Planning Your Adaptive Winter Vacation in Utah

Planning Your Adaptive Winter Vacation in Utah

Paula Colman

By Paula Colman \ April 2 2024

Ashantai Youngai was gliding down Snowbird’s Chickadee run with a smile as radiant as the bluebird sky above him. Born and raised in Southern Louisiana but now calling Utah home, this trained chemist seemed as out of his element as a seagull on The Great Salt Lake. However, many don’t realize that the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere that defines Utah as much as its famed ski slopes flocks with seagulls, which at some point discovered it was not only easily accessible and abundant but worth returning to year after year.

What makes Ashantai’s story inspiring and as captivating as imagining the sights and sounds of flocks of seagulls soaring over snow-capped mountains to an oasis on the edge of a desert is that Ashantai was on a sit-ski, a piece of outdoor equipment favored by people with disabilities to get them on the slopes and share the stoke with everyone else on the mountain.


An avid cyclist, Ashantai was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a decade ago and has had varying levels of mobility since. Still, visions of what was possible have only expanded as he discovered more and more things he could adapt and achieve on and off the slopes in this amazing place called Utah. 



A Plan With a Purpose

Once you have an idea, you can form a goal, which leads to plans, contingencies, and, for most, adaptations, because NOTHING ever goes as planned! A winter vacation for people with disabilities — a population that includes 1 in 4 Americans, not including caregivers or friends or family that want to travel with them — requires the same mindset as any other vacation for any other audience. However, in Utah, many discover that it’s a whole lot easier, its offerings are abundant and, as a result, more enjoyable.

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It’s hard to believe that thousands of seagulls suddenly decided that a land-locked lake sitting between the Great Basin and the Rocky Mountains was an ideal place to migrate, but you can imagine them trying others, finding some too distant, difficult or downright inhospitable, and tweeting, “Utah is the place!” Travelers from around the world have had a similar experience.

Adaptation Leads to Inspiration

As a host of the 2002 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games (and the preferred host for 2034), Salt Lake City, Utah, is arguably the most accessible place in the United States (and beyond) for athletes and enthusiasts with disabilities. Aside from its world-class ski resorts, Salt Lake is home to an international airport (SLC) serving most major airlines, leading hospitals and medical research centers, and retail and cultural venues. For vacation planning purposes, these offerings mean travelers can plan for fewer issues and greater contingencies, especially those with special needs.

Utah is also home to numerous adaptive sports organizations, including the National Ability Center (NAC), Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports (OVAS) and Wasatch Adaptive Sports (WAS). There are no preconditions or limitations; each of these offers programs to get anyone who aspires to get on the mountain as high as they can go. Guests are asked to contact organizations directly to inquire about the timing and availability of lessons, the type of adaptive equipment necessary (they haven’t encountered an accommodation they haven’t been able to address yet), what to expect and how to prepare. The key is planning and preparation and, not surprisingly, these groups are eager to assist.

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Tracy Meier, Chief Program and Education Officer at NAC, described the pre-planning NAC and participants engage in before getting to Utah, much less the mountain. For many, winter sports are new — arid, cold, high-altitude climate elements may be new! Preparing for travel to Utah involves discussing basics, including hydration and clothing needs. There is more than a questionnaire; there’s a conversation about challenges, expectations and adaptations. 

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“The best thing we do is bring families together,” said Alex Davenport, Executive Director, Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports (OVAS). Davenport explained that at OVAS, NAC and other organizations, their programs are designed to “give students the most independence possible want to work ourselves out of a job.” Davenport exudes excitement when he declares, “We want participants to buy a season pass and ski with their families.” The goal is to bring them back to Utah, to its mountains again and again. 

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However, no trail is straight, no plan is perfect, and Ashantai and every skier and snowboarder of any ability will tell you that sometimes our eyes are on the summit while our feet remain at the base. But, even here, we can see, hear, smell, feel, learn and experience so much without ever getting on a lift!

Ava Lieber, for example, decided to put skiing on hold. A childhood brain cancer survivor who manages epilepsy and relies on cochlear implants, this small-but-mighty nine-year-old declared (like other tenacious tweens) that she really, really doesn’t like ski helmets for now. However, as her mom, Kady Day-Lieber, explained, that doesn’t keep Ava from enjoying other outdoor escapades in winter. They’ve simply adapted. With her trusty backpack, loaded with her pink blankie, “stuffies,” instant camera and “lots of film,” she’s discovered and documented her adventures around Utah and, indeed, the world. Dog sledding with her big sister and Rancho Luna Lobos in Park City, wildlife photography tours and so much more bring Ava and her family joy on snowy mountains and trails. 

The biggest lesson anyone learns from planning a winter vacation to Utah, or any vacation, anywhere is to smile and embrace wherever the trail takes you, for that is the difference between a plan and an adventure and in Utah, we live for adventure.

Are We There Yet?

Winter air travel is often highlighted by delays and inconveniences, making it complicated and stressful. However, Delta Air Lines, which operates a major hub at SLC, works hard to make transportation an enjoyable part of the trip itself, particularly for its passengers with special needs. 

At its heart, Delta is “in the customer service business,” says Dana R. Folsom, Manager, Disability Programs for Delta, and the range of impairments can be vast (physical, cognitive, emotional, visible, not apparent, permanent, assisted, rehabilitative, etc.). The airline provides an online information tab to address many issues and services (from gate shuttle or wheelchair assistance, white-glove service for checked medical devices, preferred boarding/deplaning, specialized chairs and on-board storage for some medical devices, multi-sensory rooms and familiarization tours at some airports) to ease concerns and burdens while traveling. 

However, Delta further recommends communicating with the airline when booking (there is a section allowing passengers to describe their disabilities or needs), before your travel date (call if you have questions), and at the airport (gate agents and many airport personnel are trained to assist), if needed. “Tell us what you need, tell us early, and tell us often if your needs change,” invites Delta’s Folsom.

Folsom also advises travelers with disabilities to consider planning travel around less-congested times (early and late day) and periods (non-holiday), which tend to be quieter, more pleasant and, as a bonus, less expensive. Also, preparing travelers for what to expect from security to the flight not only helps alleviate anxiety — for all passengers — but creates a checklist of necessary items and services to transform what can be stressful into something enjoyable. 

Ashantai, shortly after his MS diagnosis, revealed that one of his biggest challenges was asking others for help. A friend suggested that he adapt his thinking, reminding him that many people — himself, a Southern gentleman included — love helping and bringing joy to others. So, when Ashantai, who routinely gives himself an extra buffer of time to reach his gate, found his gait eating away at it, he stopped the next agent (from another airline) and requested a shuttle, which whisked him to his flight with time to spare. Folsom reaffirmed that, at Delta, agents and attendants are trained to ask everyone, “How can I help you?” It’s just good customer service.

Even Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) agents — yes, TSA — are available to assist travelers with disabilities or medical conditions. Through its TSA Cares program, passengers may request accommodations or private screenings at airport security checkpoints. (This does not include wheelchair assistance, which is handled by airlines, or expedited screening). By contacting TSA 72 hours before departure, a passenger will be assigned a Personal Support Specialist (PSS) to assist them through security. If a PSS is unavailable, a traveler may ask a Supervisory TSA Officer for assistance at the airport. In 2023, TSA helped over 71,000 travelers with medical and special needs through its TSA Cares program.

Getting from the airport terminals at Salt Lake City International Airport to area lodgings is also straightforward, and compared to ski resorts in any other state, they’re nearby. Rideshare and ADA transportation options are just steps from elevators near baggage claim with a covered wait area. Rental car companies, including Hertz, offer people with disabilities a range of adaptive vehicles as well as services that make check-in and return (including on-site airport access) as seamless as possible. 

Far Away But Close at Hand

In addition to its accessibility, one of the best reasons for anyone to plan a vacation to Utah is its proximity to the State’s primary attractions. In addition to being an hour or less from 11 of Utah’s 15 ski resorts, Salt Lake City’s international airport (SLC) is located less than 10 minutes from a major metropolitan city and its resources if and when you need them, including world-class health care institutions: University of Utah HealthPrimary Children’s Hospital, Shriners Children’s Salt Lake City, and George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Retail, grocery and pharmacy chains are within a short walk, bus or car ride for most travelers. In fact, many will deliver to your hotel or condo during your stay. For those who want to get away but not be too far, a Utah trip can provide the reassurances and conveniences that allow vacationers with disabilities or special needs to actually relax.

With ease and accessibility, Utah is the best place for people of any ability to plan their next winter vacation. Organizations, institutions, businesses and people here are experienced, welcoming and within reach, allowing people with medical or special needs the opportunity to reach any summit or just hang out with family and friends, enjoying a little apres ski and watching seagulls flying overhead.

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