Despite the challenges of the pandemic, my husband and I decided to stick with our annual plans to visit Disney World because we researched and felt very good about the precautions Disney was taking to keep everyone safe. We knew it would be an altered experience, but we still thought it would be worthwhile for us to get away and enjoy our annual trip.
One of the reasons we love our trips to Disney World is the wheelchair accessibility. It’s a place we can travel where we don’t worry as much about accessibility of the hotel, the transportation, and the overall fun because Disney has planned it all out. In many ways, it’s not only a vacation for us—but a break from grappling with the inaccessibility encountered in everyday life.
Although we had booked at Port Orleans French Quarter Resort, it was still closed due to the pandemic, so a few weeks in advance of our arrival, we were moved to Caribbean Beach Resort. Since I use a wheelchair, we’re pretty particular about our plans, so we called to ensure that a wheelchair accessible room with roll-in shower was assigned to us.
Travel Is Up to Personal Circumstance and Choice
During our stay, we did not see many other people at the resort using a wheelchair like myself, but we did see a number of people using rented scooters. I am guessing that many wheelchair users do not feel ready for travel due to safety concerns. I understand the hesitancy and firmly believe people must make choices best for them and their personal situation. As someone with chronic illness and physical disabilities, I felt the rules at Disney were well-conceived and also well-monitored. In fact, the most anxious part of the trip for me were the packed flights to and from Orlando.
Changes Observed on Arrival
On arrival at the Orlando airport, we immediately experienced the new way of life at Disney World with markers for social distancing and plastic dividers around the Magical Express kiosks to protect the cast members. Everyone was wearing a mask and plastic visor as well.
They were ready for us (as always!) and we didn’t have long to wait for a wheelchair accessible Magical Express van to take us to the resort. This was the first time we had our own vehicle for the ride and enjoyed the treat of a direct trip without any other stops.
Differences in Resort Dining
Since we had checked in electronically, we knew our room was ready and headed right there after a brief chat with a staff member for directions. After settling in, we headed back to Old Port Royale for dinner. Typically, we’re on the dining plan and have resort mugs pre-purchased that we just need to pick up. This visit, we had to learn new practices established to manage dining crowds.
First, we learned that to enter the dining area, we needed to have placed a mobile order on the My Disney Experience smartphone app, then hit “I’m here, prepare my order,” and receive an update that the order is ready. We then went into a socially-distanced queue to pick up our order before finding a table. All the food was packaged up in to-go containers, so it was easy to also carry food outside or even back to the room.
Inside the dining area, we discovered that refillable mugs were not available for purchase, but that they were in the resort shop. I slipped back out and purchased our two mugs. Showing the mugs to the cast member at the dining entry allowed me to go in without a mobile order. During the rest of our stay, we used the mugs for entry to get morning coffee or a beverage in the evening. Another change in practice was that the beverage area was no longer self-serve. The process was to show the mug to a cast member and they would fill the order in a travel cup.
Some Rules Harm Accessibility
Overall, in all the parks, Disney World continues to do an excellent job for wheelchair accessibility and thinking through accommodations for people with disabilities. But, we did feel some negative impacts from the pandemic situation.
Disney has created social distancing for all its attractions and limited the number of people. This is very good for health and safety. But with FastPasses also not available at this time, it created much longer lines and wait times. Additionally, the social distancing rules for the queues mean the lines are physically longer and more time is spent waiting in the elements. For me, waiting in my wheelchair is not necessarily bad, but it can be challenging for me to sit in the sun with my health and it risks wearing out my motorized wheelchair battery to be moving (or waiting) for long periods of time in line. Previously, we have focused on FastPasses for our favorite attractions and then timed our visits to others when the waits declined. With all attractions in the same boat with long lines and no FastPasses, this was not possible to do on this trip.
It also was challenging that the rules for wheelchairs were inconsistent. Some attractions provided return times so that I didn’t have to wait in long lines in the heat and sun, while others did not. We were told this was because some of the new, longer queues are not wheelchair accessible. Maybe it’s just me, but it would be easier as a wheelchair user just to have consistent guidelines. Figuring out the process for each attraction was a bit frustrating and time consuming.
If I get a return time, I can get out of the sun and don’t mind waiting elsewhere. Providing return times for people with disabilities helps me to not have to roll so far, sit in the sun for the outdoor line portion, and keeps the line moving for other guests. I really don’t mind and it makes it easier for others. Perhaps Disney intends to bring back FastPass soon to resolve these kinds of problems.
We learned later in the trip that we should have inquired about a Disability Access Service (DAS) card that would have allowed us to get return times for everything. I’ve heard about it before, but always felt strongly it should be available to others with more significant disabilities. I am reconsidering, and will look into it for my next visit.
Accessible Seating Is an Easy and Helpful Accommodation
As usual, most Disney World cast members were terrific and helpful for answering questions and navigating accessibility. We only had a few exceptions, one of which was finding an accessible table for eating at Pecos Bill. In all the restaurants, tables have either been moved for distancing or have been marked (when they are bolted in) for which ones are available.
When we got there for a late afternoon snack, the place was packed and no tables where I could pull my wheelchair up were available. We wandered and wandered. The staff did not help, but we finally grabbed a seat. Previously at Columbia Harbour House (currently closed), they had a little section roped off for wheelchair users and that was super helpful because it is hard to get a table with enough maneuvering space. It would be very thoughtful to institute that kind of practice at other quick service restaurants and need only be a couple tables.
Park Transportation Needs Work
Another aspect of Disney World impacted by the pandemic is bussing. The social distancing and limiting the number of guests on a single bus means far fewer people can ride. Usually there were enough buses running that it was OK, but a few times we had a very long wait to get on the bus. The worst time was a 90-minute wait to get back from EPCOT one night after a thunderstorm shut down the Skyliner back to Caribbean Beach Resort.
Overall, I think Disney World has done a great job of adapting to the pandemic and keeping people safe. However, I think they need to give further consideration to how these changes are impacting guests with disabilities and make more adjustments to ensure they are maintaining their usually excellent reputation for accessibility.