St. Johns County Initiates Accessibility Movement to Create an Inclusive Destination
The St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau, and Old Town Trolley Tours® & Attractions of St. Augustine Lead the Way with Autism Certification
St. Johns County, FL [August 17, 2023] – The St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce and its Ponte Vedra Visitors Information Center, St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau (VCB), in collaboration with Old Town Trolley Tours® & Attractions of St. Augustine, proudly announce their achievement as Certified Autism Centers™ (CAC). These certifications, granted by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), reflect the commitment of these organizations to welcome and support autistic and sensory-sensitive visitors. The certification program is funded with a matching grant from the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council. The St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce is proud to be working with the County on reviewing grant applications from tourism and hospitality businesses who apply. Members of the Grant Review Committee are Stephen Hudson, Committee Chair from Digital Mark; Todd Hickey, Committee Member from Marriott Sawgrass, and Erin Wallner, Committee member from Flagler Health+.
To earn this distinction, the staff at the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, the VCB and Old Town Trolley Tours ® & Attractions of St. Augustine completed a specialized training program focused on understanding the unique needs of individuals on the Autism Spectrum. Additionally, IBCCES conducted on-site reviews of the facilities to provide further accommodations and sensory guides for each attraction including Old Town Trolley Tours®, Old Jail, Oldest Store Museum Experience, St. Augustine History Museum, and Potter's Wax Museum, ensuring guests are well-prepared for their visit.
As part of its work on tourism development for the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council, the Chamber is leading the Autism Certification Program and managing the matching grant. “The program assures visitors that our certified tourism and hospitality businesses have taken the necessary training and steps to provide a welcoming experience to neurodiverse guests. In addition, the certification is a way to open our tourism community to new markets and be inclusive to all guests and their families,” said Isabelle Renault, the Chamber’s President and CEO. “Our ultimate goal is for our community to become an Autism Certified Destination.”
“Historic Tours of America, the parent company of Old Town Trolley Tours & Attractions of St. Augustine, takes pride in creating amazing vacation memories for all our guests. Our goal is to make St. Augustine a certified destination city, with various locations trained to accommodate families with members on the autism spectrum,” shared Dave Chatterton, General Manager of Old Town Trolley Tours & Attractions of St. Augustine. “As a prominent attraction in the county, achieving IBCCES training and certification, we hope to inspire other organizations to follow suit. Providing opportunities for individuals and families to safely experience St. Augustine’s rich history, culture, and old-world charms is a crucial aspect of enhancing the quality of life for autistic individuals, and we are committed to enabling that to the best of our ability.”
The accessibility initiative, spearheaded by the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, now includes the VCB and Old Town Trolley Tours® & Attractions of St. Augustine, aiming to achieve the Certified Autism Destination™ designation. This initiative will ensure that the area offers multiple certified entertainment, recreation, and lodging options for autistic and sensory-sensitive individuals and their families.
“St. Johns County is proud to offer funding for this initiative that will increase the accessibility of the resources that make our destination truly unique while expanding and strengthening our tourism base,” said Tera Meeks, St. Johns County Director of Tourism and Cultural Development. “We look forward to continuing this partnership in the coming year as we all work towards becoming a more welcoming destination for autistic and sensory-sensitive visitors.”
“We are so committed to this community cause and its positive impact on tourism that the St. Johns Board of County Commission has recommended tripling its budget in fiscal year 2024 for reimbursement grants to tourism-based businesses who receive Autism Destination Certification. St. Johns County is on the leading edge of this pursuit for autism certification in the State of Florida,” Commission Chairman Christian Whitehurst said.
The prevalence of autism diagnoses has increased to 1 in 36 children in the US and 1 in 6 people with sensory needs. As a result, it has become increasingly vital to equip community organizations with the necessary knowledge and tools to effectively engage and assist these individuals. The Certified Autism Center™ designation by these organizations marks a significant step forward for the larger movement.
Susan Phillips, President and CEO of the VCB said, “The VCB believes that tourism should be accessible to all. Through our training and certification from IBCCES, we hope to be a model for our entire tourism community and inspire them to follow our lead in making travel experiences more inclusive and enjoyable for everyone, regardless of their unique needs.”
For over two decades, the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) has been a leader in providing cognitive disorder training and certification for professionals worldwide, including those in healthcare, education, public safety, travel, and corporate sectors. As the only credentialing board offering travel and entertainment industry-specific programs, IBCCES provides training from subject matter experts and autistic self-advocates, along with long-term support, continuous learning, on-site reviews, and renewal requirements to ensure continued growth and lasting impact.
"We are thrilled to award the Certified Autism Center™ designation to the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, VCB, and Old Town Trolley Tours® & Attractions of St. Augustine," said Myron Pincomb, Board Chairman of IBCCES “With IBCCES training and certification, these organizations can enhance their ability to accommodate and assist all guests, offering inclusive and accessible entertainment options for families. We commend their commitment to creating a welcoming destination for autistic and sensory-sensitive individuals."
To further support families seeking certified options and resources, IBCCES has developed AutismTravel.com and CertifiedAutismCenter.com. These free online platforms serve as valuable resources, providing information about various organizations that have met the requirements for the Certified Autism Center™ designation.