Andrew Skinner and his family love visiting Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. “My wife Kirsten and I went a few times before my accident. Going now is different, but still magical.” Andrew, 34, and Kirsten have visited Disneyland yearly since their daughter, Betty, was born in 2010. He even chose Disneyland to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his injury — a fall from a snowboard that resulted in incomplete quadriplegia at the C4-6 levels in 2004.
“Before my accident there was no need to transfer — just get on and go,” he says. Now, he can’t transfer independently, but if he goes with a group or family that can help pick him up and transfer, he can go on most rides. “But if it’s just Kirsten, Betty and me, I have to stick to the rides that allow you to remain in your chair,” he says. Still, “Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. It is a great place to be with family. Everything at the park is designed to be entertaining for everyone.”
For decades many people with disabilities have felt the same way about Disneyland, but with newly implemented changes to disability policies, the experience has changed for some.
On his last trip, Andrew and his family used the regular fast passes and waited in line. “I had no idea there was a way to avoid being stuck in line,” he says. “It’s often difficult to maneuver the chair in a crowded line, and if I’d known there was an option, it would have been easier. I was really bummed that I didn’t know about the retrofitted rides and new disability policies. I usually wait outside the older rides while Kirsten rides with Betty. I could have done so much more if I’d known about the services.”
Disney made a big change two years ago involving its Guest Assistance Card. The GAC was designed with the intent of helping people with significant disabilities bypass the potentially long lines for attractions to avoid any problems they may experience as a result of their disability. It was helpful to many people with serious disabilities, especially those with developmental disabilities, and it was greatly appreciated. But like many programs with similarly good intentions, the GAC was so abused and misused that in 2013, Meg Crofton, president of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Operations in both the United States and France, announced the GAC would be terminated in favor of a new program called Disability Access Service.
According to Disney, “The Disability Access Service card is designed to accommodate guests who aren’t able to wait in a conventional queue environment due to a disability (including non-apparent disabilities). A DAS card will be issued at Guest Relations main entrance locations and will offer guests a return time for attractions based on the current wait time. As soon as the guest finishes one attraction, they can receive a return time for another. This service can be used in addition to Disney’s FASTPASS Service and Disney FastPass+.”
FastPassing+ in Disney World
It had been more than 10 years since David C. Cooper had gone to Disney World, but he and his wife, Teresa, recently went back for a weeklong vacation with their young granddaughter, Sofia. “When I was there the last time, I just went to the front of the line and it made everything really quick, but it’s not that way any more. You’ve got to wait with the regular folks now,” says Cooper, a para from Pelham, Ala., with a chuckle.
This time around he used the FastPass+ system. “It works great except for the really high traffic attractions,” says Cooper, CEO of Media Solutions and also chair of United Spinal Association’s board. “Our granddaughter wanted to meet Anna and Elsa from the movie Frozen, and it was a two-hour wait. But for Pirates of Caribbean and other rides that aren’t as popular, we FastPassed them and went right on the ride.”
FastPass+ is a virtual queuing system where you make an appointment for an attraction, show up at the specified time, and bypass the worst of standing in line. “You can only do three FastPasses a day,” says Teresa. “That has its drawbacks and its advantages. If you’re a planner, it works great. I like to be able to go anywhere and just ride the rides, but they don’t do that anymore.” She admits she’d like it better if she could have gotten to Elsa a little bit sooner.
“We were there for a week, so we could do everything we wanted to, but it took us much longer to see the park as opposed to what it was when disabled people could go to the front of the line,” says Cooper. “But it’s hard not to have a good time at Disney World. Even if you have to wait in line, it’s not so bad. And for our granddaughter everything was great. She thought waiting in line was a ride. ‘We’re going to another line, yayyy, thank you!’”
Plus, according to Cooper, you just can’t beat Disney for accessibility. “The ADA is a big deal in Disney World — it’s a great place for a person on wheels to go. We left our hotel room, got in the monorail, got out, rolled around, got into a boat, sailed to another park, walked around, got back in the boat, everything’s accessible. That makes it nice,” says Cooper. “You can’t go wrong going to Disney World.”
The DAS: Does it Work for Everyone?
In theory the Disability Access Service sounds great, but one of the first problems is convincing guest services you truly need the accommodation. A guest service cast member can’t ask about your disability, but they will ask, “What obstacles do you think you will face in the park that might inhibit your ability to enjoy it?” You need to be honest, brutally honest. They normally won’t give folks with wheelchairs a DAS. Wheelchair users can just go to the ride exit and get a return time. The problem is return times are usually 30-140 minutes and in Disneyland especially, ride exits are up hills scattered across the park. This requires someone in a manual wheelchair to traipse across the park time and again to get a return time. The extra pushing, coupled with assisting a wheelchair user on and off rides, can burn out family and friends pretty quick. The DAS allows you to get ride times added at one of four kiosks throughout the park. Only one ride can be queued up at a time, but it does save a lot of wear and tear on everyone’s body.
Vicky Sharamitaro’s son, Austin, 13, has CP and autism. He cannot walk or speak, uses a power chair and eats via G-tube. When Austin’s health took a turn for the better in 2008, the family started taking a yearly trip to Disneyland. They loved it and felt that Disney accommodated their needs, usually staying at one of the Disney properties on each of their trips and using a two-day Park Hopper ticket, which allows admission at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park. They would walk or take the monorail back to the hotel to change Austin and get more food and so on. Later they found out that the nurse’s station at the park had beds that could be used by people with disabilities to relieve pressure, change clothes, etc., so they started using those accommodations to improve the quality of their trip.
Last year, however, they decided to forgo the annual outing for fear the new policy changes would be too chaotic.
The DAS card can alleviate the discomfort of being stuck in a line — a place no one wants to be if they are hit with bladder or bowel issues, dysreflexia or the myriad of other secondary conditions that plague people with disabilities. However, it doesn’t address other factors that can cause things to go wrong.
Sharamitaro shared an example that started with simply trying to get transportation from the parking lot. “First we stood in line for the shuttle bus. The driver told us it would be quicker to go to the tram line. We did, but the first tram drove away as we walked over. The second tram was filled with strollers in the wheelchair accessibility area. We finally got the third tram. It took us three times as long as other guests.”
After her family found their way to guest services, they waited more than 30 minutes, only to be faced with 15 more minutes of questioning as to why their son needed special treatment. “I can’t believe I had to justify why my son needs special treatment. I went through everything. Like the fact that the only place available to effectively deal with my son’s toileting issues is the nurse’s station at the entrance. And the fact that I have to get him out of his chair to feed him by tube. All these things take hours out of our day. These issues need to be included when assessing someone’s accommodations.”
Sharamitaro’s dissatisfaction is echoed in a lawsuit filed earlier this year by the mothers of 16 kids and young adults with developmental disabilities from across the nation. The lawsuit accuses Disney Parks and Resorts of failing to accommodate their children’s disabilities and of actively dissuading their presence at the company’s theme parks.
Andrew Skinner would have to disagree with the lawsuit’s allegations. “I think Disneyland is one of the most accommodating parks there is. Everyone is friendly and tries to help out. One cast member even chased me down to tell me which rides were accessible. I’m always happy there.”
Although Skinner acknowledged that he did not know about all of the policy changes, he still says he had a fantastic time. However, his needs are different than Austin Sharamitaro’s, whose mother says she followed the protocol, explained her individual circumstances, and felt dismissed. “The two people who were at the desk when I got there left on their scooters with the same DAS as Austin. Our needs are not even remotely the same!” Too often in response to rampant abuse, the pendulum swings the other way and errs on the side of caution, and people with real disability needs are left wanting.
But Disney is trying. New rides are designed with special features to accommodate people with mobility issues, and several old rides have been retrofitted with special cars that open up for level transfers from a wheelchair. Dumbo, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Alice’s Teacups all have these adaptations, along with many others. Some rides, like Buzz Lightyear, Winnie the Pooh and Ariel’s Undersea Adventure can even accommodate power wheelchairs. Even It’s a Small World has a boat that allows you to remain in your wheelchair.
The Family Experience
“The newer rides are wheelchair friendly,” says Skinner. “Some rides accommodate the chair itself. Those rides really make the trip worthwhile. They gave me a map that highlighted specific rides that allowed the chair. It’s hard to get through the park in a manual chair, so if it is just Kirsten, Betty and me, I take a power chair, which is easier but it definitely limits access. I tried to go on stair tours. When I got to the ride, they needed me to transfer to a hospital chair — very cookie cutter. It’s like putting on someone else’s shoes. I waited in line, then had to turn around because the ride was not accessible to power chairs even though the map indicated you could remain in the chair for the ride.”
Skinner says they go on more rides that relate to the characters because that’s what Betty appreciates. Dumbo is one of her favorites. Buzz Lightyear is the family favorite. “You can access it in any type of chair, and it goes off track to allow for loading. Little Mermaid also lets you stay in the chair. So does the new Toy Story and Monsters Inc. ride in Disney California Adventure. That park is more inclusive — built for more direct access. It’s a Small World also has wheelchair access. Winnie the Pooh has one car as well. When we were getting loaded it set off the delay switch. The ride actually stopped and everyone else was evacuated. But I couldn’t get off. The cast members came to talk to me and assured me it was not my fault. They let me ride it with lights on and rode with us. They explained the science behind the ride and then let us ride it more than once.”
When Andrew is cruising around in his chair, Betty is on his lap wearing her princess dress and Andrew is wearing his Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Kirsten has her Disneyland shirt on. “We all have ears, and Kirsten has Mickey Mouse barrette ears. We are just a happy Disney family looking to really enjoy the trip. When Betty was small we enjoyed taking her, but once a year was enough. Now that she is older, we will probably go more.”
• Scootaround currently provides a unique Meet and Greet service for personal mobility equipment rentals at Disney World properties. Since 2012, visitors to Disney properties have been able to make arrangements to rent equipment through Scootaround’s reservation services in both the Winnipeg and Orlando locations and have their equipment delivered to them upon arrival at Disney. Once delivered, Scootaround’s personnel take the time to explain key features so guests can enjoy their Disney vacation with comfort in their equipment. To book personal mobility equipment for rental or for more information call 888/441-7575 or visit www.scootaround.com/rent-online.
• Disney disAbilities forum: www.disboards.com/forum display.php?f=20
• Disney Parks Disability Access Service Card Fact Sheet: disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog/disney-parks-disability-access-service-card-fact-sheet
• Guests with Disabilities, FAQ, Walt Disney World: disneyworld.disney.go.com/faq/guests-with-disabilities
• Rolling With the Magic: www.rollingwiththemagicblog.com
• Services for Guests with Disabilities, Disneyland: disneyland.disney.go.com/guest-services/guests-with-disabilities
Disney’s Evolving Universe
Disney’s theme-park empire now includes Disneyland and Disney California Adventure in California, Disney World in Florida, Tokyo Disney Resort, Paris Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland. A new park is slated to open in Shanghai in 2015-2016.
Each park around the world has similar rides, and they utilize innovative technology to make them accessible. According to Disney, almost 50 percent of the rides and attractions at Disney Parks allow you to remain in your chair to enjoy them. Other rides and attractions are accessible if you can transfer with the help of someone in your party. Very few rides have absolutely no access (e.g., Tarzan’s Tree House requires climbing). However, the newest version, built for Disney Hong Kong, which opened in 2005, allows wheelchair access on the ground level. Also, rafts that take you to the tree house are fully accessible.
Every renovation Disney makes, and each new park Disney opens, strives to take advantage of advances in technology so all guests can be fully immersed in the magic of Disney’s stories, rides and attractions. Currently Disney World is piloting the new FastPass+ system and MagicBands. These technologies are collectively known as Disney Next Gen and allow visitors to plan, schedule and execute their entire vacation via the Web or smartphone app.
Get the Most out of Your Disney Vacation
Melissa Knight is a self-proclaimed “Disney enthusiast” who blogs about her Disney travel experiences at Rolling With The Magic. When asked which came first, her business or her love of Disney, she quickly replies, “The love of Disney came first, and my vacation planning business came second when I realized I could make money doing something I really like.”
Knight, a wheelchair user with spina bifida, is an independent vacation planner affiliated with MEI and Mouse Fan Travel. She’s been to every Disney property in the United States, has taken Disney cruises, and uses these first-hand experiences to help wheelchair users and their families get the most out of their Disney vacations. Here are a few of her tips:
• Use FastPass+ and don’t fear waiting in line. This is a program that allows you to make appointments well ahead of time for up to three of the attractions you most want to see. Then, you are only in line with others who chose the same time as you. Also, waiting in line may not be all that bad. “There were times when if you skipped part of the line, you missed things that were kind of cool,” says Knight, 36, who lives in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. “Plus, I want to get treated like everybody else — I can wait here for an hour just like them.”
• Do some research to find out which attractions have alternate wheelchair accessible entrances. Don’t waste one of your FastPasses on an older attraction where the main entrance isn’t accessible. Instead, use the accessible entrance and if it isn’t too busy, you’ll get right on. If it is busy, they’ll give you a card that knocks 10 minutes off the expected wait time.
• If your disability isn’t visible or if you require more than wheelchair access, stop at guest relations first. A cast member will help you figure out what types of accommodations you need and then issue you a DAS card. “People with kids with autism get these so they’re not waiting in line, but are waiting somewhere else,” says Knight. “For me, cast members see my wheelchair and know I need an accommodation so I don’t need a DAS card. As long as you are willing to express your needs, they are willing to work with you.”
For more tips and advice from Knight, check out her Disney blog, Rolling With the Magic, www.rollingwiththemagicblog.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. And for more info on FastPass+, go here: disneyworld.disney.go.com/plan/my-disney-experience/fastpass-plus
Aulani: Disney’s Paradise Resort
Aulani, Disney’s newest venture, opened in 2011. It is an island resort located on the oceanfront in the beautiful Ko Olina Resort area of Oahu, Hawaii.
The entire resort has fully integrated designs to meet the needs of people with disabilities, including several pools and hot tubs all equipped with lifts. The Waikolohe Pool has zero-depth entry points that allow guests to roll right into the water. There are also water wheelchairs available for guests to transfer into and use.
In addition, the resort provides sand wheelchairs for guest use, has several accessible paths of travel throughout the property, an on-site snorkeling reef, a lazy river, and a variety of accessible splash zones. There are several ADA rooms, and accommodations in every shop, restaurant and activity. There are even additional excursions that can be booked, including horse-back riding, snorkeling, spending the day on a catamaran or exploring the island and touring sites like Waimea Falls and Diamond Head Crater.
Many of these excursions can accommodate people with disabilities. However, it is important to contact Pleasant Activities Excursions directly so they can confirm with the actual tour operator that your needs can be met. Go to: aulaniexcursions.pleasantactivities.com
What About Disney Cruising?
Disney also launched a cruise line in 1998. The Disney Magic, its first ship, began its maiden voyage out of Port Canaveral, Fla. Today Disney Cruise line has four ships that sail to Alaska, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and several other destinations. According to the Cruise Critic, Disney rates in the top three of cruises for people with disabilities: “Especially good for families with disabled children, the Disney Cruise line adheres to the philosophy that any child should be able to participate in youth programming, regardless of ability, and youth counselors have experience working with children with disabilities, including autism and behavioral challenges.”
All Disney ships have state-of-the-art, wheelchair-friendly accommodations that include wide bathroom doors, bathtubs with grab bars and/or roll-in showers. Some rooms sleep up to five guests, which is great for families. The cruises in the Caribbean and Bahamas dock at Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay. The island can be accessed easily by visitors with mobility impairments. The ships dock right at the island, so there is no need for tendering to shore in a ferry boat. This makes debarkation a breeze. Paved pathways provide access throughout the island, and wheelchair users can borrow special wheelchairs provided by Disney to access the sand and water.