In 2021, Visit Visalia embarked on an initiative to transform the Visit Visalia office into a Certified Autism Center. This project inspired a citywide initiative that designated Visalia as the first Certified Autism Destination in the country.
The central California city, situated at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is the gateway to Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. It is an agricultural power-house with abounding crops including almonds, grapes, and Valencia oranges. The suburb is also the county seat for Tulare County and offers a fast-growing hospitality scene and a pedestrian-friendly downtown area, says Suzanne Bianco, tourism marketing director for Visit Visalia.
The designation as an autism destination was the result of working with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) to develop a program of training to teach staff at restaurants, hotels, attractions, and venues across the city about what autism is and how to better accommodate the needs of autistic visitors. The IBCCES determines each certification through on-site reviews of each property and the training of staff.
As a destination marketing organization, Bianco notes that Visit Visalia wanted to make travel more accessible to all people, regardless of ability. “When we approached our partners about this initiative, they jumped in with both feet—they were very supportive and [wanted] to get on board.”
After receiving the certification, various measures were taken to enhance the traveler experience at these certified properties, including sensory guides with photos and descriptions about what to expect at the destination. Details like this make a new place feel less jarring to visitors with sensory disabilities and allow them to acclimate to the environment before arrival.
Visit Visalia also offers the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program, which produces pins, lanyards, and rubber bracelets for visitors to wear at partnering restaurants, venues, or hotels to discreetly indicate a hidden disability they or someone they are traveling
with may have.
“This just underscores the concept that [Visalia] is a friendly, welcoming community, and [we] want all people to feel comfortable traveling here,” says Bianco. visitvisalia.com