Andrew Bichard -- December 2000 -- Walt Disney World (WL, BIR) / Disney Cruise Trip
5th December 2000 to 3rd January 2001
Disney in a Wheelchair
I have no doubt you have read many reports giving a day by day account about what a family did at Disney. This won't be another of those. I just wanted to record a few thoughts and comments about my experiences at Disney in a wheelchair. My name is Andrew, I have an overall muscular weakness (spinal muscular atrophy) that means I now use an electric wheelchair for getting around. I can stand up (with difficulty) and take one or two steps if I have something solid like grab rails to hang on to. I never risk transferring in or out of my wheelchair once I leave my hotel room.
I am on vacation with Sheila my wife. We are regular visitors to Disney from the UK aged in our 50s. We have seen and done most of what we want to on previous trips (though never before at this time of year), and are now content just to enjoy the parks and hotels at a leisurely pace.
12/04/00 - Hilton Hotel London Gatwick 12/05/00 - 12/10/00 - Wilderness Lodge 12/11/00 - 12/15/00 - Boardwalk Inn 12/16/00 - 12/22/00 - Disney Magic 12/23/00 - 01/02/01 - Boardwalk Inn
My electric wheelchair is an Invacare Storm with tilting seat, reclining backrest and elevating footplates, all powered. By making the appropriate adjustments, I can turn it into a mobile sun-lounger. It has a range of about 17 miles on fully charged batteries, and flat out could just about keep up with a jogger. It isn't any longer or wider than a regular manual chair, though much heavier, thanks to two industrial strength batteries under the seat. I can turn 360 degrees in not much more than my overall length, so am much more maneuverable than an ECV.
I get to the airport by London black cab to Victoria railway station, then take the Gatwick express, both wheelchair accessible. We stay overnight at the Hilton, which is connected to the terminals by walkway so that we have no worries about arriving late. I ride my chair right out to the gate where it is loaded into the hold. I am carried to my seat like a sack of potatoes in a special wheelchair that is narrow enough for aircraft isles. We have paid a little extra to sit in the bigger seats up front because I can no longer get in and out of the 'cattle' class seats. We are traveling with Virgin, a company that has a superb reputation for dealing with passengers with disabilities. I wish I could say the same for Gatwick Handling, the company that loads and unloads luggage (and wheelchairs) and/or their counterpart in Orlando. My chair has fully charged batteries when it leaves the UK, but they are almost flat on arrival in Florida. I just about make it to the Mears wheelchair bus with my warning lights flashing. The chair finally gives up just inside my room at the Wilderness Lodge. That's cutting it too close for comfort!
Wilderness Lodge is not great for wheelchair transport to the Magic Kingdom. The only direct way (without going by bus via TTC) is by boat. Wilderness Lodge, Wilderness Campground and Contemporary all have floating docks allowing wheelchair access to the launches. Magic Kingdom doesn't. I took a ride back from campground to lodge one afternoon, and one evening convinced a Magic Kingdom launch to divert to Contemporary to drop me there, which the captain reluctantly agreed to do. There were two sizes of launch in use, a small one that you had to step down into (not accessible) and a larger one which had a deck just about level with the dock. This latter is accessible to both manual and electric wheelchairs, though ECVs would have difficulty with the right angle turn they would have to make immediately after getting aboard. The launches are all in radio contact, and I was told to just talk to the captain if the wrong one came along, and he would radio for the larger launch to divert next time it passed by. It was this larger launch that I used. The rest of the time I had to take a bus to TTC and switch to monorail or ferry to get to MK. All the other parks had a direct bus with no change. MK is by far the least convenient park to get to if you have an electric wheelchair.
As always, some people just had to push ahead of me in crowds. I potter along, leaving a gap between my toes (which overhang the front of my footplates) and the people walking in front. Someone edges past me to fill in the gap and then scowls at me when I run into their feet.
Have you ever tried to walk against the tide from Mexico, past Canada to the International Gateway just as Illuminations ends? I had to do it a couple of times. I just switched on my hazards (my Invacare is highway legal for the UK, with full lights, turn indicators and hazards) and head into the crowd with my wife following. The crowd magically parts in front of us.
Some people are blind to wheelchairs. This year's favourite trick (and it happened to me more than once) was the family walking ten to fifteen feet in front of me. They would spot a photo opportunity and stop dead. I would stop too. Then the person with the camera would shout 'smile' and start walking backwards towards me. I can't back up, because I don't have mirrors.
My wheelchair is controlled by a joystick. I discovered that the 'Mickey' antenna ball (on sale most everywhere) fits perfectly as a substitute for my regular joystick cover. My 'Mickey' is the one with the Santa hat - very seasonal.
Here's an idea - how about virtual rides for wheelchairs! Because I can't transfer out of my wheelchair, there are some rides I never get to try out. Near the fountain at Epcot, I noticed a huge LCD TV screen showing, amongst other things, a couple of shots of Test Track. So why not let wheelchairs ride through the pre-show then divert them into a booth with a similar large screen or VR goggles showing the ride in full? Not quite as good as the real thing, but better than nowt. My wife would ride as normal and we would join up again as she exited and my movie completed. My biggest disappointment is not so much that I cannot ride myself, as the fact that I cannot share the experience with my wife who has.
Smoking - Ok, I don't smoke so a total ban wouldn't worry me in the least. In all my many previous trips though, I had only occasionally been bothered by cigarette smokers. Since my last visit 'designated smoking areas' have been introduced without, in my opinion, any real improvement. Firstly, smoking rules seem to be generally ignored, and I still found people who think that cupping a cigarette from view in their hand is as good as seeking out a smoking area - I just wish they would remember not to swing that hand within six inches of my face. Being a non smoker, I don't check out where the smoking areas are, then get an unpleasant surprise when I stumble onto one by accident. Finally, my favourite bar (the Belle Vue Lounge at the Boardwalk) now considers itself a 'smoking' bar without even a non-smoking area. During my trip it was cold, Cold, COLD!!, and maybe that brought all the smokers inside. Who knows? All I know, is that I had to leave the bar a couple of times when fellow guests lit up on the next table.
Last time we visited (September '99), we had to wait for ages to get back to the Boardwalk by boat after Fantasmic! Soon after, Disney constructed a path along the canal leading to Crescent Lake to link up with the path into Epcot. Its original use (according to a boat captain) was as a running path linking MGM and Epcot for the Disney Marathon in January 2000. That path now has railings along the canal plus lighting and is now officially open to guests. It is a great way to get back to the Boardwalk from MGM in an electric wheelchair when there are three boats worth of guests waiting. It is just under a mile, and I can make it back in about twelve minutes, less if I cut through the car park to the front of the Boardwalk. It was however, too far for my wife after a long afternoon walking around. The 12 year old Glenmorangie I had at the Belle Vue Lounge waiting for her was good though!
Have you noticed how we wheelchair and ECV users like to be first getting off the Friendship boats at Epcot's International Gateway? We are not trying to be pushy or rude, just saving the crew the trouble of getting out the ramps. When full, the Friendships are level with the dock and no ramp is needed; as people get off, the boats rise in the water.
Disney photographers in the parks (not so far on the cruise ships) are changing over to digital cameras. Mostly, the pictures they produce are fine for their intended purpose, head and shoulders snapshots, printed 6x4 maximum. However, I was part of a group photo of radp members taken at the International gateway. I was one of about 250 people in the photo. My face was reduced to a single pixel on the print and my shirt just two more. The photo was definitely a picture of 250 people, but no individual was recognisable. I didn't buy the photo. Digital technology isn't good enough yet for group photos. Disney needs to re-think.
I notice that the new quiet pool at the Wilderness Lodge Villas has 'disabled' access. This consists of a flight of steps continuing out of the pool up to a platform at wheelchair height. Anyone with restricted use of their legs, but strong upper body strength could 'bump' themselves out of the water, then on up the steps to the platform where they could make an easy side transfer to their wheelchair. I would love to be able to go swimming again and I look foreword to being able to use the pools (and hot tubs) at Disney someday. Floating in water, my disability goes away. Maybe I can't swim as fast as everyone else, but the exercise would be great. I just wish that they would provide some kind of hoist too, for those of us without upper body strength, who cannot use the steps.
On my way out of London Gatwick airport, a luggage porter asked me where I was headed. It turns out he is a Disney fan not long back from a stay at one of the All Stars. He told me about this fantastic wheelchair he had seen at Innoventions. He reckoned it must have been very, very expensive; at least £5000. I had to point out that my relatively unsophisticated powerchair cost me £6500 ($9500). The chair he had seen was the IBOT, on show in the future house. It can climb steps and steep ramps, and can lift the user eye to eye with anyone standing, by tipping up and balancing on two wheels. In the upright position it balances, I assume, with the aid of some kind of gyro controlling the power to the wheels. In the demonstration, the CM gives it a hefty shove and the (empty) chair powers off automatically in the direction it is pushed to maintain its balance. Very impressive indeed, though I wonder what would happen if it 'tripped over' a chair say, when balancing. I later find out that it is still a prototype without federal use approval. Disney has two so they can switch between them to ensure they always have a working one on display. They cost about £25000 ($35000) each. I cannot see the UK National Health Service or US Medicaid handing them out any day real soon!
My wife and I tried to see the New Year in at Epcot. Cold weather was forecasted, so we were bundled up well as we entered through the International Gateway from the Boardwalk about 11am. Epcot was already closed to offsite guests and CMs were already stationed outside the turnstiles checking that everyone had a hotel key. I assume they were checking that no-one had parked at one of the Epcot hotels and were trying to sneak in posing as hotel guests! People were already staking out spots by the railings around the lake with blankets ready for Illuminations. The day was quite warm provided you kept out of the shade, but once the sunset, temperatures dropped rapidly. People were now huddling under those blankets around the lake adjusting their hats and scarves, and generally looking very miserable indeed. By 10 pm my wife was insisting on walking around the lake one more time just to keep warm. The trouble with using a wheelchair is that you don't generate any heat just sitting there. I was wearing about four layers, and had wrapped myself in a blanket but I was chilled to the bone. We were back in bed at the Boardwalk by 11pm and couldn't even drag ourselves to the window to watch the fireworks from our window.
As part of our vacation, we took a seven-day cruise to the Caribbean on the Magic. Getting about on board offered some challenges. First, the elevators; these are very important for wheelchair users, because space is limited on board, and everything has to be 'stacked up' to fit it within the limited length of the ship. Restaurants, bars, pools, theatres and so on were all on different decks, so I was constantly using the elevators. I had no problem when my wife was with me to call (and hold) the elevator. On my own however, I had real problems. I would call an elevator then 'back up' to the middle of the lift lobby to see which of the four would arrive first. There would be a 'ping' as the lift arrived and then the fun would start. Either; a) the doors would close again before I got across the lobby, b) there was no space for me in the lift, c) someone would get out at my floor, but so slowly the door would close behind them before I could get in. This was especially true of the main atrium elevators. I would guess that averaged over my entire trip, I generally took the third elevator that came along. The record, one busy evening was the twelfth - very frustrating. Children playing 'hide and seek' or riding up and down the elevators with two-way radios didn't help.
Doors out onto deck were often heavy to push open, and had high (ramped) thresholds, no doubt to keep out the wind and sea. Some (but not all) were powered, and opened when you pushed a button. It took a while to get used to where these powered doors were, and to be able to get around unaided. Some doors, like the one on deck 10 to the lobby of Palo's restaurant were too narrow for a wheelchair without the second leaf being unbolted and opened. There was, in fact a second route to Palo's, by way of the rear lifts, but once again, it took time to seek it out.
Deck 9, the main pool deck was a disaster for wheelchairs. Because everyone oriented their sun-loungers towards the sun there was rarely enough space to pass along the deck in a wheelchair. The able bodied could slip sideways between the narrow gaps, but not wheelchairs. More than once, as someone settled back into the same position I had moved them from, I had to point out that I expected to return the same way in ten or fifteen minutes.
One more thing about two-way radios. These were very popular with families and children keeping in touch both in the parks and on the cruise. Maybe I was lucky, but I had no problems with them in the parks. On the cruise it was different. People seemed to think it OK to use them in the theatre or cinema provided they stood at the back just inside the doors, or sat in the back row. Unfortunately for me, all the wheelchair spaces were just inside the doors at the back and I never once sat through a performance undisturbed. Granted, people would whisper into the microphone, but the all seemed to have their speakers turned up full so there would be constant sounds of kssssccchh!! around me. At one point I had to tap the guy in front of me on the head and suggest he turn his radio off or go out into the lobby. The crewmember just inside the door didn't seem to know what to do. I was obviously getting more and more annoyed. He heard the radio too, but seemed afraid to take action for fear of offending the culprit. I was probably more angered by his lack of action than by the radio itself.
Did you know that all the Cruise line Buses have restrooms? Did you know that they are ADA compliant? The partition enclosing them folds out like origami to double their size sufficient for a wheelchair. Very impressive! Did you know that wheelchairs have to be strapped down to the floor so they cannot move whilst the bus is in motion?
If you don't have good sea legs, beware. Because staterooms that are adapted for wheelchair use tend to be more square in shape than regular rooms, they are all situated at the bows and stern (at least on the Magic), where they are easier to fit in. These are the parts of the ship that move most. I wasn't especially troubled, but my wife had a bout of mal de mer one evening. If you need to make a 'side transfer' to move from your wheelchair to sit on the toilet, be sure to ask for details of your bathroom when you book. Every adapted stateroom exists in left and right hand versions depending on which side of the ship it is located. I was the wrong side of the ship and had to remove my 'joystick' armrest to transfer. Note also that housekeeping will be able to provide a bed-board and second mattress if your bed is too low, raised toilet or shower seats and other aids if you need them. Ask when you book, just to be sure.
My cruise (16th - 23rd December), was the first Magic cruise to dock at St Maarten rather than tender in. I was therefore able to go ashore, which was an unexpected bonus. Although you can see the town across the bay from the dock, most people take a ferry across. This ferry is not wheelchair accessible unless the chair and occupant can be lifted up a three-foot flight of steps, then down six into the boat. If, like me, you have a power chair or scooter and are willing to take your chances on the highway, you can ride into town. I would guess the ride to be just over a mile. Traffic isn't too heavy or fast but you need to take care. A sidewalk is under construction but not completed, so your companions would want to take the ferry. From what I could tell as I rode past, there won't be any dropped crossings anyway, so it will not be of any use. I was told that a new bay-side walkway from the dock into town is planned (someday). St Maarten has all the usual duty free jewelry and tee-shirt shops, plus an open air market. The main shopping street is partially closed to traffic and I had no trouble riding up and down. Most of the shops have steps into them so you will need a companion to shop for you. I didn't investigate the beaches because my wheelchair and soft sand do not mix. There was an ATM in the centre of town next to the pier, plus some (allegedly) wheelchair accessible restrooms. I guess a manual chair user might have been OK, but I couldn't close the door behind my electric chair and had to ask someone to 'stand guard' to give me privacy. Most of the restaurants that I checked out were upstairs or had steps leading to them. The one right next to the pier though had tables on the street and a good lunch menu.
Our next shore trip was at St Thomas. A word of caution here. Although we docked at the pier as expected, I was told that this is not always the case. Because there are a limited number of 'slots' at the pier, some cruise liners have no alternative but tender in. Most of the year is no problem, but once in a while, at peak times, the Magic fails to get a slot. The run up to Christmas and the New Year is one of those peaks. I was able to get ashore but if you use a wheelchair too, there is just a chance, a slim one maybe, that you might not.
A couple of days earlier, I had enquired of guest services about the availability of shore trips for wheelchair users. I was told that nothing was set up officially, but they would investigate with their shore agents to see if anything could be set up. Chad, of the pursers' office came up trumps. He managed to arrange a 'Round the Island' tour for my wife and me, on a wheelchair adapted bus. Ours was the first trip that had been officially arranged by Disney, though I understand travelers on earlier cruises had made their own private arrangements. The trip was not perfect - I would have liked to get off the bus more often than the single time that I was able to, but I can understand the driver's reluctance, considering the time it took to load or unload me. I did get off though at the top of the mountain, an obvious tourist spot with lots of shops, a bar and an outside viewing platform. Too bad that the viewing platform was down a flight of steps, so I only had a restricted view through the windows of the bar. Chad told me that my trip was a prototype, and that Disney intended to develop this ride to the point where Disney organized shore trips for wheelchairs would be regularly offered.
Just a few yards from the dockside on St Thomas was a shopping mall. If you aren't going on a bus trip, this is about as far as you will be able to get in a wheelchair. I didn't spend much time looking around, but concluded that broadly, the shops we similar to St Maarten but without the charm.
Thirty-six hours later we arrived at Castaway Cay. As we left the ship (mid morning), we were met by people wrapped in 'Mickey' capes, getting back on. It was our first taste of the colder weather that was to come. The shower didn't last long, though it remained too chilly for all but a few hardy souls to swim and sunbathe, though I did see a full 'banana' being towed behind a speedboat later on. While my wife read a book on a chilly, windy beach, I took a ride down the cycle path to the end of the island and back. Once beyond the adult beach, the path is just packed sand, though firm enough for an electric wheelchair with large tyres. Its an OK ride if you like scrub, more scrub and then even more scrub. Beware of cyclists however. More than once, I had to remind them that they were in the Bahamas and therefore riding on the wrong side of the track! For those of you with someone able to push, there were quite a few wheelchairs with oversize 'balloon' wheels available to borrow that you could take onto the sand. The sand on the beaches was however far too soft for my powerchair. If you want to use a restroom, or buy a snack, do so before going down to the adult only beach. Facilities down there are separated from the main paved paths and roadways by twenty feet or so of soft sand.
St Maarten and Castaway Cay are not US territories, so you have to pass through US immigration both on the morning you arrive at St Thomas, and again at Port Canaveral. For US citizens this process is painless (just fill out a customs declaration on return to Port Canaveral). This is not so for not US citizens like my wife and me from the United Kingdom. We have to show up in person early in the morning (6:30 am and 7am) collect our passports and report to immigration on board. Now assume you are 'disabled' and need between an hour and 75 minutes to get out of bed, dressed, leg braces strapped on and boots laced. This means you have to set your alarm for sometime between 4:30 and 5am, not something I expect to do, especially on vacation.
One of the joys of vacationing with Disney is that everyone is so friendly. I was not surprised then when a fellow passenger on the cruise approached me on deck on morning and asked me how I was enjoying my trip. I told him about my unexpected trip ashore at St Maarten, which had been an unexpected bonus and said that we were enjoying the cruise very much, except for having to get up at the break of dawn. He pressed me for details. I explained my problem regarding getting up so early. I pointed out that had I not been able to take a shore trip at St Thomas, I might have decided not to leave the ship at all and that it wasn't worth while getting out of bed at 5am just for the benefit of others (no-one can go ashore until all non-US citizens have cleared immigration). I reassured him that in all probability I would have got up rather than confine everyone else to ship but that I might have been a little resentful. Surprisingly he said he would do something about it, and I came to suspect he was more than just a regular passenger. A couple of days later we were eating at Palo's when he came over from his table to ask us how we had gotten on. We explained that, on his instructions the pursers' office had arranged an extension for us with immigration on our return to Port Canaveral and we now had an extra hour in bed. Curious as to his influence over the crew, my wife asked him who he was. He introduced himself as Matt Ouisnett (sp?), President of Disney Cruise Lines.
The problem with a trip report like this, which is written for an audience of confirmed Disney addicts who comes to Disney regularly, is that it tends to concentrate on the minor problems we encountered. It ignores all the good things, the things that have brought us back to Disney most every year since the mid 70's as day visitors, then as guests at on-site hotels for two or three weeks each year since 1996. It ignores the reasons that have convinced us, finally, to buy timeshare through Disney Vacation Club. Friends at home see Disney as a 'kiddie' destination and cannot imagine why people in their fifties, with grown up children, would want to visit. I tell friends it is like going to see a movie. You know its not real, but for an hour or two, you totally immerse yourself and for a while, at least, it is real.
At home, we are professional people (an architect and a psychologist), wear sober clothes, talk in professional language and think serious thoughts. For a few weeks at Disney each year, we get to forget about all that, wear silly hats, act like children and meet with people without getting drawn into conversations about blocked drains or child abuse. Nobody knows us, and we can have fun. We meet all sorts of friendly people, not just cast members. Some we have been talking to for years on bulletin boards and it is great to meet them face to face. Some are total strangers who strike up conversation on the bus, at the pool, in a bar, or in line for a ride. And people strike up conversations with me, despite the fact that I use a wheelchair. (Sometimes at home, people talk to my wife about me when we are out together, what I call the 'does he take sugar in his tea?' syndrome), something that has never happened to me at Disney.
We stay on site, at Disney hotels which are 'themed' as thoroughly as the parks. Our favourite hotel is the Boardwalk Inn, which is based on the seaside hotels of Long Island and New Jersey of the '30s. Of an evening we can sit in the Bell Vue Lounge with a drink, playing Monopoly (they have a good stock of board games), and listening to the Jack Benny show or the Shadow on the radio ('what evil lies in the hearts of men. only the Shaaadowwww knows!). When we stay on-site the theming is 24 hours, seven days a week. What better way to escape?
The biggest single reason for coming to WDW, for me, is the extent of the facilities for the disabled. There are many rides in the park that I cannot transfer onto as I did 25 years ago, when I was much more mobile, but rides aren't everything, there are plenty of other things to do and see in and around the parks. We have been so often now, that my wife and I no longer feel the need to rush into a park at rope drop on an early entry day with a commando plan. We might have a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, hang out at the pool awhile, pop into Epcot to buy something in Japan say, then return to our room. Vacations are all about relaxing, and after all, if we miss something this time, we will always be back next year.
My wife especially likes to hang out at the quiet pool with a crossword and a good novel and soak up a bit of the sun that we are denied at home. Because, perhaps, my wheelchair and my work conspire to keep me indoors at home (I work from home) for much of my time, I really enjoy getting out and about, breathing the fresh air, and chatting with people. Because all the parks, hotels, entertainment and shopping, within the 47 square miles of WDW are served by an integrated, wheelchair accessible, transport system, I can come and go as I please. I don't need to rent an expensive adapted wheelchair van to get around. I can go where I want, when I want, and without taking my wife with me to act as minder. I know that most paths will be wide enough for my wheelchair, flat and level. Sidewalks will have kerb crossings at regular intervals. If there are steps, there will be a ramp nearby. If I need a restroom, there will always be a 'disabled' stall or a companion restroom nearby. If I want to eat in a self-service restaurant, there will always be a wide isle for wheelchairs and someone on hand to carry my tray back to my table.
Buses all have wheelchair lifts (gradually, over the years, Disney has been upgrading its fleet with wheelchair buses, to the point that in three weeks, I came across just one single bus without a lift). I know that I can get a recharge from any outlet if I have a flat battery, I know that wheelchair rental services will put air in my tires if I need it. I know they will give minor mechanical assistance if I break down even though I am using my own chair, not theirs and call help from an offsite repair shop if there is nothing they can do. On this last trip, even room maintenance at the Boardwalk helped me out by lending me a metric hex wrench to adjust my chair. Basically, if you need assistance, Disney provides it. As a footnote, I should add that assistance isn't confined to wheelchair users. Although I wasn't especially looking out for it, I did notice Braille signs, reflective captioning, and at the Candlelight Processional, a very dramatic sign interpreter who was amazing to watch, even for someone who doesn't read sign language, like me.
Here's a tip to save money next year. If you are in Epcot for more than one night during the Candlelight Processional Carol series, buy the dinner package for every night you intend to eat at Epcot, not just the night you go to the concert. Attendance at the Processional isn't compulsory and you still get your 15% discount on meals and merchandise bought in the park that day. Oh, and you get extra pins and lanyards!
And finally, thanks to all the little things that made us feel welcome...