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Accessing theme parks for those with disabilities
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Tony Phoenix and Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, editors

Horror Stories / Hall of Shame

by Tony Phoenix, staff writer

I debated long and hard if this page would ever see the light of day. After a lot of consideration and agonizing over the pros and cons, I felt that the Horror Stories/Hall of Shame page needed to be born.

Why?

You may be wondering why I have chosen to publicly post much of the following information. Let me begin by saying that I have no hidden motives to providing this information. I am not trashing Disneyland for some warped purpose (though I have been accused of exactly that by a few individuals). My intent can be summarized as follows:

It is my hope that other disabled guests can use the negative problems and experiences we have had at Disneyland to avoid some of the mistakes we made, and to be aware of some of the problems that can occur when visiting the park. While readers probably will not experience the exact same problems we have, our hope is to provide examples of problems that have occurred so as to serve as warning signs. Forewarning is the best preparation.

I am honestly hoping to shame the management of Disneyland into making changes. This guide is over three years old now, and has attracted a fair amount of attention from various Disneyland managers, as well as their legal department. I have had extensive conversations with numerous people over these past few years regarding many of the issues I bring up here. After countless broken promises to address the issues, I have tired of fighting them within their system. It is my hope that by posting this information in a very public place, additional pressure can be brought to bear. Maybe we can finally get some of these problems resolved.

To the credit of Cynthia Harris, President of the Disneyland Resort, several issues have been fixed on her watch. The addition of the elevator to the parkÔs Monorail station and increased awareness training for cast members are all examples of very welcome improvements. I sincerely hope that we will continue to see changes that will make the park more accessible to all. Maybe we will even reach a point where this part of my guide can come down for good.

Some of what I write here may offend some people. I do not believe in pulling punches when it comes to dealing with issues such as these. It is my opinion that the only way we will ever see improvements in society today is by discussing the problems openly and frankly, without trying to sugarcoat. Political correctness is being thrown out the window, along with several sacred cows, in the hopes of opening an honest dialog on the issues.

Transportation - The Tram/Van issue

People with disabilities know just how much of a challenge transportation can be. Getting from point A to point B frequently becomes a major production in its own right. This is only amplified when trying to get from the parking lots at Disneyland to the main entrance, and then back to your car at the end of the day.

When Disneyland announced plans to begin building California Adventure on the existing parking lot, several questions were asked on how they were going to move people from the new outlying lots to the main entrance. Tram service was always the given answer. I personally approached several Disney managers directly, including a very senior Guest Relations manager, with specific questions regarding how they expected to transport guests in wheelchairs via trams. I was assured that the issue was being addressed, and a that suitable resolution had been developed.

The first day the new trams were put into operation, we went down to check them out. Ignoring the fact that the drivers drove as if they were possessed, the actual methodology seemed questionable at best. Stop a tram, lower a ramp, push the chair on, strap down the chair with four harness straps (why they couldn't use the pin locks common on most wheelchair vans is beyond me - a person we know who owns a disabled van manufacturing company said he could see no reason not to). Repeat the process at the other end to offload. Needless to say, this was NOT a fast way of doing things. Add to the challenge that the driver of the tram must stop either the vehicle within a 6-inch window to line up the ramps or they cannot load the wheelchair, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Enter the vans. Because of the problems with the trams, plan B was developed. Disneyland leased several wheelchair accessible minivans. Each parking lot was assigned one van to shuttle disabled guests back and forth between the lots and the entrance. Once the vans made their appearance, the tram drivers (who hate loading the wheelchairs), stopped picking people up. "Wait for the van," was the common chorus.

Waiting for the van isn't an optimal situation. Most guests can be at the main entrance to the park within five minutes of actually parking their vehicle. Each van trip for a disabled guest takes approximately 15 minutes with the additional loading/unloading required. If more that one wheelchair is waiting, the time adds up quickly. Factor in that the disabled vans are frequently used to chase after things people drop from the trams, as well as a shuttle for cast members between the lots and entrance, and you can see what a headache all of this is.

Now, I have learned a lot of patience with my disability, but even my patience has its limits. One Saturday, I went to the park on my own (my dear wife had to work and was going to meet me later for dinner). It was drizzling when I left the house, but otherwise tolerable. A little bit of wet doesn't hurt, so off I went. I arrived at the parking lot, got the chair and myself loaded and ready to go for the day, and headed for the disabled loading area. I then sat in the parking lot and waited. 5 minutes after my arrival, it began to pour rain. Tram after tram passed me by - the drivers not stopping correctly (not that they even tried. Being off by 6 inches is one thing. Missing the mark repeatedly by 6+ feet is quite another.) The drivers were very apologetic and promised that the van was on its way and should be there is just another minute or two. Finally, after being soaked to the skin (even with a poncho and umbrella), the van driver arrived to pick me up and took me to the main entrance, explaining that no one had told him that I was waiting. I have never been able to verify the truth of that claim. There was no shelter provided whatsoever for disabled guests who had to wait. I shudder to think of what would have happened if I were not the only person waiting.

Obviously unhappy with the whole situation, the parking manager and I had a few words. He was very apologetic for what happened, and to his credit, obtained a Maintenance uniform from Costuming for me to wear while they had my clothes cleaned and dried. (Let me tell you that that got some funny looks during the remainder of the day!)

The shelter issue is still not resolved. Disabled guests are expected to wait up to 15 times longer than the typical guest in the open air of a parking lot. No shelter from wind, rain, or sun. They have been able to provide a tent for guests at the Disneyland Hotel tram loading area, but that seems to be impossible to do elsewhere.

3/15/00: The latest thing to occur with the trams has developed over the past few months. In the evening, while trying to transport crowds people leaving the park to the parking lots, Disney parking has implemented a technique called wolf packs. The concept is that they can load two trams simultaneously and have the travel together back to the parking lot. In theory, this is a great idea, as crowd dynamics means this efficient system will move more people faster. The problem with this occurs when you add mobility-impaired guests. For example, the Pinocchio lot has two tram stops. In normal operation, every tram stops at each stop. In the wolf pack method, trams stop only once in the parking lot (roughly in between the two marked stops), not at the two stops normally used. This means that you could very easily end up 10-15 rows away from your car if you parked in the disabled parking area. No warning is given that this is how they are operating. You discover it when your tram goes whizzing by where you thought it was stopping. This also means that the trams refuse to transport guests using wheelchairs (there is no ramp available where you are dropped off). This can easily result in 6+ groups waiting for the wheelchair van.

Fantasmic!

I mention elsewhere in this guide some of the challenges of the designated seating for Fantasmic! Well, the fundamental problems with disabled seating are broader than what I mention in the main part of the guide. Basically, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act outlines requirements for integrated seating at performance venues for disabled patrons. While the law itself is vague, the Department of Justice has issued very clear and specific guidelines on what must be provided. To sum up the basic requirements, a venue must provide the same viewing opportunities to all guests, regardless of disability.

Despite repeated complaints, Disneyland has refused to make accommodations in this area. It is a relatively simple matter to place a set of rope stanchions up in 2-3 additional locations surrounding the riverfront and designate them as additional seating areas for disabled guests. They do exactly this along the parade route to great effect. Instead, they insist that the only designated seating be on the far edge of the viewing area, where significant portions of the show are not even visible.

The official policy of the park is to allow wheelchair using guests to sit in any available spot, within reason. In reality, this is not the case. The past several months, we have seen an marked increase of cast members insisting that disabled guests may sit ONLY in the designated section. That's right, everyone, if you are in a wheelchair, it is your turn to ride at the back of the bus!

My wife and I love Fantasmic!, having seen it several hundred times over the years with friends and family. We know what the official policies for the show are, and know many of the cast on a first name basis. Yet I have actually been threatened with removal by security because we insisted in sitting in an area that was not designated for use by disabled guests. And it was a space that we have sat in several dozen times over the past few years. Involving a senior manager resolved the issue quickly, but what if I was visiting Disneyland for the first time and didn't know any better?

When I have asked why they refuse to provide dispersed disabled seating for Fantasmic!, I have received a wide range of answers. The following are some of my favorites:

  • Disneyland is private property and is not subject to the ADA.
  • We don't want guests in wheelchairs near the light towers, in case one of them collapses. (Ed., If they are that concerned about collapsing towers, guests in wheelchairs should be the last of their worries!)
  • You're a safety hazard.
  • We can't insure your safety unless we segregate you.
  • It's too much work.

These are all actual explanations offered by guest relations managers and guest control (traffic) managers.

Seating for disabled guests who do not use wheelchairs is also problematic. Chairs are supposed to be provided on request to any cast member for guests who cannot stand or sit on the ground. The official policy is that chairs are to be supplied, but that rarely takes place. On a recent evening, we watched as an older gentleman, who was using a cane, asked the attendant for a chair to sit on. He was refused, being told that it was not possible. When we stepped in to point out that yes, it was not only possible but park policy to provide them, the cast member mumbled something about checking into it. He wandered off, leaving the gentleman standing. For the entire show. The cast member never returned, with or without a chair. Next time you visit Disneyland, note all of the chairs available in the VIP seating area, next to the main show control panel. Apparently finding and providing chairs for VIPs is not difficult at all, but try getting one if you are disabled...

Honey, I Shrunk the Audience

Yet another dispersed seating issue here. This theater was completely gutted and rebuilt, yet the only disabled seating is in the very back row, where you can sit with only 1-2 members of your party. Though I have never experienced it first hand, I have been told by several different people, on different occasions, that the show is very different depending on where you sit, that the effects can change or amplify. Regardless, disabled guests are forced to the rear with an attitude that conveys a "were above the law" feeling. This could have been very easily addressed when the theater was redone, but wasn't.

Parade Viewing

While the dispersed seating for parades is excellent, and worth taking advantage of, other problems are prevalent along the parade route. Obviously, managing the 50,000 plus guests moving through the park, especially during a parade is a challenge. Unfortunately, common sense is left behind when things get busy.

We have had repeated experiences where we got trapped near the castle during a parade. Cast members had moved benches across sidewalks to direct traffic flow, but also preventing wheelchairs from using the curb cuts. Other ways out of the area were blocked with ropes and staffed with a cast member who would not permit you to pass (again trying to funnel guests in specific directions). The only alternative was a trek half way across the park to set around the blockades. (And no, that is NOT an exaggeration). Pointing out the very obvious difficulties they had created in their setup, managers shrug or say that they just do what they are told. No one will ever take initiative to solve the problem, except to yell at us if one of our group moves a bench or rope enough for me to get by.

The most recent example of absolute disregard for disabled guests in the pursuit of profits deals with the outside food carts. Each disabled seating section along the parade route is clearly roped off and marked with distinctive signs, making them recognizable. They are monitored by a cast member who ensures that the space is left open for disabled guests. Well, at least most of the space.

The worst example is occurring regularly at the seating area near the Baby Care center, though I have seen the same thing along Small World Way. The outdoor food and trinket vendors decide to set up one or two carts within the roped off disabled seating section. Mind you, these sections are roped on three and sometimes all four sides. There is no simple access to them short of dropping a rope or climbing over people. (Another responsibility of the section attendant - to drop the rope as needed.) It has always bothered me that they do this, but it was only a few weeks ago that I realized why. In order to get to the food or trinkets that these carts were selling, they had to climb over the disabled guests sitting there for the parade. I came to this realization as two twelve year old girls decided my wheelchair made a great jungle gym on their way to the food cart. The point was driven home when one dropped some food in my lap on the way back. When I asked the cart guy why he was parked there, he said he didn't want to deal with the crowds, and it was quieter and easier to manage the line if he put his cart where it was.

Baby Care Center

While my wife and I do not yet have children of out own, we are looking in that direction for the future. We were talking with some very close friends about their new son (Hi TFAO!), and discussing some of the challenges you face when one parent has a disability. Now, I have been caring for kids and babies all my life, so changing a diaper is nothing new to me. We did wonder though, how a disabled parent visiting Disneyland takes care of an infant.

The question came to a head on one of our visits, as I was babysitting Matthew while his parents were running some errands through the park. Discovering that he needed a dry diaper, I took Matthew off to the Baby Care Center to change him. I figured this would be a great opportunity to update this guide with relevant information, and to get a little practice before I actually have to do it for my own kids.

When I arrived at the Baby Care Center on Main Street, I was very rudely turned away, and told that wheelchairs were not permitted in the Baby Care Center because "they don't fit." Now, I can understand strollers. They take up a lot of space that isn't necessary to use to change a child. But wheelchairs are quite another story. When asked what I was supposed to do, the attendant told me to take Matthew to the First Aid office, and I could use an exam table there to change him. Let's see: Use a table that is at my eye level. With no strap. To change a squirming 8 month old. All while sitting in my chair. As the saying goes, "Not gonna happen!" I ended up using a bed in the rest area of First Aid to change him.

A few days later, my wife stopped by the Baby Care Center to discuss the issue with them, pointing out the liability issues alone. The manager of the Baby Care Center assured us that she would correct the issue and inform her staff that wheelchairs were indeed permitted in the center. As we were speaking with her, a mother brought her disabled daughter of about 10 in to the center (in her wheelchair that was as wide as mine) to change her, and was admitted with no problem.

A few weeks later, we were once again back at the park, and Matthew needed a new diaper. So, off I went again, only to encounter the exact some problem (different cast member this time). The attendant insisted that I go to First Aid. When I pushed the point about a lack of proper table facilities, etc., she said that everything I needed was available at First Aid. I ended the discussion by basically rolling through the door, around her, and back to the changing area. I was not going to sit there and take the grief any longer. The attendant grudgingly admitted me to the changing area, where I discovered a table that is perfect for disabled parents. It is the right height, with a safety rail and strap. It is a bit tight for space to get through the door (they have a table that partially blocks the route), but no smaller an area that we are used to dealing with on a daily basis. Once in the changing room, there was plenty of room to maneuver, and I did not block access to anyone else (there was steady stream of parents in and out as I was there). Another attendant was extremely helpful, retrieving the diaper bag off the back of my chair, while I got Matthew strapped down.

There is no reason to prevent disabled guests from using the Baby Care Center. Sadly, the problems we have encountered here are still occurring on a daily basis. Ignorance of the facts and issues at hand serve only to make visits to the "Happiest Place on Earth" anything but happy.


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