Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Disneyland with a Wheelchair

As a senior in a midwestern high school oh-so-many years ago, I couldn't wait to graduate and go to college somewhere far away.  I know many intelligent people who had an ambitious or academic reason for attending Stanford University, but my reason was much more simple: I had long dreamed of working at Disneyland.  Incredibly, Stanford accepted me, and I left Wisconsin for my new life on the Left Coast.  Unfortunately, it turned out that Stanford (near San Francisco) was actually 400 miles from Disneyland.  Still, having been infected with the spirit of Disney as a child, and being blessed with tons of determination, as well as a generous aunt and uncle in Long Beach, I was able to realize the dream and work at Disneyland the summer after my first year.

I have always been a believer in the magic of Disneyland, so when I had the chance to visit the park again this spring, I jumped on the opportunity.  This was my first visit in decades and my first visit using a wheelchair, so I began with a little trepidation about how it would be.

I gambled on Disneyland being wheelchair-friendly , and I was
right.  Disney was an organization that complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and applied it to its unique conditions. Perhaps as a result, I have never seen so many wheelchairs and scooters in one place in my life!

The terrain was entirely paved and mostly flat.  Disney does parades like nobody else, and the parade route -- like the entire campus --  is along these paved and flat surfaces. All of the restrooms had an ADA stall, and there were even several companion restrooms scattered around the park.  The few stores I visited were wheelchair-accessible, and I would guess the rest of them either were by nature or could be by adaptation.  I don't remember whether the all of tables were high enough to sit at with a wheelchair.  Only a few of the restaurants offer table service, though you need reservations.  Most require you to order at a counter or go through a cafeteria-like line.  However, all offer friendly cast members to help you carry food, trays, etc.

Wheelchair-accessible boat at Jungle Cruise
The level of accessibility at attractions varies.  Disney has provided a comprehensive map, which shows the locations of all of the attractions and restaurants, including the type of accessibility.  In addition, there is a guidebook for guests with disabilities at Disneyland and the California Adventure Park and a comprehensive webpage providing information to guests with mobility disabilities.

Wheelchair-accessible boat at Small World
The most accessible attractions allow you to stay in your wheelchair.   Perhaps this is expected in the sedentary attractions, such as the Tiki Room, but it was an unexpected pleasure for me to find out that a few of the boat ride (Small World, Jungle Adventure, and Story Book Land) actually had a wheelchair boat, allowing guests to remain in their wheelchairs while staying with members of their party by riding on a platform outfitted on top of part of the boat, swiveling so that a wheelchair could roll on/off from the side, but then face forward during the ride.  This was all the more exciting when, as we came to the end of our first ride of the day -- It's a Small World -- the cast member operating the boats asked if we'd like to go around again.  This was the highlight of my day, and I eagerly responded "YES!"  Interestingly, it was also the low point of my husband's day, as he was already struggling to get the insidious song out of his head!

Inaccessible Tarzan's Treehouse

The least accessible attractions are those which --- because of stairs and/or narrow pathways -- require the guest to be ambulatory and walk and part of the experience.   Surprisingly, even a couple of these (eg Sleeping Beauty's Castle) have an alternative wheelchair-accessible option.

Mad Hatter's Teacups
The accessibility of most of the attractions falls somewhere in-between.  For those who have the ability to transfer, either by themselves or with help from someone in your party (cast members are prohibited from physically assisting with transfers), most attractions are accessible.  Designated entry ways (see below), returning to the starting point (where your wheelchair was left), and knowledgable cast members make the transfer easier.  Some rides have special transfer access vehicles, with less-obtrusive  sides, that make transferring easier.  I have read that some attractions can provide special transfer seats, but I never used one.  In general, my husband would throw me into the waiting attraction's vehicle from my wheelchair and back into the wheelchair when we returned.  I was fairly bruised by the end of the day, but nothings was broken, and I'd succeeded on going on all of the rides that I wanted to that day (I passed on the Mad Hatter's Teacup rides, since three levels of spinning did not appeal to me at all).  For those who can transfer on their own or with assistance, the park is uniquely and almost completely accessible.

Entering through the exit at Hyperspace Mt
The most difficult part of transferring was the speed at which it needed to happen.  The cast members would slow down the ride, and the other guests seemed to go along with the slight delay, but the speed was still a bit stressful.  One ride, Hyper-space Mountain (apparently an updated version of Space Mountain), installed a separate bay, to which the spaceship pulled over to the side for guests to transfer into, along with the rest of the able-bodied guests directed to that spaceship.  When everyone was settled, the spaceship slid to the side and rejoined the line on the actual roller coast track.  The transfer still had to be fast, but there was not as much pressure that way.  The other rides requiring transfer, however, did not include this cool adaptation.

Disneyland is famous for its lines and for its line management.  It has experimented with various methods of getting wheelchair users and other disabled guests onto attractions.  Famously, they once upon a time allowed wheelchair-users to skip the line entirely, proceeding directly to the loading area.  However, this system was subject to abuse (most famously by Justin Bieber, who reportedly had a friend fake the need for a wheelchair while claiming Justin as a companion, thus skipping all lines).   Soon thereafter, Disneyland changed its procedures.  Now wheelchair-users can no longer skip lines, but there are procedures in place to accommodate entrances which are not accessible .

The entrances to some attractions are wheelchair accessible, and you get to wait in line with everyone else.  However, Disneyland has implemented the Fast Pass system, which allows guests to avoid standing in long lines at most attractions.  Available to all guests, but subject to certain limitations (ie you may only hold one Fast Pass at a time), guests can receive a window, during which time they may return to a much shorter line.

The scariest part of the Haunted Mansion?
The con-joined sisters being photo-bombed
by the cast member!
If the main route is not accessible, wheelchair-users are directed to enter through the exit.  Along with being accessible (no stairs or narrow, winding lines), this has the advantage of being a shorter wait, since you join the main line near the actual point of embarkation.  

Finally, there is a ticket called a "Return Time," which is similar to a Fast Pass, in that it grants you a time to return without waiting in the longest of lines.  Unlike the Fast Pass, however, this option is only open to those with disabilities.  Similar to the Fast Pass, it is subject to certain limitations.  I am still not entirely sure under which conditions this mysterious option is granted, but I know that it is a fantastic way to go.

The end of a magically fun day
Disneyland provides a magical (if somewhat expensive) way for wheelchair-users to enjoy themselves and to spend time having fun with friends.