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Disney World: Access a Dream

Reprinted from PN June 2011

Debra Freed, government relations director at the New England chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, says the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., is a good place for wheelchair users. “It’s one of the most proactive organizations for people with disabilities, as far as I’m concerned, in the U.S.,” she says.

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The story goes that Walt Disney visited some theme parks with his daughters and got a dream for one at which entire families could enjoy attractions. “We believed in our idea—a family park where parents and children could have fun together,” he’s reported as saying.

Debra Freed, government relations director at the New England chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, says the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., is a good place for wheelchair users. “It’s one of the most proactive organizations for people with disabilities, as far as I’m concerned, in the U.S.,” she says.

Walt Disney World is an iconic symbol of American vacationing. It has several theme parks, including the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. Additionally, it has water parks—Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach—and entertainment facilities including Downtown Disney and Disney’s BoardWalk. Visitors also enjoy sports attractions such as ESPN Wide World of Sports and the Walt Disney World Speedway, home of the Richard Petty Driving Experience. It offers golf courses, along with catch-and-release fishing facilities, and about 20 resort hotels. With much fanfare, Disney World opened with just the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971.

For the last 13 years, Bob Minnick has been responsible for making Disney’s older and newer attractions and facilities as accessible as possible. He’s manager of Disney’s Worldwide Facility Safety and Accessibility department.

“Overall, about 80% (of rides) have some sort of accommodation for guests using wheelchairs,” he says. “We’re still working on the others.”


Richard Daniel says Walt Disney World Resort is very accessible to him.

In some cases, access to attractions is available to wheelchair users able to stand and transfer. In others, that’s not needed. For example, inventive use of vertical and horizontal lifts opened a mainstay of the Magic Kingdom to wheelchair users: the Jungle Cruise.

“We’ve gone back to some of our classic rides to put wheelchair access in,” says Minnick. “We won an award for that design. It makes a classic ride work for everybody.”

Disney has in recent years drawn some fire from disability organizations. A recent suit started when Disney employees barred people with disabilities who preferred using Segway PTs to conventional mobility devices. Disney cited concerns about guest safety. A federal judge upheld Disney’s right to ban the Segway PTs, noting the plaintiffs could have used scooters or wheelchairs to visit the theme parks. That case was Ault v. Walt Disney World Co.

In a similar situation, Disney employees allegedly demanded that Myrion Rosner, a south Florida mayor, keep his iBot in its four-wheel mode while visiting Epcot. Concern about guest safety was cited as the reason for the alleged confrontation. The iBot is a wheelchair that, among other things, can be operated on two wheels.

Freed visited Disney World in 2000 and 2007 with extended family. “If you have a wheelchair user, and have people in a group, the entire group goes in with the wheelchair,” she explains. “If I wanted to go on a ride, my nieces stayed with me. Everyone stays together. It was really cool.” She notes wheelchair users don’t seem to get reduced waiting times at attractions.

Tricia LaBar, board member of Lone Star PVA, has repeatedly visited Disney World with her four grandchildren since 1994. “It’s a wonderful place for the disabled, especially for wheelchairs,” she says.

However, LaBar says the extensive transportation system at Disney has some pitfalls for wheelchair users. She explains that not all buses are wheelchair accessible. Nevertheless, she’s flown into Orlando International Airport, taken Disney’s Magical Express to the resort hotels, and never rented a vehicle. The Magical Express is a complimentary airport pickup service.

Additionally, LaBar explains that when a ride she was on malfunctioned, she was unable to evacuate with others. Disney employees showed much concern for her well-being. They were attentive during the time she was stuck in midair but didn’t seem suitably trained for helping people with disabilities during such an incident.

Nevertheless, she says, “We’ve had 11 visits to Disney World, and we’re going back this summer.”

Freed says wheelchair users should remember Disney is a family-vacation destination. “There are sometimes too many people running around, and you might get squashed,” she offers. “Mostly it’s the children, because the Magic King-dom is geared toward the children. The adults are pretty good.”

Minnick suggests that before visiting, you check out www.disneyworld.disney.go.com/guests-with-disabilities/mobility to have a good idea about which attractions are accessible. Additionally, Disney has brochures featuring maps with key information about accessibility features at its parks. These are available at various locations in the parks. 

 Wheelchair user Richard Daniel was recently at the Magic Kingdom, after a day at Epcot. “[Accessibility] was good,” he says. “We were talking about it this morning.”

 

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Disney World: Access a Dream

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