said no everything went well. We were sold on Smugglers at that point. As he got older we enrolled him in the SNAP program, which he has participated in for about seven years. Alisa Anderson and every couselor we have encountered are excellent.They can't do enough to make the experience perfect. They totally understand and respect our family's goals for Patrick. From Patrick's point of view it is just hanging out with someone near his age and having fun. He is very social and from his years in the Smugglers' camps and SNAP has made friends all over. He seems to know everyone at Smugglers, and they know him. He gets e-mails from Smugglers' friends throughout the year. If you have a special needs family member do check into Smugglers' for a vacation.

  13. I grew up in Cambridge and went to school in Jeffersonville, the town at the base of the mountain. My sister and tons of my friends worked at Smuggs over school breaks. I am amazed I didn't know about the SNAP program! I'm specifically amazed because I listen for this kind of thing for my daughter who has developmental delays and epilepsy. Her seizures are set off specifically by heat and over-exertion as well as illness. Swimming is also an issue. Thank you so much for sharing about this camp- it may very well change our trips to visit family for the rest of our lives. Seriously, this is a big blessing. Thank you!

  14. This is our child's third year in SNAP. He's 5 years old. He can already make a pizza to control his speed on the slope. We're going again this weekend. Hopefully he'll get the hang of turning. That's the goal. It's a great program for SN kids.


Thanks for sharing!