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Theme-Park Access Guide
Accessing theme parks for those with disabilities
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Tony Phoenix and Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, editors
Roll with us through Disney's California Adventure
by Tony Phoenix, staff writer

As only the second Disney park built in the U.S. after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed a decade ago, my wife and I were intrigued to see how Imagineering approached accessibility at Disney's California Adventure (DCA). What we found was both encouraging and frustrating.

Our observations were made during several preview events earlier this month. Like most of our reviews here at MousePlanet, they reflect low-attendance levels and small crowds. We also want to note that access policies at some attractions are still being worked out during the previews, and that the Guidebook for Guests with Disabilities, the park's resource for guests, is still being reviewed before final printing. Information quoted here from the Guidebook may not be the same when you visit. 

The most obvious difference between DCA and Disneyland is that every single queue in DCA is wheelchair-accessible. That's right — every single one. I am thrilled! One of my pet peeves is having to wait with part of my group at the exit while the rest of the group waits in line; situations that all too often end with the two groups being boarded separately anyway. One change resulting from the accessible queues is that Special Assistance Passes (SAPs) are not offered in the same way they are at Disneyland. More on this later… 

Rather than offering an attraction-by-attraction review here, which is coming next week in the TAG Guide to DCA, we touch on a few of the highlights and lowlights.


Probably one of the best examples of accessibility is found at Grizzly River Run, the rapids-style raft ride. Unlike the raft rides found at Magic Mountain or Knott's Berry Farm, the boarding here is easy, convenient, and fast. Disney adopted a method of boarding similar to Test Track in Epcot Center. A raft is pulled off to the side of the main attraction channel (as shown below) and you are given all the time you need to board, without needing to rush or delaying the standard queue. The dock is designed in a way that reduces the amount of raft you have to step over to board. There are still the obligatory steps on the raft, but it is by far the best accessibility for a raft ride I have ever seen. (We understand that this system is also in use at Sea World San Diego.)

Grizzly River Run provides the easiest access of any raft ride in the country. The dock includes an area where a raft can be pulled aside and away from the rest of the rafts.

A cast member pulls an empty raft away from the main waterway into the special access loading area.

The author takes his time to board the raft, without feeling rushed by waiting guests. Notice the wheelchair on the right on the dock; although persons cannot ride on the raft with their wheelchairs, they can roll their wheelchairs right up to the edge of the dock.

Other attractions are notable for their accessible design. Superstar Limo has a wheelchair-accessible "limo" so guests can roll right into the vehicle. The video screen on the ride vehicle even has closed captioning available.

Guests can roll right onto a Superstar Limo ride unit in their wheelchairs.

The video screen on the Superstar Limo ride unit provides Closed Captioning.

Some of the cars on California Screamin' have been built with "transfer seats" that allow guests with limited lower-body strength to maneuver in and out of the car.

The Redwood Challenge Trail has a marked wheelchair-accessible path at ground level, and ramps to some of the second-story areas.

Redwood Challenge Trail has a ramp at the trail that allows guests to ford a stream as other guests cross using rocks. 

King Triton's Carousel has a ramp right onto the attraction (below), as well as a bench seat that folds up to accommodate a wheelchair.

Guests in wheelchairs can roll right onto King Triton's Carousel.

A bench seat on King Triton's Carousel folds up to accommodate wheelchairs.

Most of the show attractions offered reflective captioning or assisted-listening devices. Some offer both. Even Seasons of the Vine, the Mondavi wine presentation, has reflective captioning. It is obvious that these were incorporated early on in the attractions' planning stages as opposed to the years- later additions encountered at Disneyland. 

Sign language interpretation is available at the Drawn to Animation attraction (inside the Disney Animation building) and Hyperion Theater shows. To request this complimentary service, call (714) 781-4555 (TDD 714-781-4569) at least a week in advance. The current Guidebook does not list any form of interpretation or captioning for the Ahwahnee Camp Circle storytelling, although assistive-listening devices are available. If you need ASL interpreting at this storytelling, ask about it when you call.

Even the Carnival games on Paradise Pier have been made wheelchair-accessible.

The seats at one game can be removed to allow a guest using a wheelchair to participate.

The Sun Wheel has ramps into the cars (below) and flip up seats. Even the "swinging" cars are accessible, if you're crazy enough to try them!

One warning about the Sun Wheel — while four adults can normally fit in one of these cars, if one of the four is using a wheelchair, you're in for a tight squeeze. 

Missed Opportunities

Every MousePlanet columnist has raved about what is arguably the best attraction at DCA: Soarin' Over California. I cannot agree more wholeheartedly. It is as amazing as everyone else has said. Unfortunately, there is only a single lap belt for safety on the ride. It would be very easy to add a few five-point harnesses to selected seats, allowing guests with limited upper-body strength the opportunity to enjoy this wonderful attraction. 

Also on my wish list: a viewing platform where guests who can not leave their wheelchairs could watch the movie as well. There are a dozen reasons why this is impractical, unsafe and unreasonable. I guess that's why it's called a "wish list"...sigh.


The biggest disappointments are the accessible seats in the Golden Dreams and It's Tough to be a Bug! theaters. I still don't understand why Disney designers insist that "dispersed seating" means either the very last row, or very front row. The idea is to give people a variety of perspectives and choices. By contrast, the Hyperion and Jim Henson's Muppet*Vision 3D theaters have seats in both the front row, back row, and in several of the middle rows.

Speaking of "Bug!", we want to give a warning here to guests with nervous- system problems like MS, or people with sensitive backs. If this doesn't apply to you or you don't want to have a special effect spoiled for you, skip this next paragraph:

There is an effect used in It's Tough to be a Bug! which is meant to feel like you have been stung by a hornet. It's a mild effect, using air pressure to blow a small plastic rod out of a hole in the seat back. Most people will not be bothered by this. As someone with MS, I can tell you that it may be enough of a jolt, and to a very sensitive location on the back, to cause you problems. Not to mention the fact that this happens while the theater has gone black, causing further equilibrium problems. I suggest sitting on the edge of your seat as soon as you hear the hornets buzzing.  

The food-service locations pose a number of challenges, specifically, the counter-service restaurants. The separation between the customer and the cashier is challenging. Many of the restaurants are equipped with extra-deep counters. I had real trouble handing the cast member my money because of how far away the cast member was. I noticed several able-bodied guests experiencing similar problems. Unfortunately, the extra reach requirements encountered when using a chair made it that much more difficult.

The (McDonald's) Burger Invasion outlet has two wheelchair-accessible lines.

Several of the lines at the counter-service restaurants, like Taste Pilot's Grill, are tight, making it difficult to maneuver to and from the counter. The (McDonald's) Burger Invasion outlet (shown above) has two accessible lines. Both are plainly marked, but were not open on my last visit. The final problem was that there were no cast members available to assist in carrying trays of food, nor was any assistance even offered.

Special Assistance Passes

I mentioned earlier that Special Assistance Passes (SAPs) are not offered at DCA in the same way they are at Disneyland. The entire policy regarding SAPs is under review at both parks, but here is the current DCA version:

Guests using wheelchairs can use the regular line at every attraction, and thus don't need a special pass. Mobility-impaired guests who do not normally use wheelchairs are encouraged to rent them. A note from the Guidebook: "Some Guests may be concerned that they do not have the stamina to wait in our queues. We strongly suggest these guests consider using a wheelchair... as the distance between our attractions is often greater than the length of our queues." 

If you were to read this, it looks like you need to rent a wheelchair at $7.00 per day (or an Electric Convenience Vehicle for $20.00), or you are out of luck. There are a few issues with this. Many people with mobility impairments refuse to use wheelchairs. "I may walk slowly, but at least I can still walk" is a common battle cry. To many people even within the disabled community, there is a stigma attached to using a wheelchair. 

Also, the distance walked is irrelevant. For many people, the distance is not the challenge. Rather, it is the time spent standing. It may only take five minutes to walk from one attraction to the next, but you can easily spend an hour or more standing in line.

Finally, I also frown upon requiring persons to pay additional money to be able to access the park, on top of their admission. I understand that there are only so many wheelchairs. If they were free, they would all be gone within minutes of the park opening. Unfortunately for many guests, renting a wheelchair makes visiting the park more of a burden on the wallet. Guest Relations may be able to assist you with wheelchair rental in the case of special circumstances.

There are many reasons aside from a mobility impairment that someone might need a Special Assistance Pass. Parents of special-needs children often request an SAP when visiting the parks. Any child can become impatient if the line is long, but an autistic child may not be able to bear anything more than a few minutes. Some people are sensitive to sunlight, and can not wait in an un-shaded queue. The reasons are as varied as the Guests, and they are mostly valid concerns. 

Having talked with a few Guest Relations cast members, here are some comments and suggestions. First, Special Assistance Passes are available, but  are generally only issued to guests with non-mobility impairments. Again, Guest Relations will suggest that guests with mobility impairments rent a wheelchair. If you feel that you need an SAP, go to Guest Relations and discuss your need with the Host or Hostess. You don't need to divulge your entire medical history. Just tell them what accommodation you need, such as: "I can walk unaided, but I cannot stand for more than 20 minutes." This allows the cast member to better meet your specific needs.

Also, be sure to take advantage of the Fastpass system. Guests with SAPs will be using the Fastpass entrance at most attractions anyway, so you can achieve the same result by obtaining Fastpass tickets to the attractions you want to ride.

Final Thoughts

Accessibility at DCA has its ups and downs. Thankfully, however, many of the earlier concerns expressed to me by cast members about design issues and implementation problems have been worked out. As you would with any visit to a Disney theme park, bring your patience with you. Just because the park was built 10 years after the ADA took effect doesn't mean that all your accessibility concerns have been addressed. While there are challenges, DCA is the still most accessible theme park we have experienced. It is obvious that a tremendous amount of thought went into making the park accessible, and that effort will be appreciated by the thousands of guests with disabilities who visit every year. 

We understand that the special-assistance policies of both parks are under review right now. One rumor that's floating around is that both parks may start using a system similar to the one they have in Florida, in which the SAP is color-coded depending on the type of service needed. For instance, if a person has sun-sensitivity, it's only valid during the day. If the person has a back condition, and they can't stand in a long queue, then it's only valid on attractions without "back condition..." safety warnings, etc. Keep in mind that the policy is under careful review right now, and is always subject to change. Again, patience is key while these new accessibility issues are worked out.

Disney is monitoring Guest reaction to the current policies. So if you have a comment, be sure to let them know. You can send letters to: 

Disneyland Guest Communications
P.O. Box 3232
Anaheim, CA 92808-3232 

You can also e-mail your comments by following the link at the Disneyland Guest Services Web site

If you'd like to speak with somebody personally, the phone number is (714) 781-4669, TDD (714) 781-4569. However, we always suggest that you send written correspondence. Phone calls can't be handed around a board room or left on Paul Pressler's desk.

Roll with us through Disney's California Adventure




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