Disney World visitors have rightly been lamenting the cancellation of Magical Express service from the Orlando airport to the resorts starting in 2022. Families worry about how to carry children, bags, car seats, and more with an affordable transportation option. Others worry that the benefits of staying (and paying more) at an onsite resort are being whittled away to nothing.
All of these are valid concerns, but I have another one to add: accessibility. I use a motorized wheelchair due to a nearly lifelong condition. My wheels are my legs and they require accessible transportation.
Sad to say in the year 2021 (about 31 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act), but accessible transportation can still be hard to come by. Wheelchair cabs are few and unreliable, if you can find one. I nearly became an accidental Orlando resident a few years ago when my reserved wheelchair accessible cab didn’t show on time to take me to the airport after I was visiting to work a conference.
In my own hometown of Washington, D.C., there are still only a few wheelchair cabs, and I experience significant stress every time I need one to get to the airport (to go to Disney World!). I’ve had them not show up. Actually, this happened on my last trip to go to Orlando. Thankfully, another cab company scrambled and came to the rescue. My husband and I barely made our flight.
Usually, at home I take public transit because it is (mostly) accessible and (usually) reliable. I honestly would take wheelchair cabs more often, but I’ve had so many terrible experiences of no shows and other mix-ups that I don’t dare. I am not sure I’ll get where I need to go on time. It’s an annoying problem of being able to afford a service that is not committed to being reliable and accessible.
Once I booked a wheelchair cab and a regular cab showed. The driver asked if my wheelchair folded up. I calmly said no and that it weighs 250 pounds anyway. When I called dispatch to complain, they said I hadn’t requested a wheelchair cab. This is not possible. I must place an order for a wheelchair cab usually days in advance (then follow up to confirm), so I would never forget to request an accessible vehicle. I don’t ever forget the fact that I use a wheelchair. Accessibility is literally always on my mind.
Going back to the issue at hand, Disney World is a refuge and wonderful vacation getaway for my husband and I because it is so accessible. It is pretty much the only place we travel where accessibility is not a worry. We get to have a stress-free vacation because we know Disney has access covered. From the moment we get off the plane (don’t get me started on air travel with a wheelchair and the number of damaged or destroyed chairs in my past from airline mishandling), we know almost everything is accessible.
From Magical Express, to the resort room, transportation around the parks, attractions, restaurants, shows, tours, and more, Disney World has really thought out and planned for accessibility. Although some rare attractions are not wheelchair accessible, the vast majority of our activities are fully accommodating. We never feel like we have to struggle to make sure I’m included and have a wonderful time. Other than Disney being Disney, this is why we are frequently returning visitors. Everywhere else we go (and we do like to travel, even internationally when we can) there are constant accessibility barriers to navigate. Even where we live, I have to manage accessibility barriers all the time, from broken elevators or lifts to blocked ramps or inaccessible restrooms.
One of the things I love about Magical Express is that it was always accessible and conveyed us safely and swiftly to our Disney World resort. When we made our reservations, there was no issue when we requested accessible transport (meaning a bus with a wheelchair lift). The drivers always knew how to handle loading and securing my wheelchair, and we never had to worry about getting to our destination and starting our fun.
Disney rationalized the decision by saying that travelers now prefer to use the convenience of on-demand services like Uber and Lyft. Unfortunately, neither of these are accessible. (The Minnie Van had accessible vehicles, but unfortunately this has also been cancelled.) There are actually ongoing lawsuits on this very issue. With accessible cabs being rare and unreliable, this doesn’t seem a great option to me for planning my Disney World visits.
Additionally, Disney referred to visitors more frequently renting cars for their stay. This is also not an option for me. If accessible cabs are rare, then consider accessible cars for rent nearly mythical (think the Yeti, only less likely to exist). They are not easy to find (not even at the airport) and usually only at special, outside locations at a huge cost (at least double the price of a regular car rental). This is just not feasible and would be ridiculous because we’d have to pay to park at the resort at another significant expense while we used the already plentiful existing accessible transportation options between resort and parks.
Others have pointed to the coming Brightline rail line, but this is years away from reaching Disney World even if construction proceeds with zero delays. Also, it would only get us to Disney Springs. We’d have to navigate another leg (or more?) of accessible transportation with our bags to finally reach the resort. At this point, we’d be traveling longer from Orlando airport than the actual flight.
While Mears announced they will continue to provide transportation service (just now for an additional fee) to Disney World resorts, will they maintain accessible service and show up on time?
At this point, the less expensive hotels at Disney Springs or even off site outside Disney World are becoming more attractive. They would also likely be willing to help arrange accessible transportation. Why would we continue paying more to stay at Disney resorts and have difficulty getting to and from the airport?
I honestly don’t know what we will do starting in 2022. Our experiences with wheelchair cabs are such that we don’t know if they will show and if we will miss some reserved activity or reservation due to long waits for transportation at the airport. Will we have to plan our Disney trip around finding accessible transportation to and from the airport? Will we have to build in hours of uncertainty and stress for waiting (hoping) that an accessible vehicle will show? Who will help us figure it out, if not Disney? How many other families who have people using wheelchairs will struggle to travel that final leg to Disney World?
In the bad old days (not that long ago, really), accessible transportation literally did not exist. I have enjoyed the (very) gradual hard-won improvements of increasing accessibility. I’ve traveled all over North America, the Caribbean, and Europe. There are more places I want to go, but am limited by physical accessibility and lack of basic things like ramps and accessible vehicles.
I never, ever thought I would have to worry about accessible transportation to Disney World. I never thought the last few miles would be a barrier to a great vacation. I really hope that it doesn’t become the thing that stops us from being able to vacation at Disney World. We do have other choices about where we can travel and if Disney World becomes another one of those accessibility challenges, it will become a lot less enticing for future returns.